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Only in New York

The battle of the Park Slope Food Coop.

Apr 9, 2012, Vol. 17, No. 29 • By ZACK MUNSON
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Cartoon of coop members arguing with each other

Gary Locke

Do you know what your grocery store thinks about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict? Do you care? If you don’t, you’re probably not a member of the Park Slope Food Coop, located in a yuppie-hipster (yipster?) enclave in western Brooklyn. Coop members do care: For more than three years there has been a fierce debate about whether the member-owned-and-operated grocery should boycott Israeli products. At the coop’s monthly general meeting on March 27, members took a vote to decide the issue. Or, rather, to decide whether to send a ballot to the entire membership to decide the issue. (Cooperation requires a lot of voting.)

If this doesn’t sound like a debate you’re likely to hear between baggers at the local Food Lion as they pack your Go-Gurt and Cheetos and Clorox into doubled up, nonbiodegradable plastic bags, well, it’s not; the Park Slope coop doesn’t carry any of those products or allow the use of plastic bags. Founded in 1973 by “a small group of committed neighbors who wanted to make healthy, affordable food available to everyone who wanted it,” the coop now has about 16,000 members who supply free labor (2 hours and 45 minutes a month each) to help keep costs down. And they need the help; the coop’s inventory reads like a bible of showy, overpriced, urban conscientiousness: “pasture-raised” this, “fair-traded” that, “free-range” whatever, “environmentally safe” blah blah blah. But it’s not just a great place to consume conspicuously and work part time. The coop also hosts seminars, including courses on Esperanto and “How to Lighten Your Final Carbon Footprint” (wicker casket, shallow grave, according to the flier). Maggie Gyllenhaal shops there. So does Sapphire, author of the novel Push, on which the movie Precious was based. Food Lion it ain’t, and its members would likely be offended by the comparison.

Indeed, being offended is a defining characteristic of the coop’s membership. While we fat, happy, complacent boobs have been mindlessly enriching the exploitative, for-profit supermarket chains that anchor strip malls across our ecologically devastated nation, the Park Slope Food Coop has been using its “buying power to support food, social and environmental justice.” Since its founding, the coop has boycotted South African products (because of apartheid), Chilean grapes (Pinochet), Coca-Cola (“labor practices and possible criminal acts”), and Nestlé (promoting formula over breastfeeding), just to name a few.

But unlike those boycotts, for which there was near-unanimous support, the Israel issue has made members, well, uncooperative. The subject first came up in January 2009, when a member named Hima B. asked whether the coop carried Israeli products. It does; six to be exact: seltzer makers, organic paprika, Israeli couscous, tapenade, organic yellow peppers, and vegan marshmallows (doubtless a hit with the babyccino-sipping toddlers of Park Slope). Hima suggested banning them, and what ensued would bestir the hearts of underemployed activists the world over: the mother of all letter-writing campaigns.

Yes, letters. Letters to the editor of the coop’s biweekly newspaper, the Linewaiters’ Gazette. The issue published immediately after the January 2009 general meeting featured two brief statements of support for the boycott. The issue after that featured two statements against, and so began that vicious cycle with which all who follow the Israeli-Palestinian conflict are familiar. For three years, an intifada of words has raged in the Linewaiters’ pages. 

The letters are pretty much what one would expect, you know, if one expected a foreign policy debate to break out at a grocery store in a liberal neighborhood with a lot of Jews. Many condemn Israeli “apartheid” and call for ending the “occupation”; many defend Israel staunchly as the region’s only democracy and call attention to the violence of Hamas. And some, of course, display the hysterical tone that Israel generates among certain, um, activists. As one member noted, “Unfortunately, it is impossible for the Coop to maintain a neutral stance in relation to Israel” because buying Israeli goods “makes all Coop members complicit in the commission of human rights abuses and violations of international law.” Wrote another, “I almost wish I weren’t a Jew because the Jews have become insane.” One offered that Israeli boycotts were supported by such eminent foreign policy thinkers as Meg Ryan and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. Still another declared, “As Howard Zinn once said,” at which point I stopped reading.

Over the course of three years, the advocates and opponents of the boycott organized themselves into more official forms of advocacy and opposition. The wannabe-boycotters aligned themselves with the international anti-Israel movement Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) and established the Park Slope Food Coop Members for Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (PSFC BDS for short). PSFC BDS launched a website in July 2011, offering information on Israeli human rights abuses, statements of support from like-minded organizations, and information on such events as a recent seminar entitled “Food Justice & Ecological Damage in Israel/Palestine.” Their home-page declares that they “are members of the Park Slope Food Coop (PSFC) who affirm .  .  . that the coop as a community stands for human rights, food justice and positive global interdependence” before making the dubious assertion,“We are like you.”

