Olympia BDS: Inside Out

In the face of condemnations of their boycott pouring in from more and more members, and even the local press questioning a boycott decision that seems to have had so little input from the community, Olympia BDS champion have taken lately to feigning mock outrage over comments that their boycott project involved “outside agitators.” In one sweet (if inept) attempt at political jui jitsu, one such champion has even announced that the only real outside agitator in the conflict is me and this blog.

Where to begin unpacking the notion of who is “out” and who is “in” when analyzing this latest twist in the Olympia Co-op debate?

Let’s begin by noting that attempts to get food co-ops to boycott Israel products have been a major push for the US branch of the global boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) “movement” for most of this year, announced on their Web sites and attempted in places like Davis California and elsewhere many months before the matter came up at Olympia.

Given this, are we expected to believe that the Olympia boycott campaign involved no one but local “grassroots activists” and co-op members? That no other members of the worldwide divest-and-boycott scene that the OlyBDS group proudly lists on their Web site were any way involved with activities leading to the recent boycott vote?

Since the boycott vote was taken, Olympia BDSers wasted no time getting individuals and organizations from around the planet to show their support for their campaign. They also seem to have gone into overdrive firing off press releases across the globe insisting, among other things, that other co-ops should follow Oly’s lead.

This is, of course, their right as it is the right of any political organization to try to capitalize on any momentum it generates. But at what point does an allegedly “local” program pulling in re-enforcements from around the planet to (among other things) condemn other members of the community lose its right to claim to be purely on the inside? And does a project like BDS, engaged as it is in butting into other people’s business on a global scale (most recently by insisting that food co-ops in other communities should do what Oly’s done) have a leg to stand on when complaining about “outsiders” criticizing it’s activities and behavior?

Pulling the camera back further, a boycott decision in and of itself is meant to reach a worldwide audience. If this was just a matter of denying members the ability to buy a few Israeli-made crackers, there would be no need for all those press releases. But, point of fact, the Olympia Co-op has decided to have its own publically declared foreign policy which it backs up with the moral weight of the institution.

Having publically declared that Israel is such a horrible place that it alone in all the Middle East deserves to be punished (with the corollary that those of us who support Israel are apologists for a criminal, racist, murderous state), it’s a bit rich to see people start complaining when the accused (including me) decide to respond.

Regarding that response, I should note that I have never posed as a member of the Olympia community, carefully pointing out in my posts and comments that my contribution to the debate is that of someone who has seen these conflicts play out before. In other words, I’ve presented myself as an experienced outsider, not a home boy.

Given that people seem to kvetching about I and other “outsiders” having their say, I’m curious as to just how “inside” these complainers truly are? In all their actions, they represent the global BDS program, not the Co-op, not the town of Olympia and certainly not the many other people in whose names they want to speak. And they are leveraging the voices they have hijacked (including 15,000 Oly Co-op members who never agreed to become part of the BDS “movement”) to get into the face of everyone in the world who in any way cares about the Middle East (including me).

Needless to say, it’s a time-honored political tactic to claim that your side is made up solely of grassroots community members while the other guy’s side is a global conspiracy of people who couldn’t find the community on a map. But in today’s Facebook Age, information travels freely. And if the BDSers consider themselves free to use this technology to play in a global sandbox, they can’t complain when others show up to, among other things, pull back the façade from their pose as representing nothing more than local interests.

Olympia Co-op: Responsibility

While not a member of a food co-op here in Massachusetts, I do take part in a farm share. But when I picked up last week’s supply of tatsoi et al, I couldn’t help but notice a distinct lack of protestors lining the street on my way to the farm. Curious, I checked the Web sites of several local co-ops and found that none of them featured members accusing each other of racism, anti-Semitism, ignorance and apologia for murder.

Even the food co-op at Davis, California, which considered and rejected an anti-Israel boycott a few months back, seemed a joyful place with members on their various Web sites discussing recipes, nutrition tips, and best wishes for the summer (with time left over to announce community service activities such as a blood drive). Why is it that only Olympia seems to be locked in debate that’s includes such enlightening subjects as whom in the Middle East is guilty of genocide, or whether or not the Nazi boycott of Jewish stores was a reaction to Jewish economic warfare against Nazi Germany?

