– “I haven’t come to the store since this started. I don’t feel safe here anymore.”
– “I look around me and I don’t know who I can trust. I don’t know which side they’re on.”
– “All this talk about democracy. Democracy doesn’t work for Jews. Hitler was elected democratically.”
These and similar comments, often accompanied by tears, came at an open meeting of our local food co-operative, GreenStar, in Ithaca, New York. We were there to discuss a proposed referendum/membership vote on whether to boycott products (mostly hummus and red peppers) tied to Israeli occupation of the West Bank and connected with the Israeli military.
Our local group, the Central New York Committee for Justice in Palestine, initiated the referendum in the context of the international Boycott Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement called for by Palestinian civil society groups in 2005. We followed the co-op’s established procedures and gathered the required number of members’ signatures.
At the meeting, some members of our group spoke briefly about GreenStar’s democratic process and procedures that allowed for such member-initiated votes and about the co-op’s long-standing boycott of goods from China because of human rights abuses by that country. Fifty people, mostly non-members of the co-op, came to speak out against allowing the membership to vote on this issue. Their emotional responses came like a wave: fear and loathing filled the room.
Information about the magnitude of the Holocaust came to the United States only after World War II. In the late 1940s, Jews in America were bombarded with a dramatic narrative of heroic battles being fought to create Israel, a home for those dispossessed by the Holocaust, “a land without people for a people without a land.” Indigenous Palestinians were erased from history. Jewish Americans were tolerant and supportive of Israel regardless of any disquieting details and most continue this unquestioning support. But for some, the events in recent decades have led to the acknowledgement of the oppression faced by Palestinians living in a hellish occupation. People have been forced from their homes, villages destroyed and paved over, orchards burned. Moderate voices among the Palestinians were silenced by exile, imprisonment or assassination. While going through the motions of the peace process for a two state solution, Israel continues to appropriate land and establish new settlements in Palestinian territory. Yet for many Jews, the horror of the Holocaust overpowers any conflicting narrative.
The referendum’s opponents produced a large black book and gave copies to GreenStar’s governing Council. Their material was not shared with those of us who had proposed the referendum because it contained letters from individuals who stated their personal opposition, along with threats to boycott the co-op if the referendum were allowed to proceed. They were unwilling to let us see who those people were, although the names of those on our petitions were public knowledge. The opposition group was drawn primarily from the local Conservative Jewish temple whose Rabbi had contacted other local clergy to get support for opposing the referendum. A conservative Cornell University law professor (who, incidentally, has identified Cornell, which is based in Ithaca, as “the second most anti-Semitic college in the U.S.”) provided help in framing the case against a referendum. A nationally known speaker was located to argue against our efforts. There seemed to be a clear strategy to shut down the referendum effort, to preclude not just our proposed boycott, but also any conversation about the situation in the Middle East.
Finally, the GreenStar Council scheduled a meeting at which they announced their decision. The referendum would not proceed because the lawyers they consulted advised that it would violate a provision of the New York State Human Rights Law, which states that boycotts based on national origin are illegal. End of discussion. The proposed referendum at GreenStar food co-op had been squelched.
So what really happened? The major goal of our local Committee for Justice in Palestine has been to educate the community about the situation in Israel/Palestine and discuss alternatives to the current impasse. We hold meetings, screen films, raise money to help send observers to the West Bank. One of our strategies was the proposed referendum. We knew our chances of winning the vote were not great. We saw the referendum as an opportunity to educate co-op members about the issues.
GreenStar’s management knew about similar proposals to boycott Israeli products. They were aware of a divisive battle fought at the Park Slope co-op in Brooklyn over the same issue. That vote was stopped by organized opponents similar to those in Ithaca. But in Olympia, Washington the co-op Board did vote to boycott Israeli goods*. Opposition to implementing that boycott enmeshed the co-op in five years of litigation, an instance of “lawfare” as a weapon. The co-op has only recently won the right to implement their Board’s decision.
The bottom line prevailed in our local co-op’s decision not to allow the referendum to proceed; that is, GreenStar Council, focused on its fiduciary responsibility, saw a dangerous situation emerging in the hysterical response of the opposition and grabbed the convenient clause in New York State’s Human Rights law as a way out. End of conversation. Our group didn’t want to harm the co-op so we backed off, choosing not to contest the Council’s decision.
Why share this case study? In a small way, our boycott story illustrates that there are powerful forces working hard to preclude scrutiny of the situation in Israel and Palestine. Their reach can stifle open discussion at small local food co-ops and at the highest levels of the U.S. government. For example, it is common to have unanimous votes in the U.S. Senate supporting Israel’s policies and actions, including the 2014 devastation of Gaza. Israel’s supporters manipulate the fears of American Jews and the long shadow of the Holocaust to override the Constitutional protection of free speech and maintain unquestioning acceptance of the Israeli narrative.
*A previous version of this article stated that the Olympia co-op members voted rather than the co-op Board. The wording has been changed to reflect that it was the co-op Board that voted.