Betina Thorball to BDS: Herbalists Have a Right to Professional Neutrality

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Photo Credit: courtesy

Betina Thorball

{Originally posted to the Elder of Ziyon website}

Ancient Roots Israel 2020  was meant to be a conference where people from all over Israel could hear herbalists speak in English.  The organizers had high expectations for the event. It was to be a meeting of people from all walks of life who share a common interest in herbal wisdom. Instead, anyone who expressed an interest in participating or attending was attacked, abused, and bullied by scary BDS people.

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You hear about it and you think, “For goodness sakes! This was supposed to be about herbs. About people coming together to share knowledge!”

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But that is the reality of our world today. Create something nice or say anything positive in relation to the one, tiny Jewish state, and the BDS activists will descend on you like vultures.  Did you want to perform in Israel, or sell Israeli products? Rest assured that you will be bullied without mercy and without end, until you change your mind and stay home or buy a local product, instead. Arrange an event as harmless and inoffensive as a conference on herbalism? It makes no difference: if it is in Israel, it is a target.

A call goes out and it begins. Abuse Israelis! Destroy their prospects, their ventures and endeavors, until such time as the State of Israel is gone from the face of the earth and replaced with something called “Palestine.” That is what the BDS people have been told to do, and that is, in fact, what they do. It just takes a single voice urging the lemmings on to crush, kill, destroy, to make the bullying and the abuse begin in earnest, like a cloud of hungry locusts converging on a field of greens.

Perhaps it is simplistic, but a conference on herbalism brings to mind gentle, folksy people dressed for the 60’s, complete with nursing babies. Did you think this sector of the laidback would be immune from BDS abuse? If so, you are wrong. The nice people who either organized the conference, planned to attend, or serve as speakers, were endlessly threatened by others with some pretty ungentle associations, though the bullies are themselves, herbalists.

It is shameful to mix politics with herbs. But that is what these BDS tools did. And they were so scary that they were effective: the keynote speakers bowed out, and then registration for the conference slowed to a halt.

That is when the organizers of Ancient Roots 2020 got busy, figuring out who was responsible for the nasty, abusive behavior, and the attempt to spoil an innocent conference on innocuous herbs. The conference organizers carefully documented the trail between the individuals responsible for the cancellations and pull-outs to specific anti-Israel BDS organizations and associations. Organizations like Solidarity for Palestinian Human Rights and publications like The Peak.

Then the conference organizers took their story to the press, distributing a short form press release, as well as a large press packet of documentation. The conference issued a statement regarding the main instigator of the attacks, Shabina LaFleur-Gangji:

“The evidence clearly shows that we are dealing with a highly experienced, career activist who writes for multiple activist publications both in print and online and has written articles and given lectures and workshops professionally about how to launch resistance/boycott movements. She has cultivated these connections in organized activism for approximately a decade and has the experience and expertise to utilize all rhetoric and resources to launch a carefully orchestrated attack quickly and effectively. She claims credit for this attack and clearly states that the attack was part of a larger BDS movement, that she wholeheartedly supports.”

And then Ancient Roots Executive Director J. Rivkah Asoulin gave this interview to Kan English News.

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I wrote to Asoulin, wanting to know more. She sent me to Betina Thorball, who explained, “I have kind of slid into the vacuum of a PR spokesperson, mostly because I am quite independent in all this (except for the herbs). I am not Jewish, nor Arab, not Muslim, not Christian, not living in US, not living in Israel—but I am a member of the American Herbalists Guild (AHG), and an organizer and speaker at Ancient Roots.”

Thorball was kind enough to answer all my many questions:

Varda Epstein: Can you give us some background on you? 

Betina Thorball: I am an Austrian national and resident of Switzerland. I am an herbalist, a mother, a piano player, and in my spare time a cave and mountain guide. My background is in the life sciences, I hold a PhD in Food- and Biotechnology, I worked in research, in Pharma, in Biotech, in business development and management roles, always working towards finding new solutions to health issues in the world. And one day (long story) I realized that a part of the answer is missing, and that this part can be found in a very old solution: To add the power of herbs to the spectrum of health care tools. So I started studying again and became an herbalist.

Varda Epstein: Tell us about the conference. How was it conceived? What is it meant to achieve?

