BDS and the Park Slope Food Coop: Why the Vote Against Was a Win for the Boycott
Tuesday night, Brooklyn’s Park Slope Food Coop held a long-anticipated vote on voting: members decided whether to have a Coop-wide referendum on joining the Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions movement to pressure Israel to abide by international law. About 2,000 of the Coop’s 16,300 members packed the specially rented facilities, a GOTV triumph. In the end, the audience voted against having a BDS referendum: 1,005 against and 653 in favor. But Jewish BDS proponent Jessica Rosenberg was not disheartened by the results. “60/40 in Park Slope makes me feel hopeful about the future of my people,” she said, cheerful at the end of the night.
Here’s the thing: It doesn't actually matter if the Coop boycotts Israel or not. Just having the debate is a symbolic victory for the pro-boycott camp. It might once have been safe to assume that in Park Slope, Brooklyn, progressive Jews would side with their more conservative co-religionists on matters pertaining to Israel. No longer.
Back in December, Israeli Minister of Information and Diaspora Yuli Edelstein, a settler who calls the colony of Neve Daniel home, paid the coop a visit. A few rows away from the shelves of settlement-made Sodastream, Edelstein posed for a picture holding a tub of Sabra Humus and a bag of vegan marshmallows (part Israeli-owned and Israeli manufactured, respectively). Edelstein’s visit cemented an inescapable truth: the Park Slope Food Coop had officially become a key site for BDS organizing and opposition, a success in and of itself for the BDS movement. BDS had permeated even Park Slope--"the heart of the Jewish crunchy liberal establishment," in the tongue-in-cheek words of Jewish Voice for Peace activist Jesse Bacon.
In the months leading up to the vote, Nadia Saah, a blonde Palestinian-American Coop-er, said her Semitic looks led to some interesting exchanges at the Coop, where members are required to log a shift per month. (Saah works the front desk, noting with a laugh, “Ironically, my work slot is check-in, so everyone has to show me their ID!’") Saah’s parents fled Jerusalem in 1948 after the Deir Yassin massacre, but fellow Coopers passing through the check-in desk often assume two things: first that she’s Jewish and second that all Jews feel compelled to commiserate about BDS. “I've heard first hand how frightened people are about the BDS vote,” Saah said. Her heart went out to them. Having grown up in the U.S., Saah said she understands and has “compassion for the historical traumas that have engendered this fear.” But, she added, “Sadly, we’re the unfortunate inheritors of Jewish fear.” Like Rosenberg, Saah said the 60/40 split showed there are “a significant number of coop members who care about Palestinians and their struggle for human rights.”
As a Coop member, my impression has been that that existential fear seems to underpin all Jewish opposition to the Coop’s adoption of BDS. What’s more, the organized opposition appears almost entirely comprised of Jews who are middle aged and up. (The population of the general meeting appeared to skew older, although who is to say if that’s reflective of the Coop as a whole--or simply of the Coopers who happen to have enough leisure time to attend. To be sure, the pro-BDS contingent had a critical mass of white-haired Jews as well.) Every conversation seemed to circle back to the international BDS movement’s call to honor the Palestinian right of return, which Zionists see as a threat to Jewish demographic majority in Israel and therefore a call for the destruction of the state itself. (According to UNRWA, there are 4.8 million registered Palestinian refugees in Gaza, the West Bank, Jordan, Syria, and Lebanon; if all refugees exercised their right of return as per international law--and it's contested what percentage actually would do so--then that would indeed undo the Jewish majority that was produced in 1948.) “South Africa was a different thing,” Coop member and BDS opponent Gloria Blumenthal, the daughter of Holocaust survivors, told me. “You weren’t seeing boycotts that said, ‘We want to have the end of South Africa.’”
Tuesday night, the line to get into the Coop’s vote at Brooklyn Technical High School stretched for blocks. Behind me, whenever Renee and Alan Silver saw someone with pro-boycott signage, they’d say to themselves, “BDS, KKK.” Renee Silver, an Orthodox Jew, explained to me, “This is a hate organization. They hate Jews.” In front of me, Bruce Janovski, also Jewish, said he agreed with Mayor Bloomberg’s pronouncement against the boycott (Bloomberg: “Why any of this has anything to do with selling food, I don’t know.”). But scratch the surface of arguments that the Coop should “just” be about food—like Janovski’s—and you often find that they’re coming from people who have deeply emotional—and largely uncritical--relationships with Israel.