On the other side stands the anti-boycott group More Hummus, Please, started by longtime coop member Barbara Mazor in the spring of 2011. “We joined the coop for the food. We didn’t join to have our politics decided for us,” their website explains. Or, as she put it to me, “We didn’t want BDS, because then we’d have to deal with reporters.” (Sorry, Barbara.) Mazor is a staunch supporter of Israel and believes that simply holding a referendum on the boycott is tantamount to “endorsing the position that Jews are not a national group and are not entitled to self-determination.” As she wrote in the initial blog post on the More Hummus, Please website, “BDS is Bigotry. Dishonesty. Anti-Semitism.”

While these two groups have had at it, many coop members, it appears, have focused on the bigger picture: “What about the quinoa?” In a recent Linewaiters’ editorial, Joe Holtz, a cofounder of the coop, urged members to return to their founding principles:

The International Cooperative Alliance Statement on Cooperative Identity states clearly that coops are not organized for the purpose of taking political positions. .  .  . Members do not expect the Coop to weigh in on whether or not social security should be privatized or what to do about the war in Afghanistan.

Many members oppose the referendum not necessarily out of sympathy for Israel, but out of a desire to keep the coop from tearing itself apart over the issue. And it would be a real tragedy if the coop did tear itself apart because the store is .  .  . well, I don’t really know what it’s like. They wouldn’t let a nonmember like me inside. But I’m sure it’s great.

None of these protestations stopped PSFC BDS from pushing forward. In July 2011, they submitted the boycott referendum as an official agenda item. After a few more months of letter writing and blogging, the March 27 vote on whether to vote was set.

The general meeting is usually held in a Park Slope synagogue, but this time the coop is expecting far more than the 300 or so members who usually show up. So the meeting has been moved to Brooklyn Tech High School in adjacent Fort Greene, and it’s a good thing, too: Standing outside Brooklyn Tech about 45 minutes before the meeting, the line to get in already stretches the length of a full city block. And plenty of nonmembers are there to voice their solidarity with one side or another. The BDSers stand outside the entrance with signs and pamphlets, and right next to them is a group from Negev Nectars, an Israeli food company, handing out free samples of the wares they hope one day to sell in the coop. The three news trucks (NY1, WPIX, and FOX5), the reporters, the photographers, students shooting a film—it all seems like overkill. But then again, I’m here.

The line stretches all the way down one block, around a corner, all the way down that block, and around a corner again, with members filing in very slowly. There are a few coop volunteers in crossing-guard vests, making sure only members get in, imparting instructions on how to sign in and prove one’s identity once inside. Most of the linewaiters bear the delay and the standing and the cold in good cheer. Inspired by all this cooperation, and forgetting the nature of the crowd, I light up a cigarette. Immediately a woman on line about 10 feet away begins to glare. She tells me I should go smoke “half a block down.” A fellow smoker, one of the BDSers, shoots me a sympathetic look. “This is America, right?” I ask him. “Well,” he shrugs, “this is New York.”

By 8 p.m., an hour after the meeting was supposed to start, the line still stretches for two blocks. Even with a thousand people still outside, the meeting has in fact begun, according to a member who volunteered to text me from inside. As the meeting progresses he reports that it is .  .  . relatively uneventful. There is a push to ban applause at one point and replace it with “twinkling” (jazz hands). There’s some yelling about Gaza. There’s a guy who briefly refuses to yield the floor, and a legal injunction to refrain from taking videos or tweeting (not texting, thankfully). He tells me it’s mostly civil: People make their cases, no fights break out, nobody walks out in a fury, everybody casts their ballot in peace. And then about half leave immediately after voting without waiting to hear the result.

As people stream out, nobody is particularly on edge about the outcome. There is no bickering on the street, no violent scenes for the TV crews to capture. People are laughing and smiling, unlocking the dozens of bikes chained to the iron gate around the school or walking off into the brisk Brooklyn evening .  .  . Well, what’d you expect? They don’t live in Gaza. They have babysitters to pay.

The result of the vote was “No,” by a margin of 1,005 to 653. No to holding a referendum on joining the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement, no to banning Israeli goods, no to grocery store foreign policy. I guess sometimes reason does prevail, even in a place that sells vegan marshmallows.

Zack Munson is an editorial assistant at The Weekly Standard.

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