Betina Thorball: Last May at Herbfeast Ireland (the conference of the Irish herbal community that we modelled our conference on), I met Rivkah Asoulin. Together we experienced the positive energy such an herbal gathering is creating and exchanged our mutual “dream” of one day helping to start such a gathering and community in our respective countries. A few weeks later Rivkah had started talking to some people around her and one day she called me, saying: “I am going to do it Betina. I am going to do it now. I am going to put together an international herbal conference here in Israel next February!”

So I said: “How are you going to do this? You have seven children. This is less than a year away. We have no money.”

And she said: “I will find a way. I have to do this.”

So I said: “Ok I will help you.”

I have done these things before (started and managed conferences), and one of my wonderful herbal teachers instilled in us the mission to spread the word of humankind’s old herbal knowledge. And here life put this in front of me, something that is my mission to do and something I had acquired skills to help execute. Rivkah, of course, did the majority of the operational work, being on site locally, but I helped with advice, as discussion partner, with website and marketing material etc. A few other wonderful women joined the organizer group, we picked a name (Ancient Roots Israel) to reflect that herbs are the ancient roots of human medicine, and “Israel,” as this was the country where it would be held. In my head there was already “Ancient Roots Switzerland” waiting to get its turn.

We wanted to create a local community of herbalist and people interested in herbalism and bring in some local and international teachers to learn from. It would be the first English-speaking international herbal conference in Israel! If it worked out, we saw the possibility to turn this into a community with a recurring annual event, maybe even with sister events in other countries one day.

Varda Epstein: I understand your keynote speaker, 7Song, dropped out after being bullied by pro-BDS activists. Can you tell us the details of that? How was he bullied?

Betina Thorball: 7Song was one of the headline speakers, and yes, he cancelled his commitment after what was described as overwhelming communication and pressure from many, many people, wanting him to withdraw from what they saw as support for Israel, and in a statement of sympathy for the Palestinian cause, as I understand it. He mentioned this was affecting his livelihood. He sounded worried and scared to me. We can only assume the details, but his distress seemed obvious. He was not happy with having to take this decision. We were sorry to read his words and the feeling of distress behind them. I personally think this was – and still is – a real conflict to him.

Varda Epstein: Is it true that some of the people who registered for the conference have canceled? What was said to them that made them change their minds?

Betina Thorball: Nobody who had already bought their ticket has tried to cancel it. We did actually receive messages of support from already-committed participants. Everybody was shocked by this and could not understand that such an initiative could be a meaningful target to pro-BDS activists.

Rivkah asked around for help, while at the same time trying to fill the empty speaker slots, while trying to understand the whole thing, while cracking up a little (as her personal money was in all this), while having to keep her large family afloat and more – you can imagine.

There were many people who said they want to come, and registrations had trickled in at a steady pace until the beginning of January. This did indeed came to a total halt when all this happened, which is also because we suddenly had no time to continue our advertising efforts. Marketing such a new event (in topic and location) is no small task and requires a day-to-day engagement of people around you, on social media and in the real world. So, we published and sent-out a press release, to inform everybody about what has happened and to voice our dismay at a political-inspired disruptive action against a gathering of professionals in the field of health, which by all standards should fall under the same ethical principles executed by Red Cross or Doctors Without Borders, i.e. medicine’s political neutrality in all aspects of education, knowledge exchange and aid to everybody without discrimination.

Varda Epstein: Was the conference strictly for Jewish Israelis, or were you inclusive of all sectors of society?

Betina Thorball: Well, by all means was everybody treated in an inclusive manner! Considering we were all volunteers, everybody who came and wanted to help and/or support was embraced! We repeatedly stated everywhere on our communication channels “Everybody is welcome.”

Rivkah tried to get as much exposure as she could, going on a local morning radio show to spread the words “everybody is welcome.” She said it all the time to everybody. Although we did not feel that as a private group we needed to think about things like “quotas,” Rivkah approached potential herbalists from all ethnic backgrounds in the country (yes, also Arab background – and we have been asked this again and again). She looked for speakers who would be experts in one of the herbal topics we wanted to cover at the conference, would be fluent in English, would be willing to travel to our venue, were available at the right dates AND would be willing to waive any customary speaker fees (as there was no money available).

I know for a fact that the racial discussion was never there, she looked for herbalists from wherever really. And the ones that said yes, were put into the program, until we had all slots filled.

