Israel Boycott: Coming to a Co-op Near You

Left-wing Brooklyn activists consider banning products from the Jewish State.

In Brooklyn, a potential boycott is shaping up at the Park Slope Food Coop (PSFC) on Union Street, also known as "The Coop." A group called the Park Slope Food Members for Israel Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions is proposing that a referendum be held among the 15,000 members of the organization in which a "successful" outcome would result in all products made in Israel being banned from the co-op's shelves. The group has aligned itself with the Palestinian boycott, divestment and sanctions movement (BDS), whose Web site advocates maintaining a boycott against Israel "until it complies with international law and Palestinian rights."

Ironically, the Coop was founded by "two Jewish socialists" in 1973. It has a business model which requires that each of its adult members work two hours and 45 minutes every four weeks, and that every adult in a household be a member or no one can join. Some older members along with those who have a disability are excused from the shift requirement. Parental leave is granted for the birth of a child. Anyone missing a require shift is put on "work alert" and must do two shifts as compensation within a month.

The Coop also has its own newspaper, the LineWaiter's Gazette, its own social calendar, and its own Disciplinary Committee, which investigates "allegations of misbehavior by members" some of which include "using racist, sexist, homophobic or nasty language against other Coop members and staff."

It also has a Diversity and Equality Committee "dedicated to improving human relations and communication in all policies and procedures" and "preventing and eliminating discrimination in the Coop." In April, the committee announced "a series of workshops" for Coop "squad leaders" (members in charge of running a particular work shift) to "increase understanding and awareness of diversity in the Coop."

As one might suspect, the Coop is no stranger to political activism. In 2004, it instituted a boycott of Coca-Cola products for a plethora of reasons, which are noted here. In 2008, it banned bottled water due to environmental issues. In 2010, it boycotted Flaum Appetizer Corp., a kosher food company that sold Sonny & Joe's hummus, over "workers' rights concerns." It also banned Nestle products when that company promoted infant formula over breast-feeding.

Although the current proposed boycott of Israel is only now reaching critical mass, this is not the first time such a proposal has been brought up at the Coop. On January 27, 2009, Hima B., who describes herself as a "queer-centric, intradependent filmmaker who eschews a last name," made the first attempt to gin up support for a boycott at a meeting. “I don’t know whether or not we carry Israeli products, but I propose that we no longer carry them,” she said. This was ostensibly due to Israel's military action in Gaza.

The issue was brought up again in the November 4, 2010 issue of the LineWaiter's Gazette, when General Coordinator/General Manager Joe Holtz penned a column noting that "it is likely that a proposal to boycott products from Israel will soon be submitted to our Agenda Committee for discussion at a future General Meeting." Holtz proposed that "all boycotts be passed by a two-thirds majority from now on." He noted that several previous boycotts had a high level of support, "perhaps as high as 95 percent of [the Coop's] members," but that boycotting Israel "will be a far bigger challenge for the Coop than any past proposed boycott." The column likely reflected a meeting last year, where 20-30 Coop members pushed for a referendum on the BDS movement in response to the Gaza flotilla incident, where Israeli commandos killed nine activists aboard the Mavi Marmara.

At a Coop meeting on July 26, 2011, the Park Slope Food Coop Members for Israeli Boycott, Divestment & Sanctions once again proposed organizing a referendum vote, which their Web site notes is an effort "to determine our participation in the global nonviolent Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (B.D.S.) movement against Israel’s violation of international law and human rights."

The process may take a while. First, the anti-Israel faction of Coop members must convince a majority of members at the next meeting to approve a referendum, which must then be approved by the full membership at a later date. And then, if approved, a final vote would have to be held. Such a process is likely to take at least six months. As of now, no vote has been scheduled for the next meeting, which takes place on August 29th.

In the meantime, both sides are making their views known. "I think that's a peaceful way to get the message across," said co-op member Brenda Iijima. "It's controversial and I understand everyone's sensitivity. But I think what's happening in Palestine is just unconscionable and sad. We are directly responsible for it in the United States." Coop member Stephen Twilley partially concurred. "My first reaction is that I probably would support it," he said. "But I would like to first hear intelligent people debate the pros and cons of such a move because maybe it would or maybe it wouldn't be the best way to protest the government's policies."

Barbara Mazor, a leader of the anti-boycott contingent, was clearly upset. "This is something we need to nip in the bud right now," she said. She illuminated her position for The Observer. “From reading their letters from the past two years, [the protesters] don’t seem to have a terribly sophisticated understanding of the situation there, of the group that they’re representing,” she noted. “I think they’re latching onto it like slogans. Like true believers, it’s the cool thing to do. You know, ‘I’m a progressive, and it’s a progressive cause,’ so I think that’s how it’s coming through, very thoughtlessly.”

Harvard law professor and Brooklyn native Alan Dershowitz also weighed in. "They hate Israel," he said. "It’s not that they love Palestinians. You never see them advocating on the part of Kurds, you never see them campaigning on behalf of Armenians, on behalf of Chechnians. They don’t care about people who are oppressed, they only care about the alleged oppressors." He went further. "We can’t allow good and decent people to think this is the right thing. This is the wrong thing."

It is also predominantly symbolic. The PSFC reportedly carries a grand total of four Israeli-made products: paprika, bath salts, vegan marshmallows, and the SodaStream seltzer machine. Far more germane is the fact that a substantial portion of its membership is Jewish. Ms. Mazor estimates that 20 percent of the Coop's membership would leave if a ban was instituted.

A vote on BDS endorsements has been held at four other food co-ops across the country. Only one, the Olympia Food Co-op in Washington, approved the ban. “As a US citizen and as a Jew, I’m proud to say that my Co-op no longer underwrites the suffering in Palestine,” said Noah Sochet, co-op member and Olympia BDS organizer. Similar bans were voted down at the People's Food Co-op in Ann Arbor, Michigan, Port Townsend Food Co-Op in Washington, and the Davis Food Co-op in Sacramento, California.

Will the Park Slope ban succeed? It is no secret that New York City is a hotbed of left-wing activism, including many self-identified progressive Jews who harbor a tremendous animosity toward Israel. And as a former resident of Park Slope for more than a decade, this writer can attest to the fact that there is no shortage of useful idiots in that neighborhood, for whom the expression of anti-Semitism promoted as moral righteousness has become quite trendy. In short, much of Park Slope is a multicultural, values-neutral enclave, where for far too many inhabitants, defending one's right to exist, and conducting a murderous intifada are morally interchangeable.

On the other hand, the nearby neighborhoods are home to a substantial portion of Orthodox Jews for whom such a boycott would be utterly anathema. It remains to be seen whether the Coop is willing to alienate those customers to satisfy the activists. If they do, then a story by the Village Voice published in 2004 was prophetic. In it were "Best of New York" categories. The Park Slope Food Coop won one of them.

It was voted the "best place to experience how communism leads to fascism."