Why is it only at Olympia that members are at one another’s throats? And why is it only at Olympia that co-op leaders have to sort through hundreds of e-mails a day from around the world, demanding they come down on one side of the Middle East conflict or the other? Perhaps it is because, unlike nearly every other retailer (co-op or otherwise) in the country, Olympia decided to turn a conflict that has challenged and perplexed wise and committed men and women for generations into official business.

Now I happen to be 3000+ miles away from Washington State, so perhaps I am missing a wide range of issues that made boycott a requirement for Olympia and almost nowhere else. But given that I’ve been watching and analyzing nearly identical BDS stories as they played out in other communities for 5-6 years now, I think it’s safe to suspect that Olympia’s leadership may be starting to ask itself whether they really know so much more than their colleagues nationwide who have not touched this issue.

Are they wiser than the thousands of people in similar positions who have chosen to keep the Middle East out of their communities, or have leaders outside of Olympia shown wisdom by avoiding taking actions guaranteed to only cause division and pain?

It may be that the Olympia Co-op board is more complicit in this decision than leaders in other civic organizations (such as my former hometown of Somerville, MA) that were essentially tricked into taking a divestment stance (temporarily) at the behest of BDS activists working them behind the scenes. But whether or not this is the case, this same Oly leadership seems to be starting to show concern about taking such a controversial political stance in the name of 15,000 members who had no idea this matter was even being discussed.

Claims that a policy statement here and a by-law there can be looped together to justify making such a controversial choice behind the backs of the membership seem to me (and many Oly members I’ve talked to) as more legalistic backtracking than a satisfying explanation. And making such a decision at a meeting where 50 boycott supporters were present, but no one else knew what would be happening, cannot be satisfactorily justified by criticizing members for not taking the initiative to keep abreast of behind-the-scenes politics (a criticism which sounds a lot like the “didn’t you get the memo?” corporate-speak than the actions of an organization that prides itself on member democracy).

As bad as things have gotten since news of the boycott first escaped to the public, the organization can expect to see the full circus descend during next week’s public hearing on the subject. They can look forward to people who once smiled at each other in the aisles waving bloody shirts and gruesome photographs at one another. People with honest political differences will be branded as “enemies of human rights,” or murderers with “blood on their hands.”

If the co-op’s leadership leaders like what they see next week and want to have it continue for months or years on end, sucking up the time, energy and good will needed to accomplish any other matter, by all means they should let this needless fight continue. But if they want to move the Middle East conflict out of Olympia, they should reverse this decision and determine how to prevent such a poison from entering their community again.

Olympia Co-op – Consensus

I must admit to a feeling of bewilderment.

As those of you who have been following the Olympia Co-op boycott story on this blog know, I have taken for granted that the Co-op followed its own rules when deciding whether to take part in the latest BDS project to get food co-ops to shun Israeli products.

This is what critics of the boycott were told whenever they brought up the fact that the organization’s membership was excluded from that decision. In fact, I had even urged others to take boycott proponent’s word that procedures were followed properly, asking us all to apply the Principle of Charity in this matter, as well as other matters related to the controversy.

But recent information has come my way which forced me to do something I (possibly naively) chose not to do originally: take a close look at the co-op’s policies on the matter.

If you read through this document (which the co-op itself has posted in order to explain the policies behind its Israel boycott decision) you will see no role for the organization’s board in the decision-making process related to boycotts. Rather, the power to declare a boycott rests solely with the store’s staff and the threshold they must reach to declare an official boycott is consensus. In fact, the only sentence in the policy that specifies where decision-making power rests is the following:

“The department manager will make a written recommendation to the staff who will decide by consensus whether or not to honor a boycott.”

Now in the world most of us live in, consensus is defined as “an opinion or position reached by a group as a whole.” Under this definition, consensus is either/or. Either the group as a whole agrees to something and thus consensus has been reached, or it fails to do so, in which case there is no consensus.

The recent information I have received is that the staff, in fact, DID NOT reach a consensus on whether to boycott Israeli goods. One would think that, by the Co-op’s own published policies, no consensus translates to no boycott. But apparently in this case, no consensus meant that the board intervened to declare one on its own.

