Young Kenyans begin boycott of Israeli brands as Gaza war goes on

Nairobi, Kenya – Wairimu Gathimba is on a mission to educate her fellow Kenyans about the Israel-Palestine conflict and get as many as possible to boycott Israeli products in the East African country.

The 22-year-old writer and cultural worker had long been aware of the conflict while growing up, but merely as news to know, not a cause to be involved in or take sides. But she went through years of unlearning and hard discussions, she said, to get to her position today.

“Growing up in an African Catholic family, the issue of Palestine was not something I brought up,” she told Al Jazeera. “Israel was the ‘good’ country … Until I met a friend in my first year of university who caused me to develop a form of curiosity about Palestine.”

Then came the October 7 attacks by Hamas, followed by Israel’s continued bombardment of the Gaza Strip in reprisals. For young, socially active Kenyans like Gathimba, who had been aware and appalled in increasing measure by the conflict for years, the latest iteration put their activism into high gear.

In November, the Communist Party of Kenya organised a demonstration that was disrupted by the police. Vigils, workshops, and teaching events have popped up all over Nairobi, and boycotts of Israeli-owned businesses have begun to take priority for an increasing number of people.

Gathimba is a part of several advocacy organisations, including one called Kenyans for Palestine, which has organised Palestinian film screenings, created infographics to help identify brands to boycott, and called for government actions. It is now urging the Kenyan grocery delivery platform Greenspoon to drop Israeli-owned products. Members are also educating friends and family about the nuances of the conflict.

But a boycott is more difficult than it may appear.

Israeli-owned businesses occupy many street corners in Kenya’s capital. The wildly popular Artcaffe coffee and casual dining chain and the bustling shopping centre, Westgate Mall, are owned and operated by Israeli-owned companies. There are also other influential businesses with slightly less name recognition, like the agricultural company Amiran Kenya.

These Israeli-owned and supported institutions are a part of Kenyan life, so much so that few are aware of this connection.

Even some of those who know, have been least bothered. Many Kenyans and indeed Africans have looked away from the conflict, preferring to focus on continental crises and seeing what is happening in the Middle East, as being far away from them.

“[Many] Kenyans tend to think that [the Israel-Palestine conflict] is far away from us,” said XN Iraki, a lecturer in economics at the University of Nairobi. “The attitude is to let people sort out their problems. Like the war between Russia and Ukraine, people don’t talk about it much.”

But for those leading the boycotts and encouraging others to join, the parallels between Kenya’s colonial past and Palestine’s present predicament are too strong to ignore.

That similarity is what makes the fight worth it even when it is slow and difficult, said Gathimba who contributed research for an episode on Palestine for the “Until Everyone is Free” podcast, which began as a show about a Kenyan freedom fighter. She and some members of the podcast team used to meet up in one of these Artcaffes. Soon after October 7, they stopped.

“The work I’m doing, the boycotts I’m a part of, are a really small sacrifice to make compared to what the people of Palestine are doing,” said Gathimba. “There are so many parallels in the oppression historically. I have to support.”

‘Disappointing … but not shocking’

Two months of war have also left some Kenyans appalled at their government’s inability to criticise Israel’s heavy-handed response to the Hamas attacks, which human rights groups say is tantamount to war crimes.

The government’s official stance on the conflict is unclear. President William Ruto has not expressed support for Hamas or Israel even though he addressed the conflict while speaking on a recent panel during the Future Investment Initiative conference in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia.

“In Kenya, we have suffered the brunt of struggle for independence the same way the Palestinians are doing. We have also suffered the challenge of terrorism the same way Hamas visited terrorism on Israel,” said Ruto. “Both are wrong.”

But Kenya’s actions have hardly seemed neutral.

On May 24, it abstained from a World Health Organization vote on health conditions in the occupied portion of Palestine. On December 7, two months after the attacks which killed at least 32 Thai farm workers in Israel, Kenya sent 1,500 farm workers there.

“The government’s response is disappointing but not necessarily shocking,” said Gathimba.

‘A long way to go’

The relationship between Kenya and Israel goes back to more than a century ago, even before both countries officially existed.

On January 13, 1905, long before Zionists officially established a Jewish state in what is currently known as Israel, a Christian, a Muslim, and a Jew began an expedition in what was then the British colony of Kenya.

The goal of the expedition was to find a Jewish homeland – a place for millions of Jews scattered across Europe to escape persecution. And so, Israel – the home of a decades-long conflict, including the recent October 7 attacks – was almost conceived as a self-governing enclave in Eastern Africa, not the Middle East.

The visiting Zionists had been told by Joseph Chamberlain, a British colonial administrator, that the land in question, an area bounded by Lake Nakuru, Kisumu, Mount Elgon, and the equator, would be “an excellent climate suitable for white people”.

“It was sparsely populated,” said Adam Rovner, associate professor of English and Jewish literature at the University of Denver. “And the land was suitable for farming. If there wasn’t a Zionist on the expedition who wanted Israel on a biblical land, things might have been different.”

Even today, the connections between both countries run deeper than just storefronts and covert political signalling. Kenya’s passive support of Israel represents support of key Israeli allies, the United States, and Western European ideals, analysts say.

“We in Kenya see Israel as part of the Western bloc,” said Iraki. “Since Ruto came to power, he’s visited England, Europe – because of the Western connection, I see the relationship between Kenya and Israel as being very cordial.”

Israel also contributes to the overarching Kenyan economy – specifically the export and import of agricultural goods. In 2018, Kenya’s exports to Israel averaged just above 1.4 billion Kenyan shillings (a little more than $9m), the majority of which were agriculture-based, according to the Kenyan embassy in Israel.

Then there are religious connections. Despite nearly 11 percent of the population being Muslim, Kenya is a Christian state. Israel represents the homeland – Kenyans go to Israel for Christian pilgrimage, to get closer to themselves and their faith. And because of these seemingly religious ties, many Kenyans grew up supporting Israel in the conflict.

This religious tension may be another reason many Kenyans are so closed-lipped about the conflict. “Many Kenyans don’t want to say who they support because of the religious context,” said Iraki. “They want to be cautious about it.”

Young Kenyans like Gathimba have faith that this will change, that the more noise she and her peers make, the more Kenyans will know enough to make informed decisions about their support.

More and more people are going to events, educating themselves, and changing their minds – at least from what Gathimba has been hearing from her peers.

“A lot of Kenyans are stuck in the ‘both-sidey’ narrative,” said Gathimba. “But I’m very optimistic about the way things are going, at least in terms of challenging the dominant narratives in official memory. Of course, we still have quite a long way to go, but we are somewhere.”

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