Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Kate Ausburn: Conversations with BDS counter-protesters in Newtown

Dear Friends,
Sydney independent journalist Kate Ausburn has published the following article/interviews on the counter BDS protest which took place in Sydney on Sept 10. As Antony Loewenstein notes in his re-post of Ausburn's article "As the BDS movement grows in Australia – the hysteria in the corporate media and political elites suggest panic stations – it’s important to understand what those opposed to full Palestinian rights are arguing. Sydney journalist Kate Auburn attended a rally last weekend in Sydney and documented the following. Note the paranoia, mis-information, Nazi comparisons and inability to even accept that Palestine exists". In Melbourne, I experience a similar situation while attending the BDS action here on Friday 9th Sept.

A small group of Zionists and extreme right wing nationalists were in attendance (perhaps a half a dozen). As I was filming the rally as it moved off to march through the city, I caught on video one of the woman among the Zionist group. She was handing out leaflets and singing out in a sing song voice "Palestine does not exist Palestine does not exist". Earlier during the demonstration, another woman from the group physically assaulted on of the invited speakers, Aboriginal elder, Robbie Thorpe. BDS activists had to non-violently step in and stop the woman from assaulting him a second and third time (I hope to have video of the action edited up on the web in the next few days which includes image of both the woman denying the existence of Palestine and the Palestinian people and the assault on Robbie Thorpe).

Ausburn's article provides a good insight into not only the politics but also the paranoia of many Zionist and rightwing-extremist nationalists counter protestors. As Jeff Sparrow notes in his article on the ABC's Drum, there is a growing alliance between the two (see his article here) Noticably in the last week or so, a number have claimed that a number of the chants being used at the BDS actions were either supposedly calling for the destruction of Israel/one state solution or are accusing the Jewish people of "blood libel".

According to Zionist and anti-BDS opponents, the chant "from the river to the sea, Palestine will be free" is a call for the destruction of the Israeli state. However, as one Sydney BDS activist recently pointed out in a discussion I was involved in in a social networking site, this is a very deliberately distorted reading of the chant. The activist pointed out that in relation to this chant "Freedom can mean freedom from discrimination and oppression for the Palestinian citizens of Israel as well as freedom for those under occupation". Personally, I have never viewed the chant as having anything to do with either calling for the destruction of Israel or a one state solution, instead I have always viewed it as simply being a call for freedom of the Palestinian people, nothing more and nothing less. The paranoia of Zionists and their rightwing nationalist supporters, however, has certainly reached new lows with their new claim that the chant "Max Brenner, come off it, there's blood in your hot chocolate" is supposedly a form of blood libel. For those, who are unaware, blood libel refers to the anti-Semitic accusation and superstition that was rife in the Middle Ages which claimed that supposedly Jewish people use the blood of Christian children in religious rituals and for baking matzos for Passover.

The chant "Brenner, come of it, there's blood in your hot chocolate", however, has nothing to do with this appalling anti-Semitic accusation. Not only does BDS not target "Jewish" businesses, it is virulently opposed to all forms of racism, including anti-Semitism and Islamophobia. As has been explained time and time again, BDS does not target Jewish businesses and nor does it target business simply because of the nationality of the owner/management. Instead, a business must actively profit from or support the Israeli state's apartheid and occupation policies.

As noted previously, Max Brenner Chocolate has been a focus for BDS action in Melbourne, Sydney and Brisbane because it is owned by the Strauss Group — one of Israel’s largest food and beverage companies, which actively supports Israel's military occupation forces. On its website, the Strauss Group emphasizes its support for the Israeli military, providing care packages, sports and recreational equipment, books and games for soldiers. Strauss boasts support for the Golani and Givati Brigades, which were heavily involved in Israel’s military assault on the Gaza Strip in the Winter of 2008-09, which resulted in the killing of approximately 1,400 Palestinians, the majority civilians, including approximately 350 children. While Strauss has removed information about their support for the Golani and Givati brigades from their English language website, information about the company’s support for both brigades remains on their Hebrew language site.

As a result, the chant has nothing to do with anyone or any business being Jewish. In addition, it is a chant which is in the long tradition of anti-war and human rights chants that have been used for many years in the anti-war movements and human rights campaigns. During the East Timorese struggle for freedom from the brutal Indonesian military occupation which was imposed on them for more than 25 years, one of the common slogans and chants used by Australian activists was "No blood for Oil", referring to the fact that the Australian government had turned a blind eye to the Indonesian state's human rights abuses and the mass murder of East Timorese being carried out by the Indonesian military because the Australian government was more interested in gain control of large areas of the Timor Sea gas and oil fields.

