I just returned from a very long meeting of over 2,000 members of the Park Slope Food Coop, held in the vast Brooklyn Tech High School auditorium in Fort Greene, and the verdict is in:
Park Slope Food Coop members voted "no" to a proposed referendum on whether this 30-year old cooperative supermarket should boycott goods and foods made in Israel.
Over a thousand PSFC members voted to shoot down the referendum proposal, compared to some six hundred who favored it.
Hitting a Nerve
Prior to the meeting, an orderly line of thousands snaked around a full city block, waiting to get in. On line were young hipsters and Hasidim, couples and groups of friends, families and a few kids.
Gaining momentum since mid 2011, the debate first raged mostly in Park Slope and the Coop itself, in the form of letters to the editor of the weekly Park Slope Food Coop newsletter, called the Linewaiter's Gazette. But in recent weeks, the mainstream media has picked up the story. Today the NY Times ran an article quoting NYC Mayor Bloomberg and other local elected officials decrying the effort by the BDS movement to gain a symbolic leg up at the PSFC, a well-known progressive NYC institution.
And symbolic it is: The $45 million owner-run institution actually sells very few Israeli-made products, namely: Sodastream seltzer makers, organic paprika, Israeli couscous, olive pesto or tapenade, vegan marshmallows and organic sweet red peppers.
The evening opened with a stern recitation of the rules of engagement by Coop members whose unpaid work shift it is to run the monthly General Meeting. Then the pro-BDS group who have been promoting the resolution for a referendum on an Israeli boycott presented their case, using both speakers and images projected on a large screen.
Meanwhile, PSFC coop members who stayed in the 'hood (Park Slope) rather than going to what was billed as a potentially fractious meeting lucked out: the Coop itself was reportedly virtually empty of shoppers, a shopping paradise on a Tuesday evening just 10 days before Easter and Passover.
Over 40 Coop members (chosen in a random process) spoke at the auditorium podium, reflecting on their personal experiences of the middle eastern conflict, of their feelings about the Park Slope Food Coop ("more than just a food store," " a community"" a social justice institution," "a model for the way we want the future to be...."), and the connection between food and politics. Some were comedic, but most trended toward earnest.
- Joe Holtz, a founding member of the Park Slope Food Coop, and now the General Coordinator (akin to "c0-founder and senior management") happened to draw a lucky straw and appealed to the audience to vote no to avoid "tearing the community apart."
- One of the founders of the coop BDS meeting also spoke, offering an impassioned if brief description of her life-altering trip to Gaza and decision to bring this issue to the Coop.
- Rabbi Andy Bachman of Congregation Beth Elohim (where the Coop meetings are usually held) spoke about the need for a two state solution, pointing out that the BDS movement does not recognize the rights of the Zionist state.
- And one, a decades-long coop member who has not infrequently run failed campaigns to get elected to the board of the Coop, nearly refused to leave the podium after making a complicated amendment to the proposition under consideration, which was subsequently derailed by actions from the chair.
Borrowing a line from Occupy Wall Street, audience members wiggled their fingers, hands in the air, to signal approval of a speaker's position, and used "thumbs down" gestures to telegraph the opposite. Occasional "boos" and outbursts both of support and opposition were silenced.
NYPD and media, notably a NY 1 truck, were in full force. However, no media were allowed inside, so the cameras, at least the visible ones, remained outside the high school.
Although the meeting chair sternly admonished participants to refrain from tweeting, videoing, taking photos or audio taping the proceedings, Twitter was alive with mostly hilarious commentary, delivered live from the meeting.
It remains to be seen whether this vote is in fact the end of the BDS debate at the Park Slope Food Coop, which is not infrequently lampooned for its uber-liberal stances. The organization's bylaws, written more for discussions of whether to stock beer or beef than how to solve international political issues, don't offer clear guidelines on how to deal with controversial topics that are repeatedly raised for community-wide consideration.
Everyone had to leave the high school auditorium by 10:30. In an understated finish to the evening, members of the audience who had remained to hear the final vote were thanked for their civility, and the final tally was announced. A small cheer rose, and then in small groups, the Park Slope Food Coop members filtered out into a mild March evening, presumably alive to the question of just what it means to be a member of this community.