A Tale of Two Co-ops

Below is a piece I’ve developed for another project (more details as they become available). If anyone is involved with or aware of boycott projects going on at co-ops other than the ones mentioned in this story, please pass this onto them as a resource.

Unlike large commercial retailers, locally owned food cooperatives are highly responsive to local constituencies, notably the membership who are the co-op’s official owners. But the very things that make a membership-owned co-op an important part of a community (an open ear to member concerns, a commitment to political causes of local interest) also make them vulnerable to BDS advocates claiming that co-op principles require them to take part in boycotts of Israeli goods.

Two recent examples illustrate how things can go very right and very wrong when boycott gets on the agenda of a local co-op community.

Early in 2010, members of the Davis Food Co-op in Davis, California presented a petition asking that a boycott of Israeli foods carried by the store be put to a member vote. While the petitioners claimed to have the required number of signatures (5%) needed to institute such a vote, the organization’s by-laws also required that the co-op’s board of directors first approve a vote by determining if the proposed question is legal and serves a “proper purpose.”

Fortunately, community members against the boycott were made aware of what was being proposed and worked tirelessly to ensure that the board was hearing from a variety of voices, not just those advocating for BDS. In addition to taking input from all parties, the board sought outside legal advice as well as researching what other co-ops had done when faced with similar situations.

Davis’ decision regarding the legality of BDS was straightforward, acknowledging the ambiguity of whether or not US anti-boycott law was applicable in the case of a local co-op boycott. But their determination that the boycott did not meet the test of being “proper” represents one of the most insightful statements ever written on the subject of BDS.

While their complete resolution rejecting the boycott runs several pages, the key points they made included statements pointing out that:

* A boycott would require the organization to accept as truth statements made by BDS advocates that could, at best, be characterized as opinion or selective presentations of fact.

* A boycott would require the organization to hand administration and discretion over the running of parts of the organization to a third party (BDS) that had no fiduciary or any other responsibility to the co-op or its members.

* A boycott would conflict with general principles of the international co-op movement (called the Rochdale Principles) which emphasize “political (and religious) neutrality and the dangers of meddling in political (and religious) affairs” as well as calling for cooperation with other co-ops (including ones in Israel).

The resolution also noted that cooperatives “that have failed to abide by this essential principle of political neutrality have been harmed by the divisiveness that such issues cause among members.”

What is most remarkable about the Davis decision was that it was not based on any particular reading of rights and wrongs in the Middle East conflict, but rather analyzed the significance of a boycott decision solely with regard to its impact on the co-op community itself. As such, the Davis resolution rejecting a boycott as not serving a proper purpose stands as an example not simply to other co-ops, but to any civic organization flirting with boycott, divestment and sanctions.

To see what happens to an organization that fails to heed these warnings, one need look no further than the Olympia Co-op in Olympia Washington which passed a boycott measure months after the Davis decision.

Unlike Davis (and unlike other co-ops where boycott debates took place), input from members with differing perspectives and opinions was profoundly absent in the Olympia decision-making process.

At Olympia, a written boycott policy states that boycott decisions are to be made based on a consensus of the store’s staff (not by a member vote, and not by the organization’s board). Yet when such a staff consensus failed to emerge, the board exercised a conflict-resolution clause in the organization’s bylaws that allowed it to intervene in staff disputes. While it became a subject of debate whether this represented a bending vs. breaking of the rules, what is not in dispute is the fact that the decision to boycott was made solely by the board in the presence of a group of BDS activists, with no room made to allow dissenting voices into the conversation.

The results of this decision were predictable. After the boycott was decided, members woke up to discover from the international press that their co-op had joined the global BDS movement and that the store where they had shopped for years was now being hailed as unquestionable accepting the truth of accusations against “Apartheid Israel.”

The conflict continues to be played out with some members resigning in disgust and accusations of racism, anti-Semitism, indifference to human rights abuses and bad faith pouring out in forums throughout the organization. Where discussions of nutrition and community-building once took center stage, today it is pickets and denunciations that take place within the organization.

