by Tom Hyland | WAToday.com.au | September 17, 2011
THERE is a Max Brenner's chocolate shop at Queen Victoria Square, an open space in a Melbourne shopping centre.
Inside is an advertising poster that reads: ''I invite you to smell, taste and feel my love story.'' This is not the kind of place you would think would incite ugly words like ''scumbag'' or talk of unspeakable crimes, like genocide.
But the shop has become the local focus of a global campaign to boycott companies accused of profiting from Israel's occupation of Palestinian territories.
Max Brenner's is a target because its parent company, an Israeli food conglomerate, gives ''care packages'' to Israeli soldiers.
In Australia, the campaign has triggered a complex, emotional debate. Politicians have joined in, some scoring points unrelated to the Middle East.
The campaign has raised questions about the limits of legitimate protest. Arrests have been made and ugly words abound. For some, the sight of strident young people blocking the way into Jewish-owned shops evokes images of persecution.
The boycott campaign has no formal leadership and no agreed tactics. But it does have an acronym - BDS, for boycott, divestment and sanctions - and has adopted methods from campaigns against South African apartheid.
''Apartheid'' was one of the words tossed around at Max Brenner's on a Friday night 11 weeks ago when 50 or so young protesters formed up outside, blocking the front door. They shouted slogans: ''Out, out, Israel out''; ''Max Brenner, you can't hide, you're supporting genocide''; and ''Brenner, come off it, there's blood in your hot chocolate.''
Police arrested 19 people on charges of assaulting police, riotous behaviour, trespass and besetting premises.
On a video of the protest a speaker promises more pickets at Max Brenner's and ''all the other scumbag corporations'' that support Israel.
One of those arrested is Omar Hassan, a politics student at Monash University. ''The fact that Max Brenner sells chocolate and sweets in Australia while supporting the Israeli army makes it an extremely credible target and also an extremely tangible target,'' he told The Sunday Age. He insists that Max Brenner's is not a target because it's Jewish, but because it's linked to the Israeli army.
Mr Hassan is clear about the purpose of picketing the shop: it was to stop people going in.
''You could have gone in from another entrance, but you could not have gone in from the site we were at,'' he says.
The protest has crystalised many of the arguments around the boycott debate.
In response, senior politicians, including Foreign Minister Kevin Rudd, and other prominent figures have made well-publicised visits to Max Brenner's to sip hot chocolate.
In State Parliament, there were rowdy scenes as the government tried to expose Labor Party divisions over the boycott. Similar tactics were employed in Canberra, where Coalition MPs exploited divisions between Greens MPs on the issue. The state government referred the Max Brenner protest to the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission, to investigate if it breached the law against secondary boycotts.
The commission found the picket did not break the law.
The boycott also prompted counter-protests, including one in Sydney where anti-migrant right-wing extremists lined up alongside pro-Israel and other groups to oppose the boycott.
Supporters of the boycott complain they have been the target of an unfair over-reaction.
The arrested protesters from July 1 see themselves as victims of repression, orchestrated by Zionists and politicians allied with the Israeli government and cheered on by the Murdoch press. Moderate supporters of the boycott also question the reaction to the campaign, even as they sidestep questions about the picketers.
Samah Sabawi, spokeswoman for Australians for Palestine, says the political response has verged on hysteria, fuelled by a ''media frenzy''.
''To tell us you can not protest outside a legitimate boycott target that is connected to Israel, I find that troubling,'' she says.
''We live in a democracy and our democracy was built on the foundations of freedom of speech and freedom of assembly and freedom to protest.''
Ms Sabawi declines to talk about the tactics used at Max Brenner's, saying she does not know if it was police or protesters who blocked access to the shop. But she appears to distance Australians for Palestine from the protesters. ''Generally speaking,'' she says, ''we like to focus on raising awareness, winning hearts and minds, speaking to consumers and convincing them not to buy the product, as opposed to shutting down a business or blocking access to it.
''So we work on raising awareness, we do it the hard way, and I think that's the only way.''
Clergyman Jim Barr, president of the Australia Palestine Advocacy Network, will not talk about the tactics used at Max Brenner's either, although he was quoted in The Australian saying the protesters' behaviour ''discredits the whole movement''.
What he will tell The Sunday Age is that he strongly supports the BDS campaign, and that boycotts are a valid tactic. ''The campaign to de-legitimise the BDS campaign is, I think, very regrettable,'' he says. ''I think it threatens civil liberties in this country. It is perfectly appropriate for citizens in this country to chose what they will and will not buy.''
On this point, Jewish community leaders and pro-Israel lobbyists agree with Mr Barr: people have a right to advocate a boycott. But that's where agreement ends.
John Searle, president of the Jewish Community Council of Victoria, takes issue with the language of the protesters.
He says slogans used at Max Brenner's were ''outrageous and disgusting'' - particularly chants about blood in chocolate, and genocide.
''Here in Melbourne, in 2011, we have to hear the blood libel repeated all over again,'' Mr Searle says, referring to the anti-Semitic slur that Jews consume human blood.
Tzvi Fleischer, of the Australia/Israel and Jewish Affairs Council, finds the rhetoric and symbolism of the boycott has ''ugly echoes from the past''. But, he says, this is not the major problem with the BDS campaign.
He says that by boycotting Israel it seeks to de-legitimise the country and undermine peace prospects. Dr Fleischer says advocates of a boycott have a right to promote their cause. But they have no right to stop people buying chocolate.
''Under free speech they have a right to advocate that people should boycott Israeli products,'' he says. ''I think that's a totally immoral thing to advocate. But they do not have a right to blockade people going to Max Brenner's.''