Olympia Snowed – Washington Co-op Boycott

BDS projects tend to come in waves or fads. In the early 90s, campus petitions were all the rage, then Mainline Protestant churches were targeted followed by student governments and – most recently – aging rockers and food co-ops.

Part of the reason behind this ever-changing list is the fact that BDS is a relatively nimble “movement,” forever ready to dance away from defeats and capitalize on even the most trivial wins. And since there are so many more of the former than the latter, divestment advocates must forever find new targets of opportunity once too many loses begin to give them a reputation as losers within a certain community.

Which is why yesterday’s announcement that a food co-op (in this case, the Olympia Food Co-op in Olympia Washington) has chosen to impose a boycott on Israeli goods was only somewhat surprising.

The location for one of the few examples of a boycott taking place in the US makes sense (Olympia is home to Evergreen College, home of ISM victim Rachel Corrie and one of the only colleges in America that’s gotten a student divestment vote through after a decade of BDS efforts on campuses). But the details of how the boycott was decided were surprising, given what happened in Davis California just a few months ago.

In March of this year, the Davis Food Co-op, like Olympia Co-op, was faced with a group of members who wanted the store to refuse to sell Israeli goods. Unlike Olympia, the decision being asked of the board was whether to put such a boycott to a member vote which led to public debates and hearings on the subject before the Co-op board made its final decision.

We’ll get to that decision in a minute, but before we do it’s interesting to note that Olympia avoided the public controversy during the decision-making process by simply making their decision without much (if any) public awareness that the matter was being discussed. And so, once again, we have another institution whose members woke up one day to discover that an organization they have been a member of for years is now being touted by anti-Israel activists across the globe as fully onboard the BDS, Israel=Apartheid, propaganda bandwagon (talk about surprises).

As described before, the reasons Davis decided to turn down requests to put boycott on the ballot were extremely interesting and are worth reading in full here. While disappointed boycott supporters claimed the Davis board’s decision was driven by Jewish community pressure and fears of legal reprisals, in fact their decision was based on principles relating to the co-op community itself, notably:

* That the boycotters were demanding that they (an unelected group of people with no fiduciary or other responsibility to the co-op as a whole) be allowed to make decisions for the entire co-op (including the board, managers and members) based on their own political agenda

* That supporting a boycott vote implied agreement with the boycotter’s characterization of the Middle East and acceptance of BDS tactics as representing the entire Co-op, not simply the opinions of a subset of members advocating for a boycott

* That the boycott would fly in the face of principles of the co-operative movement, including the Rochdale principles regarding political and religious neutrality and the Cooperative Principle regarding cooperation between co-ops (including Israeli co-ops)

Davis’ stance also highlighted that co-operatives that have failed to live by these principles and apply sound and careful judgment to where and when it will engage in political activity have created poisoned atmospheres leading to divisiveness, alienation of members, resignations and other harmful results.

Now it’s possible that the leaders of the Co-op in Olympia know all this, but are willing to ignore principles articulated not just by Davis but by the global cooperative movement in order to make a political stance that they (and they alone) know is in the best interest of their community. But it’s equally likely that this is just one more example of a group of single-issue partisans bullying an organization that lacks failsafe mechanisms (such as ways of determining if members agree with a political policy) to make a decision BDS activists tell them is their only choice.

Now that the BDSers have gotten their way, they will (as always) be on their merry way, firing off press releases and posting on newsites and blogs across the planet that Olympia Food Co-op (not simply its leaders, but every man, woman and child who shops there) is all aboard the BDS propaganda express. As usual, it will be left to those members to deal with the wreckage, and the co-operative’s leaders to explain that they have taken a principled stance when they, in fact, have just been played for suckers.