BDS Flames Out in Davis

On Monday evening, the forces of Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) were handed a major defeat when the Davis Food Co-op, located in Davis California, turned down demands by BDS activists to put a boycott of Israeli goods to a Co-op wide vote.

While this story may not be big enough to hit the national press, the details surrounding the decision make this as significant an event in the continuing annals of BDS failure as the Presbyterian Church’s 2006 decision to abandon divestment altogether (a decision which changed the threat level of BDS from “potential issue” to “serious loser”).

As backdrop, the Davis Food Co-op is a highly successful, member-owned cooperative with a nearly forty year history and over 9000 member-owners. Given the nature of the organization, the institution takes understandable pride in its progressive values and responsiveness to members needs, connections to the community that have contributed to its decades of success.

Sadly, it was these very qualities that made the organization a target for the local branch of the BDS movement, a movement whose two major tactics involve: (1) dressing up their mission of de-legitimization and demonization in a progressive/human-rights vocabulary; and (2) abusing the openness of organizations like the Co-op for their own narrow, political ends.

The Co-op recently reduced the number of members needed to put an issue to a Co-op-wide ballot from 15% to 5%, which gave local BDS organizers the impression that less than 500 signatures were needed to put their proposed ban on Israeli food products to a vote. And so their project kicked off with ongoing “tabling” at the Co-op featuring petitioning backed up by the usual context-free, anti-Israel propaganda (where Israelis were assigned the role of bullying tyrants, the Palestinians that of pristine victims, and the rest of the Middle East and all of history dumped down the memory hole).

Fortunately, large numbers of Co-op members chose to not take this challenge lying down, organizing their own tabling to educate members about the issues, and working with the leadership of the Co-op (with help from the local Jewish community) to inform the Co-op about the true nature of BDS.

What happened next was an exact replay of what’s gone on whenever the boycott project tries to insinuate itself into an open-minded organization. This included all of the bitterness and divisiveness of the Arab-Israeli conflict spilling out into the community, forcing neighbors to take sides in one of the world’s oldest and most complex disputes lest they be accused of betraying their progressive values.

The key to understanding the decision that was taken on Monday is that the Co-op by-laws require that member initiatives must be based on requests that were of a “lawful and proper purpose,” a clause that they agreed would be more “stringently interpreted and enforced” once the threshold for a membership vote was reduced from 15%-5%.

Early in the debate over the proposal, the Co-op’s board focused primarily on the “lawful” part of that phrase, seeming to reject the ballot request due to potential that it might place the organization in legal jeopardy. Now I’ve written before on the issue of whether or not BDS could be considered illegal based on current US anti-boycott legislation, concluding that the matter is murky (or, at least, open to interpretation).

Had the Co-op chosen to nix the boycott on the ground of potential legal risk alone, this would have been within their rights, and certainly would constitute a win over the boycotters. But the Co-op decided to do more than that. Much more.

If you look at the response they released on Monday, (click on the March 15, 2010 Resolution link of this Wiki), their entire reasoning for rejecting the boycott proposal was based on whether the proposal fulfilled the requirement regarding “proper purpose.” And in over a dozen “Whereas-es” (some multi-part), the organization’s leaders made it clear in no uncertain terms that a boycott does not come close to meeting that threshold.

Needless to say, the boycotters complained that, unlike matters of legality, what constitutes “proper purpose” is undefined, and thus open to the interpretation of the organization’s leaders. But that is exactly why the decision made by the organization is so significant.

In this case, “proper purpose” meant the organization deciding which matters were in the community’s interest and which were not. It meant grappling with the core values of the organization, and determining which issues need to be debated in the context of a cooperatively owned supermarket and which didn’t. It meant looking at the obligations the organization owed not just to its membership at large, but also to the wider world. And in each and every case, the institution explained in clarifying detail why BDS did not belong at the Co-op, and why individual choices (like whether or not to buy Israeli oranges) are best left to individuals, not be subject to a majority vote.

All of this is, needless to say, incomprehensible to those behind the boycott attempt since a lack of propriety (i.e., a willing blindness to what constitutes “proper purpose” for themselves and others) is one of the key weapons of anti-Israel activists, giving them license to insert their political project (under various guises) into all manner of civic organization, regardless of what pain or damage this might cause to the institution they are trying to infiltrate.

But on Monday night, the leadership of the Davis Co-op laid down the law in terms that cannot be interpreted as anything other than a sweeping rejection of BDS.

Does this mean that Davis has suddenly become a hotbed of Zionism? Of course not. Political opinions on the Middle East vary within the Davis community on this and other issues as much as they’ve always done. But in making their decision, the Co-op was not making a statement on the Middle East conflict, but was instead taking a stand (based on their own rights and principles) to not be dragged into that conflict just because a group of single-issue partisans tried to exploit the organization’s openness for their own ends.

No doubt, the BDSers who put so much time and effort into this project saw the Davis Co-op as one of the few institutions in America that might be vulnerable to their boycott calls, and hoped to be able to leverage success there to bring the message generated by this debate to other food co-ops and potentially other food retailers across the country.

And in this one case they were absolutely correct that the message from Davis must travel far and wide, warning similar organizations across the land of what happens to an organization when BDS comes knocking.