Area group boycotts matzah from Israel

Some local Jewish activists have been urging those shopping for Passover foods to pass over Israeli-made matzah to show support for Palestinian rights.

Jews for Divestment From Israel, a group of 15 Bay Area residents protesting the "unprecedented violation of Palestinian human rights by the Israeli government," called for the boycott as a timely symbol of their efforts to "stop the flow of U.S. dollars supporting Palestinian occupation," said group member Penny Rosenwasser.

"We don't really expect our boycott to make a huge difference," said Rosenwasser, who works at the Middle East Children's Alliance in Berkeley. "It's more of an educational tool — a way to get the attention of Americans, particularly Jewish Americans during Passover, and say the Israeli government can't continue its violence in our name."

The group follows in the footsteps of similar grassroots organizations cropping up around the Bay Area, such as Jews for Justice and A Jewish Voice for Peace, which advocate equal human, civil and economic rights for Jews and Palestinians.

Jews for Divestment, however, was formed last month in response to a national movement for divestment initiated by the Arab-American Anti-Discrimination Committee. According to Rosenwasser, the divestment effort — along with the boycotting of certain products — is modeled after a similar campaign used to end South African apartheid.

"We're not victims anymore," said Rosenwasser of the Jews. "We need to take responsibility and realize these people are not our enemies — they're like our cousins. This kind of persecution has happened to us throughout history and it's not OK to project it onto the Palestinians."

Not everyone in the Jewish community agrees with the group's position.

Rabbi Doug Kahn, executive director of the Jewish Community Relations Council, for instance, said he was "saddened" by the divestment efforts and said neither it nor the matzah boycott will garner much support from the local Jewish community.

He called the comparison between Israel and South Africa absolutely false.

"The situation couldn't be more different," said Kahn. "To start with, Israel doesn't want to be in the position of occupying Palestine. If the Palestinians want to look at the primary cause of their extraordinarily difficult conditions, they need to look to the actions of their own leadership, which has perpetuated decades of suffering for both the Palestinians and the Israelis."

Kahn agreed the "overwhelming majority of American Jews seek a just and lasting peace between Israel and the Palestinians." But he said peace could only come "when the Palestinian leadership renounces violence" and negotiates "in good faith."

"Until such a time, Israel will have to continue to act in self-defense to protect the security of its people," he said.

But Rosenwasser did not agree that Israel acts completely out of self-defense. Moreover, she said, "most of the casualties are Palestinian."

The Palestinians are in a desperate situation, she added. "They can't earn a living, they can't travel freely — for them it's the same to be dead or alive. When you're that desperate it can lead you to take measures you wouldn't normally take."

Kahn agreed that "there is a sense of desperation among the Palestinian people." Nevertheless, "there are many places in the world where tragically people are living in very difficult conditions. In many of those places people don't respond with the kind of violent acts that have been directed against Israel, but with nonviolent means and a redressing of grievances."

He cited India under Gandhi and the nonviolent civil rights movement of the United States as two examples.

It is a shame, Kahn said, "that any individual in our community would harbor such animosity and anger toward Israel that he or she would want to penalize Israel."

Jews for Divestment will continue its boycott of Israeli-made matzah, including King David, Aviv and Matzot Rishon brands, through the conclusion of Passover this weekend.