At Park Slope Food Coop, BDS Fight Metastasizes

It’s back.

Or maybe BDS never left the Park Slope Food Coop, the member-run Brooklyn grocery store that in 2012 debated whether or not to join the BDS movement.

The membership voted not to pursue the possibility, and for a few years, BDS consisted mainly of letters in the Coop newspaper — albeit in such volume that they required their own special section.

But these days, activism around the issue has burst the confines of the straightforward product boycott to permeate unrelated aspects of the 42-year-old institution.

The Coop in Park Slope is one of the largest of its kind in the U.S. This reporter is one of 16,500-plus members who work for about three hours every 28 days, stocking shelves or answering phones or taking inventory, for the right to buy its groceries, often organic and heavily discounted. The Coop’s policies and practices are influential; its liberal excesses sometimes laughable. The 2012 BDS brouhaha was so acrimonious and self-serious that it merited a satirical pseudo-news story on “The Daily Show.”

Passionate activists on both sides of BDS — including, as in the broader fight, Jews both for and against — are pushing new initiatives. But the messy, slow nature of democracy at the Coop will keep those efforts in limbo and tensions high for the foreseeable future.

“Contentious issues come up even though they’re not really on the agenda,” said Carl Arnold, an editor and farmer who is also on the committee that runs the “general meeting,” the Coop’s Swiss canton, at which members make decisions by popular vote. “I guess it’s fair to say it’s the new normal.”

At October’s general meeting, BDS was everywhere.

Carbonators on shelf

The pro-BDS camp’s goal is a SodaStream boycott. Helen Chernikoff

The 220-plus members who gathered on a chilly night in a nearby parochial school auditorium scanned a seemingly pareve docket: the usual open comment period; a vote to maintain a 10-year Coca-Cola boycott; various committee elections.

Indeed, the Coca-Cola boycott, one of several the Coop maintains, passed without a peep. The Fun Committee danced to the microphone in funny hats to invite everyone to their holiday card making party. And one of the paid staff delivered a report on the “beautiful” carrots, “red, yellow and purple,” and the appearance on the shelves of local turmeric root. “A lot of people have been asking for that,” he said gravely, “so we’re happy to have that.”

But the comment period featured a member’s pointed remarks that she hoped the in-house newspaper would soon lift its temporary ban on BDS-related letters, instituted over the summer because the editors needed a break to figure out how to handle the volume, the sensitive nature of the letters and the regular questioning by members of their judgment and integrity.

And the election for two interim spots on the board of directors generated eight candidacies, all of them except one motivated in some way by BDS. Most were for it; some were against it. The outlier was nominated in absentia by an excitable, bearded elder for her love of apples.

“To bring BDS into it is utterly silly, frankly,” said Arnold. The board of directors is a toothless body designed to rubber-stamp the decisions of the general meeting he said, citing the bylaws.

Arnold and other Coop leaders and activists say this return, or resurgence, of BDS started in April, when a proposal to boycott SodaStream, the maker of at-home seltzer machines that had a factory in the West Bank, came before the general meeting. Besides SodaStream products like seltzer makers and carbonators, the Coop sells some Israeli produce only a few weeks a year.

Because the Coop has a history of boycotts based on the line in its mission statement which says that it “seeks to avoid products that depend on the exploitation of others,” the pro-BDS camp decided to target SodaStream, as the most visible of the products the international BDS movement boycotts, said Carol Wald, 61. A bookseller and activist, Wald attributes her efforts on BDS and a range of other human rights issues — AIDS, Nicaragua, sexual assault — to her Jewish values.

That Coca-Cola boycott, re-affirmed unanimously, protests union-crushing practices and the company’s role in the obesity epidemic. The Coop boycotted South African products in its early years, said Joe Holtz, a founding member of the Coop who today works on the committee of paid staff that directs its operations.

When the BDS camp put its proposal forward, SodaStream had not yet announced that it would close its factory in the West Bank, according to Wald; the company is still deserving of a boycott, she said, because it operates “in bad faith with discriminatory policies toward its workers.”

