Food co-op rejects effort to boycott Israeli-made products 29Mar12 March 28, 2012

The New York Times  -  28 March 2012

The vote, conducted by paper ballot, came during the Brooklyn co-op’s monthly general meeting, with 1,005 people voting against the motion to hold a referendum on a boycott, and 653 in favor.

“A boycott should be by consensus, and there is obviously not that,” Jeff Prant, a co-op member, said after the vote. While the arguments for the boycott had merits, he said, they were “outweighed by the divisiveness.”

Tensions at the co-op, on Union Street, had been climbing to a breaking point in recent weeks as the members, numbering about 16,300, weighed the matter. Reporters and television trucks had become a common site outside the co-op’s doors. Advocates passed leaflets with increasing urgency. Politicians and pundits weighed in. And emotions, in at least one instance, spilled over into fisticuffs.

The boycott lobby is part of an international movement — called Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions, or B.D.S. — that is trying to compel the Israeli government to change its policies toward Palestinians, and withdraw from Palestinian territories.

“The vote tonight has shown us that we still have a lot of work ahead in the fight to end Israeli oppression of Palestinians,” said Liz Roberts, a member of the pro-boycott lobby. “However, despite our loss in tonight’s vote, we have succeeded in one of our goals: B.D.S. has entered into the consciousness of thousands of co-op members and has even made it into mainstream conversations.”

The start of the meeting was delayed by 45 minutes as hundreds of members filed into a large auditorium at Brooklyn Technical High School. The meeting had been moved from its usual setting in a local synagogue to accommodate the turnout of more than 1,600, a record for the organization.

Over nearly 90 minutes, about four dozen speakers stepped to the microphone and made their arguments.

Advocates for the boycott criticized Israeli military action in Gaza and the West Bank, and argued that a ban would be an important symbol in the fight against injustice.

Dennis James, who pushed for the boycott, recalled a visit to Gaza in 2009. “I viewed the results of the 22-day bombardment,” he said. “I saw apartment blocks blown apart. The American school flattened. The hospital shot full of holes.”

But many opponents of the boycott said the store was no place to adjudicate the politics of the Middle East. Some questioned the motives of the B.D.S. movement.

Aaron Dobbs occupied something of a middle ground, saying he was “100 percent against” the B.D.S. movement but “100 percent in favor” of the referendum in order to give the greatest number of members a chance to participate in the vote.

The anti-boycott lobby received a boost on Monday, when several of the city’s top politicians expressed their opposition to the ban, including Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg, who said he would encourage New Yorkers to do more business with Israel, not less.

Irina Ivanova, a boycott supporter, said those officials’ statements were “a little disappointing,” but added, “I can’t say I’m surprised.”

She said the Park Slope Food Co-op Members that support the B.D.S. group had received endorsements from a range of activists and social justice organizations, including the writer Alice Walker, the antiwar group Code Pink and Mustafa Barghouti, a Palestinian politician.

Boycott supporters had asked even those opposed to a boycott to support the call for a referendum, arguing that a referendum, which would involve a mail-in ballot, would give members more time to vote, thus allowing greater participation.

But some members simply wanted the issue to go away as quickly as possible for fear that further debate would foment more divisiveness and damage the organization, which was founded 39 years ago.

“These people are insidious, and they destroy communities,” said Peter Raskin, a co-op member speaking about the boycott lobby. “If they have a problem with Israel, let them go to the State Department.”

A boycott would have been largely symbolic; the store carries only a few Israeli-made products, among them a seltzer-water maker, organic paprika, two styles of kosher marshmallows and three varieties of tapenade and pesto, said a store founder, Joe Holtz.

One of the product manufacturers is PeaceWorks, a company that seeks to encourage peace among rivals through economic cooperation. Its line of tapenades and pestos uses olives grown in Palestinian villages, glass jars made in Egypt and sun-dried tomatoes from Turkey.

“The key to resolving the Palestinian-Israeli conflict is greater understanding of each other, not greater polarization,” Joshua Scherz, president of PeaceWorks Foods, said in a statement.

Omar Barghouti, a Palestinian human rights advocate and co-founder of the B.D.S. movement, said that regardless of the outcome, the fact that the debate had reached Park Slope reflected the momentum the cause had gained.

“We are fast reaching our South Africa moment,” he said in a statement from East Jerusalem.

In recent weeks, advocates carrying leaflets have been a common sight on the sidewalk outside the Union Street store. While civility has generally prevailed, two people who apparently hold opposing views on the matter scuffled in front of the store over the weekend.

“That makes me very unhappy,” Mr. Holtz said. “I’m hoping that’s the end of that.”

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