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DEBORAH FINK and Naomi Wimborne-Idrissi are co-founders of Jews for Boycotting Israeli Goods (J-Big), a group which has scored major successes as progressive Jewish people respond to Israel’s treatment of Palestinians.
The pair met through Jews for Justice for Palestinians (JfJfP), founded in February 2002 in response to the second intifada.
Fink joined in July that year. Coming from a conservative, pro-Israel background, she found it reassuring to meet fellow Jews who were against Israel’s policy in Palestine.
She sees JfJfP as an important organisation.
“It shows the world that Israel does not represent all Jews, that it cannot count on all Jews for support,” she says.
“And to a certain extent it protects non-Jewish critics of Israeli policy from bogus charges of anti-semitism.”
Anti-semitism is often the accusation thrown at Israel’s critics, with the aim of intimidating them into silence.
Fink felt there needed to be a specifically Jewish voice supporting the campaign to boycott Israeli goods, so with Wimborne-Idrissi she founded J-Big in 2006.
They chose the tongue-in-cheek slogan “it’s kosher to boycott Israeli goods,” highlighting the fact that many Jews are involved in the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) campaign, so it’s “kosher” to take part.
Wimborne-Idrissi comes from a left-wing Jewish household. Her father used to sell the Morning Star’s predecessor the Daily Worker, so solidarity with oppressed peoples is something she grew up with.
She discovered JfJfP in the run-up to the Iraq war in 2003.
A speaker at a Stop the War demo was speaking, as a Jew, for Palestinian rights. Wimborne-Idrissi signed up there and then.
She felt that JfJfP, while doing great work in the Jewish community, did not go as far as she and others wanted in the boycott campaign. A further step was needed.
The Palestine Solidarity Campaign had set up a Boycott Israeli Goods campaign and was showing an interest in getting a specifically Jewish voice involved.
Wimborne-Idrissi and Fink pulled together some like-minded people and set up J-Big. A founding statement was published, a banner sporting the “kosher” slogan produced and J-Big set about mobilising support.
Wimborne-Idrissi says it wasn’t long before the expected deluge of venomous accusations flooded in.
They were denounced as “self-hating Jews” and “traitors to the Jewish state of Israel.”
“We had no illusions that the campaign would bring the Israeli economy crashing down,” she says.
“Boycotting avocados and peppers grown on illegally occupied Palestinian land and then sold as Israeli would not bring the country’s economy to its knees, but the immorality of how and where these goods are produced is an important message to get across.”
J-Big became more interested in boycotting Israel at an institutional level — by, for example, boycotting cultural events such as when Israeli musicians come to Britain under the Israeli flag to perform here while Palestinian artists are suffering under the occupation.
Here Fink’s musical training — she’s a bachelor of music and a trained soprano — came to the fore.
Working with others in the BDS movement Fink debuted by interrupting the Jerusalem Quartet at the Wigmore Hall in 2010, singing a parody of Jerusalem, Holy City.
J-Big was involved when the campaign tackled a more high-profile target, encouraging as many as possible to join in the protests when the Israeli Philharmonic Orchestra played the Royal Albert Hall in 2011.
There were many disruptions to the orchestra’s performance, the first of which involved 13 activists in a choir led by Fink.
Sue Blackwell, a prominent member of the British Committee for the Universities of Palestine who had written the words to the Wigmore parody, wrote a new version of Ode to Joy as Ode to Boycott, including the words “Israel end your occupation, Palestine must now be free, ethnic cleansing and apartheid should belong to history.”
Protesters, who came from as far afield as Edinburgh and Brighton, were strategically seated around the auditorium and their interventions carefully timed.
During a quiet musical passage protesters in vacant choral seats stood up with cloth banners which together spelled Free Palestine.
The protesters were eventually escorted out of the hall, but the protest made global news.
Fink explains the controversial action by pointing to the way the orchestra operated as a cultural ambassador, making Israel appear civilised.
“As a musician I find it hard to disrupt beautiful music,” she says. “But basic human rights are more important.
“It’s not just about influencing the audience at a prom, but about influencing world opinion. You can’t do that by handing out a few leaflets.”
Wimborne-Idrissi adds that the protests were planned to disrupt the beauty of the music as little as possible.
The Bruch violin concerto was part of the programme, for instance. So “free Palestine!” would be shouted when the conductor was raising his baton at the start of a piece, but not once the violin had started playing.
The disruptions were done to be in keeping with the performance, turning it into a weapon for the Palestinians.
The concert was not aborted. It was the BBC that cut the broadcast — which had never happened before in the history of the proms.
It was an even more successful protest than the previous action at Wigmore Hall.
I suggested that what this party of 30 or more people had done that night at the Albert Hall was not so much to disrupt Beethoven, who featured, but to be true to his spirit.
Fink and Wimborne-Idrissi agree: “Beethoven was a revolutionary.”
Wimborne-Idrissi stresses that the global boycott movement, started by the Palestinians themselves, does not target individual Israelis — and certainly not Jews as Jews.
It targets institutions and aims for equality for Palestinians living in Israel, freedom for Palestinians living in the occupied territories and justice for Palestinian refugees, including the right of return for all those forced to flee their homes since the Nakba (“catastrophe”) of 1948.
Together, these movements hope to win justice for Palestinians — something the UN has signally failed to achieve.
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