Israel’s first ever English-speaking conference on medicinal herbs has received more attention that its organizers bargained for — from an activist in the pro-Palestinian Boycott, Divest and Sanctions campaign.
The conference, set to take place at the Poriya Guest House, just south of Tiberias, in northern Israel, from February 9 to 11, is the brainchild of Ancient Roots — an informal group of herbalists. It has been planned to coincide with the Jewish holiday of Tu B’Shvat, commonly known as the new year of the trees, and was expected to attract a few dozen participants.
The group was delighted to receive a video of support from the president of the American Herbalist Guild, Bevin Clare, which it posted to social media on December 19.
In the clip, Clare congratulated the organizers, said she looked forward to hearing how the conference went and suggested that Israel send herbalists to one of the AHG symposia. “I hope to get over there and join you some day, I think that would be fantastic,” she enthused.
But after the video was reposted on January 1, Clare unexpectedly asked organizers to remove it, after receiving a string of emails attacking her for her support.
In the days following, one speaker called 7Song from the US and another from Northern Ireland, Danny O’Rawe, announced that they would not be attending the conference after all.
At the center of the ruckus was one Shabina Lafleur-Gangji, a Canadian herbalist who, it emerged, had been recently taken on to edit the AHG’s journal.
Two edits: Danny O'Rawe has decided to respectfully step back from the conference and this maybe goes without saying,…
In a Facebook post that was shared more than 60 times, she wrote that “The conference had no Palestinian or Muslim speakers included in their line up, yet included a speaker who referred to Palestinians as a non-people who willfully left their ancestral lands.
“I am someone who absolutely stands behind the BDS movement, not because I hate Israeli folks, but because of the LOVE I have for Palestinians,” she continued. “I believe they are entitled to dignity, human rights, clean water, education, healthcare, and the ability to live freely on their ancestral lands.”
She then celebrated having been able to persuade the two speakers to “retract their support for the conference in solidarity with folks in living under the brutal force of Israeli apartheid.”
One of the organizers of the conference, Swiss herbalist Betina Thorball, disputed Lafleur-Gangji’s claims.
“An Arab and a Druze were approached, but not to meet ‘quotas,’ rather because they would have been amazing speakers, but they couldn’t make it,” Thorball told the Times of Israel by email.
“Frankly, we didn’t even think in these terms when trying to try to put together an herbal gathering. We looked for people that are expert herbalists, were able to speak fluent English, were willing to travel to the venue free of charge, and were willing to lecture free of charge, all in support of a private, grass-root effort.”
The reference to Palestinians as a non-people was made in a 2017 blog by Rebbetzin Chana Bracha Siegelbaum, the founder and director of Midreshet B’erot Bat Ayin: Holistic Torah for Women on the Land, and a speaker at the February event.
“None of us knew about this before it was used as some sort of argument against us,” Thorball said. “She has not and is not speaking for Ancient Roots and her words are her own. We are a non-political herbal conference. Ms. Siegelbaum was not invited for her political views.”