Two businessmen from Samaria and the head of their regional council are on their way to Paris’s 16th arrondissement, along with two assistants and two journalists.
The businessmen are Ami Guy, the CEO and owner of Shamir Salads, which exports 40 percent of its goods to Europe, and Zvi Meir, the owner of three textile factories, which export about 90 percent of their merchandise to Europe. They were recruited for this mission and are joined by Samaria Regional Council Head Yossi Dagan.
The goal: to meet the activists who are part of the boycott movement against Israel. The boycotted versus the boycotters.
It isn’t easy. Initially, we sent an email to the offices of the EuroPalestine organization, and we asked to meet with them. We didn’t receive a reply. Then we approached Frenchmen in contact with them and asked for their help in coordinating a meeting, but we were told that it was “not such a good idea.” In the end, we decided to go physically and without advance warning to the addresses of the organizations in France that call for a boycott of Israel.
“It is important for me to present the whole picture, ” explains Guy on the way there. Meir isn’t optimistic: “If they talk to us more than a few minutes, it’ll be an accomplishment.” In the car, a debate beings on how best to make initial contact. They suggest to Dagan that he remove his kipa, but he refuses.
“I’m not taking my kipa off, and I’m not hiding my identity or our right to the land.”
We enter the 16th arrondissement, which is considered prestigious, and go into a little grey shopping complex. According to the organization’s website, it’s one of the strongholds of BDS in France. At the entrance is a small Lebanese restaurant, and the owner tries to help us find the place, but without success. The Parisian cold causes us to search the offices in the compound quickly.
Downstairs, we find the EuroPalestine officers, which are disappointingly closed. The tin gate is locked. Spray-painted on it is a Star of David and “Fuck you.” The local version of a “price tag.”
The fatigue is taking its toll, but the desire for a confrontation is increasing, and we decide to again squeeze into the rental car and move to the next destination, whose address we received from Israelis fighting a boycott in France: Résistances bookstore in Paris’s 17th arrondissement. There, we will meet Olivier.
On the glass door at the store’s entrance are flyers for human rights rallies and conferences on freedom of expression. Inside, the decor changes. Photos and posters against the “Israeli apartheid regime” hang on the walls. A stack of leaflets, which also address Israel’s “war crimes, ” is on the counter.
On one of the shelves is a display. It showcases books based on the documentaries “Five Broken Cameras, ” which describes the conflict over the separation barrier in Bil’in from the Palestinian angle, and “Avenge But One Of My Two Eyes” that tells the story of a Palestinian who fortifies himself in his home during Operation Defensive Shield. Alongside these are books by scholars affiliated with the extreme left, like Professor Shlomo Sand, and the Jewish American linguist Noam Chomsky, who is considered to be a pointed critic of Israel.
Guy whispers, “It’s just a whole industry of vilifying the State of Israel.” Dagan wanders around the store and reaches a pile of invitations to Israeli Apartheid Week events. “I guess we’re at the right place, ” he says.
The inner hallway leads to another room. On the corridor wall are high-quality photographs of the Israeli Border Police and IDF soldiers facing Palestinian children: pictures of occupation. One of them depicts soldiers beating a Palestinian child and forcefully dragging him. The inner room is locked, but beyond the glass door is a meeting room decorated with Palestinian flags and dozens of posters calling to join the struggle against Israel.
Behind the counter stands a bespectacled, unshaven man in his fifties, wearing a faded sweater and typing on the computer.
“Bonjour, monsieur, hello, ” says Dagan and approaches the counter. “We come from Samaria in Israel. What is your name?”
“Olivier, ” he answers with a frightened face.
“We came to try to talk with people who want to boycott us, the BDS activists, ” Dagan says in English.
Olivier winces, “First of all, I would ask you not to photograph here.” Our photographer takes pictures anyway, and Olivier takes his phone and threatens to call the police.
I ask the photographer to wait and go to calm Olivier. “I am a journalist from Israel. We are here to try to explain our position on a boycott.”
Olivier calms down a bit. “You pounce on me, and I’m one man in front of you on my own. It’s not fair.”
“We just want to talk, ” I say. “Do you know the BDS movement?”
“I am very active in the boycott against Israel, ” he answers me and says that he participated in the flytilla to Gaza in April 2012, was arrested at Ben Gurion Airport along with about 50 other activists and has since been refused entry to Israel.
