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.’”