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.

Seeing Red at Evergreen

As interested parties digest material related to the Presbyterian Church debate coming up in July, word came across the Divest This Communications Command Center (OK, my AOL account – the last in the nation I believe) that students at Evergreen State College in Washington State had voted to demand their institution divest from Israel.

“But you said divestment always loses!” I hear friends and critics cry out. Well actually, I said divestment is a loser, which does not necessarily mean that loses each and every time it’s introduced into an institution. As I’ve noted before, BDS is an ever-mutating virus, one that enters the body politic of institutions via various mechanisms including behind-the-scenes maneuvering with organizational leaders (as with the Mainline Protestant Churches) or defiantly going around such leaders when they refuse to play ball (as with colleges and universities whose leaders have made it clear they have no intention of following the divestnik’s demands). When a vote goes their way, they’re all aboard for democracy. When it’s reversed by the same body they declare “democracy is dead,” blah, blah, blah.

Now remember that student government (like aging rockers) represents a “soft target” in the BDS wars. For unlike the people who actually run a university or manage its money, student government can make decisions on matters over which it has absolutely no control. Much like delegates at the Model United Nations I attended in high school that voted overwhelmingly to call for a UN Space Fleet, student government bodies can take positions on all sorts of matters beyond their mandate, knowing full well they have no responsibilities beyond striking a pose.

And even in this soft-target category, when the BDSers peddle their poison at the large, well-known schools that are their real target (such as University of California campuses targeted this Spring) they still lose. Thus, their only “victories” after a decade of effort are at institutions where they have unique advantages such as Wayne State in Michigan, home of one of the largest populations of Muslim students in the US. And even at Wayne State, their efforts only led to condemnation by the school’s administration announcing that the institution will never divest from Israel.

Which brings us to Evergreen State which apparently put divestment measures to a student vote this week, a vote which they apparently won by large majorities. Now given that they are only reporting percentages, I could get cute and ask if that is a percentage of the 4800+ student body (which means they received over 3000 votes on each measure) or a percentage of those who actually voted (which means these “overwhelming victories” represent the votes of a much smaller percentage of the actual student body). But let’s take it for given that a democratic win is a democratic win which “counts” as long as people play by the rules (a generosity of interpretation I wish would be reciprocated by divestment backers who never seem to take a democratic “No” for an answer when it’s delivered repeatedly at other institutions).

I could also make a crack about Evergreen’s relative obscurity vs. the fame of the many schools where BDS has lost big. But in addition to being snobby, such commentary would miss the real significance of Evergreen as the former campus home of Rachel Corrie.

Corrie, as some of you may know, was an Evergreen undergraduate who fell in with a really bad crowd. But rather than simply taking up cigarettes or grain-alcohol Jello shots, the habit she picked up was radical politics under the “guidance” of the International Solidarity Movement (or ISM).

ISM’s specialty, in addition to infiltrating various pro-Palestinian and anti-war organizations, involves recruiting students who it then sneaks into Israel and puts into harm’s way. At least one other of its recruits has gotten killed taking part in violent protests against Israeli soldiers, after which his corpse was immediately sanctified as that of a peace activist (sound familiar?).

But Corrie was not killed taking part directly in violent activity. Depending on whom you believe, she was killed while trying to block Israeli bulldozers from either (1) destroying homes in the Gaza Strip for the fun of it; or (2) destroying Gaza houses that covered tunnels used for weapons smuggling.

The reason Caterpillar Tractor is on the top of every divestment list (in addition to it being such a widely held company that it allows the BDSers to bring their campaign to virtually any institution in the country) is that it was a Caterpillar tractor that ran over the aforementioned Ms. Corrie. So for the last eight years, Caterpillar shareholder meetings have become sacred sites where anti-Israel activists gather yearly to demand boycott votes against Israel (which they always lose). And this is why students at Evergreen State, former home of Ms. Corrie, are demanding the school divest from Caterpillar, even though it’s not clear if the school holds a single share in the company.

The interesting thing is that Caterpillar Tractor and the Israeli government, both on their own and in response to lawsuits directed against them over the Corrie affair, have performed investigations of what happened in Gaza the day Corrie perished. While ISM activists have not been happy with the outcome of these investigations, no one can say that they never took place.

In contrast, I’m not aware of any similar investigation that took place within the ISM about the role they played in leading Ms. Corrie to her death. After all, it was the ISM that “educated” Corrie and others about the evils of Israel and the immediate need to take direct action to confront this evil. It was the ISM that helped Corrie get into Israel on false pretences. And the ISM all but set out cardboard footprints for her to follow that placed her directly in the path of dangerous machinery in a war zone, a situation that led inevitably to her demise.

Now one would think that an organization committed to its members (not to mention justice) would take part in some measure of soul searching before lashing out to blame others for a situation in which ISM played such a key role. But as far as I know, ISM has never mentioned (much less released) results of such an internal investigation, which leads me to believe that no soul searching was necessary since Corrie’s death was an unexpected, but much desired outcome of their activity.

So before decision-makers at Evergreen or anywhere else are asked to take student opinion into account with regard to the school’s investment and divestment choices, especially since the issue of divestment is so bound up in Caterpillar and Corrie at this particular college, I recommend that all information needed to make such a decision be put on the table. This will include the results of investigations by Caterpillar and Israel on the role they may have played in Corrie’s death. And it will include any similar reports generated by the ISM over the last eight years that analyze that organization’s own role (not someone else’s) in the events leading up to Rachel Corrie losing her life.

Fair enough? And if it turns out ISM never created such a report and never engaged in a single minute of soul searching regarding its own activities before it decided to let Israel’s wash away ISM’s own sins, well that tells us a great deal as well.