Once inside, I ran into an acquaintance, a 5th-year Reform rabbinical student, who confided, “For the community I’m in, this needs to be killed right now. It’s too scary.” I ended up sitting next to Maricia Duplessis, a lively 20-something black woman who spent her early years in Apartheid South Africa. She and Rubin Salz, a white-haired Cooper, got to talking. It did not take long for them to reach a roadblock. “Boycotting and sanctioning was part of my liberation,” Duplessis told him. “Time is of the essence. People are dying. This is what we can do right now. I think international pressure was invaluable to my liberation.” Salz noted he was against the Occupation but said, when it comes to BDS, “It’s not a no-brainer like Apartheid.”
Duplessis broke out a box of chocolate covered matzoh and passed it around. When it came down to it, Salz would not budge on his bottom line on BDS: “I think they’re saying that Israel as a state shouldn’t exist.” With kindness in her voice, Duplessis asked, “You really think so, Rubin?” Salz replied, “Yes, I really do.” Duplessis thanked him and ended the conversation.
The meeting began with an announcement from Carl Arnold, the chair of the Coop board of directors, that their lawyers had requested no photos, no videos, and no tweets (except from the designated reporters for the Coop’s Linewaiters Gazette). I promptly tweeted the lawyers’ request.
“Probably every single one of us have shared at least one Coop Moment,” Heidi Oleszczuk said when it was her turn on-stage. “I’ve had a few tonight.” I smiled, feeling like maybe this messy Coop democratic process had really brought us together.
The feeling was not to last. Before long, the audience was booing when Hima B., an Indian-American filmmaker, began talking about “people in Gaza being massacred by the Israeli forces.” (Even applause was against meeting rules.) People really lost it when Hima B. mentioned a Palestinian body count during the Gaza attack. A man across the aisle from me wearing a yellow t-shirt that said “Esperanto” on the front began screaming, “How many Jews! How many Jews!” with both hands raised, pumping the air. When she mentioned “ethnic cleansing,” the man in the Esperanto t-shirt screamed, “Go home! Get lost!” His words had the shock of being the first all-out heckling of the night, before the audience was asked to use OWS wiggly fingers (and actually complied).
I had a mind to tweet a picture of the Esperanto t-shirt man, and, seeing the flash, my seatmates quickly turned on me, our fragile peace broken. On my left, Larry gruffly told me to stop tweeting and put my laptop away. Oleszczuk turned around to tell me I needed to abide by the rules. Soon, a woman with an official looking Coop badge was kneeling next to me, saying in a soothing voice, “I can’t ask that you put your computer away. But I can ask that you respect your fellow members.” Esperanto t-shirt man continued heckling.
Toward the end of the evening, a male speaker said, “If you don’t like Sabra hummus, then don’t buy it.” Oleszczuk raised her hands in wiggly fingers of agreement. Something had apparently shifted in her mind since the meeting began, when she’d been noncommittal. Another seatmate, Larry, went into the meeting as a “no” voter. When the tally was announced at the end, they both cheered.
It took three years to reach Tuesday night’s voting point, beginning with a Coop General Meeting held on January 27, 2009, just days after the end of the Israeli massacre in Gaza. Hima B. watched the assault on Gazans day after day—the white phosphorous, the targeting of civilian infrastructure. Then, she came across Naomi Klein’s Cast Lead-inspired argument for BDS in The Nation. “After reading it, I thought I can’t just be quiet about this,” she said. So she attended her first ever Coop General Meeting and proposed a boycott of Israeli products.
A backlash soon erupted in the letters section of the Linewaiters Gazette, the Coop’s house organ. Responding in a March 2009 op-ed, Coop General Coordinator/co-founder Joe Holtz argued previous Coop boycotts of Chilean grapes and Apartheid South African products had been approved in a landslide and thus had avoided “alienating members who do not agree with the Coop’s decisions.” Boycotting Israel appeared more contentious to Holtz, yet, in the beginning, he supported the slowly turning wheels of Coop democratic process. Over time, his op-eds became categorically opposed to even putting BDS to a Coop-wide vote. Earlier this month, Holtz wrote two Gazette op-eds against having a referendum, saying it “will leave a large portion of members feeling unwelcomed and alienated from what has been their Coop… because of a political position the Coop has taken.” Holtz added, “We know joining BDS is divisive and can only harm both the perception of the Coop and the future of the Coop.” Holtz urged members to “Vote ‘COOP’” on March 27th.