I introduce myself and ask him his full name.
“I prefer to keep it that way, just with my first name, ” replies Olivier, and he begins to share his teachings:
“What is shared by all Jews is a hatred of Arabs. You severely injure Palestinians. There are even Israelis that admit it. We are waging a struggle against your government, and the boycott is a key part of the fight.”
“Have you ever visited the West Bank?” asks Guy, who runs a factory in the Barkan Industrial Park and employs approximately 100 Palestinians. “Did you know that I am employ Palestinians under the best conditions that exist, better than anywhere in the Arab world?”
“That’s completely not correct, ” insists Olivier. “Your data is wrong. Palestinians are impoverished and live under very difficult conditions. What you do to them is a crime.”
Dagan turns to Olivier: “Boycotts damage coexistence and can also harm the Palestinians who work for us.”
Olivier: “Employing Palestinians is not the solution to the occupation. As long as Israel occupies and settlements exist, the Palestinian people suffers.”
Meir interjects, “How do you manage a boycott? It’s actually forbidden in France by law.”
“We try to do things, ” says Olivier. “The law damaged our freedom of expression, and we’re a little wary. I do not understand why boycotting is forbidden. It is part of the right to protest. If I want to boycott, I need to have to have the ability to do so. We will not rest, and we will act against Israel everywhere. Boycotting Israel is the most efficient tool, and we therefore want to use it.”
Tones are rising, and the hope of reaching an understanding vanishes. “There is nothing for us here. The man does not want to listen, ” says Guy.
Olivier asks us to leave. He accompanies us and mutters, “Fuck you” in English. But the debate continues at the door.
“You are ignoring the facts. Have you ever been to Judea and Samaria?” Dagan asks. Olivier evades answering.
“Did you know that for the past half year, Palestinian terrorists stab and shoot Israelis almost every day?” Guy insists, but Olivier doesn’t back down.
Outside the store is a police car. Olivier walks in its direction, and we rush to our car and get away from there.
The pilot that sells salads
Ami Guy, 68, is a former fighter pilot in the Air Force who fell into Syrian captivity during the Yom Kippur War. A missile hit his plane during the bombing sortie, and he managed to eject himself from the burning aircraft.
“In captivity, we endured hard investigations and torture:” he recounts, “electric shocks, beatings all over the body with pipes. They did everything to make us talk.” After eight months, he was released and returned to Israel in a prisoner exchange. He continued to train pilots until retiring in 1995.
In 2006, Guy acquired Shamir Salads when it found itself in financial difficulties. With some brilliant business maneuvers, he managed to mark the brand as one of the best in salads, expanded cooperation with the large distribution companies, and increased the volume of exports to Europe of salads of all kinds (hummus, tahini, eggplant salad etc).
Today, the business’s annual revenue is about NIS 130 million. The salads can be found on shelves in France, England, Germany, the Czech Republic, the Netherlands and Russia.
“Today I have to pay the EU a 17 percent tariff on every shipment to Europe because I’m producing in the territories, ” says Guy, who lives in Ramat Hasharon. “This is a problem that only will grow if the marking of exported products is implemented. This is a serious step that the state has to fight.”
Zvi Meir, 69, a resident of Elkana, employs more than 250 Palestinian workers in its factories in the Barkan Industrial Park. “The Palestinians who work in factories in Barkan have the best wages and conditions in the Arab world. People just do not understand it, and boycotts will primarily harm the Palestinians themselves.”
Meir owns a large textile factory in another country whose name he declines to state. “In my overseas factory, I employ workers at a pittance compared to what I pay them in Samaria.”
We are sitting in the lobby of the Opéra Cadet Hotel, and the Israeli businessmen express their concern about the day the EU’s decision label products that come from the settlements will be implemented. According to the decision, each country determines for itself the date on which it will begin marking products.
A source in the Israeli public-relations establishment says, “The French government is shaping the formula to implement the decision and to date there is some light foot dragging, but that does not mean that we won’t get up one morning and see products labeled.”
Meir and Guy fear that labeling will cause them serious harm. “If our buyer will be required to mark products, it will only give him a headache, and he’ll prefer to buy goods from other suppliers.” says Guy.
