Justice Prevails in Olympia

The most welcome bit of good news all year comes from Olympia Washington where the Washington Supreme Court not only threw out a punitive (and absurd) six-figure fine imposed on Olympia Food Coop members who brought suit against the Coop, but chucked out the state statute that allowed such a travesty of justice to be imposed in the first place.

For those who were not around when the Olympia Food Coop BDS tale unfolded five years ago, the sequence of events leading up to last week’s decision goes something like this:

In 2010, leaders of the Olympia Food Coop voted to boycott Israeli products at a meeting where no one but those leaders and local BDS activists knew a boycott vote would be taking place.  And when the membership became aware of what had happened (through public announcements that the Coop was now onboard the Israel = Apartheid bandwagon) they protested and highlighted that the decision was made in violation of Coop bylaws.

After several years of failed attempts to work within the organization to get the decision reviewed and possibly rescinded, several members chose to sue the Coop for violating its own rules.  Boycott advocates counter-sued, claiming that the original suit fell under so-called “SLAPP” rules meant to exact a high price on anyone bringing frivolous lawsuits in order to stifle genuine political speech or advocacy.  And, as described in this piece, the original judge in the case decided in favor of boycott proponents, “slapping” anti-boycott advocates with a huge six-figure fine.

An appeal was launched, and just last week a judge determined that not only was the original case not a SLAPP suit, but that the whole SLAPP statute in Washington had become the means to stifle legitimate free speech and advocacy, leading to the law’s revocation.

So now the original case will continue.  And regardless of how you feel about the use of the courts to settle BDS-related disputes (a topic I’ve spent too much time dwelling on over the last few months), it’s fair to say that the only unambiguous (and colossal) injustice in this whole sordid affair has now been buried, and that an unjust law has been buried with it.

I hesitate to hail this as a victory for our side (or the latest #BDSFail) since the now-resumed original case could still go either way, and even ultimate win in the case might come with a cost (albeit not a six-figure one).  But I do think there are important things to learn from this whole sequence of events, above and beyond the fact that our legal system still contains enough safeguards to ensure that good people don’t have to suffer for turning to the law to correct a perceived wrong.

To begin with, if you needed any further illustration of the monstrous selfishness of the BDS “movement,” think for a moment how the Olympian boycotters reacted to the fact that their behind-the-scenes coup at the Coop led to member outrage, resignations, protest and – finally – a lawsuit.  Any normal political organization might have stepped back for just a moment to reflect on the suffering their single-issue partisanship had visited on a community.  But if you read the original gloating responses to the original SLAPP verdict, it’s clear that the BDSers were overjoyed that their neighbors might not have to only eat the boycotter’s shit but pay hundreds of thousands of dollars for the privilege.

The Olympia story might also demonstrate what happens when those fighting against a perceived injustice feel as though they do not have enough options at their disposal.

Having been involved with the Olympia story since it began (an involvement which included a visit to the city – and the Coop, as well as contribution of expert testimony in the original court case), I’ve met members of the Olympia community and come to understand their unique predicament.  For while the anti-Israel community is organized and united around a common cause (holding onto their precious boycott at all cost), those fighting BDS never found their footing when it came time to devise a common political strategy.

Understandably, they tried to work within the system – a system many of them had built as members, leaders and even founders of the Olympia Food Coop.  But when those attempts at rectification and reconciliation were thwarted at every turn, they decided there was no alternative but to turn to the courts.

But, if history is any guide, some of the most successful political action takes place outside “the system” (just ask Martin Luther King – or Saul Alinsky).  Even at Olympia, one of the most successful moments for anti-boycott members came when one of them spent a week camped out at the store in protest, arguing  the injustice of the boycott decision while simultaneously performing hundreds of hours of community service for an organization he loved (despite being hurt by its current leaders).

Such a move represents the kind of direct political action that threw the boycotters off balance without harming anyone in the process (quite the opposite).  And while it’s hard to tell what might have happened if the campaign against the boycott focused on further “controlled conflict” (or even mischief making), I think it’s safe to say that the Jewish community in Olympia (like most Jewish communities, I’m afraid) has never developed a taste for creating conflict that work towards political ends.

Such an attitude is perfectly understandable, given that (like Israel) most Jews (and non-Jews) fighting against propaganda campaigns like BDS would like nothing more than to live in peace and tranquility.  And most of us are understandably appalled at the type of antics routinely practiced by pro-BDS advocates (who are perfectly comfortable sewing conflict to further their ends), which gives us pause when it comes time to decide what our political strategies should be.

I wish I could point to dozens of examples where Israel’s supporters have discovered clever (and unanticipated) tactics that got under the skin of their opponents without causing hurt to those uninvolved with any given BDS conflict, but in many ways the Olympia community resembles the rest of us in that we all try to work within the system when we can, and turn to higher authority (the wider “official” Jewish community, college administrations, or – in the case of Olympia – the courts) when that fails.

But looking back at the great impresarios of political theatre (think Abbie Hoffman), you’ll find that Red Sea Pedestrians make up a large percentage of their ranks.  So I suspect our side has more than enough creativity needed to fight battles using these kinds of tactics.  So what can be done to develop a taste for it in our ongoing fight against a ruthless enemy (one who think he knows everything we’re going to do next)?

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