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The Only Democracy? » Human Rights Activists in the Crosshairs, Talkback » It’s getting deep in here…

It’s getting deep in here…

Last month a post appeared on the Jewish Daily Forward’s blog “the sisterhood: where jewish women converse” entitled “Code Pink: Slinging Mud and Hate at Ahava,” which got the target of CODEPINK’s boycott campaign correct, but not much more. Debra Nussbaum Cohen’s blog presented a falsely black-and-white portrayal of the campaign, declaring it “anti-Israel”. Cohen singled me out as a Jewish woman in support of the boycott, which was “most distressing” to her because ” It’s one thing to be anti-war. It’s quite another to be anti-Israel.” Hold on, since when did I say I’m anti-Israel? And since when is following Jewish values “distressing”?

Reading this I remembered an expression my stepfather is fond of saying when there’s a whole pile of lies in the room: “It’s getting deep in here, I better put my wading boots on!” With my proverbial rubber boots on, I’d like to wade through this piece with you.

Cohen begins her piece innocently enough:
“I sent Boychik off to his summer program in Israel with an extra $100 in his pocket and instructions to bring me back as much Ahava hand cream as that will buy. Ahava is my favorite — smells nice, absorbs quickly and does what it’s supposed to — but it’s too pricey here in the U.S. for me to indulge too often. I also like buying Israeli products when at all possible, thinking I’m doing my little bit to support the country’s economy.”

I can resonate with this plan. When I first visited Israel with my synagogue’s confirmation class during the summer of 1998, I gleefully floated around in the Dead Sea, and afterward purchased Ahava Dead Sea mud to bring home to my mom and girlfriends as the perfect Holy Land souvenir. Any young Jewish woman who has gone on a Birthright-style trip will tell you that it’s the coolest product to bring back for friends and family. Unless, of course, you know the reality of how it’s made.

While in Israel last summer (2009) on a CODEPINK Women for Peace delegation, another Jewish activist, Medea Benjamin, and I took a day trip to visit the Ahava factory. We discovered that the company’s main factory and its visitors’ center are located in the Israeli settlement of Mitzpe Shalem in the Occupied Palestinian West Bank. After finding out that the mud used in Ahava’s products was excavated from Occupied land, and that by labeling its products as “Product of Israel” Ahava was misleading consumers about their actual provenance, I decided I could no longer in good conscience purchase these cosmetics, and I joined CODEPINK’s boycott of Ahava, called Stolen Beauty. Rabbi Lynn Gottlieb summarized Ahava’s violations of international law and bad business practices by simply saying, “Ahava is not kosher!”

Cohen seems to have come to this awareness too when she writes:
“I didn’t even realize until this week that in the process [of giving my child money to buy Ahava], I was also supporting a company under siege. Turns out that a campaign called ‘Stolen Beauty,’ by the people of Code Pink, is pressuring retailers to pull Ahava products from store shelves because, they say, it is manufactured on the ‘illegal settlement’ Kibbutz Mitzpe Shalem. The kibbutz, which sits on the western edge of the Dead Sea, contains a plant that refines Dead Sea ingredients for Ahava products.”

Well, the company isn’t exactly under siege (that status is reserved for the 1.5 million people living in Gaza), but it is true that Ahava is under a lot of pressure to get out of the West Bank. Ahava’s products actually come from stolen Palestinian natural resources in the Occupied Territory of the Palestinian West Bank. As it is 43% owned by two Israeli settlements, its profits go to subsidize these illegal settlements, all of which have been recognized by the U.S. government as impediments to peace. Additionally, the excavation and export of minerals in occupied territory is against international law (the Geneva Conventions explicitly forbid the “exploitation of occupied resources by the occupying power”).

Cohen continues, “Earlier this year Code Pink got Costco to stop selling Ahava but was unsuccessful in its attempt to get drugstore.com, to drop the brand.”

She got the first part partially right but not the second. It’s true that Costco no longer carries Ahava, but the credit is due to a coalition of activists, and specifically to a group on facebook that spread the word to ask Costco to stop carrying Ahava. To date CODEPINK hasn’t launched a coordinated campaign to get drugstore.com to stop carrying Ahava, but thanks for the tip on a potential future target, Ms. Cohen!