While it is unclear whether Olympia will join other organizations that have recognized their mistake and reversed direction on boycotts, the organization (like all civic institutions) could have truly benefited from the wisdom generated a few hundred miles south at Davis, a decision that (unlike Olympia) was not made in a vacuum.

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14 Responses to A Tale of Two Co-ops

  1. Anonymous August 26, 2010 at 11:32 pm #

    More whitewashing of Israel's illegal and immoral policies…..

  2. Anonymous August 27, 2010 at 12:28 am #

    Thought you might find this interesting (Israeli actors refusing to appear in the west Bank !)


  3. Anonymous August 27, 2010 at 3:26 am #

    Is there a relation between Olympia, Washington and the BDS movement? It was my impression that most of the BDS movements start on college campuses.

  4. DrMike August 27, 2010 at 5:55 am #

    Jon, you certainly have gotten the attention of the BDS community, given the increased frequency of “anonymous” comments lately. But the first two comments above once again try to use the smokescreen that BDS is about “Israel's policies”, or that it's about the occupation of the West Bank (for which Israel has been trying to get Abbas to negotiate for over a year, but Abbas keeps insisting on getting all of his preconditions met first; doesn't sound like HE'S desperate to end the occupation!).
    You might need to continue to remind some of your readers that BDS is not (only) about the occupation, it's about the existence of Israel as the state of the Jewish people. Yes it is aimed at ending Jewish control of part of the West Bank. But it's also aimed at ending Jewish control over Tel Aviv and Haifa. The people behind the BDS movement are more than clear about this– see http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ifZLk6Ei9-U .

  5. Anonymous August 27, 2010 at 7:54 pm #

    Dear Dr Mike: we agree that Israel occupies the West Bank. Unfortunately, it gets worse. Israel has transferred its civilian population to these occupied lands and built settlements in defiance of international law and numerous UN resolutions. These settlements have nothing to do with Israel's security but have everything to do with rendering a viable Palestinians state impossible.

    With regards to the youtube link, please explain how Israel says it wants a two state solution but has been doing everything in its power to destroy any chance of it with its settlement enterprise. You can't say one thing and do another Dr Mike.

  6. Ben August 28, 2010 at 12:49 am #

    Since BDS' ultimate goal is a one-state solution, I'm not sure why its advocates aren't more thrilled that the Palestinians honestly do not want a two-state resolution that would involve the same terms for the West Bank and part of Jerusalem that were rejected repeatedly over the past decade because (wait for it) they didn't provide Palestinian non-refugees with the “right of return” to Israel. BDS is ultimately as rejectionist as Hamas or PIJ or (by and large) the PA, so it's nice to have this much evidence that they're hypocrites. I'd be Anonymous too if I had to try and spin for BDS.

  7. Fred August 28, 2010 at 1:30 am #

    Ben unfortunately your post is full of misinformation.

    The “ultimate” goal of the BDS movement is not a one state solution. As stated above the goal of the settlements has always been to create a greater Israel between the river and the sea which makes the creation of a Palestinian state impossible.

    The goal of the BDS movement is to put an end to israel's occupation, illegal settlements, and apartheid policies by boycotts, divestment and sanctions.

    Israel has 3 choices 1 state for all in which the Jews eventually will not have a majority, 2 viable states, or the status quo of occupation, settlements, separation walls, checkpoints…I.e. Apartheid.

    The Palestinians have never rejected a viable peace plan because none has been offered by Israel.

    Don't know what you mean by the “non refugees right of return”. If it is meant to make fun, trivialize or deny the reality of the the 3/4 million refugees that resulted from the creation of Israel in 1948, then you are the hypocrite.

    With regards to anonymity,all I know about you is that your first name is Ben. I have included my first name to make you feel better.

  8. Berd August 28, 2010 at 6:03 pm #

    The olympia food co-op boycott of products from israel is about noncooperation with evil.

    What the government of israel and some israelis are doing to palestinians is unconscionable, and i believe can rightly be understood as evil behavior.

    The boycott is designed to alert the body politic to this evil behavior, so that it can be appropriately and nonviolently ended, for the betterment of all people, including both palestinians AND jews.

