Olympia Boycott – Worse Than You Think

At first, I assumed the Olympia Co-op boycott was just another case of a well-meaning, but naïve organization giving a boycott group a friendly hearing and ending up becoming their hand-puppet. But the more I learn about what’s been going on at Olympia, the more this begins to look like one of the most appalling cases of BDS infection I’ve ever come across.

To start with, at the meeting where the boycott was decided (a meeting that included 40+ BDS supporters and not one member of the community that could represent a differing opinion – a shocking situation in and of itself) an early draft of the boycott proposal apparently anticipated that this action would divide the organization’s membership.

In other words, the co-op’s leaders not only were aware that an Israel boycott could be divisive within the membership, but fully anticipated the damage their action would cause. But they did it anyway, taking into account only the opinions of the BDSers in the room and ignoring the 15,000 other members the board was allegedly elected to represent.

Now boycott supporters have grown fond of pointing out that the organization’s boycott policy does not require boycotts to be put to a member vote (which is apparently true), indicating that the group’s leaders alone have the power to make these decisions. But these leaders must also abide by the organization’s foundational bylaws which include the following explicit board responsibilities:

14. maintain free-flowing communication between the Board, Staff, committees, and the membership;
15. adopt policies which promote achievement of the mission statement and goals of the Cooperative [one such goal including: “support[ing] efforts to increase democratic processes”]

In other words, while co-op boycott policy gives the leadership the power to impose a divisive boycott, the board’s use (or misuse) of this power to do something they knew in advance would divide the membership seems to be in clear violation of the organization’s fundamental bylaws. Did the board “maintain free flowing communication” with the membership over an issue they knew in advance would be divisive? No. Did they support “democratic processes” when they handed everything but the final vote on this decision (including wording of their boycott resolution and veto power over what products fell under the boycott) to an unelected BDS group? No again.

Since the vote was adopted, there also seems to be a concerted effort to portray all critics of that decision as crazed “right wingers” whose only response has been to threaten the staff and members of the organization. And from material that’s been forwarded to me, it seems as though the call has gone out to the global BDS movement to parrot this characterization of boycott opponents.

As an outsider myself, I can only express mild irritation that arguments I’ve been making (which I hope have been reasoned, regardless of whether or not they convince) are being ignored or mischaracterized as “right wing” taunts. But within the organization, what is one to make of the fact that one set of members (boycott supporters) are calling on outside BDS activists to smear fellow members (boycott critics) who don’t toe the BDS party line?

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.