There are in fact several other notable victories in the Ahava boycott worth highlighting here. Since the start of the campaign (only one year ago!), CODEPINK’s Stolen Beauty boycott campaign has succeeded in sullying the name and reputation of Ahava Dead Sea Laboratories in the mainstream media, in dozens of cities where Ahava is sold, and through online networks. In August 2009, Oxfam was forced to suspend Goodwill Ambassador Kristin Davis for the duration of her contract as Ahava spokeswoman because of pressure from AHAVA boycott activists, and ultimately Davis did not renew her advertising contract with Ahava. With protest actions—including a Stolen Beauty Bikini Brigade taking to New York’s Central Park and a Dutch Bathrobe Brigade strolling through local malls—spanning across America and Europe, the boycott campaign scored a series of successes. In November 2009, the Dutch Foreign Ministry agreed to investigate Ahava’s manufacturing and labeling practices. In January 2010, The Business and Human Rights Centre (London) disseminated “The Case Against AHAVA” on its web site and in its widely distributed newsletter. That same month, a British MP denounced Ahava’s fraudulent labeling practices during a debate in Parliament on Israeli “settlement products.” The evidence is in the works; as recent boycott actions against Ahava and other settlement trade outfits demonstrate, there is hope that the shores of the Dead Sea will soon be free from illegal exploitation.

At least Cohen got one action correct: “According to this cosmetics industry website, beauty products retailer Sephora, which is owned by luxury goods umbrella Louis Vuitton Moet Hennessey, was taken to court in Europe last year by the France-based pro-Palestinian group CAPJPO-EuroPalestine, which calls Israel ‘racist.’”

Activists in Paris have indeed filed suit against Sephora for selling products that are manufactured in an Israeli settlement by a company whose practices are against international law.

Cohen continues to cite the local Brooklyn Paper:
“According to this article in the Brooklyn Paper about a recent Code Pink protest at the Brooklyn Heights location of Ricky’s, the trendy beauty products and costume chain, their protest is spurring those who disagree to up their Ahava budgets.”

The article referenced refers to the recent backlash – an Ahava buycott – spearheaded by Orthodox Jews in Brooklyn. Peace groups CODEPINK and Brooklyn for Peace coordinated a public action outside the Ricky’s beauty supply chain’s Brooklyn store on July 9. An online “mud fight” erupted in the comments section of a Brooklyn article about the peace action, in which people commenting went so far as to equate one activist with pogroms and made comments about her vagina and sexuality. Groups including the Jewish Community Relations Council (JCRC) on the East Coast stepped up to defend the occupation by promoting Ahava products. It seems that when the ugly truth behind fancy skin care products is revealed, the beauty of Jewish teachings (of tikkun olam – repairing the world – for example) in the minds of those who profess to be most observant are more dead than the Dead Sea itself.

Cohen asks why activists are not going after Egyptian products as well. CODEPINK has actually gone after the Egyptian government for permitting a steel wall to be built between Egypt and Gaza, and coordinated protest actions in Cairo one year ago while trying to get 1,400 international activists and humanitarian aid into Gaza. Egypt also obtains a large sum of aid money from the US and we must not turn a blind eye to their policies of shutting out free movement of people and goods to and from Gaza. But Egypt is not violating international law by profiting from an occupation, and thus a boycott tactic does not seem fitting as a means for justice for Palestinians. Perhaps if Egypt set up factories and farms in Gaza this would be an appropriate tactic.

One woman, Aviva, got at this point in her comment on the blog:
“The author seems a bit unclear on the concept of natural resources rights. To be fair, it is a very complex issue. But I’ll give you a bit of a summary: This product is made in the West Bank, a territory that (I hope) we can all agree is not Israel. Ahava takes natural resources from this area, incorporates them into their products, and sells them for a huge profit. This is problematic for several reasons. First of all, it’s not theirs to take–similar to an American company going into Mexico to take some precious resource for one of their beauty creams (this happens quite often, although there are laws in place to limit it) while leaving the people who actually inhabit the area in poverty. Thus the rich get richer, the poor stay poor, and the place the poor live in is depleted of a resource that they themselves could be using for their own products. I have no problem with the boycott of Ahava. Their business model is reprehensible. And I’m not sure why you’re discussing Gaza here, when the issue is about the West Bank. Making a quick buck off of another people’s resources is such an appalling non-Jewish value; I doubt you would be supporting this company if they were not run by Israelis. Quite pathetic, frankly.”