When I called the Coop on Tuesday before the vote, General Coordinator Ann Herpel, who was handling media requests for Joe Holtz, explained, "He had his [Gazette] articles as a way to deflect having to have personal interviews." Herpel initially said Holtz was swamped yet might get back to me. But apparently my line of questioning didn’t sit well with Herpel. I said that Holtz, as a Coop staffer and authority figure, should expect to be held accountable for the political positions he’d taken publicly. Herpel became exasperated, saying, “I’m sorry that Joe cannot speak to you today. He will not speak to you.” Before long, Herpel hung up on me.
Coop BDS supporter Ora Wise noted, “Joe Holtz is saying that Palestinian lives don’t matter enough for us to trouble ourselves with this.” Recent media coverage has suggested most Coopers are apathetic, irritated by the boycott debate, and just want to buy cheap organic food. And Wise, who was born in Israel the daughter of a Zionist Reform rabbi and a Jewish day school teacher, had harsh words for them, too. “I’m afraid that there are a lot of self-absorbed liberals who don’t want to be inconvenienced by acknowledging that food is political.”
BDSer and OWSer Rebecca Manski likewise rejected Holtz’s divisiveness line of reasoning, saying, “As someone who has been part of the coop movement for years, I’ve heard that argument to squash debate again and again and again in collectives and housing and food coops.” The granddaughter of the former vice president of the Zionist Organization of America, Manski spent the first five years of her life in Israel and eventually became an anti-Zionist, crediting her grandfather for having taught her to question all received wisdom. As an adult, Manski remembers saying to her grandfather, “You can tell yourself these stories about what you dreamed of, but that’s not what Israel has become.”
According to the PLO, on the day the Coop voted against a BDS referendum, Israeli forces demolished 7 homes, created 66 road closures, and conducted 19 raids and 9 detentions in the West Bank. As facts on the ground in both Israel proper and the Occupied Palestinian Territories worsen, young Jews with political commitments like Ora Wise and Rebecca Manski are becoming more and more commonplace. Such is the onward march of the generations.
Back in December, Minister Edelstein’s hosts at the Coop were Avi Posnick of the far right pro-Israel group Stand With Us and Barbara Mazor, the leader of the opposition to BDS at the Coop. “I’ve supported things” in the past, Mazor, an annual attendee of New York’s Salute to Israel Parade, told The Jewish Week, “but I’ve never spearheaded or led anything before.” Mazor, a 55-year-old Orthodox engineer who lives in Midwood, Brooklyn, apparently did not like my previous coverage of the issue. When I called her and asked if she had a few minutes to talk, Mazor said, “Not for you, Kiera. No,” slamming the phone.
In July 2010, the Olympia Food Coop became the first grocery store in the country to ban Israeli products. Stand With Us, in conjunction with the Israeli consulate, was a key player in the campaign against the boycott. Park Slope Food Coop BDS advocate Phan Nguyen lived in Olympia at the time and was active in that campaign as well. Speaking of the BDS opposition at both Coops, Nguyen noted, “I see the same rhetoric of ‘This is divisive. I feel unsafe’: things that don’t necessarily relate directly to whether or not it is worthwhile to honor a boycott that’s already been called [by Palestinian civil society].” In Olympia, Nguyen was struck by what he called the phenomenon of “fair-weather progressives”—on-board when it’s easy but “When you’re confronted with something difficult, you sell out your values.”
In a recent segment broadcast, The Daily Show’s Samantha Bee spoofed boycott advocates and opponents alike, asking incredulously, “We are talking about a grocery store, right?” And on Twitter, the show asked, “How self-righteous do you think Brooklynites can get?” Perennial social movement hater Ginia Bellafante of the New York Times similarly wrote that the Coop “suffers from its own adolescent myopia.” How childish to care about something—anything—when nothing matters!
But if it doesn’t matter, and if BDS has no capacity to exert governmental pressure, then why are Israeli officials—those who are invested in protecting the status quo—so afraid that they had to outlaw BDS in Israel last summer? One Israeli diplomat termed BDS “a practical warhead on the tip of an ideological rocket.”
Over the last week, Mayor Michael Bloomberg, City Council speaker (and 2013 mayoral hopeful) Christine Quinn, public advocate Bill de Blasio, Senator Charles Schumer, and a long list of other non-Coop members clamored to pass New York’s Israel loyalty test by denouncing the Coop boycott campaign. If the Coop boycott is now at the top of the test, then BDS has really gone mainstream. It didn’t matter which way the vote went Tuesday night, because, as soon as this debate erupted in Park Slope, the boycotters had already won.