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The Dawn of the Meta-Vote

Date posted: Thursday, April 5, 2012

Examining the Park Slope Food Coop’s referendum on the boycott of Israeli goods.

samantha bee

“This isn’t going to be pretty . . . but neither is an enema!”

—Longtime member of the Park Slope Food Coop

If you’ve lived in Brooklyn for a decent length of time, you’ve likely heard of the Park Slope Food Coop. Seemingly embodying Park Slope’s current image of yoga class-taking, expensive stroller-pushing, wine tasting-attending, 30-something, white, yuppie couples, it is a favorite whipping boy for bashing the neighborhood in which it is located. But the Coop’s membership also serves an opposite role: as a bastion of the neighborhood’s old guard. Twenty years ago, before massive commercial investment and re-development, Park Slope was known as a mixed income, mixed race area and a sanctuary for New York’s vibrant middle class. The quote at the beginning of this article is a relic of those times, pronounced at the Coop’s general membership meeting last week by an elderly black gentleman who stated he had been a member for thirty years. These meetings, held on a monthly basis and sparsely attended, are often dry, technical affairs. However, last week’s motion to hold a referendum on joining the BDS movement (Boycott, Disinvestment and Sanctions against Israel) drew an unusually large and hostile crowd.

The BDS movement was launched in 2005 in response to the International Court of Justice’s ruling that the construction of an Israeli wall on Palestinian territories is contrary to international law. The stated goal of BDS is to financially pressure Israel “until it complies with international law and Palestinian rights,” and the movement has won some high-profile advocates, including Arch-Bishop Desmond Tutu, and ignited debate around the world. Now the Park Slope Food Coop has joined the controversy.

The Coop’s referendum vote drew the attention of some serious trouble makers—in the weeks leading up to the vote, the Coop received a bomb threat and a poison threat, and, on the day of the vote, a man distributing pro-boycott literature in front of the Coop was attacked. The vote also drew an incredible amount of media attention. It was covered by the major networks’ local news programs, the Daily News, NY1 and even brought Brooklyn the honor of a visit from Glenn Beck. He addressed a sparse crowd at a Crown Heights synagogue last month, attacking the Coop and the BDS (and even President Obama).

But perhaps the most visible coverage came from a segment on Comedy Central’s The Daily Show that has over 100,000 views. With its trademark mocking tone, “reporter” Samantha Bee’s segment gave public voice to the derision often hoisted on the Coop’s for taking itself too seriously. At one point, while speaking to a member of the anti-boycott group, “More Hummus. Please,” which equates a boycott with an attempt to destroy the state of Israel, Bee raises her eyebrows and says, “We are talking about a grocery store, right?”

The humorous question was well timed and points out the perceived absurdity of the whole situation. The answer to the question, however, is: no. The Park Slop Food Coop is not, and never has been, a grocery store. To understand why—and to get at the most important aspect of the entire controversy—we must examine the Coop’s mission statement: The statement begins:

The Park Slope Food Coop is a member-owned and operated food store—an alternative to commercial profit-oriented business. As members, we contribute our labor: working together builds trust through cooperation and teamwork and enables us to keep prices as low as possible within the context of our values and principles. Only members may shop, and we share responsibilities and benefits equally. We strive to be a responsible and ethical employer and neighbor. We are a buying agent for our members and not a selling agent for any industry. We are a part of and support the cooperative movement. We offer a diversity of products with an emphasis on organic, minimally processed and healthful foods. We seek to avoid products that depend on the exploitation of others. We support non-toxic, sustainable agriculture.

When reading this, most people focus on the theme of shared labor for the purpose of lower costs. This, however, does not sum up what the Coop as an entity strives to embody, for the fact is that by standing outside the mainstream supply chain, the Coop is inherently a political organization. The “do no harm” element of this stance is central to both the Coop’s identity and the current issue of potential BDS solidarity. Indeed, the Coop has joined past boycott actions, including Coca-Cola (for supporting death squads who killed union organizing factory leaders, Nestle (for encouraging mothers to use their products in place of breastfeeding), Colorado (for anti-gay legislation), South Africa (during apartheid) and Flaum Appetizing (a Brooklyn food company for firing undocumented workers who requested minimum wage after working 60-80 hour weeks for nearly a decade).

