By Joshua Alzona
On a Saturday afternoon, in the picturesque season of fall on a corner that is typically awash with smugness and affluence, pedestrians and would-be consumers were met with a slightly askew version of a flyer handout in front of the biggest bookstore franchise in Canada. One by one, they all slip through the sidewalk traffic, many doing their best just to ignore what's facing them, while the rest attempt to scoot on nonchalantly in a vain hope that this stranger might miss the opportunity to give them a little piece of paper, dismissing this as something of little importance on a typical weekend walk downtown. But it's not just any old theme. It's altogether more provocative.
I joined the monthly picket against the Chapters/Indigo corporation organised by the Coalition Against Israeli Apartheid. Upon my arrival, there was no sign of the picket slowing down. A squad car accompanied by a couple of police officers were keeping a close watch just in case us "lefties" went nuts, but there was nothing to be worried about. (In CAIA's email, they mentioned that it was the picketers who needed protection from some Zionists who were a little too belligerent in their defense of Israel, verbally, of course.) Nothing too ominous, no loud chants, only a couple of signs, and by CAIA's email, a total of ten activists rallied to show support.
The CAIA campaign against Chapters/Indigo is directed at two the owners, Heather Reisman and Gerry Schwartz, who "established a fund called Heseg - Foundation for Lone Soldiers". The Heseg Foundation is a subsidiary of the Israel military, which enables those who have no family ties to Israel but express the desire to enlist in the IDF to fulfill this wish aka "lone soldier". According to CAIA, the owners can donate up to" $3 million a year to provide scholarships and other support" to the IDF and its offshoots. These soldiers participate in any IDF activity, whether it be manning checkpoints, being on board in the incursions in the Occupied Territories, and destroying Palestinian houses (all in a day's business for an IDF soldier).
I was made aware of CAIA through an article by Sue Ferguson. In it, she depicts the birth of a new movement in its infancy, but one that may not be kept in the shadows for much longer. Ferguson already attests that the boycott campaign against Israel is fast gaining merit in many circles and that this is another cog in the machine that could tear down Israel's continued oppression of the Palestinians.
"The moment, say activists, is ripe for action. The ever-intensifying strife in the West Bank and Gaza reminds the world almost daily of the international community’s failure to hammer out a workable peace accord... On the ground, the BDS campaign is simmering, both in Canada and abroad, where it focuses on academic links to Israeli universities, supermarkets selling Israeli produce, and mining, telecommunications and other hi-tech companies with links to Israel."
Ferguson also chronicles the current campaign against Chapters/Indigo, and how it is definitely getting people's attention, and that the owners have reason to worry (and call the police when there is a picket in town). "Regular protests now take place at the Toronto store and Indigo or Chapters outlets in Montreal, Vancouver, Victoria and Halifax." In Toronto, at the heart of downtown and in front of the biggest Chapters store, there is a weekly picket every Friday afternoon, banded together with another dissident group the Jewish Women's Committee Against the Occupation. And monthly, the protests is situated at different locales in the Greater Toronto Area in the hopes of spreading this message to a wider audience.
Stationed at a corner blocking the McDonald's entry, myself and Saeed, bearing the Palestinian flag, position ourselves to bear the traffic heading at us in both directions. "Boycott Chapters and Israeli Apartheid" is our main slogan. Most just continue with their faux conversations and convenient cell phone calls and move on to cross the street (only to be met by more activists in the eastern and northern side of Bloor). A car stops to asks Saeed what flag he was holding, and then speeds off when he gets the answer. Another erroneously corrects me that it is meant to have three stars in the middle stripe. I see a few people carrying a Chapters bag and accompanying it is the CAIA flyer. I also see it as a potential disposal on plenty of others. Maybe they can go on ignoring what just happened here.
"We know we're not going to bring down Chapters," says Andrew, the co-ordinator of the picket. "It's more of a symbolic measure." And the strategy does work. Chapters is one of the biggest names in Canada, and by targeting such a large company, controversy will follow. The more we press, the more pressure will build against the biggest book retailer in the country. But Andrew and CAIA is realistic: their campaign to boycott Chapters is not going to make Reisman and Schwartz bankrupt but rather bring the message that people won't stand for their support of crimes against humanity.
