Protests highlight N. J.-Israel economic ties
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Protests highlight N. J.-Israel economic ties

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Howard Cohn, left, a vice president of the New Milford Jewish Center, stands with Bob Nesoff, NMJC president and coordinator of Chai Riders. The two showed off bags of Israeli products purchased from Trader Joe’s.

During the 1980s you would have been hard-pressed to find Pepsi in many Jewish homes. The soft drink company was participating in the Arab boycott of Israel, and American supporters of the Jewish state held a private boycott of their own.

Since the Arab boycott lost steam years ago Pepsi can be found all across Israel. Not only do American products flow freely into Israel, Israeli products – from Jaffa oranges to Naot sandals to Osem falafel mix – are available in stores across the United States.

While the Arab boycott failed, however, anti-Israel activists are trying to promote homegrown boycotts of Israeli goods. Most recently, Trader Joe’s, a national food market, was targeted by the organization Don’t Buy into Apartheid.

The group had called for protesters to walk into Trader Joe’s stores last month and pull Israeli products from the shelves. The protest fizzled across most of the country, but caught the attention of New Milford resident Bob Nesoff.

Nesoff arranged for 50 motorcycles to ride along Route 17 to Trader Joe’s in Paramus on Sunday, June 28. Passersby watched the riders park their hogs, stride into the store, and proceed to buy every Israeli product they could find.

The boycotters “want these products off the shelves,” Nesoff said. “We intend to see that merchants continue to stock these products and know that people will buy them.”

Nesoff, president of the New Milford Jewish Center and a member of Chai Riders Motorcycle Club, organized the event through Chai Riders. The rally brought together members of that group, Hillel’s Angels, Rockland County Motorcycle Club, and Beemers of Westchester, as well as local residents who brought their four-wheeled vehicles.

According to Nesoff, Trader Joe’s in Paramus regularly stocks six Israeli items. At the end of the day, Nesoff said the management had told him that this had been the store’s busiest Sunday morning.

“I saw people walking out with bags of stuff,” Nesoff said.

The motorcycle counter-protest earned praise from Israel activists.

“There are always those who think that their best energies are spent trying to promote economic boycotts,” said Benjamin Krasna, Israel’s deputy consul general in New York and a resident of Teaneck. “I strongly believe it would be more useful to spend this energy to promote economic cooperation with the Palestinian Authority.”While lambasting calls to boycott Israeli goods, Krasna said the quality of Israeli products should trump ideology.

“I’d be happier as an Israeli that people buy my products because they’re good,” he said. “That will appeal to a larger consumer base in the long run than people buying an inferior product because it says Israel on it.”

Hanna Kamionski, marketing director of consumer affairs in the consulate’s Israel Economic Mission, agreed.

“We’re not selling a country,” she said. “We’re selling a product that has certain qualities. A Dead Sea product has certain features that appeal to a clientele. Same thing with Naot sandals. It’s a good, quality product; it’s a comfortable sandal. [Consumers are] not buying an Israeli sandal, they’re buying a product that appeals to them. There are no politics in the product.”

New Jersey has no shortage of Israeli products in grocery, cosmetic, and clothing stores. In addition, more than 60 Israel-related companies operate in this state, according to the New Jersey-Israel Commission, which is dedicated to promoting economic ties between the Garden State and the Jewish state. That number includes Israeli companies that have set up offices here and American companies with significant work done in Israel, said Andrea Yonah, the commission’s executive director.

“Because of the technology that the companies bring us, the jobs the companies bring us, and the very strong Jewish and Israeli populations [locally], we here in New Jersey have a very strong – both economic and social – relationship with Israel,” Yonah said.

Last year, Gov. Corzine signed legislation that made the commission a permanent fixture in the Department of State. Gov. Thomas Kean created the temporary commission in 1989 – a year after New Jersey established a sister-state relationship with Israel.

“Israel is one of the Garden State’s most important international partners,” Corzine said last year during the bill’s signing. “By signing this legislation, we will enhance an historic collaborative partnership that has flourished for 20 years in areas ranging from technology growth and investment to cultural and educational enrichment.”

New Jersey has not been affected at all by boycott calls, Yonah said, and state Sen. Loretta Weinberg (D-37), a member of the New Jersey-Israel Commission, doesn’t expect any boycott of Israel to gain ground here.

“People in New Jersey recognize that Israel is our partner both in economic development and more importantly in democratic values,” she said. “I cannot perceive any situation where a boycott of Israeli products would take off even minimally.”

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