Categorized | Your Community, Culture

Fresh, Cold-Pressed Activism


The olive oil shipment is late.

At 10 a.m., a single volunteer, Henry Norr, arrives on a beat-up red bicycle and waits outside the headquarters of the International Solidarity Movement Support Group (ISM) in Berkeley.   A sign identifying the building as “The Grassroots House” hangs outside.  There is some trash strewn about the yard.

Norr wears a bright magenta shirt and suspenders. A former San Francisco Chronicle business reporter, Norr has visited Palestine three times with ISM. After he returned in 2002, he attended anti-war rallies and gave an informal talk on his experiences in the Middle East.  “I’d had this regular weekly column for four years by then,” he says.“I wrote about the Intel plant in Israel, and the pro-Israel lobby had a fit about it. I checked it multiple times, and they never found a syllable that was inaccurate.”

While Norr talks, he stares into the distance. After all of this, he says, he was given the cold shoulder and eventually fired from the Chronicle for taking a day off of work to attend the anti-war demonstrations in San Francisco in 2002.  He still receives a pension from the company.

Slowly, volunteers’ cars arrive, each transporting boxes of soap, olive oil bottles and zaatar – a Middle Eastern spice mixture. The unmistakable earthy smell of extra-virgin olive oil wafts out of trunks and minivans – a thick, clean fragrance from the other side of the world. The olive oil will be stored in the basement until ISM’s next bottling party, planned for December. Then it will be sold at events, and to individual purchasers in the Bay Area.

Norr and the other volunteers are members of ISM, a human rights group dedicated to helping Palestinians by dispatching volunteers to Palestine for months or years at a time. The volunteers serve as international human rights observers, walking children to and from school and staying in homes slated for demolition. The chapter in El Cerrito, among other things, sells and bottles Palestinian olive oil from farmers to help finance their volunteers.

As Katie, another ISM volunteer, carries her fourth box to the porch, she talks about her last three years in Palestine and the time she spent living in a Jewish Kibbutz. “I was burned out on the violence,” she says of her years in Palestine. She is still active with the organization, but has plans now to attend graduate school in graphic design in San Francisco.

The Northern California Chapter of ISM officially operates out of Paul Larudee’s home in the hills above El Cerrito, “for mailing purposes,” he tells me, even though the meetings take place in Berkeley.

Crammed inside his small apartment is a large piano covered with stacks of papers and boxes. Larudee hands me three cards, one of which reads “Sharpe and Flatte Piano Service” – he is a local piano technician as well as a human rights activist. Larudee’s living room walls display framed pictures of Arabic calligraphy. The script is ornate and mesmerizing. A nativity scene with a baby doll sits amidst the clutter on the hearth.

Betty, Larudee’s Lebanese wife, trails after their small black dog as he darts between boxes and tables. Betty Larudee and her husband met at a beach while he was living in Lebanon several years ago. She offers me jasmine tea or Turkish coffee. “Come on,” says Larudee, his eyes merry. “When’s the last time you had a cup of real Turkish coffee?”

Larudee’s connection to the Middle East runs deeper than coffee or pictures on a wall, I soon find out. The son of an Iranian Presbyterian minister, Larudee received his Ph.D in linguistics from Georgetown University and has worked as a contracted U.S. government advisor and Fulbright lecturer, and has spent 14 years in Arab countries. He became involved with Palestinian human rights issues “43 or 44 years ago,” but co-founded the Northern California chapter of ISM in 2002, after traveling to Palestine with four other Bay Area natives.

Larudee speaks carefully, pronouncing each syllable in a way that brings to mind his linguistic background.

He describes ISM as a human rights group, but also “kind of like a civil rights movement.” ISM was originally formed back in 2001. Before that, he says, “there was…a Palestinian non-violent resistance movement, but it wasn’t getting any press and it was being suppressed very heavily by Israeli forces.”

People connected with the movement suggested adding foreigners to the non-violent resistance movement, hoping that “it might have the same effect in Palestine that the white freedom riders had in the segregated south. It might be less subject to oppression.”

This suggestion turned into ISM, which has several chapters around the world, including one in Palestine. The Northern California chapter raises funds by selling and bottling Palestinian olive oil, like the recent shipment that arrived in Berkeley.

“One of the big activities that we’re known for is olive oil bottling,” Larudee says. “We set up assembly lines and you have the smell of the olive oil just permeating the place and we have food and music. It’s a real party atmosphere but it’s also very efficient. In the space of four hours we’ll bottle 60 cases of oil.”

ISM also organizes local speaking engagements and shows films. Once a year they hold a Rachel Corrie memorial event, to commemorate the memory of an American ISM activist killed in Israel.

The meetings are usually attended by people from all over the Bay Area, including business people, real-estate agents and students.

While Larudee, an El Cerrito resident since 1976, spends much of his time working for ISM and Free Gaza, another non-profit he co-founded in 2006, he describes his piano technician business as relaxing. “It’s almost like therapy,” he says. Despite a few negative reactions from clients, Larudee’s strong yen towards activism has appealed to others. Some have even requested to buy the olive oil that his organization produces, and donated to ISM.

Back at the Grassroots House, the volunteers take a break from unloading their precious cargo. Inside the large, sprawling house the rooms are decorated with posters representing the other non-profits that share this space, like the Prisoners Literature Project and Berkeley Copwatch.

The boxes, some leaking oil onto scraps of newspaper, will be stored in the basement under the house until next month’s bottling party. The brand name ISM has chosen – “Houriya” – means freedom in Arabic.

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