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Tuesday, June 30, 2015

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Vancouver’s Lavan struggles against boycott

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Norman Gladstone lends his support to Shanie Bar-Oz and Lavan

VANCOUVER — All Shanie Bar-Oz wants to do is sell her line of personal care products made with Dead Sea minerals.

The 33-year-old entrepreneur opened Lavan, her shop in downtown Vancouver, two years ago, and she’s the first to admit it’s been tough going. Her clients love the products, but it’s the picketing outside her store by a group calling itself the Boycott Israel Apartheid Campaign (BIAC) that’s making business a struggle.

“It’s been devastating,” she told The CJN. “I’m under a boycott from a group that’s spreading false information about my company, saying that Lavan is taking advantage of Palestinian rights and preventing their access to the Dead Sea, and that we have apartheid values. Basically they are calling us Nazis, claiming we come from a dark place that downgrades people because of their race.”

This is the third boycott Bar-Oz has experienced since November 2011, when the Jewish Federation of Greater Vancouver notified her that she should expect picketing outside her store.

“I was hysterical,” she recalled of that first incident. “I couldn’t sleep for a few days before they started, and we were afraid the demonstrators would get violent.”

Her worst fears didn’t materialize, and many members of the Jewish community and supporters of Israel came to the store to buy products and show their solidarity.

With the two demonstrations that followed, though, it was more difficult to find that support, particularly because the picketers would show up at unpredictable times. Still, her inbox is filled with well-wishers, with e-mails proclaiming “Am Yisrael Chai,” and she has many “likes” on her Facebook page.

“I really appreciate every phone call and show of support, but it doesn’t solve my problem,” Bar-Oz said.

“We’re significantly down in sales compared to last year, but aside from that, this has hurt my reputation. It has been so hard to get Lavan to the place where it is right now, and I’ve worked so hard to build this business. Today, if you search for Lavan on YouTube or Google, BIAC’s material comes first, not my material, and that hurts the brand.”

“Lavan can’t solve the conflict – it’s a skin care brand,” she said. “I can have a political agenda, but the brand cannot, and the problem is it’s not me that’s under attack, it’s the business.”

During the group’s protest on Feb. 12, Bar-Oz called the police to the scene, but when they arrived they said there was nothing illegal about the boycott and there was nothing they could do to help her.

The latest demonstrations against Israel were part of the annual “Israeli Apartheid Week” on campuses around the world, and Bar-Oz, her staff and her customers had to wade past more than 25 picketers standing on the sidewalk and handing out leaflets.

In response, as it has in the past, Buycott Israel, an initiative of the Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs, issued calls to supporters of Israel to patronize the shop on Feb. 19 and 26. And on Feb. 22, federal Citizenship Minister Jason Kenney visited the store and made several purchases.

BIAC is part of the international boycott, divestment and sanctions movement. Its website urges Israel to “recognize the Palestinian people’s inalienable right to self-determination and fully complies with the precepts of international law.”

Charlotte Kates, a spokesperson for BIAC, didn’t respond to requests for comment by The CJN’s deadline. But in an article in the Huffington Post, she argued that hurting the Lavan brand and its business is precisely the point.

“We’re part of an ongoing campaign to boycott Israeli goods until it complies with international law,” she said. “Israel has no right to exist. No state has a right to exist as a racist state. Israel exists through the continuing dispossession of Palestinian land. Seven million Palestinians are prohibited from returning to their homes, because it is said they will disrupt the demographic majority in Israel. Israel denies other people its rights. We think the conversation needs to be less about the claimed rights of governments and more about human rights.”

In recent years, BIAC has also boycotted Chapters-Indigo, Zim Integrated Shipping and the Mountain Equipment Co-Op.

But for a small business owner like Bar-Oz, the economic effects of the boycott have been terrible. “I want to have Lavan product on every shelf some day, just like Ahava,” she says. “But right now, Lavan is not Ahava. I don’t have investors – it’s just me and my business partner in Israel at the factory, and the boycott has been devastating.”

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