In Defense of the Park Slope Food Co-op’s Israel Boycott

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.”

mchaban [at] | @MC_NYC