The plan that night in April was merely to discuss the item, not vote on it, but precious little conversation took place. Instead, that meeting was “derailed” by members opposed to the proposal who rushed the stage, blocking the presenters’ slideshow and unplugging the projector, according to the Coop newspaper, the Linewaiters’ Gazette.

“It was unprecedented in everybody’s recollection,” Arnold said, adding that the Disciplinary Committee is investigating about 20 complaints filed as a result of the meeting.

“I have a lot of criticisms to go around,” wrote Barbara Mazor, one of the leaders of the 2012 fight against BDS, of this episode on her website. “But my harshest condemnations are for the people on my side.”

To more effectively fight the SodaStream boycott, Mazor supports a proposal to require a supermajority vote of 75 percent – rather than the current 51 percent – to implement any future boycott.

“The supermajority proposal was introduced as a way of fending off the approval of any pro-BDS resolution. Everyone knows that,” Mazor said. “The supermajority debate is really a shadow debate for BDS, with the same pro-BDS people opposing the supermajority.”

Member Jesse Rosenfeld, also the secretary who takes the notes at the general meeting, submitted the supermajority proposal and is one of Israel’s most prominent defenders in what Mazor calls “BDS Round 2.”

“I lived there for two years when I was a kid,” said Rosenfeld, 47, a software trainer with a shaved head and pierced eyebrow, adding that he played soccer with Palestinian kids, and visited friends in east Jerusalem with his family. “I still have feelings for the place. There’s got to be other conversations to have than should we or should we not boycott Israel. It’s a hateful, divisive conversation for this Coop.”

At the October meeting, Rosenfeld was the only person to win one of those two interim spots on the board of directors, pledging to work for solidarity. In 2014, he brought a Palestinian olive oil, Al’Ard — also Fair Trade and certified organic — to the attention of the Coop’s buyers and helped them bring it to the shelves.

Rosenfeld also holds regular meetings to discuss alternatives to boycotts.

“We are not here to debate the pros and cons of boycotts,” he instructed the three members who attended one of these meetings on a September Sunday. “Alternatives to boycotts only are welcome.”

He proposed the supermajority requirement only in part to fight the SodaStream boycott, Rosenfeld said.

“A majority vote, it’s democratic, but it’s not solidarity,” he said. “Boycotts have been stained by BDS. The idea of what a boycott is about has been warped by BDS. It’s now a divisive wedge and I want this place to survive.”

The general meeting has now discussed both measures — the SodaStream boycott and the supermajority requirement — but neither has come to a vote, and nobody knows when they will.

“I don’t know if we have a big enough auditorium to decide it,” said Holtz.

Coop sign 2

Park Slope’s Coop is one of the biggest in the U.S. Helen Chernikoff

When the SodaStream boycott proposal emerged, Holtz and his colleagues knew any meeting to vote on it would be a big one. So they rang up Brooklyn Tech, the downtown high school where they’d held the 2012 meeting at which about 1,600 Coop members gathered and voted against holding a referendum about whether to formally join the BDS movement.

That event was so tense the Coop was criticized for not having adequate security on hand; it also drew a lot of media attention.

The school had learned its lesson.

“They said no, not if the meeting had to do with the same subject matter,” Holtz said.

Because the school is unavailable, and because the Coop will need to pay more next time for security, the next meeting of this kind will be much more expensive, Holtz said, costing up to $30,000. Such a costly meeting will itself require a general meeting to approve the expense, and that meeting will probably be a big one, too, Holtz said.

“It’s kind of ripping the place apart,” said Holtz, who repeatedly invokes the Coop’s seven founding principles and says he looks at them every day. “We’re supposed to be cooperating.”

Any meeting to vote on Rosenfeld’s supermajority proposal will pose the same logistical and financial challenges, said Holtz, who favors the supermajority proposal.

Arnold is on a committee that is trying to figure out an alternative to the general meeting for contentious votes like these. Of course, implementing an alternative would probably require a change to the bylaws, which means — of course — more meetings, and more votes.

“We get into the untidiness of democracy,” Arnold said. “It will never be neat, no matter what form of democracy we or anybody else has.”

About Helen Chernikoff

I'm news editor and reporter.

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