Renewed Global Boycotts Put Israel On Defensive

Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions supporters protest in London.
Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions supporters protest in London.
David Refaeli

TEL AVIV — A summer of fighting in Gaza has reignited a wave of global protests against Israel. Companies operating in Israel — such as maritime cargo giant Zim and major food producers — are finding themselves under attack. But they are fighting back.

"The move to a sweeping boycott of anything Israeli, the violence and mainly the anti-Semitic remarks often heard reveal the true face of the BDS movement Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions," says Amir Ofek, director of the Israeli foreign ministry"s civil society department.

"This is not a one-sided game," he says. "Anyone calling for a boycott will find themselves publicly and politically targeted."

For example, he recalls a British theater that refused to host a Jewish film festival because of "support from the Israeli embassy." What followed were demonstrations, the withdrawal of donations, aggressive media and messages from the corridors of power. "It proved to them they had made a mistake," Ofek says. "This trend will keep intensifying. We will work vigorously to make it clear to those calling for boycott that there is a price to pay."

Three weeks ago, pro-Palestinian activists in the U.S. began organizing to prevent a Zim vessel from offloading in the port of Oakland, California. On their Facebook page, they characterized themselves as "a coalition of activists calling for a siege on Israeli Zim vessels in solidarity with the Palestinian people." They added that as long as Gaza is under a maritime siege, Israeli sea transport should be targeted.

A similar protest took place in 2010 after Israel's raid on the Mavi Marmara flotilla. Nearly 500 demonstrators had managed to prevent a Zim ship from offloading in the Oakland port for 24 hours by creating a human wall preventing port workers from reaching the vessel.

This time, Zim was prepared, and the arrival time of its vessel last Saturday was repeatedly changed, so as to confuse the protestors. After several attempted delays, the rally eventually took place without the ship. "Even the delay is a victory," says Mohamed Shehk, one of the organizers. "We estimate Zim's loss at $22 million per day of delay."

"We are familiar with these boycotts," says Avi Levy, chairman of Israel's Naval Officers Union. "It started after the Marmara flotilla. At the time, Zim ships were not allowed in South Africa and other places."

Protestors are now preparing to prevent other Zim vessels from landing in the Washington state ports of Tacoma and Seattle this week. They also hope they can thwart their arrivals in Vancouver, Canada, in a bid to completely block the Israeli company from offloading anywhere on the American West Coast.

"The company works in full cooperation with the local authorities in full confidence in their ability to ensure the regular operations of Zim vessles," the company has said in a statement.

European protests

In the UK and Ireland, local initiatives against Israeli goods are also on the rise. A week ago, SuperValu, Ireland's largest supermarket chain, ordered the managers of its 232 branches to take Israeli products off the shelves. But the next day, the company reversed course. "SuperValu is not involved in a boycott of Israeli produce," and has a policy "of not taking a position on international affairs," a statement from the chain said. But it didn't deny the initial order of removing Israeli products.

In Belfast, protestors filmed their removal of Israeli goods from the shelves of Sainsbury's and Asda supermarkets, and the YouTube videos have since become viral.

A Tesco supermarket in Birmingham was vandalized last Saturday when about 100 people entered the store, threw Israeli products on the floor and shouted at staffers and customers.

Madate Trade Union in Ireland has issued a petition calling for boycotting Israeli products, thus joining Unite, the largest union in the UK, which had already issued a similar call.

In Dublin, a branch of Ireland's largest toy store chain Smyths erected a sign saying that Israeli-made products from companies such as Diamant Toys had been removed. The chain's management says it was a local initiative by store employees, and the sign has since been removed.

"It started after images of the destruction in Gaza were aired on Irish TV," says Kobi Diamant, one of the owners of Diamant Toys. "I took it badly because I know the owners of the chain. I called him on the phone, and it turned out he wasn't even aware of this, so the next day the products were already back. This move should be praised, but unfortunately, on the ground a reduction in sales is already felt. Every round of fighting only worsens the situation."

Protesting investments too

In Auckland, New Zealand, nearly 100 people rallied last Friday outside the country's sovereign New Zealand Superannuation Fund to protest its investments in Israeli firms such as Israel Chemicals, which they say produces white phosphorus used in bombing Gaza.

