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

On the progressive blog Waging Nonviolence, Kiera Feldman mounts a vociferous defense of the Park Slope Co-op’s right to boycott

Organic democracy. (BKLYN GUY

On the progressive blog Waging Nonviolence, Kiera Feldman mounts a vociferous defense of the Park Slope Co-op’s right to boycott Israeli goods, should its members feel so inclined. It is in large part a 1,600-word critique of The Observer‘s recent series on the BDS debate that has swept the brownstone bastion in recent months. We considered grabbing a few paragraphs for a “smug” blockquote commentary of our own, but instead, we’re giving the subject a full airing here, republished with permission. And, for more, there is a lighthearted shopping trip to the co-op to see exactly what products might be boycotted, which kind of reminds The Observer of the time we went comparison shopping at the co-op. Now, to Ms. Feldman:

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.

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