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.

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.

Are BDSers being played for fools?

BDS is on the verge of scoring yet another spectacular failure, this time at the Davis Food Co-op where Co-op members and the Jewish community have worked together to help the Co-op’s leadership understand the true agenda behind a group of boycott partisans trying to put the decision of who can buy what at the store to a vote. I won’t jinx this cause before final decisions are made next week, but suffice to say things are looking no better for boycott advocates today than they did last year when Trader Joe’s gave BDS the brush off.

I’ve commented before on how the lack of actual success after a decade of BDS activity has left divestment advocates with a challenge on how to create and sustain a feeling of momentum. While BDS has proven an effective means of social bonding among anti-Israel activists, years of failures and reversals leave the BDS boosters/boasters with a serious credibility gap that needs to be filled by something.

Their most recent answer when challenged to demonstrate the success of their “movement” (which, on the surface seems to careen between ineffective and catastrophic) is to highlight the response of Israel’s supporters to their project.

I’ve recently highlighted how BDS is now on the national agenda of Jewish Community Relations Councils nationwide, and the issue of boycotts and divestment has even managed to unite vast swarths of the Jewish political world, with everyone from J-Street on the Left to ZOA on the Right condemning BDS as a militant propaganda campaign antithetical to peace.

Add to this a recent effort by high-level Israel advocates and activists to make the fight against BDS a global priority and the BDSers storyline becomes compelling: “Forget about our failures to date. For if so many of Israel’s supporters are taking us seriously, then they must recognize us as a serious threat.”

Now this assertion has some surface credibility, although it can also be seen as a tactical attempt to get the opponents of BDS to unilaterally disarm with an argument that says “standing up to divestment only makes the movement stronger” (at best, an unproven assertion that leaves Israel advocates with only one alternative: don’t fight back and risk “blowback,” leaving the field entirely to Israel’s critics).

But there are other explanations as to why anti-BDS fervor seems to be gaining so much momentum that should be considered possible alternatives to the somewhat self-serving “you’re fighting against us proves we’re winning” divestnik storyline. For example:

* If you recall, the first wave of divestment activities in 2001-2004 (which included divestment petitions at many universities and actual divestment votes at Mainline Protestant churches) caught Israel supporters largely off guard. Given this, the recent level of response to current BDS efforts is an understandable example of “Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice, shame on me.”

* In a mirror image of the BDSers own claims of cause and effect, the fact that anti-Israel activists have made boycott and divestment such a high priority understandably invited an adequate response from critics.

* Given the historic precedent, Jews are understandably appalled at the notion of boycotts directed against their fellow Jews and thus see the battle against BDS as a moral issue, regardless of whether divestment represents an actual threat.

* Boycotts (particularly academic and product boycotts) and divestment have proven to be enormously unpopular with general public, even among those indifferent or hostile to the Jewish state. Which makes the fight against BDS a winning cause, one which even the most risk-averse are willing to join.

As a final (and purely speculative) theory regarding the origins of anti-BDS momentum in recent months; what if the organized Jewish community – seeing how lame BDS has been and how easily it is defeated – secretly want Israel’s opponents to continue to embrace this tactic for another decade or three? In which case, the recent mainstreaming of the fight against boycott, divestment and sanctions is really a ruse, designed to make BDS activists think they’re successful so that they will continue to waste more and more time doubling down on a strategy that has proven to be so disastrous to them and so successful to us.

Given that this blog is being read by at least one BDS activist (who enlightened the comments section recently with the eloquent retort “GO BDS!!!” written in all caps), the divestniks can take away from this posting a simple but important question: are the Jews playing you for suckers?

BDS Party Crashers

As with previous pieces I’ve written on what BDS does to civil society, it’ll take a couple of paragraphs to get to a recognizable point. So bear with me if you can stand it…

For the fourth year in a row, I attended the variety show at my kid’s elementary school. Neither boy performed (although my older son did share the MC role with another fifth grader). While most numbers are what you would expect (a lot of piano, some Hanna Montana-inspired song and dance numbers, the Star Wars theme on cello), there were a few nice surprises (including a killer kindergartener Hula Hooper and two groups dancing to the closing theme of Slumdog Millionaire).

Best of all, the show was a mere 36 acts (as opposed to 52 last year, with a legendary 90-act show in the distant past that ended only when a group of parents gouged out their own eyes with a vaudeville hook).

Now while I sat at rapt attention for the entire 90-minute performance, I’m forced to confess that my mind started to wander at around the half-hour mark, mostly towards the subject of what I could do to mess with next year’s show. (Getting my seven year old to read Ginsberg’s Howl in its entirety was what I eventually settled on.)

Needless to say, this was a fantasy, a goofy way to focus a wandering mind, not a real plan for the future. After all, dozens of kids and even more parents put a lot of time and effort into this show (and all sorts of other school events) all year long, which exist for the entire community, not for my subversive amusement.

But what if I could somehow convince myself that subverting this event was not simply an act of self-centered manipulation, but was – in fact – an unquestionable act of valor and virtue? What if, instead of having my kid read Howl, I had them read a treatise about how we’re destroying the world with Global Warming? Or re-enact the controversial pro-life commercial that appeared at this year’s Superbowl? Or sang Hatikvah while passing out donation cups for the Children of Sderot? Or performed a Palestinian dance number that symbolized the anguish of Israeli occupation?

I thought about this over the weekend as members of a food co-op in Davis, California were busy fighting against one of the first boycotts of Israeli goods in the US. I’ll have more on this subject as news arrives from the West Coast, but for now I can relate that the one thing the boycotters have been successful in doing (the one thing they’re always successful doing) is creating conflict and misery in a civic institution that never asked to become a battlefield in the Arab-Israeli conflict.

I remember the phenomena all too well from 5-6 years ago when divestment came to my then hometown of Somerville, MA (an event which led directly to – among other things – this Divest This blog).

Just as is happening now at Davis, in Somerville a group of local anti-Israel activists wanted to stuff their message (that Israel is an Apartheid state alone in the world at deserving economic punishment) into the mouth of a respected institution (in this case, a major municipality) in order to leverage that city’s reputation to allow the BDSers to punch above their own meager political weight. And – as with all BDS subversion attempts, whether in cities, churches, unions, schools or food co-ops – any tactics is permissible to the boycotters, regardless of what the long-term negative impact might be to the organization they are trying to exploit.

With that as backdrop, the notions posited earlier regarding turning a kid’s talent show on its head suddenly seem less ridiculous and more ominously (or at least potentially) real. After all, haven’t anti-Israel activists already tried to force their message into public schools (including elementary schools), just as they’ve tried to force themselves onto Somerville or Davis with nary a thought to what damage this could cause a community?

Most of us have internal controls that keep our fantasy life from escaping to the wider world. And even if we don’t, we are surrounded by others who – not sharing our fantasy – can talk us down from what might be inappropriate courses of action.

But what if such internal and external controls are non-existent? What happens if you get a self-contained group so assured of their own righteousness, so oblivious to the world outside of their own narrow cause that anything is permissible? Well then you get the BDS movement, soon to be defeated (again) at Davis, but by no means undeterred from exploiting a civic institution near you.