Boycotting Democracy at the Davis Coop

Boycott campaigns are always controversial, even at food cooperatives. So much so that it is advisable to have a policy for dealing with them. The Davis Food Coop has one, a wise move in California. So why aren’t they following their own policy?

Well, apparently there are boycotts and then there are boycotts.

The Davis Committee for Palestinian Rights (DCPR) believe they gathered enough signatures for a vote on a boycott of Israeli products. However, even as they collected signatures, the coop management has informed them that they will not be allowed a vote. The reason is that the vote is likely to be “controversial.” What’s more the coop board raised the specter of federal anti-boycott rules. There is no evidence that the law, intended to apply to Arab States during the 1970’s oil embargo, would ever be applied to a Davis Food Coop. The office of the federal government that tracks violations of the law lists only Arab States, no other campaigns. Eventually, according to organizer Mikos Fabersunne, the coop backed away from that argument and emphasized in fairly blunt terms the threatened financial impact of the coop by people upset with the decision. Boycott opponents echoed this sentiment.

If the issue is indeed controversial, isn’t that all the more reason to follow one’s own rules?

The local organized Jewish community, namely the board co-President of Congregation Bet Haverim Karen Firestein, is opposed to the boycott and said in a written statement on the synagogue’s website , “If the Co-op becomes a political tool for those who want to commandeer it for ideological reasons, it will no longer be able to serve the entire Davis community. Long term members who do not want to be associated with the boycott’s message will have no choice but to resign from the Coop and patronize other markets.” In other words, a boycott!

Why can’t the coop board members, if they feel such a significant portion of the membership is opposed, simply hold a vote? Similar resolutions were defeated overwhelmingly at the Ann Arbor People’s Food Coop, Rainbow Grocery in San Francisco, and my own Philadelphia neighborhood’s Weavers’ Way. The coop board’s justification that anything besides food quality is hard to enforce rings similarly. As much as I would like to believe my fair trade coffee or my locally grown beet tastes better than the alternative, coops are about much more than the flavor of the food. Citing dubious legal precedent and attempting to stifle controversy prematurely seemed geared to inflame the situation further. There is nothing inherently antisemitic about boycotts, as evidenced by the Firestein threatening one herself. In contrast to the notion that he is singling out Israel, organizer Fabersunne supports it as a tactic against China, Sudan, and Burma, the latter two already being on the United States’ sanctions list. As for the other group opposed to the boycott, the Davis Interfaith Peace Coalition, their only Google search result was an event to say how great Israel was, suggesting they are hardly advancing Peace and Justice in the Middle East. It seems they were explicitly founded to counter the BDS movement.

Congregation Bet Haverim itself had a brush with controversy when it had a speaker from the Council on American Islamic Relations in 2007, in which the audience had several outbursts and one attendee had to be asked to leave. This briefly led to a ban on “controversial events,” which seems to have been lifted as the syngagogue recently hosted a panel in which anti Occupation activists (who were not present) such as Jewish American Anna Baltzer were accused of being antisemitic. The synagogue also cancelled an April 2009 talk by David Wesley on “Jews, Arabs and Government Officials: Power Relations Inside Israel.” But the past controversy and the existence of the group “Jewish Peace Alternatives,” suggests the synagogue has a broader range of views that is being represented by its Board Co-President. And if it wants to attract unaffiliated members, I would suggest that stifling votes is not the way to do it.

Meanwhile, the DCPR activists are planning future boycott actions at neighborhood supermarkets, and the BDS movement shows no sign of dying out. Nor does the effort to stifle it. Congregation Bet Haverim actually adopted a similar position to the San Francisco Jewish Federation, banning speakers who oppose Israel as a Jewish or Democratic state. In practice, this has meant a much wider category of speaker cannot get synagogue endorsements. According to member Sarah Pattison, the local group Jewish Peace Alternatives decided to “err on the side of caution” and did not even bother to ask if they could sponsor Breaking the Silence, though there is no evidence that these Israeli Soldiers are against the Jewish State. Here in Philadelphia, the local Hillel has passed a similar policy, and then gone on to strategize in the local Jewish press about how speakers such as Hanan Ashrawi might have their lectures “challenged from the inside” at schools with a small Jewish population.

It seems likely that this a coordinated strategy on the part of Israel’s defenders, and will be fought out locality by locality. But the overall futility of trying to demonize this nonviolent tactic seems to me clearly unlikely to be ethical or effective. Longtime coop and synagogue member Gene Borack put it best when he stated his belief in “populist democracy, that people who have all the information will make the best decisions for themselves and their families.” I can’t think of a better summary of the mission of Muzzlewatch (and our sister blog The Only Democracy?) Thanks to the hard work of the BDS activists, the information is getting out there. Now when will people really be able to make those decisions, in Davis or elsewhere?

-Jesse Bacon

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