The Women Behind the Block the Boat Movement

American media are remaining predictably silent on an important new front in the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement against Israel. But the repeated blockades of cargo ships from Israel’s Zim line, which began with a four-day action in August during the heated aftermath of Israel’s latest armed assault on Gaza appear to be doing damage to the firm as well as giving new energy to the BDS movement, writes Daikha Dridi in Al-Huffington Post Algeria.

Behind the success of the California-based Block the Boat campaign are a multitude of activists, and two exceptional women.

One of them is 32, a tiny little woman with long black hair and the voice of a determined little mouse, never stumbling on a word or hesitating. She meets me in her studious looking little office in San Francisco’s hip Valencia Street.

The other is 44, tall and pregnant, with curly rebellious hair, a warm deep voice that doesn’t mind making long pauses to search for the right word. She meets me in Berkeley in her cheerful little house, painted all in green and orange.

The first, Lara Kiswani, runs the Arab Resources and Organizing Center (AROC), based in San Francisco. The second is Sara Kershnar, founder of the International Jewish Antizionist Network, based in Berkeley.

For several weeks, the organizations founded and run by these two women have been beating the drums, rallying the troops for a new fight at the port of Oakland to block a ship belonging to the Israeli Zim line from offloading its cargo there. “Zim is not announcing any return on the West Coast past October,” says Kershnar. “We don’t know what it means exactly. Does it mean they will ship their cargo on other lines? Anyway, it is a huge victory for us that Zim has now to hide.”

Ships from Israel’s Zim line have, according to activists, disappeared from the radars of maritime websites that track their voyages, all up and down the west coast. Zim ships have been regular visitors, appearing half a dozen or so times per month between the big ports of California and the Pacific Northwest, but at the ports of Oakland, Long Beach (Los Angeles), Seattle and even Vancouver, no new Zim arrivals are projected anymore. The calendars of the maritime sites which track in real time the location and course of merchant ships stop at the end of 2014, and from now until then only a single ship bearing the Zim name is expected in any of these ports, bound for Oakland on Saturday the 25 of October.

And of course, it is rather eagerly awaited. The organizers of Block the Boat for Palestine are readying themselves to welcome it with fanfare.

The postings on social networks have proliferated in the past few weeks, while planning meetings were conducted in San Francisco and Oakland, and organizers called for demonstrators and sympathizers to help with the success of what might well be the final Block the Boat action of 2014. Oakland does not want to miss out after having launched an unprecedented wave of enthusiasm among those who in the United States want to see a free Palestine and think that a boycott of Israel is the best way to achieve it.

After the thunderclap of August 16, in which nearly 5,000 demonstrators responded to the call to prevent a Zim ship from unloading its goods, similar initiatives sprang up across the west coast of the US and beyond. After Oakland, Zim faced a blockade by demonstrators in the ports of Long Beach on August 23, and again on October 18, at the port of Tacoma (Seattle) on August 25, at the port of Vancouver, Canada on September 10, and even as far away as the port of Tampa in Florida on several occasions.

Unlike the actions of last summer, the upcoming blockade announced on October 25 in Oakland will not take place in the same emotional context , exacerbated by the ferocity and sadism of the Israeli attacks on Gaza’s captive population. But for Kiswani, like Kershnar, this doesn’t really change the situation.

“Last time [in August]we were shooting for 500 people-so we were not expecting the 3-to 5 thousand who showed up”, says Kiswani. “What we need on October 25 is a reasonable amount of people to block the boat, our ambition is to have between 700 and a thousand demonstrators”, she says.

Both women are cautious about how to interpret the fact that there are no new Zim sailings announced on the west coast for the rest of the year. But if it turns out that this is not simply a strategy to make things more difficult for potential blockades, it would imply a major victory for the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement and those who seek to isolate the Israeli state.

“I don’t think October 25 will draw as many people as on August 16, but that is not how we think about success, we think about it in terms of building a broader movement against Zim; for us it is a long term campaign that had a great launch”, says Kershnar.

For her part, Kiswani says “even if Zim does not send its boats to the port of Oakland anymore we will not change [Zim] as our target, we will trace Zim cargo whether it is shipped by air, land or sea; our intention is to make it as inconvenient as possible for them anywhere in the USA.”

Why the focus on Zim alone, rather than trying to widen the movement and blockade other Israeli companies, brands and products? Kiswani’s gives her answer with a very beautiful smile that takes over her whole face: Zim, as is it turned out, was not just a well chosen symbol of Israel’s trading and commerce. It is more than that: the company played a historic role in the foundation of the Israeli state and its apartheid system.

When the Bay Area activists launched their original appeal to block the offloading of an Israeli cargo ship this summer, all that they knew about Zim was that it was a company that was [partly]owned by the Israeli state. Since then, Kiswani says, “we realized that Zim carried weaponry and settlers from Europe to Palestine in 1948, it has a historic role as an occupation force”.

But also, “Zim is well known for regularly shipping weapons, chemicals and surveillance equipment to and from Israel. The State of Israel owns a golden share in Zim and the company has to make itself available to Israel in times of war, so it is not just a private company, it is a para-statal company. For us having Zim as a target is very important because of its relationship to the State of Israel. It is also a microcosm of how Israel and Zionism work and how the roles are divided between private groups and the State of Israel in order to further the project of economic and military power of Israel. Those so-called private companies are the infrastructure of the government of Israel”, says Kershnar.

Kershnar says that her organization, IJAN, which takes a stand against “racism, apartheid, colonialism, imperialism” has published a report called “Israel Worldwide Role in Repression,” which tallies all of the countries where Israel exports its military and police technology, and sells its methods of repression. “For us, she says, Zim is a brand of the colonial project.”

The plan of action for these two organizations and the dozens of others which form the “Block the Boat” coalition is to continue to put pressure on the ports of the west coast, broaden the movement to other American ports, as well as overseas ports (notably, says Kershnar, in England, Ireland, Scotland, South Africa and India) and ensure that it becomes very costly to transport goods on Zim due to delays, holdups at ports, but also to make it equally costly for other maritime lines to transport cargo bearing the Zim label.

More actions are on the horizon, but for now neither Kiswani nor Kershnar want to say more. “In our meetings people are coming up with very creative ways to target Zim”, says Kershnar with a beaming smile. And even as the mainstream American press belittles and ignores what these activists are accomplishing, the big American Zionist organizations emphatically do not; they have already begun to demand that the police get to work on their preferred technique: repression.

Daikha Dridi Translated from French by International Boulevard