St. Denis merchants hurt by anti-Israel picketing

Chaussures Naot, which sells Israeli-made shoes, is the prime target of an Israel boycott campaign on Montreal's St. Denis Street.

MONTREAL — After almost 18 months of regular anti-Israeli demonstrations on their block, some shopkeepers on Montreal's St. Denis Street say their business is suffering and they are weary, even unnerved, by a situation that has no end in sight.

The picketing, which now takes place every Saturday afternoon, was launched by the group Palestinian and Jewish Unity (PAJU) in October 2010 to make St. Denis an “Israeli apartheid-free zone.”

For a year now, the focus of the demonstrators has been Chaussures Naot, 3941 St. Denis St., across the street from another shoe store, Boutique le Marcheur, which was the initial target. Its owner, Yves Archambault, refused to yield to PAJU’s demand to stop selling Israeli footwear, a miniscule part of his stock.

“People are afraid to come in when they are standing there. They will even cross the street,” said Naot’s manager, Ina, who declined to have her last name published. “I suffer enough already. Nobody is going to protect my human rights.”

The tiny Naot store, which sells almost exclusively a line of shoes made in Israel, is owned by the Lissoos family of Toronto-based Solemates Inc. It has been on St. Denis for two years and employs five people, but Ina wonders how much longer that will be.

“Of course, it’s affecting our business – big time,” she said. Saturday used to be the busiest day of the week.

The weekly barrage and the ill feeling it is creating among other business owners and residents are stressful for the staff. Last month, the company brought in a psychologist to counsel them.

“We are the victim, but the neighbours are blaming us,” Ina said.

Usually about a half-dozen PAJU demonstrators stand on the sidewalk outside Naot for two hours holding a banner about five feet high dominated by a Palestinian flag. Sometimes, they shout or blow horns. “It’s scary,” she said. “The police come, but they say there is nothing they can do.”

Le Marcheur was helped by the Jewish community and other sympathizers who purposefully bought at the store, said pro-Israel activist Jack Kincler, but Naot and the neighbouring businesses have not had that support.

Kincler, who has joined the counter-boycott demonstrations from the beginning, is trying to organize a buying campaign benefiting these small businesses. He calls what PAJU is doing “economic terrorism” and believes Canada and Quebec must enact laws similar to those in United States that limit boycotts or France where they are illegal.

“Week after week these small businesses are being harassed,” he said. “Why is there no protection of their right to do business in peace?”

Monic Dahan, owner of the Boutique Oz jewelry store next to Naot for 25 years, is visibly depressed by the situation. She wonders how much longer she can keep her five employees and provide work for eight outside artisans.

For her right-hand man, Thanh Van Pham, originally from Vietnam, the sight of angry protesters outside his door evokes painful memories. He fled his native country because of Communist atrocities.

At 60, he also worries where he would find another job.

The younger Jean-Philippe Plante, owner of the clothing store Boutique Panache upstairs, has only been there six months but is already discouraged. He took over the space from a florist, which moved to another location.

The nearby Galerie du Plateau doesn’t open on Saturdays anymore.

The shopkeepers do receive unflagging moral support from Les Amis Québécois d’Israel, started by area resident Daniel Laprès as a Facebook group. It now has 187 “friends,” the majority francophone Quebecers like Laprès, a former adviser to federal Liberal cabinet ministers, and now a blogger and publisher who is critical of the political left.

The other Amis range in age from 20 to 84, and among them are occupations as diverse as taxi driver and professor.

Laprès is inspired by the “progressive” francophone Quebecers who historically stood up against antisemitism.

The Amis, on St. Denis every Saturday, usually far outnumber the PAJU picketers. They try to explain to passersby why Israel is not an apartheid state without adding to the commotion.

Laprès believes the boycotters are disseminating “lies and slander” and fears the broader consequences of a PAJU “victory.”

“Can we, in a civilized society, allow that sort of hate against a nation? Or the intimidation of hardworking people? We can’t afford such a campaign to succeed if we care about democracy and human dignity.”

Laprès adds: “I’m not an Islamophobe, I’m as Islamophobic as Tarek Fateh,” he said, referring to the Toronto-based writer who advocates for a liberal Islam.

Kincler, an Israeli-born businessman, is collecting signatures on petitions to the federal and Quebec governments.

The one addressed to the House of Commons calls for a legislated ban against boycotts that harass or threaten any store or business selling products legally in Canada, as well as those that hinder any business activity involving goods from a country with which Canada or Quebec has a bilateral trade agreement.

The other asks the National Assembly to condemn boycott campaigns against products coming from countries with which a bilateral agreement exists, which includes Israel.

“The boycott, divestment and sanctions [BDS] campaign against Israel threatens the freedom of commerce and incites hatred and intolerance,” the petition reads.

Although his store is not being picketed today, Le Marcheur’s Archambault, who knew and cared little about the Middle East before, remains defiant. The Israeli-made BeautiFeel shoes are displayed prominently in his window, and he holds on to Les Amis’ materials during the week, even though the group is now defending a competitor.