The campaign against the Max Brenner protesters
This article first appeared on ABC Drum on 22 August, 2011
by Michael Brull: ABC Drum
On July 1, a small group of activists protested Max Brenner in Melbourne. Here in Sydney, similar protests have taken place over the last few years, and have seemingly passed without incident.
The reasons for the protest were explained by one of its participants, Benjamin Solah. He explained that “the company sends care packages of chocolate and other goods to show their support for the Golani and the Givati brigades”. One protester’s sign less plausibly explained, “MAX BRENNER PROUDLY SUPPORTS THE DISPLACEMENT, TORTURE AND GENOCIDE OF PALESTINIANS”.
Max Brenner, for his part, has described himself as a “man of peace”. In a typically non-probing Australian article, he explained:
‘Everything that has to do with conflict seems stupid (to [him]),’ he said.
‘Whether it is in Israel or not, anything to do with violence, aggressiveness or appearing at protests or boycotts seems silly (to me). But then again, I am just a chocolate-maker.’
This would presumably have stretched the credulity of any journalist who had interviewed him. Obviously, if Mr Brenner sends chocolate to his favourite Israeli army brigades, he is not quite as apolitical as he portrays himself. He does not, after all, send chocolate packages to fighters in Hamas, or Hezbollah. Or if he were entirely disinterested in the conflict, perhaps instead of sending chocolate to soldiers, he would try to send it to Gaza (which the Israeli government wouldn’t allow, on account of the blockade for purely security reasons).
As for the aims of the protest, they are perhaps not entirely clear. A website in support of the protesters says its aim is “to draw attention to the ongoing genocide committed by the Apartheid regime in Israel against Palestinians”. For those who are not part of the small Leninist groups that seem to comprise the core of these protests, it is not clear how picketing a chocolate store will demonstrate to the public that genocide is occurring in Palestine. Even Australians for Palestine – the largest such group in Melbourne – did not get involved in these protests. Presumably, they too did not think Max Brenner was the best choice of target to raise consciousness of suffering (let alone an alleged “genocide”) in Palestine.
Suppose, for example, that the protests were successful. Max Brenner suffered crippling financial losses because of the protests. They respond by no longer giving out chocolate to Israeli soldiers. Does anyone think that that would improve life for the Palestinians? That this is the infrastructure of the occupation? That when Israeli soldiers don’t get Max Brenner’s (mediocre) chocolate products, they’ll stop humiliating Palestinians at checkpoints in the West Bank?
I don’t think it would be that difficult to find a more appropriate target for protests. For example, at the University of New South Wales, there is an alleged Australian Human Rights Centre. Amazingly, last year it had a talk called “The Fight Against Terror”. One of the speakers was Colonel Sharon Afek, Deputy Military Advocate General for the Israel Defence Forces, who apparently “held the positions of legal advisor for Judea and Samaria (the West Bank), Military Advocate General for the Israeli Air Force and, Head of the International Law branch of the IDF”. Considering the Israeli army’s open contempt for international law, this should have been considered a scandal for an alleged human rights centre. When I have been asked about the centre, I have pointed out this fact and urged people to steer clear of it.
People protest things all the time in Australia. Obviously, most protests do not inspire most Australians: most protests are very small, for fringe causes that many Australians have only the vaguest idea about. Yet these protests have been treated differently from the many other unpopular protests in Australia: they have faced harsh repression.
There are three videos of the July protest. In this one, at about 2:30, you can see a woman asking the police to settle down, saying the protesters are non-violent. The police then rush into the crowd of placid protesters to drag away a woman. There does not appear to be any cause for the arrest: she is plainly not harming or threatening anyone.
Here, you can see a video of the protesters chanting “This is not a police state/We have the right to demonstrate”. At 0:49, the police swoop on another person they have plainly singled out for arrest: again, with no apparent cause. At about 3:07, the police advance on the protesters, and one police officer says brusquely “Move” and violently shoves a woman in a hijab.
The third video appears to be the first in order. It shows the arrival of the police in the midst of the protest. The police do not appear particularly interested in negotiations. When they arrive, the protesters boo them. The police seem to be pushing protesters within 30 seconds. At 1:50, they appear to grab a protester who was walking away from them, back into the crowd. Around 3:30, we see the incident from the first video again from a different angle: a woman saying they are non-violent, asking police to settle down, then the police rush in to grab someone.
From the videos, it appears that the protesters were not misbehaving when they were arrested. One of the protesters claims that in subsequent trial testimony, the Victorian police acknowledged the following. Firstly, they had targeted protester leadership in making arrests. Secondly, police infiltrators had attended meetings of the protesters to monitor their activities.
