Activists throw book at CEO's scholarship fund for soldiers
As protesters around the world mark the 40th anniversary of Israel’s annexation of the West Bank and Gaza Saturday (June 9), Toronto campaigners will be out in force at branches of Canada’s largest bookstore chain.
Locally, this weekend’s will be the highest-profile action in the two-year-old campaign for boycott, divestment and sanctions against Israel.
Until now, the budding movement has lacked the potent symbols that powered the anti-South African apartheid protest of two decades ago, which organizers take as their model. South Africa produces some of the world’s best wines, but Israel’s exports of kosher wine sold at the LCBO do not a mass consumer target make.
But the search for an emblem of the occupation seems to have ended, thanks to Indigo-Chapters maven Heather Reisman.
Reisman and her husband (and Indigo director), Gerry Schwartz, have long been stalwart supporters of Israeli policies so much so that they departed the Liberal Party to take up with Harper’s even more avowedly pro-Israel Conservative Party.
In an especially provocative move, the two have set up a foundation whose mission is to provide scholarships to “lone soldiers,” non-Israeli-born Jews without family there who nevertheless join the Israeli military.
The Heseg Foundation for Lone Soldiers (“heseg” means “achievement”) pays the tuition and living expenses of students who want to study in Israel after they finish their military service. The foundation’s website (www.heseg.com) says its goal is to produce “the leaders of tomorrow.”
But Andrew Hugill of the Coalition Against Israeli Apartheid, which has organized the local protests, doesn’t see Heseg as benign. “It encourages lone soldiers to go to Israel to join the military,” he says, which is dedicated to maintaining the occupation.
Certainly, Heseg’s advisory board includes some prominent and controversial Israeli military figures, among them retired Major General Doron Almog, who was head of the southern command of the Israeli Defence Forces (IDF) in Gaza from 2000 to 2003.
During his tenure, the IDF responded to a Hamas attack on a military post in which four Israeli soldiers were killed by demolishing 60 homes and leaving 600 mostly civilian Palestinians homeless.
Amnesty International criticized the operation at the time as being in contravention of the Fourth Geneva Convention, which prohibits an occupying power from destroying civilian property unless such steps are necessary for military operations.
Almog did not respond to messages left by NOW on his mobile phone.
“AI raised serious concerns about human rights violations regarding the demolition of homes in Rafah [in southern Gaza] when he was in command,” Amnesty’s John Tackaberry tells NOW. “People involved with him should be aware of the incidents of 2002.”
Reisman has not responded to telephone messages left at her office. According to a video shot by activists during a disruption of an Indigo public event featuring Ralph Nader last month, she said, “I won’t engage in a debate on this subject’ and “the facts that they [the protesters] are giving you are not correct.”
As Nader asked for a “tip of the hat” to Israeli reservists who have refused to serve, Reisman departed, leaving her guest alone at the front the crowd. (The video is available on YouTube and www.caiaweb.org, the website of the Coalition Against Israeli Apartheid).
Indigo spokesperson Sorya Gaulin likewise says she has no comment on the Heseg controversy and protests. “It has nothing to do with us [Indigo-Chapters],” she says, but rather involves activities of the Indigo boss in her private life.
Gaulin says she’s had media calls on the story but has seen no effect on sales at Indigo or Chapters.
Rob Prichard, CEO of Torstar, who serves on Heseg’s board of directors seems unfazed by the fuss. Prichard, formerly president of the U of T, says he regards his involvement in Heseg as a continuation of his career-long work to provide access to higher education. “I’m happily associated with Heseg and with honourably discharged soldiers in Israel,” he tells NOW.
Serving with Prichard on the advisory board is Moshe Ronen, who is also chair of the Canada-Israel Committee.
“I don’t think you attack an organization just because there’s a controversy, if there is one, about one of 15 members of the advisory board,” Ronen says.
Ronen also says the equation between Heseg and the Israel military is unfair. “The only connection is that the applicants [for scholarships] are lone soldiers. They’re accepted on their academic qualifications. Heseg doesn’t pay them anything while they’re in the army.”
Regarding the Heseg-inspired protests planned for Saturday, Ronen predicts they’ll neither hurt sales at Indigo nor help the cause of the Palestinians, whom he says would be better served by projects that encourage economic investment and Israeli-Palestinian cooperation.
In Israel, meanwhile, neither Heseg nor the protests about it have gained much attention, says Jerusalem-based Peretz Kidron, a journalist and author of Refusenik!: Israel’s Soldiers Of Conscience. But he says the phenomenon of the “lone soldier” is well known yet puzzling for many Israelis.
“They’re regarded as pretty weird fish,” he says, since they have come to Israel of their free will to do what so many young Israelis loathe serve in the army. “The attitude is, “We have to do this shit because we live here. But what about them?”
The government of Israel, on the other hand, lavishes a warm welcome on lone soldiers, not because of their military prowess, Kidron believes, but for their propaganda value. “They’re presented as Jews who are willing to stand up for Israel,” he says, and are therefore an excellent antidote to “the large part of the Jewish community in North America and Europe that is quite appalled at what’s happening in the territories.”