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Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) At Brooklyn's Park Slope Food Coop
By Dennis James
At a general membership meeting on March 27, 2012, members of the Park Slope Food Coop in Brooklyn, New York decided against holding a referendum on whether to boycott products of Israel and of companies that support Israel's occupation of Palestinian land. The vote was 1,005 to 653. Although the referendum proposal lost, the fact that it garnered 40 percent of the vote in Brooklyn, a community as strongly supportive of Israel as anywhere in the country, was remarkable.
The Park Slope Food Coop (PSFC) was founded in 1973 as an alternative to profit- driven retail food stores. With 16,000 members, it is the largest and oldest member-owned and -operated food coop in the United States. New York law requires that a coop be administered by an elected Board of Directors. The PSFC Board has traditionally deferred to decisions made by a majority of members voting at the monthly general membership meetings. It has also authorized referenda of the entire membership and has abided by the results.
The PSFC has been political since its inception. According to its Mission Statement, "We seek to avoid products that depend on the exploitation of others."
The PSFC boycotted products from the apartheid regime in South Africa; from Coca-Cola, Nestle and Flaum for their unfair labor practices; from non-union grape growers; from Chile for its human rights abuses; and from Colorado for its anti-gay legislation.
In 2006, a few members tried to raise the issue of a boycott to protest Israel's policies toward Palestinians, but the issue never came to a vote. At the January 2009 general meeting—just after Israel's 22-day bombardment of Gaza known as Operation Cast Lead—a young Coop member, attending her first general membership meeting, attempted to raise from the floor the question of the Coop's participation in the BDS of Israel. She was advised by the chair to go through the written procedure for submitting agenda items. In 2010, she linked up with several other members who had been organizing independently, to draft and submit to the PSFC Agenda Committee a resolution calling for a referendum so that all members could vote whether to boycott products from Israel.
By March of 2011 the core group of pro-BDS activists had grown to about 15, meeting every two or three weeks. Eventually a larger group of about 170 was identified as being sympathetic to BDS but unable to participate in meetings. They helped with leafletting and letter-writing.
The core group was well aware of the formidable odds against any attempt to initiate BDS in Brooklyn. Nevertheless, they were determined to bring out into the open an issue that had remained in the shadows, barely acknowledged and rarely discussed. They understood that the principal goal lay in the process, rather than the outcome.
This meant they needed to do extensive educational work. The educational campaign was multi-faceted:
- Leafletting. They created flyers, scheduled distribution at the Coop's entrance, and developed talking points for conversations with members.
- One-on-one discussions during mandatory work shifts. Although leafletting was not allowed inside the Coop, many work shift assignments afforded opportunities for extended discussion of the issues.
- Letters to the editor and articles for The Linewaiters' Gazette, a biweekly shoppers handout which publishes all letters within a 500-word limit, and articles within a 750-word limit. For over a year this humble publication became the battleground for pro- and anti-BDS writers. It was through their letters and articles that the BDS core was able to develop a true picture of Israel's oppression of the Palestinians. This was called Occupation 101.
- Educational programs. The Coop has a meeting room that seats about 60 and is available for programs related to Coop issues. The BDS core put on three programs, showing films of the Operation Cast Lead devastation of Gaza, the traumatic effect the IDF bombardment had on Palestinian children, the damage to the regional ecosystem caused by the settlers' overuse of scarce water resources, and the pollution caused by Israel's weapons industry.
- Interviews with friendly—and unfriendly—media.
- Social networking. Internet-savvy BDSers created a protected Web site for the core to communicate with each other and a Facebook page for them to post statements and information for comment by the Coop membership.
In July 2011, the Coop Board scheduled a non-voting discussion session on the issue of the BDS referendum. After several of the BDS core group gave a short presentation, the floor was opened to two-minute comments by the membership. The thrust of the opposition was largely two-fold: 1) the BDS campaign is anti-Semitic because it singles out Israel among a myriad of human rights violators in the world; and, 2) BDS will destroy the Coop (which is to say, they, the opponents, will leave the Coop). Surprisingly, the number of comments for and against were roughly equal. It also seemed that supporting comments were mostly made by younger members and opposing comments by older members.
Leafletting, letter- and article-writing, Facebooking, and member discussion continued. While civility was the norm, there were occasions when opponents of the referendum shouted insults, spat, shoved, kicked and pulled the hair of BDS proponents.
During this period the media began to take interest, usually critical, but nevertheless helpful in furthering the core's primary objective of bringing into the mainstream discussion of Israel's brutal oppression of the Palestinians and demonstrating there is a substantial number of people who will not remain silent about it.
In early February of this year the Agenda Committee scheduled for the evening of March 27 a vote on whether to hold a referendum. Unless the proposal was withdrawn and resubmitted, the vote would take place at the Brooklyn Technical High School auditorium. Aware that the membership was beginning to suffer leaflet fatigue, the BDS core representatives agreed to the March 27 showdown.
The opposition proceeded to pull out all the stops. They lined up virtually all the local politicians, from ward-heelers to Mayor Michael Bloomberg, who vied with each other in condemning the BDS effort at the PSFC. Bloomberg won the contest with the nearly hysterical remark that, "They [BDS proponents] just want to tear Israel apart and massacre everybody in it." Rabbis in the area admonished Coop members in their congregations to attend the general membership meeting and vote against the referendum. The referendum received endorsements from Alice Walker, Naomi Klein, Jewish Voice for Peace, Jews Say No, Brooklyn for Peace and other organizations. The Media coverage was intense, with CNN, CBS, Fox News, The New York Times, The New York Post,"The Daily Show" and other national and international electronic and print outlets reporting.
Nearly 2,000 Coop members showed up on March 27. (The usual attendance at general meetings is 200 to 300.) Again, several of the BDS core made a presentation. Open commentary followed for about an hour, with occasional raucous heckling by some referendum opponents. The first commentator was one of Coop's co-founders, its paid general manager, who early in the campaign had made public his opposition to the referendum. He made an impassioned plea to vote against the referendum for fear it would "split" and destroy the Coop. It was better, he said, not to take up such controversial subjects, apparently forgetting about the Coop's prior boycotts.
The vote was conducted by secret written ballot. Supporters of the referendum felt that attaining 40 percent of the vote constituted a substantial breach in what months earlier appeared to be a solid wall of opposition. So the story is not over, and the struggle goes on.
Dennis James is a retired attorney living in Brooklyn, NY, and a member of the Park Slope Food Coop. He and his wife, Barbara Grossman, traveled to Gaza with a Code Pink delegation in May and June of 2009.