Upon uttering the two words, a young woman stopped dead in her tracks and questions abruptly "What?! Chapters?" The pamphlet was discussed for many minutes and she expressed an interest in knowing about such matters. The big name target strategem was already a success. She expressed solidarity and was aghast that the owners of Chapters could be responsible for such a transgression.
Many were receptive and a select few did take a few minutes to question what all the fuss was about. Not all gave support but all did leave rethinking what shopping at Chapters might ensue.
Apartheid by Any Other Name
The battle against Israel is not met without any backlash and today was no different. Although not new to the scene of activism, it is the first event that I participated in that could have certain repurcussions equivalent to slander. The typical slur was muttered by a tiny few but it is those few that I find myself questioning over and over, despite at the success of the entire afternoon. They may be the minority but it is the reactionary that really perplexes me and I could minimise their problem with my presence and the boycott: Apartheid.
The use of the term has not been given a warm welcome and those who stand by it are given the lynching by Israel's supporters. "Anti-Semitic dribble" mouthed one lady in her forties. Another repeated a slight variation of the previous invective. A couple of boos here and there. Of course, not one wanted to stay and discuss their objection; they merely wanted to say what they had to say and strut along on their lovely high horse believing what they did was for the greater good, how they put myself and us "lefties" in our place for having the temerity to stand up against Israel. If they had of stuck around, or even glanced at the pamphlet and then maybe we could have made some progress but alas, it was not to be. Saeed tells me that that reaction "does not even hold water anymore". But I start to dwell on the defamation game.
"You can't call it Apartheid. If you are for Palestinian rights, then so be it but calling it Apartheid is wrong. This is slander," expressed one older fellow. Slander to whom sir? South Africa or Israel? Sadly he also didn't stay, opting to jet off to his next rendezous.
It matters not that many South Africans have given credence to the apartheid comparison. Archbishop Desmond Tutu is getting blacklisted because of such a claim. Jimmy Carter published a book with the word in the title describing the debacle in the Occupied Territories while some say Carter didn't go far enough and that Israeli Jews are also its victim. And the issue of apartheid is a lively debate in the Knesset and in the Israeli press. It seems the only place that it is not accepted is around our continent. How about the Jewish publication Forward, doing its best to undermine the analogy, still states that "there are similarities between the lives of Palestinians under Israeli occupation and those of black South Africans under apartheid. Indeed, in certain respects, the conditions Palestinians face are arguably even worse." This is a paper this home to none other than Alan Dershowitz, Israel's prime apologist.
Sure, one can nitpick and say it's not exactly the same. But since when is any comparison exactly the same? In the words of Ari Shavit, an Israeli journalist,
"The associations are too strong. Like a believer whose faith is cracking, I go over and over again in my mind the long list of arguments, the list of differences. But then I realize [...] that the problem is not in the similarity--for no one can seriously think that there is a real similarity--but that there isn't enough lack of similarity. The problem is that the lack of similarity isn't strong enough to silence once and for all the evil echoes, the accusing images."
As long as there is more similarities than differences, or the similarities resemble Apartheid a little too strongly, then the analogy will not die. (Shavit was comparing it to Nazism rather than apartheid.) Besides, "BDS campaigners do not claim Israel is an exact replica of apartheid South Africa," states Sue Ferguson. Andrew and I were in agreement that the use of apartheid is leaned more towards provocation than perfect comparison. It is designed to create a "buzz".
"For most it was their first exposure to the boycott and the concept of Israeli apartheid." Yes, the similarities are there and with this comparison, people can connect the segregation policy of South Africa in the past and Israel today. We did not stand for apartheid South Africa so we hope that they will not stand for an Israeli-version of apartheid, which some do state is much worse because Palestinians do not contribute to the Israeli economy.
"Separate development", "functionally separated", "ghettoisation" instead "bantustanisation", it seems we're willing to name the Palestinian plight anything but apartheid despite the realities that sees them isolated in enclaves, encircled by roadblocks, checkpoints and "security" wall, prohibited from using highways reserved for Jews. A list of restrictions imposed on Palestinians ONLY is extensive. If this doesn't qualify to be compared to apartheid, then what can be? Tony Karon expresses the duplicity of those who defend the indefensible:
"But the logic of suggesting it is 'racist' to compare Israel to apartheid South Africa is simply bizarre. What if Israel objectively behaves like apartheid South Africa? What then?"