Some of the demonstrators chained themselves to desks on the twelfth floor of the organization's headquarters, demanding to speak to CEO Adrian Orr after he had announced earlier that day that the fund has no intention to withdraw its investment in Israel Chemicals, citing no evidence that its products were used against Gazans.

Various initiatives with similar objectives have appeared in many other countries since the beginning of the war in Gaza. And calls to avoid Israeli goods have also surfaced in the West Bank.

Several campaigns in the past tried to persuade Palestinian consumers to boycott settlement produce, but now is the first time such calls have been aimed at any Israeli goods. Last week, a number of Ramallah supermarkets started clearing Israeli products from their shelves.

Activists who visit shops often put stickers on Israeli products that read, "When you buy this product, you are contributing to the Israeli army."

Several radio stations also announced they would allow free advertisement to shops that boycott Israeli produce.

But things are more complicated there. West Bank Palestinians are almost totally dependent on Israel for energy, fuel and water. Even 65% of Palestinian imports come from Israel.

"For the moment, there is now evidence this is a campaign organized by the Palestinian Authority," a source familiar with Israeli-Palestinian trade relations says. "These are local initiatives. There is a reduction in sales, but I believe it won't last for long, primarily for the lack of alternative sources. What would they do? Buy from Jordan? From Saudi Arabia? This could never compete with Israeli products. The West Bank population has gotten used to certain standards. I know of a few cases where Palestinians have already asked their suppliers to pack their groceries in a way that hides they are made in Israel."

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Where Lockdowns For LGBTQ Meant Moving Back In With Homophobic Relatives

The confinement experience could turn brutal for those forced to live with relatives who would not tolerate a member of the family living their sexual orientation openly as a young adult. Here are stories from urban and rural India.

At a Rainbow pride walk in Kolkata, India

Sreemanti Sengupta

Abhijith had been working as a radio jockey in the southern Indian city of Thiruvananthapuram when the COVID-19 pandemic hit in March, 2020. When the government imposed a nationwide lockdown, Abhijith returned to the rural Pathanamthitta district , where his parents live with an extended family, including uncles, cousins and grandparents.

Eighteen months later, he recalled that the experience was "unbearable" because he had to live with homophobic relatives. "Apart from the frequent reference to my sexual 'abnormality', they took me to a guruji to 'cure' me," Abhijith recalled. "He gave me something to eat, which made me throw up. The guru assured me that I was throwing up whatever 'demon' was possessing me and 'making' me gay."

Early in 2021, Abhijith travelled back to Thiruvananthapuram, where he found support from the members of the queer collective.

Inspired by their work, he also decided to work towards uplifting the queer community. "I wish no one else goes through the mental trauma I have endured," said Abhijit.

Abhijith's story of mental distress arising from family abuse turns out to be all too common among members of India's LGBTQ+ community, many of whom were trapped in their homes and removed from peer support groups during the pandemic.

Oppressive home situations

As India continues to reel from a pandemic that has claimed more lives (235,524) in three months of the second wave (April-June 2021) than in the one year before that (162,960 deaths in March 2020-March 2021), the LGBTQ community has faced myriad problems. Sexual minorities have historically suffered from mainstream prejudice and the pandemic has aggravated socio-economic inequalities, instigated family and institutionalized abuse, apart from limiting access to essential care. This has resulted in acute mental distress which has overwhelmed queer support infrastructure across the country.

Speaking to queer collective representatives across India, I learned that the heightened levels of distress in the community was due to longstanding factors that were triggered under lockdown conditions. Family members who are intolerant of marginalized sexual identities, often tagging their orientation as a "disorder" or "just a phase", have always featured among the main perpetrators of subtle and overt forms of violence towards queer, trans and homosexual people.

Calls from lesbians and trans men to prevent forced marriages during lockdowns.

Sappho For Equality, a Kolkata-based feminist organization that works for the rights of sexually marginalized women and trans men, recorded a similar trend. Early in the first wave, the organization realized that the existing helpline number was getting overwhelmed with distress calls. It added a second helpline number. The comparative figures indicate a 13-fold jump in numbers: from 290 calls in April 2019-March 20 to 3,940 calls in April 2020-May 2021.

"Most of the calls we have been getting from lesbians and trans men are urgent appeals to prevent forced marriages during lockdowns," said Shreosi, a Sappho member and peer support provider. "If they happen to resist, they are either evicted or forced to flee home. But where to house them? There aren't so many shelters, and ours is at full capacity."

