Israeli ship’s U-turn back to Oakland thwarts protesters

Sign up for Weekday J and get the latest on what's happening in the Jewish Bay Area.

For four days this week, protesters prevented an Israeli-operated cargo ship from unloading at the Port of Oakland after a number of longshoremen agreed not to cross the protest line at the terminal. But after seemingly departing for Southern California, the ship quickly turned around and redocked at the port.

Shipping vessel Piraeus blocked by protesters photo/creative commons

More than two dozen longshoremen worked overnight to unload the ship, despite the presence of protesters.

The anti-Israel demonstrations began Aug. 16 when the Block the Boat Coalition, organized by the S.F.-based Arab Resource and Organizing Center (AROC), drew several hundred marchers to the port, ostensibly to protest Israel’s incursion into Gaza.

Their goal was to prevent the unloading of the Piraeus, a vessel operated by Zim Integrated Shipping Services, Israel’s largest shipping company.

Instead of docking as scheduled that day, the ship remained at sea as protesters waving Palestinian flags marched to the Oakland International Container Terminal. Port authorities estimated the crowd at 500.

The ship docked in Oakland the next evening. When 200 protesters returned, longshoremen chose not to work and the ship’s cargo remained unloaded. The stalemate continued through Aug. 19, with a few dozen protesters present. The ship departed that afternoon, only to return that evening.

Port of Oakland communications manager Robert Bernardo told J., “While we fully support free-speech rights, at the [port] our goal is to ensure the flow of commerce. We are a transportation agency, so we have to make sure these goods are delivered on time.”

Two protesters at the port photo/facebook

Bernardo said the Port of Oakland does not employ or supervise the union workers, nor does it manage the terminals. Thus the port has no authority to order workers to unload a ship. He also noted that the Piraeus carries goods from around the world and made several stops before arriving in Oakland.

Protesters initially claimed victory, with an AROC statement reading in part, “Workers honored our picket and stood on the side of justice,” suggesting that union members sympathized with the protesters.

However, an Aug. 18 press release issued by the International Longshore and Warehouse Union attributed workers’ initial refusal to unload the ship to “volatility associated with a large demonstration and significant police presence.”

It further stated that the ILWU takes no position on the issue associated with the demonstration “but in cases when unsafe circumstances arise … the union must protect the safety of its members in the workplace.”

News reports and pro-Palestinian blogs indicated that some longshoremen from ILWU Locals 34 and 10 did side with the protesters. Dockworker Clarence Thomas, who joined the Aug. 16 march, told the Contra Costa Times that he compares actions in Gaza to the recent unrest in Ferguson, Mo.

Anti-Israel protesters have had some success stopping Zim ships from unloading in Oakland twice before, in 2010 and 2012.

Anticipating problems this time with Block the Boat, whose campaign declares that “Palestine will be free from the river to the sea,” Rabbi Doug Kahn, director of the S.F.-based Jewish Community Relations Council, said his organization wrote to the ILWU on Aug. 4, asking that union members not support protesters because it would create “a divisive situation, bringing the conflict directly to ILWU [Local] 10.”

Kahn received a reply from Local 10 president Melvin Mackay stating he would “take it into consideration.” In the wake of actions at the port this week, JCRC issued a statement condemning the protest as an “overt expression of extremism … with the potential to cause severe financial repercussions for the people of Oakland.”

Protest at Port of Oakland delayed unloading of Israeli-operated ship. photo/kpix

Demonstrators attempted to block a Zim vessel in Long Beach on Aug. 13 but failed to stop workers from unloading the ship. Nevertheless, Block the Boat has called for similar protests in Tacoma and Vancouver, with the aim of shutting down Israeli shipping to the West Coast.

Jewish community leaders and the S.F.-based consul general of Israel expressed outrage over the protests.

“This is a form of political terrorism,” said Consul General Andy David. “[They] have a goal and don’t care how many innocent people they hurt. It hurts people trying to do commerce.”

Bernardo backed up those comments, noting that tens of thousands of jobs depend on the free flow of goods at the Port of Oakland.

“We generate 73,000 jobs for the whole region and 827,000 jobs across the country,” he said. “Terminal operators, truckers, longshoremen, rail jobs, warehousing jobs and the people at retail, who put these goods on shelves. It really affects everyone, at tremendous cost to all of us.”

Protesters have criticized Zim as an Israeli government entity, but the consul general said the company was privatized and restructured some time ago. According to its website, Zim is 32 percent owned by the Israel Corp.; the other 68 percent is owned by various financial institutions and ship owners.

“[Protesters] are causing damage to other international players who have holdings in this company,” David said, adding that “more than 50 percent” of the company is Israeli-owned. “It’s a disproportionate action, causing a lot of damage to innocent bystanders: damage to the port, to the companies that operate at the port, and to people who are not getting [goods].”

David said Israel supporters should take comfort from the backing he has personally received. “Everybody else, from the governor’s office on down, is so strongly against [the protest], which shows me that support for Israel is strong. [The protest] is not the full picture. This is an exception.”

Kahn said the JCRC had been working with elected officials to exert pressure on the union to back away from informal support of the protesters. That will likely be taken up again should protesters return to the port the next time a Zim ship passes through the Golden Gate.

“This is a wake-up call,” he said. “The banner under which this is organized, ‘Zionism is not welcome here,’ should be an affront across the board to members of the Jewish community and beyond.”

Dan Pine

Dan Pine is a contributing editor at J. He was a longtime staff writer at J. and retired as news editor in 2020.