Israel and the Park Slope Food Co-op have a lot in common. Both were founded in part by Jewish socialists. Both are governed by a raucous democracy with laws and rituals to rival the Talmud. Both have a soft spot for hummus and couscous.
And now both are plagued by the Palestinian question.
Last week, the co-op held its first open discussion about whether or not to endorse B.D.S., an international movement that calls for the boycott, divestment and sanctioning of Israeli products and companies. Supporters see B.D.S. as a nonviolent way to attack Israel’s occupation of the Palestinian territories, while critics claim the movement stinks of anti-Semitism. The issue has been batted around the co-op for years, from the bulk aisles to the letters section of the biweekly Linewaiters’ Gazette, house organ of the organic house.
It began in earnest during the Jan. 27, 2009, general meeting, when Hima B., a self-described queer-centric, intradependent filmmaker who eschews a last name, made a comment during the open forum that ran in the next issue of the newsletter: “I don’t know whether or not we carry Israeli products, but I propose that we no longer carry them.” Apparently there were some Sharon persimmons and organic red peppers in stock, but that was as far as the discussion went. It was followed by news of broken debt card machines on Christmas Eve.
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The debate likely would have remained within the confines of 782 Union Street had someone at The Jewish Daily Forward not noticed those three innocuous paragraphs. The ensuring article got picked up by Ha’aretz and a million little blogs, setting off a media frenzy that consumed the co-op for months. The debate—angry letters, dirty looks—did not die down until the following fall. When the Gaza flotilla fiasco occurred last summer, it inflamed the issue yet again, which led a group of about 20 co-op members to push for a referendum on B.D.S., the subject of last week’s meeting. This being a democratic institution, everyone gets their say, but saying it takes time. It will be at least six months before the referendum can be taken up.
“I think it was avocados,” Dennis James said of his entrée to the world of B.D.S. “I was putting stickers on avocados as part of my shift, and a couple of other people who were putting stickers on avocados got to talking about the fact that there was a B.D.S. movement. The issue had been very vigorously debated in the Linewaiters’ Gazette for about a decade, but we thought it should be put to a referendum so it could be decided in an orderly way.”
For opponents of the B.D.S. campaign, there is nothing orderly about this push. “From reading their letters from the past two years, they don’t seem to have a terribly sophisticated understanding of the situation there, of the group that they’re representing,” Barbara Mazor, one of the leaders of the anti-B.D.S. movement, told The Observer. “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.”
It is not clear how many Israeli products the co-op carries. Ms. Mazor said there are only bath salts and the occasional peppers or lychee. Emily Damron, a pro-B.D.S. member, said there were many more products, which would be impossible to know without a full accounting of suppliers and manufacturers. Ultimately, the movement’s aims go beyond the Israeli economy. “I welcome sending a strong message to Washington this way,” Ms. Damron said.
Senator Charles Schumer, who lives a few blocks from the co-op—though he does not belong—and is a staunch supporter of Israel, could not be reached for comment due to the debt ceiling vote Tuesday.
While last week’s meeting seemed surprisingly orderly to many of those in attendance, opponents like Ms. Mazor feel B.D.S. could alienate many co-op members. Already there are dueling blogs, psfcbds.wordpress.com and stopbdsparkslope.blopgspot.com—part of an emerging genre—and should a vote be held, it could divide granola-munching families and friends. There is fear of an exodus of Jews.
To this end, the pro-B.D.S. camp is calling for a referendum, “to protect against bullying and intimidation,” as Mr. James put it. This would be far from the first such action taken by the co-op, which has launched boycotts against products from South Africa (apartheid), Nestlé (bad baby formula in Africa) and Coca-Cola (murder of union leaders in Columbia). Contentious fights are nothing new either, as the co-op has experienced backlashes over the decisions to sell meat, beer and bottled water. “I like that you can shop with your conscience,” said Keisha Haines, a co-op member shopping Monday night in a batik dress.
Others feel this particular boycott goes too far. One co-op member, who said he grew up shopping there with his parents and was thus unwilling to give his name, called it anti-Semitic and unfounded. “We don’t have any shoppers here from South Africa or Nestlé. But this is different—this is Chaim town,” he said, referring to the Jewish name that has not been much in vogue since his grandparents were living on the Lower East Side. “This is the heart of Chaim town. So to come in here and try and push this boycott against Israel goes against everything the co-op is about, everything it was founded on.”
A boycott could lead to divisions not only within the institution, but without as well. “It reminds me of what one great historian once said about the Puritans: they were opposed to bear-baiting not because of the harm it did to the bear but because of the pleasure it gave the viewers,” Harvard law professor and self-appointed defender of Israel Alan Dershowitz told The Observer. “And that’s what these people are, they’re bigots. Many of them are anti-Semites. Some of them don’t know they’re anti-Semites. That doesn’t give them a pass.”
Mr. Dershowitz vowed to shut the co-op down if the B.D.S. effort succeeds. “You have to fight fire with fire,” he said. When it was pointed out that this might be difficult because the co-op is a members-only operation, he remained undeterred. “We will stop at nothing to make them pay an extraordinarily heavy price for their bigotry.”
The Israeli Consulate was also wary of a boycott, though Consul General Ido Aharoni warned that it would backfire in the end. “We take it very seriously because we know our own history,” he said. “If you look at Jewish history, we do not have the luxury of ignoring these kinds of movements.” He then pointed to efforts in Toronto and throughout Europe to combat anti-Israel boycotts. Pro-Israel supporters would go into the stores and buy out their Israeli stocks to bolster demand. “The best thing that ever happened to Israel was the Arab boycott in 1945,” Mr. Aharoni said. “It caused us to be more competitive.
The pro-B.D.S. movement has its own powerful supporters. Nobel Prize winner—Nobel Prize winner!—Archbishop Desmond Tutu pioneered the boycott movement in South Africa, and he has openly supported B.D.S. movements worldwide, including a successful one last summer at a co-op in Olympia, Wash. (The city’s total population is just over 46,000, or about one-tenth the number of Jews living in Brooklyn.) “The archbishop has spoken in support of B.D.S. on several platforms,” a spokesman wrote in an email, suggesting he could support this one as well.
In the end, like so many other co-op controversies, this could be a crisis of conscience and little else. “Would I leave the co-op?” said one anti-B.D.S. organizer. “Did I leave the country when a certain president spent eight years in office?”