In March 2012, the Park Slope Food Coop held a packed (and probably stacked) membership meeting that rejected by a vote of 1005 to 653 a proposal to hold a coop-wide referendum on whether to boycott all Israeli products. This past Tuesday April 28, discussion of a narrower proposal was on the agenda – boycotting Sodastream, the popular water carbonation system manufactured in the Occupied West Bank.
The meeting was attended by hundreds of people who rarely show their faces at the monthly general membership meeting. The mood was alternatively excited and subdued. There was little eye contact and no overt warmth from anyone; perhaps because of the sensitivity of the topic. Letters for and against Boycott, Divestment and Sanction (BDS) of Israel until it ends its illegal occupation of Palestinian lands, had been running in the biweekly Linewaiters’ Gazette with great regularity since 2012. The oft-repeated allegation was that proponents of BDS are motivated by anti-Semitism.
A new sense of timeliness has come with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s recent re-election on an explicit promise to never reach a peace accord with the Palestinians. The premise of the call for BDS coming from civil society is that Israel is a colonial state that will not change itself from within.
The politicking began well before the formal membership part of the meeting. A produce buyer elaborated about his efforts to get Palestinian goods on sale in the Coop, a ground he would later assert as a reason why a boycott was unnecessary.
Barbara Mazor moved to table the entire discussion, despite the presence of at least 350 people, most of whom came for this particular agenda item. Mazor is a regular writer to the Gazette and a founder of the opposition campaign, “More Hummus Please.” She is given credit on “Stop BDS at the Park Slope Food Coop” website as having stopped the proposed 2012 referenda on a boycott of all Israel-made products.
Outraged, I yelled out from the second row, “You can’t use Robert’s Rules to remove an item the Agenda Committee has approved.” The Agenda Committee and Board of Directors then huddled and decided to let the discussion begin.
Six members of Park Slope Members for BDS stood up and took turns describing why SodaStream’s practices in the occupied territories were unjust, focusing in on deceptive labeling, depletion of water resources and their labor practices.
But when they began showing slides, all hell broke loose. Two images in particular led a small number of the Borough Park attendees to start shouting, get up out of the chairs and become physically confrontational. One man in his 40’s yelled, “Let’s take the stage!” My shock gradually changed to humor, as images from the slides were well above the bodies and heads of those who did mount the stage. It was one of the most surreal moments in my 26 years as a Co-op member.
The two objectionable slides were of fully-uniformed Israeli soldiers carrying assault rifles, surrounding a young woman holding school books and hauling off a blindfolded, t-shirted young man. These images were proclaimed to be “Lies! Lies! Lies!” and for 20 minutes, it was total bedlam.
One brave young African-American woman stood up in the front row, turned around and yelled at the audience, “I want to see the slides!” There were several near-physical confrontations. Board Member Imani Henry who is African-American took the speaker’s mic to try to restore order. Her entreaties were totally and completely ignored.
A small number of voices from around the auditorium began calling out, “Suspend them!” Coop rules permit expulsion, after a hearing, for uncooperative and disruptive behavior.
The four meeting Chairs tried and also failed to restore order. Finally, General Coordinator and Coop founder Joe Holtz got up and began extemporizing. Only he had the moral authority to command respect from both sides, at one point addressing the most out-of-control woman, a 40-year member of the coop, saying, “Really. After all this time?” That shut her up and she sat down. To others he said, “Calm down. It’s not worth your coop membership.”
The presentation was then allowed to proceed, and members of the audience were invited to speak. Five pro-boycott speakers would be followed by five who wanted to speak against the proposal, and so on. A young woman in a leather jacket spoke for the pro-boycott side. She said she’d been born in Israel and raised on a kibbutz by ardent Zionist parents. As a child, her ambition was to be a jet fighter pilot for the IDF. But she said something changed her. She pointed out to the audience, circling her arms to indicate the whole of it. She said, “You changed me. You changed me with your belligerent, militaristic attitude. Hearing the same thing over and over without regard to changing circumstances, transformed me away becoming what I was born to be: a fighter pilot.”
The comment period soon ended because time had run out for the meeting.
I talked to my friend, another long-time member, Carol Lipton. She reminded me that the Coop had a membership drive in the 90’s and reached out to Borough Park, rather than Red Hook, Sunset Park or Brooklyn’s Chinatown. While we have worked for four decades to create a community based on cooperation, equality, diversity, organic farming and sustainability, “we’ve incorporated members whose core values are the antithesis of ours, except for the common denominator of concern for healthful and cheap food,” Lipton said.
Now, six days later, regretful of their acting out, even the anti-boycott website says, “We are our own worst enemy.”
What I learned is that the Coop’s pro-Israeli ideologues are just impotent bullies in the face of democracy. They want the boycott issue to just go away. I say it won’t happen until a full, democratic referendum on BDS is rightly held and all 16,000 members of the Coop have a chance to make their voices heard.
Hold the Hummus: BDS Campaign Gaining Ground by Alex Kane