The Park Slope Food Co-op’s Israel Vote: An Insider’s Account

As those of you who pay attention to critical foreign policy issues may know, the Park Slope Food Co-op voted yesterday against a referendum that called for a vote on a ban of Israeli products.  Technically, the meeting wasn’t open to the press, but as a part of both the co-op and the media, we try to embrace our multi-faceted identity. We felt it our civic duty to attend.

The atmosphere outside the meeting was something between a gladiator match and a high school student council election. Though we arrived early, a line that could be seen from outer space snaked down the street. We overheard fellow members yapping about “democracy in action” while eating sandwiches. We followed the line for two blocks, and as coop karma would have it, spotted a member on our co-op work shift. The days when we refilled legume containers in peace and harmony seemed distant, but in the spirit of cooperation he agreed to hold our spot while we did a little sleuthing.

We struck up a conversation with Failey Patrick, who, in a word, found the referendum ridiculous. “I’d rather we do something like this to feed the homeless, some shit like that,” she said.

Then we found Hima B., who stood in a cluster of protestors and held a “Vote Yes on the Referendum” sign in front of her chest. After she scolded us assuming her name was spelled “Bee” instead of “B.,” B. explained why she spearheaded the issue years ago.

“We had it [a referendum] for whether or not we carried meat and I’m sure we’re going to have a referendum for the plastic bag issue,” she said. “I don’t understand why this issue has a total double standard that they’re using to essentially suppress us.”

Then a man setting up a tripod caught our attention. “I feel that supporting the boycott is a support for terrorists,” said Yankee Teitelbaum, who was not a co-op member. He then showed us a graphic poster of an Israeli family that had been killed in cold blood, and we had to walk away. We got back in line contemplating the summer we spent in Israel and our complex relationship with hummus.

As we approached the front doors, a woman donning the coop’s signature orange and yellow work vest gave us the scoop on the proceedings inside: find the correct sign-in table, have membership card out and ready, take a paper ballot and do not lose it because it cannot be replaced under any circumstances. (Then she implanted a tracking device in our arm, instructed us to grab supplies from the cornucopia and take shelter in the woods.)

With baggies of dried, unsulfured pineapple rings and organic medjool dates in hand (purchased at the co-op, naturally), we hunkered down in the back of a packed Brooklyn Tech auditorium. Board members sat onstage and spouted off rules (no tweeting, photography, hissing or applause) and platitudes about the democratic process (“no demagoguery, but be as passionate as you like”) before calling the first round of speakers to come on down. Immediately, we tried to connect with civilization via Twitter, only to discover we had no reception.

Here’s how the meeting worked: any members who wanted to speak could drop their names into one of three bags when entering the building: pro-referendum, against, or in between. Board members pulled an equal number of names from each bag; those chosen had two minutes of “air time.” To express agreement with a speaker, we could use Occupy Wall Street-approved twinkle fingers.

The speakers, 46 in all, left no stone unturned in their arguments. They came from all walks of life and referenced Passover, the United Nations, magical co-op moments, the negative feelings of olives left to rot on Palestinian soil because farmers can’t get to them, Apartheid, Bjork, Noam Chomsky, GMO foods, the IDF, justice, kale, couscous, religion, race, sexuality, peace, tolerance, and Sabra hummus (which, according to its website, is made in the U.SA.)

We tried to listen to everyone, but certain folks didn’t deserve our attention, like yellers and white girls sporting feathers and/or dreadlocks. Despite the rules, the inevitable applause, hissing and heckling forced some audience members to cluck like grass-fed free-range chickens. One woman mentioned that Human Rights was her college major, and we wanted to strangle her. Another highlight included co-op founder Joe Holtz taking about the storied co-op past, and how this issue was ripping people apart. By this point, emotions were running high.

Just when we were feeling impressed with the relative calm, a speaker kvetching about massacres and ethnic cleansing prompted a man sitting two seats away from us to yell, “Don’t send missiles to Israel if you don’t want to get bombed.”

Vitriolic emotion erupted in the room. The moment lingered, anxiety set in, we longed to tweet, but still no reception. Thank goodness for the woman sitting in front of us peacefully threading orange and brown yarn around a sandwich-sized wooden frame. Her artsy manual movements were lulling and hypnotic.

The speeches wore on, until we came to the stand-up comedy portion of the evening. First a ponytailed man refused to get off stage, and the board cut off his mike with impeccable timing. A hipster/Chasid hybrid (curly pais, wearing a hoodie) joked that because he hated lima beans, the co-op should ban them. And our favorite opening line—“This doesn’t feel good right now. But neither does an enema”—got quite a few laughs. (We would’ve kindly directed him to  a gentle colon cleanse product in aisle six for a less invasive detox.)

Finally, ballots were collected and quickly tallied (two people on each side of the issue presided over the process.) The board screened a brief documentary about the co-op in which members talked about challenges and joys of membership. We hunted down a few of the more interesting people we’d heard speak, and were surprised to find that after the light pandemonium, they still had a very kumbaya attitude about the co-op.

“I have to say, as far as the co-op, I haven’t been a member for a very long time and I’m continuously impressed with how well it’s run,” said Yoav Gal, who spoke against the referendum.

“I thought there were some pretty powerful testimonies, which just really touched me,” said Phan Ngyun, who was in favor for the referendum.

The announcement of the tally brought an uncertain reaction—in part because the crowd was dispersing and the board had yet to vote. They were against it 5-0, and that was that.

On the way out, we spoke with board member Bill Penner, who had been a voice of calm throughout the evening. “I was trying to remain as neutral as possible,” he told us. “I think that at the end of the meeting, a lot of people were relieved to know that the co-op could work it out.”

editorial@observer.com