As demonstrations against Israel take place this week on some university campuses -– part of the annual “Israel Apartheid Week” – a Jewish retailer in B.C. fears more demonstrations in front of her very own storefront.
Lavan, a cosmetic and skincare store, opened a year and a half ago in Vancouver's Granville Entertainment District, a neighbourhood popular with tourists. The store specializes in goods manufactured in Israel. Lavan promises these products will bring “relaxing moments to everyone, anywhere, every day” –- but the situation for store owner Shanie Bar-Oz, 33, is anything but at the moment.
To get into the store, she and her customers must get through more than 25 picketers who occupy the sidewalk outside, with signs reading, “Lavan soap whitewashes Israeli occupation” and “Boycott Lavan Soap, Support Palestinian Rights”
This is the third boycott against the store: Organized by the Boycott Israel Apartheid Campaign (BIAC) in Vancouver, the group has staged similar pickets of Lavan last November and December. The website for the BIAC – which is part of the international BDS Movement, demands that Israel “recognize the Palestinian people’s inalienable right to self-determination and fully complies with the precepts of international law.”
The most recent protest, held on Sunday, February 12th, caused such a stir in the neighbourhood, that Bar-Oz called the police. “They [the police] came,” she said in an interview with the Huffington Post, “but couldn't do anything about it. There was nothing illegal about the boycott.”
While the protesters did not block the entrance to Lavan, or prevent customers from going into the store, they did hand out brochures --brochures which Bar-Oz calls “lies and propaganda.”
“What they're saying is hurting my brand,” says Bar-Oz who came to Canada three years ago, after having served in the Israeli navy as a lieutenant. “My business is under attack. They're making it difficult for me to expand my brand, and for me to get investors on board with what I'm doing.”
“The day of the protest does immediate damage. But afterwards, there are long term effects. For example, I had contracted a woman to paint an image for one our display windows. And I told her I needed the work done before Sunday because I was...expecting some visitors. She responded with an e-mail that she could not do the work for she did not feel safe doing it; she's afraid for her life. This is making it very difficult for me as a business owner to continue operating.”
Which is exactly the point, says Charlotte Kates, a spokesperson for BIAC. “We're part of an ongoing campaign to boycott Israeli goods until it complies with international law.”
Kates is no stranger to the cause. As a law student at Rutgers University in New Jersey, Kates was one of the leaders of Solidarity, a pro-Palestine student group, and an organizer of the North American Student Conference of the Palestine Solidarity Movement. Now a resident of British Columbia, Kates works with BIAC.
But what Kates means by “complying with international law” in fact turns out to be the dissolution of the Jewish state. “Israel has no right to exist,” Kates said. “No state has a right to exist as a racist state. There is no exclusive state for any group, or any people. Israel exists through the continuing dispossession of Palestinian land. Seven million Palestinians are prohibited from returning to their homes because it is said they will disrupt the demographic majority in Israel.”
“There is no governmental right for South Africa to exist,” Kates continued. “There is no right for the United States to exist. No state has the right to exist. We have human rights to exist. Israel denies other people its rights. We [BIAC] think the conversation needs to be less about the claimed rights of governments, and more about human rights.”
As part of the BDS Movement, BIAC has boycotted companies such as Chapters-Indigo, Zim Integrated Shipping, and the Mountain Equipment Co-Op (the latter for selling underwear made in Israel).
Brochures handed out at the boycott followed this sentiment. “Needing a pampering break from gruelling hours of bulldozing Palestinian homes and olive trees?” asks the faux-brochure, “Wash away your stress without sacrificing your support for apartheid.” They groups also compares body wash to white phosphorous, and describe skin cleansers as “ethnic skin cleansers.”
And while Kates insists the protests are “not personal” against Lavan, Bar-Oz says she cannot believe her store and employees have to go through this. “This is Canada,” she argues, “a place of multiculturalism, and that's one of the reasons why it is so great. My store does not discriminate against any group of people. I sell to anyone, and hire anyone.
“Lavan is completely objective about the borders from 1967. We don't discriminate against any of our customers or employees. And we don't hand out any pro-Israel propaganda.” Bar-Oz adds that the ethnicity of her employees ranges from Arab to Japanese.
“But these people [BIAC] seem to think that Lavan is part of this dark apartheid government. They're suggesting that we're trying to use our shower gels and soaps to make sure the Palestinian people are still oppressed.”
Bar-Oz admitted these types of protests are part of the hazard of owning an Israeli brand. “It becomes dangerous,” she said. “You take on the risk of these boycotts. Every meeting I had with investors, I always had to deal with the issue that the investment might be risky for them. But that's what happens when you're from Israel. You're an ambassador. You have to explain these things.”
On the question of whether she felt threatened by the protests, Bar-Oz said, “No, not really. I don't think these people are violent. I feel bullied. But there's nothing I can do, my hands are tied. The only thing I'm afraid of is escalation. This has happened in the past with extremists, and we want to avoid it here.”
Bar-Oz said she won't be closing her store despite the threat of more protests.
“But I am expecting their [BIAC] visits. I'm trying to cancel my plans for the week to make sure I'm available if anything happens. But Lavan will stay open, because that is what the majority of people want.
With the news of the boycott spreading, Lavan is receiving increased support from the local Jewish community, with orders coming in for the store's products; Minister of Citizenship, Immigration, Multiculturalism Jason Kenney recently paid a personal, private visit to the store to show his support – and left proudly brandishing a Lavan bag in his hand.
“The support has been very uplifting,” Bar-Oz said.