Maybe we should boycott the extremist boycotters

Mar 05, 2012 Published under Introspection, Middle East

Ginia Bellafante wrote about the absurd politicization of food coop purchases, where the extremist “BDS” boycott Movement (which, incidentally, even Norman Finkelstein recently exposed as being a “cult” that seeks to destroy and replace Israel with a Palestinian State, rather than a realistic solution of two states for two people) is seeking to ban Israeli grocery products from the shelves of the Park Slope Food Coop, and pro-Israeli groups are countering it, turning the whole experience of buying kale into an extraordinarily uncomfortable one.

In her story, Bellafante mentions PeaceWorks’ products, made through cooperative ventures among neighbors striving to coexist, including Israeli Jews, Israeli Arabs, Palestinians, Turks, and until recently, Egyptians.  As the founder of PeaceWorks and the OneVoice Movement, I have noticed not just the silliness of those extremist efforts by BDS, but more so, the negative impact these fights have on the very Palestinian farmers these people purport to support.  Never mind that Palestinian farmers have never heard of these BDS people, who out of the comfort of their armchairs in Berkeley, can afford to advocate extremist positions.  What has happened over the last few years is that anti-Israel activists have begotten anti-Palestinian activists and both of these negative groups, rather than thinking how to strengthen moderates seeking peace on both sides and join forces to achieve a solution, have instead attacked one another publicly and sought to boycott each other’s products at grocery stores across the USA.  Consequently, many friends of mine in the grocery industry are uncomfortable importing Palestinian products or promoting Palestinian or Israeli products, hurting the very people that need this trade most.  Retailers just don’t want to be dealing with these extremists and the headaches they bring.

The New York Times

Collectivism, of course, makes a fetish of process. That is probably the most benign way to interpret what has recently been going on at the co-op, the largest in the country, owned and operated by its 16,000 members. For a few years now, a small contingent has been debating whether the organization should join the global movement known as BDS, which calls for boycotts, divestment and sanctions against Israel until it returns all Arab land occupied in 1967.

Every other week, the co-op’s newspaper is consumed not only by epic, impassioned, sometimes-vitriolic letters about the issue, but also letters about how to talk about the issue, about how to think about the Middle East and about the appropriateness of these kinds of debates in a place that above all exists to purvey the right kind of clementine. There are letters about the kinds of typographical errors made in these letters. At the co-op’s next monthly meeting, on March 27, a vote will be conducted to decide whether a bigger vote, among all co-op members, ought to be conducted, authorizing a boycott of Israeli products.

Calling for a boycott of Israeli-made foods at the Park Slope Food Co-op turns out to be a lot like calling for a boycott of Speedos in Minsk. In addition to Sodastream seltzer makers and replacement cartridges, there are currently only a handful of foods in the whole establishment produced in Israel. One of them, an olive spread made by a company called Peaceworks, uses olives grown in Palestinian villages and glass jars made in Egypt. The company diverts 5 percent of its profits to peace-promoting causes.

That a protest of this scope would be both dubious as a symbolic gesture and utterly absurd as a means of levying economic impact has hardly diluted the tensions of those invested. Great effort is being made to defeat something unlikely to occur. Inside the co-op, an antiboycott faction, which calls itself More Hummus Please, has arisen and organized a conference under the heading The Israeli/Palestinian Conflict Today: Obstacles and Opportunities, scheduled for Sunday. Regional experts and academics like the philosopher Michael Walzer were invited to speak.

Presumably, less energy has gone into creating super PACs. In seeking the best way to deliver its message to the world of Park Slope, the group reached out to the Jewish Community Relations Council of New York and a local rabbi, Andy Bachman of Congregation Beth Elohim, who counseled the antiboycott people to keep the tone of the event nuanced. Sunday’s conference will be held at Old First Reformed Church, near the co-op.

“The BDS people have been having their events in the co-op itself,” Marion Stein, a 15-year member, told me, “and that’s something that we in the Hummus group find very upsetting.”

The intensity of the conversation belies the extent to which the vast majority of co-op members don’t care about a potential boycott, Ms. Stein acknowledged. This was borne out as I stood in front of the co-op one rainy afternoon last week and met several people who knew nothing about the debate and several others who had no interest, and more who were irritated by the fact the discussion was taking place at all.

“The whole thing is ridiculous,” Matt Lewkowicz, a young composer, said of the boycott. “I have plenty of outlets for my political opinions. The co-op isn’t one of them. I just want really good dried fruit.”

As I was speaking with Mr. Lewkowicz, other young people, students at New York University, were gearing up for a demonstration outside Weinstein dining hall the following day. The issue there is the presence of a Chick-fil-A.

The N.Y.U. outpost is the only branch of the Southern chain in New York City. Led by Hillary Dworkoski, a freshman, some students want it evicted from the campus because Chick-fil-A has given money to groups opposing same-sex marriage. That the company, which is led by evangelical Christians, has given tens of millions more through its foundation to help send financially disadvantaged children to college and assist the poor did not offset things in Ms. Dworkoski’s mind. Nor did it seem especially relevant that gay marriage, being legalized in one state after another, has gained a momentum in this country that a retailer of waffle fries is unlikely to impede. Last year, when the issue came before N.Y.U.’s Student Senators Council, the student government body, the group voted against banning Chick-fil-A as a matter of free expression.

The co-op, despite the wonderful job it does providing organic foods at affordable prices, suffers from its own adolescent myopia: It believes that what it does has broad implications. Suppressing hummus on Union Street won’t change the world.

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  1. Stop BDS Park Slope said:

    Dear Daniel -

    I am the organizer of More Hummus, Please mentioned in the New York Times article. Thank you for your wise words, and I hope that they will be influential in resolving this issue in Park Slope. You are 100% correct. The only thing the BDS movement does is further entrench the extremist elements on both sides.


    P.S. I think you have a typo in this sentence below. You want to say either “not comfortable” or “uncomfortable” instead of “not uncomfortable”.

    Consequently, many friends of mine in the grocery industry are not uncomfortable importing Palestinian products or promoting Palestinian or Israeli products, hurting the very people that need this trade most.

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