Shreosi says that the nature of distress calls has also changed. "Earlier people would call in for long-term help, such as professional mental health support. But during the pandemic, it has changed to immediate requests to rescue from oppressive home situations. Often, they will speak in whispers so that the parents can't hear."

Lack of spaces

Like many of his fellow queer community members, life for Sumit P., a 30-year-old gay man from Mumbai, has taken a turn for the worse. The lockdown has led to the loss of safe spaces and prolonged residence at home.

"It has been a really difficult time since the beginning of the lockdown. I am suffering from a lot of mental stress since I cannot freely express myself at home. Even while making a call, I have to check my surroundings to see if anybody is there. If I try to go out, my family demands an explanation. I feel suffocated," he said.

The pandemic has forced some queer people to come out

Sumit is also dealing with a risk that has hit the community harder than others – unemployment and income shortage. He's opened a cafe with two other queer friends, which is now running into losses. For others, pandemic-induced job losses have forced queer persons from all over the country to return to their home states and move in with their families who've turned abusive during this long period of confinement.

Lockdowns force coming out

According to Kolkata-based physician, filmmaker and gay rights activist Tirthankar Guha Thakurata, the pandemic has forced some queer people to come out, succumbing to rising discomfort and pressure exerted by homophobic families.

"In most cases, family relations sour when a person reveals their identity. But many do not flee home. They find a breathing space or 'space out' in their workspaces. In the absence of these spaces, mental problems rose significantly," he said.

Not being able to express themselves freely in front of parents who are hostile, intolerant and often address transgender persons by their deadname or misgender them has created situations of severe distress, suicidal thoughts and self-harm.

Psychiatrist and queer feminist activist Ranjita Biswas (she/they) cites an incident. A gender-nonconforming person died under suspicious circumstances just days after leaving their peer group and going home to their birth parents. The final rites were performed with them dressed in bangles and a saree.

"When a member of our community asked their mother why she chose a saree for someone who had worn androgynous clothes all their life, she plainly said it was natural because after all, the deceased 'was her daughter,'" Biswas recalls.

The Indian queer mental health support infrastructure, already compromised with historical prejudice, is now struggling

David Talukdar/ZUMA

"Correctional" therapy

In India, queer people's access to professional mental healthcare has been "very limited," according to community members such as Ankan Biswas, India's first transgender lawyer who has been working with the Human Rights Law Network in West Bengal.

"A large majority of the psychiatrists still consider homosexuality as a disorder and practice 'correctional therapy'. It's only around the big cities that some queer-friendly psychiatrists can be found," Biswas said. "The pandemic has further widened the inequalities in access to mental health support for India's LGBTQ community."

Biswas is spending anxious days fielding an overwhelming amount of calls and rescue requests from queer members trapped in their homes, undergoing mental, verbal and even physical torture. "We don't have the space, I just tell them to wait and bear it a little longer," he said.

Medical care is dismal

Anuradha Krishnan's story, though not involving birth family, outlines how the lack of physical support spaces have affected India's queer population. Abandoned by her birth family when she came out to them as a trans woman in 2017, Anuradha Krishnan (she/they), founder of Queerythm in Kerala who is studying dentistry, had to move into an accommodation with four other persons.

Isolation triggered my depression

"I am used to talking and hanging around with friends. Isolation triggered my depression and I had to seek psychiatric help." Living in cramped quarters did not help with quarantine requirements and all of them tested positive during the first wave.

What is deeply worrying is that the Indian queer mental health support infrastructure, already compromised with historical prejudice, is now struggling, placing more and more pressure on queer collectives and peer support groups whose resources are wearing thin.

During the 10 months of the first wave of the pandemic in India in 2020, Y'all, a queer collective based in Manipur, received about 1,000 distress calls on their helpline number from LGBTQ+ individuals. In May 2021 alone, they received 450 such calls (including texts and WhatsApp messages) indicating a telling escalation in the number of queer people seeking help during the second wave.

As India's queer-friendly mental health support infrastructure continues to be tested, Y'all founder, Sadam Hanjabam, a gay man, says, "Honestly, we are struggling to handle such a large number of calls, it is so overwhelming. We are also dealing with our own anxieties. We are burning out."

Sreemanti Sengupta is a freelance writer, poet, and media studies lecturer based in Kolkata.

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