“Beautiful Trouble is essential reading for the socially engaged artist.”Ken Krafchek, Graduate Director, MFA in Community Arts, Maryland Institute College of Art
A group of American and Israeli women enter the Ahava cosmetics shop in the Tel Aviv Hilton. Sporting bikinis, they smear mud on their bodies, scrawling the words “Stolen Beauty” and “No Love in Ahava.” Questions are asked, a dialogue begins. A few weeks later at a “Tel Aviv Beach Party” in New York, another group of women in bikinis conveys the same messages.
These actions were just the beginning of a multi-pronged international campaign against Ahava Dead Sea Laboratories, an Israeli company located in an illegal settlement in the Occupied West Bank. The message is in the mud: there is nothing beautiful about occupation.
Stolen Beauty seeks to educate consumers, store managers, CEOs, and the general public about Ahava’s illegal practices. Our tactics range from guerrilla theater to online culture jamming. We target Ahava — its location in an illegal settlement, its fraudulent labeling, and its illegal pillaging of mud from the shores of occupied lands — as a poster child of the Israeli occupation of the West Bank, East Jerusalem and Gaza Strip. By drawing attention to Ahava’s settlement products, we educate the American and global public on what is really happening in the occupied West Bank, contributing to the much larger international campaign of boycotts, divestment and sanctions calling on the Israeli government to respect international law and Palestinian rights.
Soon after the launch of the campaign, we discover that Sex and the City star Kristin Davis is both Ahava’s spokes-model and an Oxfam Goodwill Ambassador. Our boycott supporters contact Oxfam, which has an explicit policy against Israeli settlement products. Oxfam suspends Davis from publicity work for the duration of her Ahava contract. The story lands in the gossip column of the New York Post; terrible publicity for Ahava, but good for fans of justice and peace. Davis does not renew her contract with the company.
Next, Ahava announces a Twitter contest for free products. We issue a call to Tweet in messages like: “Does AHAVA offer a moisturizer to sooth my hands after so much ethnic cleansing?” We culture jam their marketing contest, turning it into a #socialmediafail.
Creative interventions continue to target points of intervention such as stores that carry Ahava’s products see THEORY: Points of intervention. For instance, ten women don pink bathrobes with matching towels wrapped around their heads and walk into these stores, singing jingles about the ills of occupation. Protesters and other patrons ask the store to stop stocking Ahava cosmetics.
Ahava’s reputation as an international brand has been tarnished by the first two years of the boycott campaign and the resulting bad press. The company lost its celebrity spokesmodel, it lost the lease on its Covent Garden store, and a number of small, independent stores stopped stocking its products. Ahava removed the store locator from its U.S. web site, and sent a letter to retailers filled with false claims about our campaign and where they source their materials. In 2010, Ahava was condemned as being complicit in Israeli government crimes at the Russell Tribunal on Palestine, London Session, and its production and labeling practices have come under extensive scrutiny in Europe.
The Stolen Beauty campaign has proven effective because it is multipronged, strategic, global and responsive. It provides space for engagement at all levels of activism, in locations around the world. The campaign employs a range of tactics including street actions, guerrilla theater, culture jamming, social media work, traditional media outreach, and consumer education. The campaign acts as an omnipresent mosquito buzzing around the head of the company, a target chosen because its practices contravene international law. A core group developed the campaign — the web site, the tools and resources — and coalition activists around the world were able to use them in their locales.
Stolen Beauty activists get attention and tell a story with outrageous costumes, direct action and clever yet clear messaging. Stores that sell illegal settlement products come to a standstill when we enter singing in bathrobes, smeared with mud or performing marriage ceremonies pledging ourselves to the pursuit of Palestinian human rights.
Stolen Beauty has succeeded in getting a diverse set of tools into the hands of high numbers of activists to wage a multi-pronged, global campaign. The script and song sheets for actions like performing a marriage ceremony pledging to boycott settlement products in front of the Bed, Bath & Beyond Bridal Registry are easily downloadable from the Stolen Beauty website. We provide Twitter suggestions via email for the lone wolf and tips for indoor Valentine’s Day parties when the weather is bad to clog the comment threads of beauty sites that sell Ahava.
Occupation is illegal. It directly contravenes international law, the Geneva Conventions and existing United Nations resolutions. Stolen Beauty puts the onus where it belongs: Israeli companies are breaking the law and profiting from the occupation, and should be held to account. While bringing attention to these facts, activists dressed in bathrobes, bikinis or bridal wear risk arrest in order to creatively disrupt business as usual.
People shopping for high-end cosmetics, as well as passersby, store clerks and managers, are made aware of the Israeli occupation when they are exposed to Stolen Beauty’s actions. The campaign undermines the legitimacy of the “Made in Israel” stamp, and makes visible illegal profiteering from occupation.
Will activists stop the Israeli occupation of Palestine by boycotting a cosmetic company? No. But the campaign is affecting Ahava’s reputation and bottom line by exposing its ugly secrets, and contributing to the much larger Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions campaign. Activists have convinced many local stores to stop carrying Ahava, and the British Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions campaign was able, after months of continual protest, to get the Ahava flagship store to close its Covent Garden location.