Victories as N. American boycott movement gains momentum

Report, The Electronic Intifada, 26 July 2010

On 15 July, a food co-operative with two locations in Olympia, Washington, voted to become the first grocery stores in the United States to ban Israeli-made items from its shelves. The Olympia Food Co-op’s board of directors last week resolved to publicly join the international boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) movement in support of Palestinian rights, in an action that supporters and organizers say is congruent to its mission statement centered around food justice as a human right.

The Olympia Food Co-op has enacted similar boycott initiatives over the years, including banning items from China and Colorado, because of human rights abuses in Tibet and legalized discrimination against the lesbian, gay, transgender and queer community, respectively. The co-op will discontinue carrying the Israeli items, which include crackers, ice cream cones and moisturizing cream.

Local grassroots group Olympia BDS, who backed the co-op boycott move, was instrumental in organizing the successful divestment campaign at Evergreen State College, where on 2 June, students approved two resolutions calling on the college’s foundation to pull its investments from companies profiting from Israel’s illegal occupation. The students also called on the college to ban Caterpillar construction equipment on campus, as former Evergreen student Rachel Corrie was killed by an Israeli-armored Caterpillar D-9 bulldozer in the Gaza Strip in 2003.

In a press release on the Olympia BDS website following the boycott announcement, co-op board member Rob Richards explained: “My hope is that by being the first in the US to adopt the boycott we act as a catalyst for other co-ops to join in. Each additional organizational entity that joins may have a very small effect on the big picture, but drop by drop fills the tub.”

Rochelle Gause, an activist with Olympia BDS and the Olympia-Rafah Sister City Project, addressed the co-op board on the night of the boycott vote. “In Gaza, I saw firsthand how the occupation destroys the values that the co-op stands for,” she said. “Can we seriously deny the call from Palestinians to pull items from our shelves when their shelves are bare?”

Following the successful boycott decision, Gause told The Electronic Intifada that there has been sustained backlash against the co-op and its board members by Zionists and pro-Israel organizations, who are labeling the boycott as an “anti-Semitic” action. “[Zionist group] Stand With Us has put the co-op’s boycott decision on their website as a call to action, and subsequently, co-op board members have been met with harassment and threats against the store,” Gause said. “Jewish members of Olympia BDS are specifically being targeted with violent and harassing phone calls. Zionists are very worried that BDS is spreading.”

Gause said that about 15 protesters showed up to a 22 July rally against the co-op board’s decision to de-shelve Israeli products. “People say they’ll be demonstrating until the decision is overturned,” Gause told The Electronic Intifada. “But the support of the boycott action has been overwhelming, and I think the store will hold its ground despite the threats. The Israeli items are already off the shelves. We hope that this action motivates other communities across the country to initiate similar targeted boycotts.”

Gause told The Electronic Intifada that the Olympia Food Co-op would benefit from phone calls and letters of support (contact information is available on the campaign website, http://www.olympiabds.org), simple actions that show solidarity and could encourage other businesses to answer the growing call for boycotts against Israeli products. She added that the Olympia BDS petition in support of the boycott has already collected more than 700 signatures from individuals all over the world on the group’s website.

Meanwhile, activists in New York City delivered more than 15,000 signatures from petitions and postcards to the TIAA-CREF shareholders’ meeting on 20 July. The $426 billion that the retirement fund holds in combined assets includes investments in five corporations that profit from Israel’s occupation — Caterpillar, Elbit, Motorola, Veolia and Northrop Grumman — inspired activists with Jewish Voices for Peace (JVP) to pursue the fund’s management and urge them to disinvest.

Intellectual Noam Chomsky, UN official Richard Falk, Columbia University professor Joseph Massad, economist Naomi Klein and hundreds of American Jews, Palestinians, activists and academics signed the initial petition urging the fund’s disinvestment from the five companies.

Last month, TIAA-CREF decided to pull its investments from companies with ties to Sudan, after what the fund says was a three-year effort to “encourage [companies] to take affirmative steps to ease human rights abuses and end genocide in the region in which they operate.” However, after JVP launched its campaign to enact a similar divestment from companies with ties to Israel, citing Israel’s assaults on Palestinian human rights, TIAA-CREF’s management said its divestment positions were only “consistent with US foreign policy.”

“We believe that concerns about the situation in the Gaza Strip and the West Bank are best addressed by US foreign policy and lend themselves less to using one’s shareholder status to influence portfolio companies,” the fund stated in June.

Undeterred, members of JVP then decided to attend the 20 July shareholder’s meeting and present the overwhelming amount of signatures supporting divestment in person, while activists organized plans to speak out during the meeting. JVP activist Aaron Levitt said in a press release that individuals inside the room implored TIAA-CREF to “find a new way” other than fueling “death and destruction by literally investing in it” (“Dear supporter …).

“We had a designated speaker delivering the postcards to TIAA-CREF management, and we knew a few other people, mostly professors and teachers, would get up and ask that their money not be invested in companies that profit from discrimination, death, and destruction, and push hope and peace ever further away,” Levitt added.

“But what happened was extraordinary. First five, then ten, then 14 people, then more got up, one after another, to speak from the heart about why TIAA CREF must not profit from Israel’s occupation. These people weren’t just JVP members, but included TIAA-CREF shareholders attending the meeting for entirely different reasons, who were spontaneously moved to speak in support of our campaign.”

The fund’s CEO announced that its management will meet with JVP to discuss the boycott campaign. JVP is still collecting signatures from TIAA-CREF participants on their campaign website, hoping to gather at least 50,000 signatures.

In other news, activists from the Canada Palestine Association (CPA) in Vancouver, Canada, announced a general boycott of a nation-wide store, Mountain Equipment Co-op (MEC). A target of a months-long boycott campaign, MEC has rejected local calls for de-shelving Israeli products and has refused to engage in constructive dialogue with BDS activists.

MEC carries a variety of Israeli products, and CPA-Vancouver stated that BDS campaign supporters have written to the co-op informing them of their decision to no longer shop there if the products remain on the shelves. “In response, MEC management not only defended their support for Israeli apartheid, [but] they also defended Israel and its institutions,” activists declared in a 16 July statement (“Mountain Equipment Co-op Defends Israeli Apartheid: Boycott MEC!).

In a statement rebuking the boycott call and activists’ concerns, MEC management claimed that Israel has a “vibrant and functioning democracy, which has put in place independent judicial systems, free press and organized labor initiatives.” Additionally, the co-op’s CEO, David Labistour, apparently sent emails to boycott supporters with links to an Israeli public relations firm “which justified Israel’s murderous action against the peace activists taking aid to Gaza … This Histadrut PR spin mentions the Palestinian trade union PGFTU, but conveniently forgets to state that PGFTU was one of the initiators of the global boycott Israel (BDS) movement,” added CPA-Vancouver.

Campaigners have taken MEC’s recalcitrance as a line in the sand, and have urged local, national and international BDS supporters to enact a general boycott of the entire store chain. “Despite efforts to engage in constructive dialogue on various occasions, MEC has refused to divest from Israeli products,” CPA-Vancouver stated.

“The momentum for a general boycott of MEC is both urgent and necessary,” the statement added. “The Palestinian BDS National Committee issued a call after Israel’s deadly raid on the Gaza flotilla to intensify our efforts at boycott campaigns and in this context, we will be examining other companies in Canada and calling on supporters to do exactly the same national action as with MEC. No business as usual, and no dealings with those who support Israeli war crimes — we must take a stand now as the Palestinian people are counting on us to defend their human and national rights. History will be our witness.”

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