How Sussex Friends of Israel are fighting back against the boycotters

Pro-Israel campaigners in Brighton have adopted a novel approach to activism


SFI stalwarts (from left to right) Simon Cobbs, Neil Duncanson, Fiona Sharpe, Winston Pickett and Ronnie Bloom

SFI stalwarts (from left to right) Simon Cobbs, Neil Duncanson, Fiona Sharpe, Winston Pickett and Ronnie Bloom

There is a “war” going on in Brighton, with grandmothers as troops and cakes and bagels among the weapons.

The conflict involves a band of pro-Israel supporters who have adopted an imaginative approach to the business of combating activists who support a cultural and commercial boycott of the country.

The group is called Sussex Friends of Israel (SFI)and consists of local Jews, Christians and members of Brighton’s gay and transsexual community.

Together they have taken on the Palestine Solidarity Campaign (PSC) and boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) movement which have targeted an Israeli-owned shop in the city centre.

“We’re at war and we’re on the frontline,” says Christian SFI member Neil Duncanson, who manages public relations for the group.

“The BDS and PSC organise three to four demonstrations each week — we just had to do something about it. So we set up SFI.”

The group was founded a year ago, after the anti-Israel campaign became increasingly hostile following the opening of the EcoStream shop in August 2012.

Every weekend, activists protest outside the store, which is a division of carbonated drinks manufacturer SodaStream, based in the West Bank settlement town of Mishor Adumim.

“It was horrible,” said SFI member Winston Pickett. “We watched them stop shoppers and tell them about ‘Israel apartheid’. There’s a real hatred of the shop that can be antisemitic in effect. You can really feel the hate and bigotry.”

Christian pro-Israel protester Jill Young

Christian pro-Israel protester Jill Young

Mr Pickett, a former director of the European Institute for the Study of Contemporary Antisemitism, regularly joins fellow members for meetings at the SFI “office” — a branch of Costa coffee.

The are five main leaders, from those, such as Mr Pickett, who have experience in countering anti-Israel activism, to the previously apolitical, like SFI co-founder Simon Cobbs.

Mr Cobbs said: “The PSC and BDS have been in Brighton for years, protesting outside Waitrose for selling Israeli products, and by the clock tower, which is a traditional spot for holding protests in Brighton. It’s always been like that and I’ve always thought, ‘let them get on with it’.

“But that all changed when I heard them screaming and shouting outside EcoStream the day it opened.

“I felt so angry I went in and ‘asked’ them to leave. Then I saw Daniel [Laurence, a Christian member of SFI] come in and he was just as shocked by what he saw as I was. We both decided to bring three people in next week, and counter-protest. That’s how it all started.”

But EcoStream staff face more than heckles and pickets, says Cobbs. “BDS supporters want EcoStream to shut down. They’ve chained themselves to the door and super-glued the locks. It’s harassment.

“If they want to protest, they should do so by the clock tower. It’s just not right as it is now.”

An appeal for help to local Green Party MP Caroline Lucas, a member of the British-Palestine Parliamentary Group, fell on deaf ears, so SFI supporters decided to take to the streets themselves.

Every Saturday, they gather outside Ecostream to shout down the activists.They have organised creative campaigns such as “Bagels Against Bigotry” and “Cake Against Hate” — handing out home-made treats to shoppers to help get their message across.

The most vociferous of the counter-protesters is the group’s contingent of grandmothers.

“I stand out there every Saturday for two reasons,” said 68-year-old Marilyn Magrill. “Firstly, I adore Israel, and secondly, the protests are more about antisemitism than they are about the shop. As a survivor’s daughter, I’ve been brought up knowing about the Holocaust.

“The protesters always yell ‘you people’ at us. You know exactly what they’re talking about. It’s a feeling you get.”

“I’ve been called ‘you Jew’, ‘you filthy bigoted Jew’,” adds Jennifer Macintosh, who is 63.

“I go to EcoStream every Saturday, because someone must stand against their lies and hatred against Israel. I explain the situation to passers-by, and if I’ve spoken to one person on a Saturday afternoon, I’ve done good because that person will lead to talking to other people.

“My children tell their kids, ‘if you want to see granny, you have to come to EcoStream’.”

Rochelle Oberman, also 63 and a member of the local Orthodox synagogue, the Brighton & Hove Hebrew Congregation, added: “I don’t know why, but I feel guilty if I’m not there every week.”

Rabbi Andrea Zanardo, of the 600-member Brighton and Hove Reform Synagogue, said he has not stopped members of his congregation attending protests on Shabbat because “they are brave people. I will not go and don’t do politics on Shabbat, but I can’t forbid my congregation to go.”

In his view, Jews in Brighton had been intimidated by the rhetoric used by the anti-Israel activists.

“There is big upset because of this,” he explained.

“The protestors say Israel instead of Jews, but we know what they mean. The ones outside EcoStream say they are against the Jewish state and compare it to the Nazis and apartheid.

“My congregation is made of many German-Jews from the Kindertransport — this kind of talk rings a terrible bell for them.

“Of course, it’s antisemitic — one member of my congregation was called a ‘Yid’. I am appalled by this ignorance.

“When they talk about the rights of Palestinians, they should be sensitive to the Jewish people — especially when they use that kind of language.

“One eight-year-old boy at my cheder class was very distressed when he saw the protests outside EcoStream.”

As a result of that incident, the Milan-born rabbi encouraged pupils at his class to write messages of support on handmade cards to EcoStream employees.

Having been successful in raising support in Brighton, and neighbouring Hove, SFI is now working with other regional pro-Israel organisations to develop strategies to neutralise BDS activity.

Businessman Ronnie Bloom, who funds for the group, said: “There should be a London Friends of Israel, a Bournemouth and Oxford one too. Not enough is being done in the UK to fight the BDS.”

Fiona Sharpe, who is setting up education initiatives at SFI, encouraged other communities to do the same.

“When the BDS used to protest outside Waitrose or Marks & Spencer, we used to shrug our shoulders and walk away.

“But the protests at EcoStream made us get off our backsides and do something. We just got up and put ourselves on the line — it’s what any community should do.”

Last updated: 10:51am, January 2 2014