Solah alleges that police violence in making arrests caused one arrestee to lose consciousness. Nineteen protesters were arrested, and 13 of them had bail conditions banning them from going within 50 metres of Max Brenner. Presumably, such conditions are to further criminalise protests against Max Brenner. On August 9, four of the 13 were arrested again in morning raids. They had allegedly protested Max Brenner, in defiance of their bail conditions. Three of them had bail set at $2,000. One of them had bail set at $10 000, presumably with the intent of keeping her in jail until her hearing on September 5.
This is part of a broader campaign against the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement, targeted at Israel. As I’ve noted before, there is an extensive and widening literature of comparing people who advocate BDS to the Nazis. Paul Howes, the Australian Workers Union secretary, said the protesters were “mimicking the behaviour of the Nazi thugs”. Labor MP Michael Danby explained that “We remember the precedence of the 1930s; my father came from Germany, and (at) any sign of this kind of behaviour we have to draw a line in the sand”. Kevin Rudd claimed to learn a similar lesson from history.
Gerard Henderson sought to be circumspect, so he made different point: “the historical parallels. In the mid-1930s, Sir Oswald Mosley’s British Union of Fascists used to go on rampages outside Jewish-owned shops in London’s East End – some were boycotted, others smashed up”.
This atmosphere of pervasive demonisation of the protesters has made possible repression of the protesters that should be considered shocking. The Australian Competition & Consumer Commission has been asked to investigate whether injunctive relief and damages can be inflicted on the protesters. Victorian Consumer Affairs Minister Michael O’Brien “singled out the Maritime Union Of Australia, Geelong Trades Hall Council, the Green Left Weekly magazine, Australians for Palestine and the Palestine Solidarity Campaign” for such measures.
The reason is that such organisations “may have engaged in secondary boycotts for the purpose of causing substantial loss or damage to Max Brenner’s business”.
It is worth considering the significance of this. Firstly, do we think it is reasonable that Australia should become a country where activists are prevented from advocating consumer boycotts that cause substantial loss or damage to what they consider an unethical business? Suppose that this is successful. What about those who engage in secondary boycotts for the purpose of causing substantial loss to Australian coal companies, for the purpose of reducing Australia’s carbon footprint? In this instance, Australians for Palestine expressly did not take part in the protests at Max Brenner. They simply advocate BDS – and the activists at Max Brenner thought that fit into that campaign. Applying similar logic, next time Climate Camp activists decide to lock themselves to a coal station to shut down production, police may arrest intellectuals, like Clive Hamilton and Guy Pearse. Does this sound like the kind of democracy we want to live in?
Indeed, it is striking how untroubled Australian commentators seem by these developments. In Israel, a law was recently passed which provided that anyone who calls for a boycott of Israel, or the settlements, could be sued. This was considered outrageous in Israel, and a black mark on its claim to being democratic. As I noted in July, Meretz called the law “an embarrassment to Israeli democracy and makes people around the world wonder if there is actually a democracy here”. Kadima complained that “you’re sending people to the gulag for their opinions”. The American Jewish paper Forward described this as an “an odious law for the ways in which it chills free speech in Israel”, noting that “democracy’s greatest test is its ability to allow the harshest criticism, whether the flag burners or the boycotters”.
Here in Australia, the Australian Jewish News ran two op eds blasting the law. They both came from board members of a new organisation the New Israel Fund Australia. Its chairman is Robin Margo, who used to be the president of the NSW Jewish Board of Deputies. That is, his “”Jewish establishment” credentials are beyond reproach”, as Galus Australis noted. In the AJN, NIFA board member Mandi Katz condemned this “broad reaching law that uses the power of the state to silence dissenting political expression. This is indisputably undemocratic, as will be clear to anyone who values democracy, however strongly opposed they may be to boycotts as a means for political change.” That is, the one in Israel.
The point is plain. One could be a fanatical Zionist, love everything the Israeli government does, and still think people who disagree should not face criminal or financial penalties for believing otherwise. That is kind of the point of liberal democracy. Even people with really unpopular points of view should be allowed to say what they believe. It is sad that what is considered a black mark on Israeli democracy isn’t considered a big deal here. It is comical that the demonisation of boycotters of Israel appears to be more intense in Australia than it even is in Israel. It is a shame that opponents of the Max Brenner protests are not content to simply say: ‘I believe your protests are silly, and believe I can convince the public of this.’ Instead, there is a campaign to forcibly crush the protesters, assisted by the Murdoch media’s relentless promotion of their equivalence to the Nazis.
Michael Brull has a featured blog at Independent Australian Jewish Voices, and is involved in Stop The Intervention Collective Sydney (STICS).