“I think we should fight the labeling all the way, since it is likely to cause significant economic damage to factories in the Judea and Samaria. But I fear that the government would prefer to ignore it, since exports from the Judea and Samaria are only a thousandth of Israeli exports, the country can economically let it go. But we have to understand that marking products from the settlements in Europe is only part of the BDS movement’s overall plan, which aims to bring a full economic boycott on the State of Israel, not just Judea and Samaria.
Meir: “We already employ certain methods to circumvent the economic boycott. If marking products will come into effect, it will be a very hard hit.”
On the trip from Charles de Gaulle Airport to a hotel in the center of Paris, we encounter hundreds of refugees. Syrian women with a child in one hand and a bottle of soap in the other that offer to clean windshields for a few cents. The suburbs are full of garbage that has not been cleared for several days. Dozens of Arabic-speaking young people are sitting on the railings.
The sights change when we get to the city center. The boulevards are clean and the display windows of the prestigious squares illuminate the intersections brightly. The Middle East and classic Europe are within a 20-minute drive of each other.
Paris tells the story of all of Western Europe. BDS activists and pro-Palestinian organizations come to the squares almost every weekend to demonstrate. Last January, a few dozen pro-Palestinian protesters gathered outside the Palais Garnier—Paris’s famed opera house—and called for a boycott of the Israeli Batsheva Dance Company’s performance. The demonstration was coordinated with the police, and other than an isolated incident wherein a demonstrator managed to sneak into the hall, there were no unusual events. The main struggle is being conducted on social media.
French Prime Minister Manuel Valls said recently at a conference of French Jews that the boycott is prohibited by law in France and constitutes discrimination. Beyond that, it is illegitimate and, fundamentally is illogical.
But speeches are thing and reality another. French parliamentarians understand the growing power of Muslims in their country—which is already about eight million people, according to one estimate—and it’s doubtful that they would ignore such a large sector of the electorate.
Our man in the parliament
As part of his public relations activities, Yossi Dagan often meets with members of the European Parliament. During our visit to Paris, we are invited to a meeting with Claude Goasguen, mayor of the 16th arrondissement, a member of the National Assembly of France and President of the Friends of Israel in France.
We meet in a conference room in one of the corridors of the huge parliament building. Goasguen says that the biggest problem of France today, and Europe in general, is the influx of refugees from the Middle East.
Guy and Dagan inspecting products from Samaria in French supermarket (Photo: Assaf Matarasso)
Guy and Dagan inspecting products from Samaria in French supermarket (Photo: Assaf Matarasso)
“We in France deal with this problem and try to minimize it, but it is not at all simple. Muslims are a large electoral power and they are beginning to understand this, which is causing leaders to align themselves according to their interests.”
Goasguen is a strong opponent of a boycott of Israel and marking settlement products. “Despite the decision of the EU regarding labeling, the French government is trying to test things and still is not in the implementation state.
“We do not know what will happen, but I think marking products in particular, and the activities of the BDS movement in general, are very problematic. There are other members of parliament trying to fight it.”
During the meeting, told Meir and Guy tell Goasguen that they employ nearly 400 Palestinians in very good condition. Goasguen is enthusiastic: “I think that your activities in the territories are important. We are trying to introduce here in to the EU another picture than what the BDS organizations are trying to show.”
We are on the map
Guy and Meir are careful to stay away from politics, but like any shrewd businessman, they know how to identify a business opportunity. During our short visit to the City of Lights, they try to establish new business connections.
Dagan made contact with a Jewish businessman named Jacques Kattan, who owns a chain of supermarkets called G20. Facilitated by Kattan, we are going to meet two French businessmen. Kattan is waiting for us outside a typical old Parisian building. He politely shakes hands with the Israeli industrialists and exchanges business cards with them. On the cards there are only the company name and contact information. “You don’t need any more than that, ” Meir says to me. “You give your business card, and a deal starts from there.”
The building’s narrow tall doors open, and we go up to the third floor, where we meet the two French businessmen. Again, the almost official ritual exchange of business cards. They lead us into a small meeting room that is a little messy, and it seems that they are not really prepared for our arrival.