Similarly when the US staged it invasion of Iraq in 1991, a common slogan and chant at anti-war actions in the USA, Australia and around the world was "No blood for Oil" highlighting the fact that the USA was willing to sacrifice the lives of tens of thousands of Iraqi civilians in order to gain control of the middle east oil fields. The slogan and chant was re-used when the Coalition of the Willing invaded Iraq in 2003.

In relation to the BDS protests focusing on Max Brenner, the chant seeks to highlight that Brenner/Strauss is a company which actively and proudly supports the Israeli military which is actively oppressing the Palestinian people and the fact that Israel's military occupation forces, such as the Givati and Golani brigade, who Strauss (Brenner's parent company) support have repeated been engaged in actions which have resulted in the death of thousands of Palestinians in not only in the Occupied Palestinian Territories but also in Lebanon (the Golani brigade was the Israeli military force which secured the perimeter of the Sabra and Shatila refugee camp so that their allies in the Lebanese Phalange could carry out the massacre of 3000 Palestinian refugees in the camp. For more information on the massacre, see Robert Fisk's account of massacre here. Fisk was one of the first western journalist to arrive on the scene. You can also read my 2007 article on the Sabra and Shatila massacres here)

As a result the claims that this chant is supposedly a "blood libel" is a complete and deliberate false assertion. This claim/assertion is being enacted and used by Zionists and their supporters in the same way that the repeated slurs of anti-semitism and Nazism against the BDS movement are being used. Not only are they completely disingenuous but they are a cynical attempt to falsely paint the BDS movement and protestors as anti-Semitic and to try and silence pro-BDS and pro-Palestine voices. As Jewish Australian journalist, Antony Loewenstein noted in articles and on twitter, those using Nazis and anti-Semitic slurs against the BDS movement and BDS activists are not only cheapening the memory of those who died in the Holocaust but are also setting up a situation to make it more difficult to fight real ant-Semitism when it occurs (see Loewenstein's article Enough with the Nazi Slurs here)

Conversations with BDS counter-protesters in Newtown
by Kate Ausburn On September 13th, 2011
Visit Kate Ausburn's blog here

At the BDS protest outside of Max Brenner in Newtown this past weekend I took the opportunity to have a chat to those amongst the counter-protest crowd. I wanted to find out what had made then join the protests against the BDS.

Because there are a range of reasons that people have come out to protest against the BDS Max Brenner campaign, I have noted what people were wearing when I spoke with them. I felt it relevant as it can give an indication of their motivation to rally; for example, those in Australian flag gear were openly Australian Protectionist Party aligned. There were a number of people in “I love Max Brenner” tshirts, I’ve heard these were printed by Newtown anti-Burqa muralist Sergio Redegalli, but I can’t confirm that, though Sergio was amongst the anti-BDS crowd sporting one such tshirt. There were also those in plain clothes who I spoke with too.

The first person I approached was the man I’d spoken with before the rally. He had been pulling down BDS rally posters near the Newtown Neighbourhood Centre and a passerby asked him what he was doing, he was soon yelling at the passerby and BDS rally goers who had gathered. He wasn’t so keen to explain why he was counter-protesting however, simply telling me, “There are a lot of people who could say it more clearly than I would.”

I did have luck elsewhere however.

Person in plain clothes: I’m a Holocaust survivor, I was raised in Poland, I was born in Poland before the war. In Poland my parents were exposed to a lot of anti-Semitism and they were forced out of their village in Poland. Fortunately, we emigrated to Australia. Australia is my home. I love it. And these demonstrators, what they are chanting, for me, is offensive, they are chanting things like there is blood in my chocolate. Blood in my chocolate refers to, it’s um, it’s a blood libel that the Nazis used to justify the massacre of 6 million Jews. Blood in my chocolate refers to Christian children’s blood that the Nazis said the Jews used to make their food, which is really abhorrent to me, and it’s vile. What they want is for Israel not to exist. They are chanting the Hamas mantra. The Hamas mantra is that Israel would no longer be a Jewish state, which means that the Jews that live in Israel would be subject to another genocide. My people have already been subject to a genocide. And Max Brenner has nothing to do with it, they have a very tenuous relationship with the Strauss Group in Israel. It’s so tenuous you can compare it to McDonalds and America. I think they are a bunch of anarchists and trouble-rousers.

Now into the thick of the Australian Protection Party front-line:

Woman in Australian flag bandana: I’m here to support Max Brenner. I’m here with my friend today, I’m not a member of the APP (Australian Protectionist Party). Max Brenner supplies the Israel Defense Army [sic] with chocolate and stuff …
Me: So that would be a good thing?
Woman in Australian flag bandana: Yeah. It is. There’s no such thing as Palestine.
Woman’s APP friend [pointing at BDS rally]: It’s very ignorant. Uneducated. This business is paying Australian taxes. He’s employing Australian people, paying his taxes, doing the right thing.

