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Boycott Vegan Marshmallows? Park Slope Food Coop Faces Anti-Israel Campaign

March 4 & 27th Meetings. Beyond Tapenade & Paprika, It's Symbolic Politics

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Boycott Vegan Marshmallows? Park Slope Food Coop Faces Anti-Israel Campaign

The Park Slope Food Coop held a lengthy deliberation and vote on whether to sell beer.

Photo by EF

BDS Tempest in a Tempe Pot?

Brooklyn's highly visible Park Slope Food Coop, which with over 16,000 members is the largest member-owned and run food cooperative in the United States, has become embroiled in a media campaign focused on that most intractable conundrum: middle eastern politics.

At issue is a push by a vocal faction of Coop members to have the Coop join a protest boycott of Israeli goods known as the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) campaign, which advocates for the Palestinian cause.

Politics in the Pesto as Palestinian Activists Target Brooklyn Institution

While, anecdotally, it seems that some Park Slope Food Coop members are unaware of the debate — which has been raging in the letters to the editor pages of the in-house newsletter, the Linewaiters' Gazette for months — an uncounted number are in favor of the action. It's also a standing joke on the check-out line of this famously liberal-left institution that the Coop might do better to boycott Texas or, recently, Pennsylvania (for bringing us George Bush and, more recently, Rick Santorum). A more serious critique is that stepping into this international imbroglio is a stretch for what's basically a supermarket.

5 Facts about the Proposed Boycott Vote

1. What Israeli Products Does the Park Slope Food Coop Sell?

According to a notice on the Park Slope Food Coop Website, posted in mid-February 2012, "The Coop carries very few items produced in Israel. Here is a current list:
  • Sodastream seltzer maker and replacement cartridges,
  • organic paprika,
  • Israeli couscous,
  • olive pesto or tapenade,
  • vegan marshmallows and
  • organic sweet red peppers."

2. $45 Million Annual Business

According to Ann Herpel, a Park Slope Food Coop coordinator and media spokesperson, the annual revenue of the Food Coop is about $45 million, of which the Israeli products listed above, she said, "represent a small percentage."

3. Key 2012 Dates for Park Slope Food Coop Members

On March 27th, 2012 the Park Slope Food Coop will hold a meeting, open to members only, to discuss and vote on a resolution to hold a referendum on whether to boycott Israeli products at the Food Coop, and join the BDS campaign. That is, it's a vote on whether to vote.

Public education events are being held on both sides of the debate.

On March 4, the anti-boycott organizers participated in offsite meeting sponsored by the Progressive Voices for Peace in the Middle East featuring political philosopher Mchael Walzer and others.

On February 28th, just weeks before the vote-on-the-vote, members screened a documentary on Coop premises, made by a coop member, about four Palestinian families, set in 2004. "The film was a member-initiated event," said Herpel, adding that any member can schedule community events at the Coop's upstairs common room, if there is space available on the calendar.

A March 8th issue of the Coop newsletter ran an open letter asking members to vote against the boycott referendum proposal from Coop paid staff and management (who are called, in Coop lingo, coordinators).

4. About the March 27th Meeting

Usually, Coop meetings are held at the 400-seat auditorium of a local synagogue in Park Slope. In a rare change of venue, the March 27, 2012 boycott referendum vote meeting has been called for a much larger space, at Fort Greene's Brooklyn Tech High School Auditorium, which accommodates up to 1,500 people. Only Coop members, whose current membership will be checked and approved at the door, will be allowed to participate.

Staff of the Park Slope Food Coop issued a statement online saying, "On Tuesday, March 27, the General Meeting (GM) of the Park Slope Food Coop will consider a member-initiated proposal to hold a Coop-wide referendum about joining the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement. Coop members at the meeting will be voting to approve or reject the proposal to conduct a referendum (by paper ballot sent to every Coop member). The meeting will not be voting on whether to join BDS." (See the full statement).

The official communique continues, "The decision-making body of the Coop is the monthly General Meeting to which all members are invited. The GM is part of the monthly meeting of our Board of Directors. Member-initiated discussions at our GM are part of the process of making decisions at the Coop. Every member who attends a meeting has a vote, and any member can bring an agenda item to a GM by submitting an item to the elected Agenda Committee whose responsibility is to compile and finalize the monthly agenda."

5. Who Is Calling for the Boycott? What Is the Response?

Institutionally, the Park Slope Food Coop itself hasn't initiated the boycott referendum discussion; some members have. It's unknown what the Coop membership at large thinks about the Palestinian-Israeli issue in general, about the boycott campaign, or about the boycott referendum at the Coop.

But, there's concern about impact of this tough, divisive topic on the community fabric of the Coop, which prides itself on having fostered a strong, diverse, positive community of members.

Indeed, some people have vowed to quit the Coop if an actual boycott of Israeli products becomes Coop policy (although it's unclear whether a "yes" to having a referendum on a boycott would trigger an exodus). One long-time member who preferred not to give his name but said he'd spent about 800 hours over a quarter-century working shifts at the Coop, said, "I'm out of there if it passes," adding ruefully, "even though I love the broccoli sprouts and vegetarian hotdogs." (Members are required to work Coop shifts lasting two and three quarter hours every four weeks.)

Yet some, obviously, consider the Coop's prior history of political engagement sufficient precedent to justify raising the question of a BDS boycott.

The BDS campaign focuses on human rights issues, and aligns itself with other peaceful boycott movements.

A sticking point among some Jewish Coop members is that the BDS campaign does not clearly say whether it acknowledges the right of the state of Israel, founded in 1948 as a Jewish homeland, to exist.

To learn more, see the BDS website the Coop's opposition to BDS page, and the mission statement of the Park Slope Food Coop.

Symbolic Politics

No matter how many soda makers and how many pounds of couscous, vegan marshmallows and paprika the Coop's 16,000 members can buy, clearly what seems to be at stake is a symbolic, not an economic, statement.

Known as a progressive bellwether — and often ridiculed for its over-the-top political correctness — this local institution offers a public education platform for advocacy. The lengthy process by which anything major is approved at the Coop (see below) guarantees a protracted public dialogue. Indeed, the controversy has reached major media with articles appearing in such publications as The Wall Street Journal.

Park Slope Food Coop: An Opinion-Rich Broth of Views

The Park Slope Food Coop is an opinion-rich institution that takes itself, its forums, and its stances, seriously.

And, because it's a cooperative, not a normal business, relatively minor issues that elsewhere would be in the purview of management become topics of months-long public deliberation.

In terms of PR, it doesn't hurt that the Coop counts among its members numerous writers, bloggers, journalists, filmmakers and activists of various stripes.

But typically the points of controversy at the Coop might be described as inside-baseball issues.

For instance, Coop members have discussed and voted on whether to carry beer and beef (both finally were approved), whether to allow the use of debit or credit cards (the former was approved, the latter, considered regressive, was not), whether to sell bottled water (discontinued on environmental grounds) and whether to stop using rolled plastic bags (being phased out). Years ago, it took some time before the Park Slope Food Coop members decided to install electric belts at the registers. The introduction of bar code scanners caused some controversy.

Each of these decisions followed a lengthy democratic process: introduction of a concern to an agenda committee, followed by discussion and in some cases a vote of members at a monthly meeting.

Previous politically-inspired boycotts, for instance of grapes, was not met with much, if any, resistance from the community, as the BDS initiative has been.

The Palestinian-Israeli conflict has been raging for over sixty years, with no end in sight; that's a lot of couscous under the bridge. It remains to be seen whether the Park Slope Food Coop will weigh in, and if so, with what consequences.

Note: The author has been a member of the Park Slope Food Coop since the last century.

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