  9. Jon August 28, 2010 at 8:05 pm #

    Unless, of course, the problems facing the Middle East (especially Israelis and Palestinians) are not the result of Israel or its government but are instead the result of the dysfunctional politics within all of the non-Israel governments in the region (including those of the Palestinian) which created the plight of the Palestinians, a plight they are ready to perpetuate for several more decades if necessary.

    If this is the case, then there is indeed evil and unconscionable behavior going on, but it is you and your fellow BDSers who are acquiescing to and supporting it.

    I understand the possibility that you might be in the service of evil flies in the face of your self-image as being omniscient about the issues and unquestionably virtuous in all things. But your desire to never question your own premises must be balanced by the fact that your behavior might lead to the continual suffering and death of thousands or tens of thousands or hundreds of thousands of people. If, in the name of maintaining your own self image, you are willing to take the chance of contributing to so much suffering, the rest of us will be forced to draw the appropriate conclusions regarding your continued pose as the voice of morality.

  10. Anonymous August 30, 2010 at 1:56 pm #

    Berd: So to summarize the garbage spewed by Jon above 1. Israel has done no wrong and the plight of the Palestinians is the fault of the Palestinians and other “non-Israel” governments 2. Your support of the BDS movement will contribute to the death and suffering of hundreds of thousands of people.

    Talk about never questioning ones premises !

  11. Jon August 30, 2010 at 3:56 pm #

    Dear Anon – I simply pointed out that unless it was objectively 100% true that Israel is the sole reason for misery in the region (not Palestinian politics, not the dysfunctional politics of other contries in the region, or any other factor) then there is the non-zero chance that it is supporters of BDS and not supporters of Israel who are in coalition with what Berd refers to as “evil.”

    Now most critics of Israel take as a given that Israel's supporters are willing to accept some responsibility for the crisis in the region, which is why you become so angry when we don't accept 100%. Meanwhile, your unwillingness to accept any responsiblity for anything ever permanently absolves you from thinking through the consequences of your action, even if those consequences could lead to the suffering (and even death) of others.

    I'm just saying…

  12. DrMike August 31, 2010 at 1:44 am #

    Unfortunately, Anon also seems to have adopted the subtle but ultimately destructive racism that says that the Palestinians can only be victims, that they have no responsibility for their choices, and that they cannot be expected to adhere to standards of behavior expected of other peoples.
    Fortunately, there does seem to be some responsible Palestinian leadership moving beyond that. However, if the “supporters” of the Palestinians lock that leadership into another self-defeating set of demands (such as demanding the fictional “right” of return of great grandchildren of 1948 refugees), then they will have succeeded in preventing peace between a Jewish state of Israel and an Arab state of Palestine. Of course, such a peace is not something the proponents of BDS are willing to accept. Again, if you don't believe me, check out the video I referenced above and hear them say it in their own words.

    And Fred, check out the map in Dennis Ross' The Missing Peace (http://www.mideastweb.org/lastmaps.htm) and please explain why that contiguous Palestinian state in the West Bank was not a “viable” offer.

  13. Fred September 1, 2010 at 3:58 am #

    Dr Mike please be reminded that Dennis Ross is one of the founders of AIPAC, not exactly an unbiased and neutral person in this conflict. The selection of Mr Ross to be a lead figure on the US delegation and negotiating team is typical US policy and very telling. The US policy towards this conflict had always been one sided and unfair. Did the US team include an American Muslim for another possible point of view? Obviously not. So what Mr. Ross says I take with a few grains of salt.

  14. Victor September 1, 2010 at 4:37 pm #

    Dennis Ross was born in 1948. AIPAC was founded in 1953. Not bad for a 5 year old!

    Ross was a cofounder, with Martin Indyk, both seasoned career diplomats, of WINEP – Washington Institute for Near East Policy – an AIPAC affiliated think tank. So what? Who IS a “neutral observer”? The Arabist State Department that bends over backwards for Saudi good graces?

    The notion that the US must include a Muslim in its delegation to be credible is outrageous. Should we use Russian-Americans to negotiate with Russians? Or Chinese-Americans to negotiate with Chinese?

    Ross has risen to his rank based on competence and merit, not his religious affiliation.

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