Co-oping BDS, part I: Progressive except Palestine

Once, in the bulk goods aisle of the Park Slope Food Coop, a wild-haired woman stood next to me and scrutinized the coffee-grinder settings. “I’m using it for an enema,” she explained. “It needs to be very fine.” I suggested the espresso grind.

This is exactly the kind of shopping experience I hoped for when I joined the Park Slope Food Coop in the fall of 2009: a realization of the eternal promise of New York, home of the strange. (That and crazycheap organic food.) Founded in 1973, the Coop is a Brooklyn institution with enough character to have spawned its own genre of trend piece. Some examples: the Coop has Byzantine rules and work requirements (debatable); the Coop has nannies covering their employers’ shifts (dubious); and, most recently, the Coop is becoming a hotbed of anti-Semitism (downright wrong).

The New York Observer has contributed the latest addition to the genre, with a smug piece earlier this month devoted to Coop members’ efforts to initiate a boycott of Israeli products and divest from whatever Israeli holdings the Coop might have. At the historically progressive Coop, the Observer procured a chorus of sources declaring the campaign anti- Semitic and intolerable in “the heart of Chaimtown,” as one man put it, referring to Park Slope’s high Jewish population. For the full sensationalist effect, Alan Dershowitz—the de facto representative of the hawkish Israel-right-or-wrong Jewish establishment—denounced the campaign’s “bigotry” and threatened to shut the joint down, an ambitious goal for a Cambridge, Massachusetts, resident who is not a member of the democratically-governed Coop.

The Coop campaign is part of Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions (BDS), a global movement launched with a 2005 call by 170 Palestinian civil-society groups. Shorthand demands: end the occupation of the Palestinian Territories; end the legal discrimination against Palestinian citizens of Israel; and allow the 700,000 Palestinians expelled in the 1948 creation of the state to return—along with their descendants—to what is now Israel. Until the country complies with international law, the movement vows economic and cultural boycotts, institutional divestments, and governmental sanctions of Israel. Perhaps the strongest indicator of BDS’s power is the Boycott Law passed in the Knesset in July, making it illegal for groups like Boycott from Within to advocate BDS in Israel, a state that bills itself as “the only democracy in the Middle East.”

Leading the charge against BDS at the Coop is Barbara Mazor, who told the Observer, “I think [BDS supporters are] 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.” (Mazor also alluded to her otherwise liberal politics with a dig at “a certain president [who] spent eight years in office.”) The political alignment of the Coop’s BDS opponents is made clear on their website, which links to the reactionary pro-Israel group Stand With Us, known for having once pepper sprayed anti-occupation activists from the group Jewish Voice for Peace, along with having published an anti-BDS comic book that depicted Palestinians as vermin, in a throwback to Nazi propaganda.

“People here are always thinking about the implications of everything,” Mazor was quoted as saying in a 2001 academic article about the Coop. “That’s really nifty. I find that stam people [Yiddish for “ordinary people”] think about less and less.”

Those who argue that the Coop boycott campaign is anti-Semitic believe that BDS “singles out” Israel among all the other nations of the world that commit grave human rights violations; the only reason anyone would focus on Israel, the logic goes, is because they harbor prejudice against Jews. “Israel has a lot of problems, but so does China, so does America, so does a lot of the world,” Coop member Andrew Sepulveda told the Observer, voicing a common BDS counterargument. But must we rank wrongdoing nations before taking a stand? And is it not logical to single out Israel, given that U.S. foreign policy has already singled out Israel with over $3 billion in annual military aid? “Whenever we take a political action, we open ourselves up to accusations of hypocrisy and double standards,” BDS supporter Naomi Klein reminds us, “since the truth is that we can never do enough in the face of pervasive global injustice.”

“The reason we’re boycotting Israel and not Atilla the Hun is because there is an international call for boycott on Israel, and we should be honoring boycotts,” according to one Coop boycott supporter, who asked not to be named. “We shouldn’t be crossing picket lines. End of story. The reason we aren’t boycotting Atilla the Hun is because there is no international campaign to boycott Atilla the Hun. If the victims of Atilla the Hun ask for a boycott, then we should take that seriously.”

In a letter published in the Coop’s house organ, the Linewaiters’ Gazette, boycott organizers noted that the Coop has a long tradition of boycotts—of both individual companies and entire nations. A 20-year boycott of South African products began in 1973, the year of the Coop’s founding. There have been eleven Coop boycotts since 1989, including Coca-Cola, Domino Sugar, non-United Farm Worker grapes, and tuna.