A fair-minded commenter on this subject pointed out that the Co-op’s bylaws establish as one of the board’s duties (#16) to “resolve organizational conflicts after all other avenues of resolution have been exhausted” and indicated that this by-law allowed the board to make the boycott decision in light of no consensus being reached by the staff. But this flies in the face of the boycott policy itself which seems to establish “no consensus” as a legitimate position which would translate to a “no go” choice regarding a particular boycott measure.

With all due respect to the person making the case that the conflict-resolution clause of the by-laws gives the board the power to make its own decision in the absence of staff consensus, if we take this proposition to its logical conclusion then anytime the staff cannot reach consensus to go ahead with a controversial matter that is allegedly its choice to make, the board can make that decision for them, a position that essentially makes the staff decision-making power established in the co-op’s boycott policies meaningless.

At this point, I believe everyone deserves a detailed description of what exactly took place within the Olympia Co-op to determine the level of consensus within the staff and (if relevant) what “avenues of resolution” were tried and exhausted before the board set the organization’s boycott policy on its own. Members certainly deserve this information, but so do we outsiders who are now dealing with Olympia’s decision as it is being broadcast around the world as a call for other organizations to also join the BDS program.

Co-op by-laws also include clause #14 which says board members must “maintain free-flowing communication between the Board, Staff, committees, and the membership”.

Let the free-flow of communication begin.

BDS’s Latest Victim

OK – Another institution has decided to take the plunge into the BDS waters. So let’s all set our watches for what is going to happen next.

The Olympia Co-op story is similar to Somerville and Berkeley in that the decision to join the world-wide boycott movement against Israel was made by a group of leaders (the co-op’s board) working closely with BDS activists to craft their decision, but taking into account virtually no one else that the board was supposedly elected to represent.

Now co-op rules apparently say that the board can boycott anyone they like without consulting the membership. So if we are to get into a debate about the board’s responsibility (which we will on another day), it will be a discussion of propriety and judgment vs. breaking the law or the organization’s own rules.

For now, however, we can classify Olympia as comparable to those other BDS “victories” where members of an organization, church, or city wake up one morning to discover that a community in which they’ve been a member for years is now being touted on Al Jazeera as holding a political opinion (such as the BDS Israel=Apartheid analogy) that many members finds abhorrent .

Apparently a meeting will be held in early August to discuss the decision the Co-op has already made regarding handing their reputation over to the boycott brigade. If history is any guide, this will lead to a second meeting and then finally a third when the co-op (which by now will have realized the consequences of their original decision) will have to vote to reject or double-down on this ill-conceived boycott project.

So I predict three meetings in August and September that will be increasingly populous, increasingly long, and increasingly shrill, with people who once smiled at each other in the food aisles shoving photos of bloody babies into one another’s faces, after giving many speeches that include such phrases as “blood on your hands,” “international law demands” and (of course) “Speaking as a Jew…”.

You can all get a little taste of what the Olympia Co-op’s board has wrought unto the organization by scanning the comments section of the Co-op itself, the local newspaper and this poll. As usual, comments on this subject outnumber any other discussion by a factor of 10x heading to 30-50x. And (equally as usual) those comments have degenerated into accusations of bad faith, apologia for murderers, bigotry and criminality (directed against Israel and its supporters, and the boycotters and their supporters). Given the small size of the Olympia community, I predict these comments will top out at the 100-150 mark (vs. the usual 300-500), but it should give everyone a taste of what delightful topics of conversation are in store for the community for the rest of the year.

And so BDS injects its toxins into another institution. And, as usual, it’s a friendly, welcoming organization that prides itself on its commitment to justice and human rights, even if its political choices are based more on moral vanity and political fads than an understanding of facts and issues.

While I’m no fan of politics based on striking poses, I must say there are worse sins in the universe than vain overreach. Which is why I’m left feeling kind of sorry for the Olympia Co-op over what is about to hit their community due to the ill-conceived decisions of a few, acting at the behest of a not-so-innocent BDS “movement” that is smacking its lips at the thought of dragging the circus to another community, no matter what the cost.

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.