Varda Epstein: The ringleader of the bullying appears to be Shabina LaFleur-Gangji editor of the Journal of the American Herbalists Guild (JAHG). The AHG Code of Ethics states:
“AHG Members, including council and committee members, will avoid activities that are in conflict or may appear to be in conflict with any of the provisions of this Code of Ethics or with one’s responsibilities and duties as a member of the Guild,” and “We strive to ensure an environment of inclusiveness and a commitment to fairness, justice, and diversity, and advocating policies and procedures that foster fair, consistent and equitable treatment for all,” and “Abuse, discrimination and bullying of any kind are unacceptable and will not be tolerated.”

Do you feel that the conference organizers and attendees were treated in an inclusive manner? Was there a conflict of interest in LaFleur-Gangji’s drive to shut down your conference? Have you notified the AHG of what has happened here?

Betina Thorball: Inclusive?? Not at all—and that is the very point! We do feel there is an issue here when reading the AHG code of ethics, which by the way is my code of ethics as an AHG member—and I love it for its language. I do feel that these targeted and planned actions against our conference are indeed in direct conflict with this code of ethics. And for me this language would include actions that are taken privately, while holding a position that is paid by members.

But when it turned out that the leader of the campaign against Ancient Roots was also on the staff of the AHG, in fact the newly-appointed chief editor of their journal, all hell broke loose. The obvious conflict of interest and the larger implications here were just too much for most people who knew about this. It went through all layers of people connected to us and from here on all went crazy. Not only second, but third and fourth degree connections started picking this up and distributing it to more people than I could imagine, including at this point of course, to the press.

Have we notified the AHG? I understand that the Director of the AHG was physically in the same room in Israel with Rivkah Asoulin when all this was starting. A very weird coincidence, how life sometimes works. And other AHG members also connected to the conference were contacting the AHG to discuss what has happened here and how this was not ok at all.

I am an AHG member too, and in my opinion the AHG is a wonderful organization, doing very important work and very difficult work, and all nonprofit too. In the first wave of journalist questions my main concern was actually to protect the AHG and help find a way to fix this situation quickly. They should not get between the fronts of a political-motivated issue either! However, through their dialogue with journalists and other parties it became clear that they did not want to take a position regarding the private actions of their editor, and also not regarding a start-up herbal conference in Israel, even though we were given a harmless, wonderful little video of congratulations and support before. So then all became more and more difficult, the questions we were asked by journalists became more difficult and more in-depth, and we were from various sides asked to prove some of the things we had experienced, so that third parties (journalists) could represent the story based on facts.

Varda Epstein: Tell us about Bevin Clare. What is her connection to the conference?

Betina Thorball: Bevin Clare is the President of the American Herbalist Guild. Rivkah sent out an invitation to our conference to the most important herbalist organizations, amongst them of course the AHG. She sent it to the official AHG address. Bevin replied to this directly, being all happy and excited about our initiative and congratulating us. Rivkah asked her if she would mind putting these congratulations into a little self-made video which we could post on social media in a series of videos, where we ask different people “Why do you think this conference is important?” She did so immediately.

In the context of this campaign against us, we were also asked by Bevin to remove this video, as it was not something cleared with the board, it seems. I want to say that these were lovely, harmless words which carried no political undertones or political statement of any kind, and I actually do not understand why this video would NOT be endorsed by the AHG board: Words of congrats to a little group of herbalists (including several AHG members) putting together a small herbal gathering in Israel!

Varda Epstein: LaFleur-Gangji makes two claims about your conference here:  “The conference had no Palestinian or Muslim speakers included in their line up [sic], yet included a speaker who referred to Palestinians as a non-people who willfully left their ancestral lands.”

Are either of these claims, true?

Betina Thorball: I think I answered the first part above, so yes, at the point in time where Miss LaFleur claimed that, it was true. None of the speakers we could identify under the criteria mentioned above were Palestinian or Muslim. I personally want to say that even though we did not think about anybody in these racial terms at all, it would have been amazing, if the group that led the boycott against us, would have used their efforts to actually identify and help organize such a speaker for us! We would have been very happy about that and it seems this would also have been a way to address the situation for them.

The second part of your question is for me the most unfortunate and most ironic element in this conflict. First, this line is from the personal blog on the personal website of Rebbetzin Chana Bracha Siegelbaum, a speaker at the conference. Second, the post referred to is from 2017. Third, there is no connection to the Ancient Roots conference whatsoever, as she is not invited to speak about her political and historic interpretations, but about herbal traditions. Her views are her own, we cannot police her blog, in fact we did not even know about this until this incident. Lastly, once I read Rebbetzin Siegelbaum’s blog, it seemed to me these words were the quote of yet another person, which she used to illustrate her take on historic events.

