With world leaders taking sides in the debate over a boycott of Israeli products at the Park Slope Food Co-op, what do the members, those who are not leading the fight, think? Outside 782 Union Street on Monday night, the signature green-and-red neon sign buzzing overhead, The Observer encountered the kind of zealous ambivalence and shoulder-shrugging apathy so often associated with Brownstone Brooklyn.
“Why are they boycotting Israel? What about China? It’s stupid,” said Andrew Sepulveda. “You know, we’ve got these water bottles that say ‘Designed in America,’ but they’re made in China. And sometimes you open them up and there are little notes inside and it says, ‘Help me. They’ve got a gun to my head.’ What are we doing about that?”
Mr. Sepulveda, scraggly curls down to his chin, seemed to be joking, but the sentiment is real. He cares deeply about the co-op. Only moments before, while The Observer was on the phone with a pro-boycott organizer, Mr. Sepulveda had spirited our briefcase from under a bench where we had tucked it away, the better to do our reporting, and took it inside. He feared it was a bomb.
When Mr. Sepulveda brought it back outside, to the anxious arms of its rightful owner, he explained the situation, still slightly exasperated, then ventured back into the florescent-lit entryway. He could be heard declaring, “Don’t worry. False alarm. It was just some asshole.”
The Observer was surprised to hear that bomb threats are a legitimate problem on this busy brownstone stretch across from the Tea Lounge and Brooklyn Industries. “Oh yeah, all the time,” Mr. Sepulveda said. “A lot of people hate this place.”
Seated on the bench outside, which serves as a way station for walkers, those co-op members who return carts from members’ homes, as well as a hangout for wayward members, Mr. Sepulveda began explaining to Geoff Hockert, who was seated next to him, that the threat had only grown since the co-op had boycotted Israeli products. Overhearing this, The Observer interjected: No such boycott had taken place—yet. That is when Mr. Sepulveda told The Observer about the water bottles.
“And it’s not like I care about Israel,” he continued. “I’m not Jewish. I’m circumcised and I’m Catholic, but that’s it. Israel has a lot of problems, but so does China, so does America, so does a lot of the world. I don’t see why we’re singling out Israel.”
Mr. Hacket was also up on his Noam Chomsky, it appeared. “Europeans have been raping and pillaging forever, and it’s a big part of the history of this country,” he chimed in, rectangular glasses glinting from beneath a beige baseball cap. “Just look at what we did to the Native Americans. And to pick on Israel? It’s anti-Semitic.”
Mr. Sepulveda pointed out that the co-op carried Palestinian pickles, which had caused no problems. “Really, both sides are to blame,” Mr. Hacket said. Mr. Sepulveda agreed: “I’m sympathetic. Look, let’s find companies that are socially responsible. Let’s publicize that and let people decided for themselves.
Brooklyn’s own Abbott and Costello continued to speak over each other, and The Observer had a hard time keeping up. Seeing a woman with blonde hair still dressed in her yoga tights, a mat hanging from one shoulder, a reusable grocery bag from the other, we excused ourselves to go find out her opinion on the matter.
Claire Kelley was well-reversed in the debate, having followed it closely in the letters section of The Linewaiters‘ Gazette, the co-op’s biweekly newsletter. “The co-op had such a large debate about whether to even have bottled water,” she said. “This is such a sensitive issue, I can understand why people are so passionate about it.” And yet this passion is part of what makes the co-op so appealing. “Just today, I came in and someone gave me a handout about GMO—you know, genetically modified food, which I didn’t know very much about. It’s good to get engaged. I’m interested in knowing both sides, I don’t mind the debate.”
Still, there are those who are just there for the cheap produce—sometimes half as much as at Whole Foods! “I try and stay as far away from the co-op’s politics as possible,” said a woman named Shanti who had not heard about the boycott. “I realize it’s a community with lots of competing view points, and that’s fine for the people who want to get involved, but I’m mostly just there as a shopper.” Just then a gypsy cab pulled up, and Shanti excused herself to go load her groceries and leave.
Pat Murray, who said she had lived in Iran and knew a thing or two about oppressive regimes, said there was no place for such a boycott at the co-op. This was after she almost refused to answer The Observer‘s questions. “Ohhhhh! Not another co-op-bashing story,” she moaned. Assured that it was not, she said, “No matter how you feel about politics in the Middle East, there is no reason to involve the co-op in it.”
Finding pro-boycott members outside the co-op Monday night was no easy task, nor was it at all authoritative or scientific. The closest The Observer came was Keisha Haines, who also had not heard about the boycott but thought it could be a good idea. “I’d suppose they’re doing it for all the right reasons,” she said. “It’s a member-owned store, so we should all have input.
This is what the anti-boycott group is worried about. Depending on how the referendum is phrased and what information—or disinformation—is disseminated, it could be Prop 8 all over again. At last week’s meeting on the referendum, 13 people spoke against the boycott, while nine were for it. One of the anti-boycott organizers, Barbara Mazor, noted in an email: “This is an interesting result, but not really surprising, because the approximate 60:40 split, more or less, mirrors public opinion polls on Israel.” Not much margin of error there. The group believes that regardless the outcome, the very consideration of a referendum could tear the co-op asunder.
And it might even hurt the people it is meant to help. After overhearing the banter between Messrs. Sepulveda and Hacket, Jordan Reed, sidled up to The Observer. He was one of the walkers stationed on the bench, and though he had his white iPod ear buds in the entire night, even as he walked people home, he had apparently heard the discussion at hand.
“It’s not as simple as banning something from Israel,” he said, preparing an argument The Observer had yet to hear. “It could be Palestinians who are harvesting or preparing the food. So just to say you’re boycotting Israeli products, you might be hurting Palestinians, too.”
Mr. Reed, for his part, isn’t taking sides. “I’ve never been to a co-op meeting, and it’s been my experience in the years of coming here that there are all kinds of cooky people here with their own agendas,” he said. “I just shop here because it’s a block and a half from my house.”
Correction: An earlier version of this article incorrectly stated Claire Kelley’s knowledge of the boycott. She was not unaware of it but had instead been following it closely and welcomes the debate.