We sit on the rickety plastic chairs around tables arranged in the shape of a horseshoe. A secretary comes and offers us coffee and water from paper cups. One of them, named Alain, starts to explain his company, “We are considered one of the largest food companies in France, and we would be glad to work with goods from Israel, since we understand that it is a quality product.”
Dagan insists on talking first about politics. He presents to the hosts a relief map he brought with him and explains through it how important Samaria is to Israel’s security. The French listened attentively, even though they are not really interested in politics. Only then did he turn to business.
“Commercial ties are very important to Samaria in particular and the State of Israel in general, ” Dagan says. “Once an Israeli businessman with makes business contacts with his French counterpart, it is a leap forward in commercial connections between the two countries.” Politics are swept aside, and the businessmen grasp the reins.
Michel and Alain do not speak English and Dina, a member of the Samaria Regional Council who joined along for the ride, serves as interpreter. “Tell him I’m selling salads to the Carrefour chain (another food chain that operates in France —EBK) and I want to start selling to them also, ” says Meir. Dina translates things and within minutes they set a meeting for the next day.
“I hope that something will come of it. They want to understand how good my salads are. I’ll give them a taste and see what happens. It’s important for us to enter their chain because they are very strong here.” Towards the end of the meeting, Michel refers to the marking of the products.
“In the meantime, because the marking is not happening, we do not feel any change. I don’t think that every customer reads the fine print on the product. If the product is tasty and is affordable, they will buy it, especially when it comes to food. But you never know what will happen with the marking and how the French government will implement the decision. In the business world, the equation is simple: if they buy, we sell. If not, we move on.”
After the meeting, we continue to tour central Paris. On the way, we run into the Carrefour supermarket chain, where Guy sells Shamir Salads. We enter the store and go straight to the salads refrigerator. Guy takes a box of Shamir Salads, puts on his glasses and makes sure that it was not marked.
“Ask the supermarket manager if people buy this hummus, ” he asks Dina, and she translates the question.”He said they really like it, and he did not know where the hummus is produced, ” she says.
Guy calls his agent in France and instructs him to increase the volume of shipping: “Why is there an empty shelf? Make sure that they bring more salads!” The manager tells of isolated cases when they were visited by BDS activists. “From time to time they come here and remove from the shelves some Israeli products, but we call the police immediately and they disappear.” Regarding the labeling he says, “If the government tells us to mark, we will do so, but it’s hard to know how if that will affect sales.”
Pizza at a Tunisian restaurant
Towards the end of the journey, we meet for dinner at a Jewish-Tunisian restaurant adjacent to the hotel. Guy and Meir order a large pizza drink beers. Guy addresses Dagan, “You know, Yossi, I really wasn’t of a mind to come with you to Paris. I didn’t really think that there was anyone to talk to.
“It was really lucky that we met with French businessmen so that we can have a business relationship with them in the near future. In my opinion, it could help in the war against the boycott.” He even extended his stay in Paris for a series of meetings with local retailers with an eye to increasing his exports to France.
Meir, however, says he did not anticipate such hostility toward Israel. “I knew that there are people with extremist views who talk about the occupation, but such hatred and such an intense desire to harm Israel, I had not met. We have to work very hard in public relations to deal with it. There is a very large gap between consciousness and reality. BDS supporters present incorrect facts, and people believe them. That’s why it was important to me to talk about the Palestinian workers that I employ. Even if Olivier did not really address it, I believe that it will sit in his head.”
Meir: “I think the concept of businessmen from Judea and Samaria meeting with French businessmen, and Europeans in general, is very successful and has to be repeated wherever there is a boycott. The only meeting in which they listened to us and words did not remain on the table was the meeting with Michel and Alain.”
Dagan, for his part, stressed that “even dialogue with diplomatic sources may block decisions against Israel. We are trying to stop the boycott in any way possible, but it’s not easy.”
A few days after our return to Israel, I speak again with Meir and Guy and hear about their progress on contacts with French businessmen.
“They really liked the product, and the meeting with them was very positive, ” says Guy. “I hope that in the near future we reach agreements on business relations.”
Meir also sounds optimistic: “The conversation with them was useful. We did not talk politics, just business. They liked my products and want to open their market to Israel. They even discussed the possibility of opening a chain of supermarkets in Israel. All that we ask is to do business peacefully. Israeli products are good quality products. Just don’t mix business and politics.”