An inaugural Israeli conference for herbalists has come under pressure from supporters of the Palestinian-led boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) campaign, though organizers plan to continue with the gathering and raise awareness of plant medicine.
Betina Thorball — a volunteer organizer of the Ancient Roots Herbal Conference, planned for Feb. 9-11 near the Sea of Galilee — said the event had initially attracted 11 speakers and aimed to accommodate some 50 attendees. It was a grassroots effort, she said, brought forward with no organizational affiliation or financial support.
Yet the planned gathering drew the ire of BDS supporters earlier this month, prompting a backlash that saw two speakers back out of their commitment, and the president of the American Herbalists Guild (AHG) — who previously recorded a congratulatory video message for the conference — withdraw her support, according to organizers.
The boycott calls were led in part by Shabina Lafleur-Gangji, a self-professed BDS supporter and AHG staff member who was recently appointed as the new editor of the Journal of the American Herbalists Guild.
In a Facebook post on Jan. 3, Lafleur-Gangji complained that the conference “had no Palestinian or Muslim speakers included in their line up,” and included a speaker who made offensive comments about Palestinians.
“We decided something needed to happen and reached out to the herbalists involved,” who then “made the decision to retract their support for the conference in solidarity with folks in living under the brutal force of Israeli apartheid,” she added.
Ancient Roots organizers said boycott advocates targeted some of their speakers and supporters with “serious harassment endangering their work and livelihood by a campaign that is fostering the politics of division.”
On its website, Ancient Roots said it “respects political diversity,” but believes political “discussions should take place in other forums and not in the context of an herbal conference.”
Sara-Chana Silverstein, a lactation consultant and master herbalist member who plans to speak at the Israeli conference, raised concerns over whether Lafleur-Gangji’s backing of BDS would impact her editorial work and engagement with Israeli herbalists.
“We can’t stand quiet,” she said. “Because then it will happen to the [physical therapists], to the [occupational therapists], to the speech therapists.”
“What if we wanted to organize a conference on Down syndrome children … in Israel,” asked Silverstein, who recently published the herbalist guide Moodtopia. “We can’t let BDS stop that conference. That’s not okay.”
Thorball, who helped plan the Ancient Roots gathering, told The Algemeiner that it “was about trying to start something like this in Israel and [seeing] where it takes us.”
“Announcing this to our respective networks, several speakers came forward, others were asked directly, and yes there were speakers of Arab ethnicity amongst them,” she said. One of the confirmed speakers is of Moroccan-Jewish heritage, and while an Arab and a Druze speaker were also considered, one could not participate due to scheduling conflicts in one case, and logistics in the other, she said.
Following the withdrawals, organizers were pressed to find new speakers on short notice, “but some qualified people came forward and offered and we gratefully accepted,” Thorball added.
The controversy still took its toll on the conference, she noted, as organizers spent their time on “damage control to our event and we could no longer engage in marketing to the local communities.”
While ticket sales have declined amid a lack of promotion, organizers said they received a couple of ticket requests this Monday.
AHG and Lafleur-Gangji did not immediately respond to requests for comments.
BDS advocates have previously targeted gatherings in Israel for boycott and cancellation, saying they help normalize the country and ignore violations against Palestinians. The campaign says it aims to address the perceived injustice of Israel’s founding in 1948, and has been criticized as antisemitic by major Jewish communal groups in the United States and globally. The co-founder of the boycott movement, Omar Barghouti, has endorsed “armed resistance” against Israel and rejects the state’s continued existence, saying Jewish people do not have the right to self-determination in the Levant.