I am not defending her viewpoint. Again, this is not the forum for such discussions, I am merely stating facts as I researched them when this was made known to us. The irony for me is that this seems to be the main point of the heated antagonism against the conference, i.e. two years ago a nonpaid speaker at our conference expressed controversial personal views on her own private blog on another topic; while Ms. LaFleur is leading controversial private action against an herbal conference, while serving as a paid staff member at a herbal guild of which many people involved here are a member. I will admit this was a bit too much of a double standard for me.

Varda Epstein: Did you have any herbalists among the Arab community who intended to come to the conference? If so, do they still plan to attend?

Betina Thorball: I honestly do not know. People register or write on social media saying “Great effort. Will try to come,” without being asked any additional details. I hesitate to jump to conclusions based on how the names sound. And again, the conference is open to all people!

Varda Epstein: Why are you involving yourself in this? After all, you are neither Jewish nor Israeli. Why get involved with a political debate that has nothing to do with you?

Betina Thorball: When things turned all political here, there was a moment when I was too shocked for words and thought, “Okay, I have to let this go, I cannot take the time – and I do not have the expertise – to get involved in a political debate here, and I do not want to. My mission is elsewhere. But then I realized I have to be involved in this. I am speaking for herbalists’ rights and duty to be allowed neutrality when acting in our profession, including being at this conference. And I continue to hope that this understanding could be the common ground, on which all parties involved in this current conflict can find peace.

Varda Epstein: Why do you think so many herbalists were willing partners in the attempt to shut down what was essentially a peaceful, informational conference that is completely apolitical?

Betina Thorball: This is a difficult question. I think we all have different stories, different pain in our pasts, different realities we live in. Based on all this we see the same thing through a different colored lens.

I am still in the process of trying to really understand where they are coming from. My best understanding at this point is that they relate to a narrative in which herbs are painted as political, because a lot of herbal knowledge was held by indigenous people; it was part of their culture and traditions. Indigenous people were connected to the land and experienced unspeakable cruelty and pain, their lands taken, their lives taken or corrupted, no access to their traditions, with herbs being one of those traditions.

Access to medicine by minorities seems to be another issue playing into this viewpoint. Somehow in their minds this is connected. But I can’t follow, really.

Herbal medicine is the heritage of all humankind, it has developed in every corner of the world and in modern herbal medicine we have knowledge of herbs from so many old traditions from all over the world. And many have been using varieties of the same herb for the same purpose, without learning it from each other, but learning the same thing from nature in different places. And each of us has a heritage line into an indigenous culture, even if some of us cannot trace it anymore. So herbal medicine actually is one of the few things that connects us all! That ropes all humankind’s history together. This is the reason why for me herbs and herbal medicine should be this wonderful cause, under which we all can unite ABOVE all our many different viewpoints on many topics. And this is why I care about what is happening here so much and am adding my voice here.

You saw the hashtag #plantsoverpolitics. I deeply believe this, in the context that herbal medicine should follow the ethics of modern medicine, but also in the context that we all need to unite to save the environment, and with it, our world.

Varda Epstein: Why is it important for non-herbalists to get involved in fighting for your right to have a successful conference? What can we do to support your efforts and the conference, going forward?

Betina Thorball: Are you using basil and thyme and garlic and maybe muscat [nutmeg] and turmeric in your cooking? Then you are an herbalist. Are you making chamomile tea to your children when they have tummy ache? Well, then you are an herbalist, a family herbalist. Everybody is an herbalist, just at different levels. We use herbs in cooking and some herbal home remedies, because our mothers and grandmothers did, and taught us. Some of us start looking for more information on some of those common kitchen herbs, and discover a treasure trove of documented information, some as old as thousands of years (e.g. from the Chinese herbal tradition) and start learning from it. Many of these become community herbalists. And then there are some others, who start studying herbal medicine in-depth and take additional relevant education to become a herbal practitioner and/or clinical herbalist, working with herbs at a high level, often in collaboration with physicians.

About fighting for our conference – there are too few topics in this world on which people from all walks of life can come together in the spirit of healing, and herbs are one of them! I want to lend my voice to fight for something so wonderful not being politicized, even if it takes place in a country that is subject to heated political debates.

How to support us? Well, by participating in our conference and experiencing the vibrant atmosphere of an herbal gathering firsthand! I tell you, it is contagious! And you will come home with some useful bits of information on how to handle everyday little health issues by going into your garden.

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