And over to the “I love Max Brenner” crew stood beside the APP:

Me: Do you want to tell me why you’re here today?
Man in “I love Max Brenner” tshirt: Yeah. Because hate towards Israel is growing right across the Western world, not only the Middle East, ok? And if you let it grow like that, without standing up against that trend you’re going to have a repeat of history. I believe if you talk to these people over the other side of the road here individually you’ll find they are grossly ignorant of the facts. They don’t know Middle Eastern history, they don’t even know the history of the West. They’re over there because somebody has told them things that they haven’t examined themselves and uh, they think maybe they are doing the right thing in what they are doing but it’s going to… all it’s going to produce is what we’ve had in the past.
Me: What should happen to Palestine?
Him: Well. They’re yelling out over there ‘Free Palestine’, well, ok, free it from Hamas. You know, read the Hamas charter, the Hamas charter is a foundational document for the Palestinian people at the moment. They voted Hamas in. Have you read the Hamas charter? I’ve read it. And when I read… within there I see a hatred and something that will feed hatred against a people called the Jews and a state called Israel. And it’s obvious to see if you look in the Middle East, what is the free country in the Middle East? What country has freedom of speech, freedom of association?

[few seconds of indecipherable comments due to loud chanting]

I think this. If someone is firing rockets at me, almost daily, and if someone has a charter that says the Israelis must be obliterated, literally, that’s what it says, it quotes Hasan al-Banna in the Hamas Charter, and it says that Israel must be obliterated, not we want our own separate state -

Me: So is the current situation the best way to resolve that?

Him: I don’t understand your question.

Me: Settlement expansion in the West Bank and the blockade of Gaza.

Second man, interjecting: How old are you?

Me: 25.

Second man: I’m a bit older. I’m coming close to 60. That land wasn’t Palestine before. It was Jordan, Jordan, they never claimed to get freedom for Jordan, they never claimed to get freedom for them, but when its the Israelis they say ‘yes it’s my land’ [a couple of seconds indecipherable] it’s all bullshit, it’s never been occupied, it’s been occupied by Jordan [indecipherable] it’s all propaganda, I was born there, I’ve been in two wars.

Me: Where were you born?

Second man: I was born in Israel, my dear, I’ve been in two wars. It was occupied by Jordan, they have Jordanians, not Palestinians. It’s been disputed over the last century.

Me: Ok so are you guys going to keep coming back to these protests?

Second man: This is a free country, they can’t come and do this, this is ridiculous. I don’t know why they do this, they’re idiots.

And back to the plain clothed folk. This young woman approached me asking if she could explain why she was there:

Young woman in plain clothes: This situation is a mess, it’s a real mess.

Me: What situation, the rallies, Israel-Palestine?

Young woman: The rallies, the Middle East. We’re not going to solve problems by fighting and screaming at each other across the street. We need to build bridges and stop fighting. I think both sides have a just claim to the land and both sides need to make concessions. I think the Israelis should share Jerusalem, because the Palestinians have a claim to that land. The Palestinians need to let go of the right of return. And I think that can happen. But basically, both sides are being stubborn and they are both digging their heels in and preventing peace. So yeah, we just need to not hate each other so much, and here in Australia there is no reason to hate.

Me: Did you come on purpose today or were you just walking by?

Young woman: No, I came on purpose.

Me: To, which one?

Young woman: Uh. I believe, I, well. Well I’m a Jew. I believe Israel has the right to exist where it is, I believe that there should be a two-state solution. I believe that Israel should withdraw from the settlements that in the two-state solution won’t fall into Israel, because I mean, the place is going to get divided. Some of the settlements will become Palestinian territory and some will become Israeli. I think they should stop building for the moment while they are trying to make peace.

I had other conversations that touched on similar concerns (ie. Hamas is actually the problem, Palestinian doesn’t exist, BDS protesters want to obliterate Israel, BDS protesters ignorant of situations, as well as those who were insistent it was anti-Jew not anti-Israel etc). There were the two young men who had dropped by on their way home from work, they said they just didn’t like “greens”, pointing toward the BDS protesters. I also had one woman speak at me for several minutes about how the Bible had proved the land of Israel was given over to the Jews and so on. Others still simply waved Omo or Lux in my face when they realised I was probably not there to rally along side them (one APP slogan was ‘smelly ferals go away’, so they taunted BDS protesters with cleaning products like laundry detergent and soap).

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