Until recently, the matter of boycotting and divesting from Israel had only been raised in letters in the Linewaiters’ Gazette, where the debate has ebbed and flowed for over two years. But at a July 26th general meeting—a monthly gathering held at Brooklyn’s Congregation Beth Elohim—the grinding wheels of Coop democratic process began turning with the first face-to-face discussion of BDS. The question at hand was not whether or not the Coop should join BDS, but rather whether they should even hold a membership-wide vote. “Why not boycott Syria, Saudi Arabia, or Bahrain?” said Susan Tauber, one of the members advocating against the referendum, according to the Linewaiters’ Gazette’s recap of the general meeting.

Coop BDS organizers told me that almost all of the supporters who spoke at the meeting were Jewish and identified themselves as such. Still, Jewish opponents of BDS at the Coop show that the “progressive except Palestine” phenomenon in the American Jewish community has not gone away. While open to hosting the debate in his synagogue, Congregation Beth Elohim’s Rabbi Andy Bachman—generally considered a progressive rabbi—condemned the boycott efforts in a statement, writing, “BDS rhetoric reveals that the ultimate goal of the majority of its supporters is a dissolution of Israel as a Jewish state. This is simply untenable and unjust.” (Bachman was referring to BDS’ demand that Palestinian refugees be allowed to return to what is now the state of Israel in accordance with UN Resolution 194.) In the Linewaiters’ Gazette, BDS opponent Ruth Bollettino made the same argument, but in starker language. “The ‘right’ of Palestinian refugees to return means dismantling the Jewish state demographically, flooding it with Palestinian Arabs,” Bollettino wrote, revealing the racial fears underpinning the drive to maintain Israel as a Jewish-majority state. Her letter joined seven others against BDS, one in support of BDS, and an unrelated letter thanking a stranger for having returned $90 that had fallen out of the writer’s pocket at the Coop entrance.

Boycott supporters at the Coop would seem to be in the minority, if one were to judge by the letters in the Linewaiters’ Gazette or the Observer, which admitted its nonscientific methods while noting, “Finding pro-boycott members outside the co-op Monday night was no easy task.” But Melissa, a Brooklynite Coop member of eight years, had a different impression of the membership’s stand. “The silent majority of Coop members are probably uncertain about the issue of BDS,” she said, adding, “The challenge that we have is not to change the minds of people like Barbara Mazor.” Rather, it is to educate their fellow Coop members as to the need to honor the Palestinian BDS call.

Retired lawyer Dennis James, a Coop BDS organizer, noted the generational divide he sees in conversations about BDS—who shuts off, and who’s willing to engage. “Some of the older people, you can’t raise the subject. It’s verboten,” James said. “Whereas younger people might argue with you but they will talk about it.”

The other day, I met up with my friend Jesse Bacon at Tealounge, a coffeeshop across the street from the Coop. Despite having once seen a mouse scamper through the glass dessert case there, I ate part of Jesse’s cookie as we talked BDS shop. He’s an activist with Jewish Voice for Peace, working on their campaign to get the pension fund TIAA-CREF to divest from Motorola and other companies profiting from the occupation of the West Bank. Many TIAA-CREF holders are teachers and other professionals who tend to skew liberal in their politics. Working on the campaign has helped Jesse see how important it is to have a sympathetic population when advocating BDS in an institution. Jesse weighed in:

In a certain sense, the Coop campaign is dealing with liberal people who just want to get their crunchy, hippie food and be left alone. But the best things that movements critical of Israel can do is to push people to be consistent. Consistency is a great thing to offer people. It requires some explanation and education as to why this is part of your other values–why boycotting or divesting from Israel is an extension of them.

The cringe factor was high for both of us while reading the Observer’s anonymous source decry the Coop BDS campaign reaching into the heavily Jewish populated Park Slope, “the heart of Chaimtown.” At the same time, Jesse pointed out, “The fact that a BDS campaign is even going on in ‘Chaimtown’—the heart of the Jewish crunchy liberal establishment—whether or not this wins, it shows that this issue is everywhere now.”

Read on to my next installment, in which Jesse and I go shopping at the Coop to see what products could go inside the Israeli boycart.

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