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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.

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