In retrospect, many a BDS failure seems inevitable. For instance, last night’s decision by the leaders of the Greenstar Food Coop in Ithaca, New York simply continues the 100% failure rate of BDS among food cooperatives (or at least those cooperatives where all members are aware of and allowed to participate in debate on the matter).
But such victories are never really spontaneous. Rather, they are the result of smart and strong people within a community (like Greenstar) doing the right things at the right time on the ground. And even if my “BDS is a loser” meme can be legitimately criticized as being overly optimistic with regard to the frailty of the BDS strategy, I’m really more of a pragmatist when it comes to taking on the boycotters. And the pragmatic maxim that best describes the situation at Greenstar (and elsewhere) is that victory goes to those with the best ground game.
So what’s been going on in Ithaca?
To begin with, the BDSers got their claws into Greenstar using the same techniques we’ve seen across the country since food coops became a target for anti-Israel propagandists. Like similar organizations, Greenstar is a non-profit with relatively loose rules of governance – especially rules surrounding member ballot initiatives.
Those less-than-airtight rules usually demonstrate trust within an organization that one set of members won’t take advantage of the situation in ways that can hurt others or damage the institution. Which is why the BDSers proposed their boycott motion and demanded it be put to a vote – the needs of Greenstar and its members be damned.
Giving members options to strip different Israeli or Israel-related products from store shelves was no doubt a gamble that at least one of their choices would get the majority of a minority needed to prevail, just as aggressive arguments that coop leaders had no choice but to do what the boycotters said (lest they be accused of betraying democracy and stifling debate) was a gamble that they could find someone to fall for arguments that have failed elsewhere.
But as other coops (and similar non-profits) have articulated and demonstrated, democracy does not necessarily mean that a simple majority (or, more specifically, a majority of a minority) of voters gets to take a political stance that will be associated with every man, woman and child in the institution (especially once the BDSers start broadcasting such an association around the planet).
In this particular instance, an elected leadership Council for Greenstar has a responsibility to ensure a particular member initiative would not be financially or legally irresponsible or conflict with the organization’s bylaws before it be given a stamp of approval and sent on for a member-wide vote. And local members opposed to any boycott were both organized and able to focus on explaining/demonstrating to the Council why Israel boycott measure fell afoul of all of these conditions.
No doubt in-store tabling and presentations at public meetings also played a part in the Council’s ultimate decision, given that they allowed an articulate set of boycott opponents to state their case (while also demonstrating the acrimony that would inevitably visit the organization if they did what the BDSers claimed was their only allowable option). But, in the case of last night’s vote, it was the arguments specifically targeting conditions for rejection (legal irresponsibility, economic irresponsibility and conflict with the bylaws) that proved decisive.
While the Council based their decision on legal arguments provided by outside attorneys unaffiliated with any partisan group, the work that local activists performed to demonstrate the risk the coop faced on both the legal and economic fronts should not be minimized. For example, an economic analysis of what the cost of a boycott would be to Greenstar’s brand (written by a local business professor) is one of those new and intriguing documents one runs into when doing anti-BDS work that makes you wonder why our side spends so much time repeating old mantras asking why the boycotters don’t give up their cell phones.
And even the legal argument, focused as it was around whether or not a boycott would violate New York anti-discrimination law, entered public discussion thanks to anti-boycott forces and supporters.
It should also be noted that rejecting the boycott for legal reasons highlights the role recent anti-BDS legislation working its way through state legislators (and the US Congress) can play in subsequent boycott and divestment debates. For, in this case, the very existence of relevant anti-discrimination law in the state of New York gave coop leaders the legitimate justification they needed to show BDS the door. And the fact that the legal advice upon which they based their decision came from experts without an axe to grind in the Middle East conflict allowed the Greenstar Council to say “No” to BDS without having to take sides between competing groups.
This last point is instructive since it is highly likely that all of the arguments, debates, presentations and materials (not to mention hostility) generated by the boycott fight meant the Council was looking for a way to get out of having to go to a vote, with all the pain that would have caused the organization, its leaders and its members. In which case, New York law provided them the means to get BDS out of Greenstar’s system without requiring the coop’s leaders to seem to agree with one side vs. the other.
Given the squishiness one often finds within volunteer organizations built around consensus confronting ruthless BDS partisans insisting their demands be met, I think it’s an open question whether this same legal argument would have been so decisive absent a well-organized and firm opposition showing up at every meeting, talking to coop leaders face-to-face, and generally leveraging the trust they had built up over years of involvement with Greenstar to get people to listen to something other than BDS blandishments and moral blackmail.
That aforementioned branding study highlighted a point that comes up whenever boycotts are proposed: that the boycotters are absolutely free to not buy all the Israeli products they like (or hate) and to convince others to do the same (just as Israel’s supporters are free to buy out those same products to show their opposition to BDS). But, as everyone knows, Israel haters not buying Israeli goods is not news. Which is why those pushing for this motion at Greenstar were so desperate to generate an event they could spin as their propaganda message representing more than the belief of a marginal fringe.
But as with every other coop in the country (save one), that attempt was stopped cold thanks to wise leaders and state legislators, but mostly due to the hard work of a dedicated group of on-the-ground activists which history continues to demonstrate to be one of the most unstoppable forces in the universe.