Let’s get back to Cohen’s clincher: “It’s one thing to be anti-war. It’s quite another to be anti-Israel.” I am beyond exhausted from hearing this phrase “anti-Israel” used to describe actions that take a stand for human rights and justice. I have dedicated much of my 20′s to working to end the occupations of Iraq and Afghanistan, and been at many rallies where angry white men three times my age have roared their Harley engines, spat at me, and called me “un-American” for protesting the occupation of Iraq. They have said I don’t support the troops because I don’t want them to die unnecessarily in a place far away that we should have never invaded over false pretenses of WMDS. I don’t support the troops because I want them to have adequate armor in the field and healthcare and psychiatric care when they get home and above all wish that they were never sent into the front lines of an unwinnable battlefield. I am un-American for wanting to spend our precious financial resources on our schools, libraries, and jobs for Americans so that we can rebuild our own country in the aftermath of a devastating recession. To this label of “un-American” I have replied time and again that “dissent is patriotic,” and that our country was founded on the principle of dissent and freedom. Freedom not just for older angry white men.

So when I say that I want freedom of travel for fellow human beings in Palestine to be able to eat, pray, and love where they want to, I am called “anti-Israel”. When I say that I want to see a new generation of Israelis grow up without having to go through a draft and defend checkpoints and kill innocent children with bulldozers, and shoot out American young women’s eyeballs, I am called “anti-Israel”. When I say I want to see integrated schools and shared highways, I am “anti-Israel,” which I recall being taught in Sunday school was “the only democracy” in the Middle East. And finally, when I say that I want Israel to be held to the same standards of economic and social law as the rest of the global community in the United Nations, which has supported the Geneva Conventions, I am called “anti-Israel.”

Anti-war marchers have never accepted the term “un-American.” Pro-choice advocates have never accepted the term “pro-Life”. So how can pro-justice for Palestine activists accept the term “anti-Israel”? It is the Israeli government and military’s actions that are both “anti-Israel” and “un-American.” Israel’s illegal policies—separation walls, settlements, the siege of Gaza—have been tragic for the Palestinians, but also hurt Israel and the United States. The Israelis are forced to live in a constant state of fear and increasing international isolation and disdain. For the United States, the one-sided support for Israel is endangering our troops overseas and tarnishing our reputation worldwide. It’s time to break the stranglehold that this false narrative has on U.S. policy and discourse and call reality for what it really is. Manufacturing products with stolen resources is not good for business in the long term, just as oppressing and discriminating against an entire population is not good for a country.

In the wake of the 2008-09 assault on Gaza and the recent massacre of activists aboard the Free Gaza Flotilla, more and more Jews are awakening to the reality of Israel’s policies, and are joining actions aimed at pressuring Israel to stop its illegal acts, and to stop the US from enabling the occupation to continue (to the tune of $3 billion in military aid to Israel from taxpayer money annually). And while we may not be able to cut off military aid tomorrow, we can decide which cosmetic products we will slather on our bodies in the heat of the summer. Personal consumer decisions do have an impact, as we can see repeatedly from the attention that the boycotts are getting from the Israeli government and press. The Palestinian call for Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions is a wake-up call, reminding Israelis that there are indeed consequences to occupying another people’s land, expropriating their resources, restricting their movement, and violating their human rights. And for Jews, following such a call should be part and parcel of our own religious credo. As Babylonian Talmud, Shabbat 54b states, “Any person who can prevent the people of their household from committing a sin but does not is responsible for the sins of their household. If a person can prevent the people of their city from sinning, they are responsible for the sins of the people of their city. If the whole world, that person is responsible for the sins of the whole world.” Real sisterhood starts by calling out our own people when sinful and illegal acts are committed.

Cohen’s piece ends with a pointed ask to push Ricky’s to continue to sell illegally-made products.

I will entreat you to follow your conscience and do exactly the opposite if you are a law-abiding citizen. You can ask Ricky’s Chief Financial Officer, Dominick Costello, to stop selling Ahava products by signing and submitting this e-letter. And you can pledge to join the Ahava boycott.

As the Stolen Beauty website states, “Don’t let the ‘Made in Israel’ sticker fool you—when you buy Ahava products you help finance the destruction of hope for a peaceful and just future for both Israelis and Palestinians.”

Rae Abileah is an American Jew of Israeli descent, a national organizer with CODEPINK Women for Peace, and a grateful reader of TheOnlyDemocracy.org. She lives in San Francisco, CA and can be contacted at rae[at]codepink.org.

Related posts:

  1. Mirror, Mirror on the Wall, Who’s the Biggest Boycotter of them All?
  2. Correction to the disclaimer, and Happy Hanukkah
  3. What Is, and Isn’t, the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions Movement

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Rae is the CODEPINK local groups coordinator. She connects CODEPINK's national campaigns with the grassroots women's movement for peace, and brings organizing resources to local coordinators.

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