In response to the volume of discussion on its BDS referendum vote, the Coop rented Brooklyn Technical High School’s auditorium to host the anticipated crowds. Approximately 2,000 members—one-eighth of the Coop’s 16,000 members—turned out: yuppies, Rastas, seniors, Hasidic Jews, butch lesbians, hipsters, and everyone else in between. Local news cameras captured the scene outside, interviewing attendees as they waited in a line that literally circled the block. Inside the building, two-and-a-half hours were reserved for members to address the assembled crowd on whether to even hold a referendum. To clarify, this was not a vote on whether or not to join a boycott of the state Israel. It was a vote on whether or not to hold a membership-wide referendum on whether or not to boycott the state of Israel. It was a “meta-vote,” as I jokingly phrased it that night, a piece of procedural wrangling gone amuck.

Commentary was often impassioned and ranged from the ridiculous to highly articulate. It rarely focused on the essential underlying issue—namely, whether a referendum was appropriate—but instead centered on whether a boycott was appropriate. Those who spoke in favor of a referendum did so from a common viewpoint—that Israel’s policies in the Palestinian territories are wrong; hence stocking Israeli products violates the Coop’s policy of not purchasing items that depend on the exploitation of others.

A common refrain from anti-referendum speakers echoed Noam Chomsky’s stance that the BDS’s “hypocrisy is so transparent . . . why not boycott the United States? . . . Israeli crimes [are] a fragment of U.S. crimes, which are much worse.” More specifically, it was pointed out that the U.S. largely funds Israel’s armed forces; therefore, a U.S. boycott would be necessary to really address the issue at hand. Such absolutism, while holding its own internal logic, fails to recognize the central concept of a boycott’s functionality—that, when carried out on a large scale, the boycott will send a clear message that U.S. consumers object to the Israeli state’s military tactics. This in turn pressures politicians both in Israel and the U.S. to alter the rules of politico-military engagement with Palestinians.

The flipside to this macro-level engagement is a concern for the average citizens who may suffer from a boycott. A young Israeli woman conveyed this sentiment at the meeting. She spoke of her nation’s desire for peace and her feeling of encouragement by the membership’s passion for the issue. She cautioned, however, that a boycott would extend an air of confrontation; she felt it would generate increased negativity and possibly cause resentment among the Israeli people. This conflation of social action with a perpetuation of violence is a faulty line of reasoning; it misses the value of political assertiveness. Pursuing the interests of peace does not mean that individuals should not voice dissent against their leaders’ courses of action. While I sympathize with the speaker’s concern for the financial consequences that would likely be felt by some, this is part and parcel of a boycott’s mechanism. The imposition of such financial constraints sends a direct message to the offending society or company, not only the executives, but also the general public or employees as the case may be, which in turn creates internal pressure for change. This has proved effective during boycotts of California grapes, Nike, apartheid South Africa, Burma, and various nations and companies involved in the diamond trade.

The last, and perhaps most potent, argument against the referendum was posed by an older Jewish man. Balding and bespectacled, he spoke with a French accent and exuded a professorial air, challenging the nature of the BDS as an organization. The BDS movement claims to represent 171 Palestinian NGOs, many of which are suspected of being shadow organizations; he claimed that they used underhanded tactics to inflate their visibility and claim to legitimacy. There are also claims that the BDS’s true intention is the destruction of the state of Israel, the veracity of which is as murky as the organization’s origins.

When the night ended, the referendum was voted down by a 60-40 margin. I had come to the meeting with little idea of the BDS or the referendum process. I had my own feelings on Israel’s military and political actions but was open minded on deciding whether a boycott was appropriate. The very fact that this vote drew such a large, emotional crowd belies the interest that the membership has both for and against the topic of a boycott. It became obvious to me that a unified contingent blocked a vote not because it was inappropriate but because the potential result might conflict with personal politics. That is inherently undemocratic and contradicts the Coop’s mission “to maximize participation at every level, from policy making to running the store.”

One of the final speakers of the night was a young Jewish man who spoke eloquently about his opposition to a boycott. He felt that it took the wrong stance on the conflict and was reductionist in its view of the Israeli state. This gentleman stated unequivocally that if a boycott took place, he would leave the Coop. He also stated in no uncertain terms, that he supported the referendum because that is how decision making at the Coop, a democratic, member-run organization, is meant to be carried out. After hearing this, it was difficult to ignore the fact that if such political altruism were more prevalent, perhaps a solution to the Arab-Israeli conflict might be closer within our reach.

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Noah A. Barth holds a B.A. in Sociology and an M.S. in International Development from Tulane University. He has been a proud Park Slope Food Coop member since 2009.

View all posts by Noah A. Barth →


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