Boycott of Israeli goods threatens to divide Port Townsend Food Co-op members

By Nicholas Johnson of the Leader

[Editor’s Note: This story first appeared in our Aug. 11, 2010 print edition and e-edition. A report from the Aug. 11 co-op meeting mentioned in this story is coming to our Aug. 18 issues.] Dena Bugel-Shunra compares a boycott to a pebble in your shoe.

“It’s a very small thing, but it’ll really get you going,” she said. “You’ll walk different. It’ll hurt you. It’ll bug you. It’s pretty much what a boycott does.”

Bugel-Shunra and four others proposed at the July 6 board meeting of the Port Townsend Food Co-op that the Co-op boycott all Israeli products. Since then, more than 40 comments have trickled in to the board. And while 40 may seem insignificant, recent efforts to ban Israeli products in co-ops around the state have garnered powerful community responses.

At their July 15 meeting, the Olympia Food Co-op board of directors adopted a proposal to boycott all Israeli products, becoming the first of its kind to do so. The co-op’s spokeswoman, Jayne Kaszynski, said the board received hundreds of phone calls from around the world expressing discontent with the decision. Since then 9,000 emails from around the world have flooded inboxes. In response the board plans to hold a member forum Thursday evening, Aug. 12.

Ever since the Port Townsend Co-op board received the proposal, the Product Review Committee (PRC) has studied the feasibility of adopting the ban through alternative product research and member comments. The PRC is set to present an update of its findings at 4:30 p.m. today, Aug. 11, at the Co-op’s annex at 2482 Washington St. The public is welcome to attend.

Then the PRC plans to continue its analysis of the proposal until the board’s Sept. 21 meeting. That meeting is expected to be devoted to the topic, and the board may make a decision about a boycott.

Made in Israel?

While Olympia’s co-op excluded Peace Oil Olive Oil from the Israeli products now boycotted, the oil remains on the list of products Port Townsend’s co-op is researching. Six other products are also on the list: bulk organic paprika, bulk pearled couscous, Ener-G Sesame Pretzels, Glutino Pretzels, Masada Dead Sea Bath Salts and Tropical Source mint chocolate bars.

Interim general manager Deb Shortess said the Co-op has identified alternative products made outside Israel for nearly all those listed. If the Israeli products were not replaced, Shortess said the Co-op would see a $5,000 drop in revenue – about 0.05 percent of current revenue. She said she couldn’t yet predict the boycott’s impact upon member purchases.

International effort

Of the 10 boycott proposals presented to co-op boards around the state, all come from members or supporters of an international activist effort called Boycott, Divest and Sanction (BDS). In 2005 more than 170 Palestinian organizations signed on to the BDS campaign, the stated goals of which are to bring peace to exiled refugees, equal rights to Palestinians within Israel and an end to violence in the occupied West Bank and Gaza Strip. The campaign’s key tactic: boycott.

“Boycott is the pebble in Israel’s shoe,” Bugel-Shunra said. “And we would like to be a part of that pebble.”

On the morning after the Olympia Food Co-op’s boycott decision, it became headline news in Israel and around the Middle East thanks to a press release issued by BDS to the international media.

“The reason for that is because in Israel they had a sense up until that point that the U.S., which is a major funder of Israel and its military, was perfectly fine and down with the whole oppression thing,” Bugel-Shunra said. “They were astonished.”

Tibor Breuer, a 22-year member and two-time board member of Olympia’s Food Co-op, was also astonished, yet for very different reasons.

“The whole world knew before Olympia,” he said. “It has hurt this community so deeply. It has put my life on hold.”

The Olympia Food Co-op’s board failed to consider the feelings of the membership, said Breuer. He said 40 people attended the co-op’s July 15 board meeting to support the boycott, while most members were left unaware.

“Ninety-nine point five percent of the membership found out after the fact,” he said. “The board did not even think about tabling it to consider the community’s input.”

Kaszynski, the Olympia co-op’s spokesperson, said the co-op’s policy does not require the board to seek member comment. Boycott decisions are left up to the Merchandizing Coordination Action Team, the co-op board of directors and co-op staff. And while many in the community feel the decision was made in secrecy, Kaszynski said the co-op simply followed policy.

After a volunteer cashier suggested the boycott more than two years ago, strong feelings were expressed on both sides of the issue. After collecting staff opinions the board adopted the boycott proposal and agreed to hold a member forum.

For Breuer, that forum can’t come soon enough. He said half the board was unaware of what they were endorsing.

“I feel the board was bullied and intimidated,” he said. “What we have on our hands now is a major division in this town.”

A community divided

In Port Townsend, many fear a boycott would similarly divide the community. Rima Phillips said she feels the Food Co-op is not the place for political expression.

“I like to buy my food at the Co-op,” she said. “And I like to do my politics somewhere else.”

Karma Tenzing Wangchuck, one of the five who proposed the boycott in Port Townsend, said the Co-op is, in fact, a political organization.

“Food is political. What we eat is a political choice,” he said. “If we choose a food that is made in a country that oppresses the people that grew that food, clearly we should be concerned about that. We should think about not eating that food and we should think about our Co-op, since we are member owners, together to make a collective decision to do what we can here to encourage the situation be changed there.”

Phillips said while she does not support Israel’s policy toward Palestine, she feels Co-op members deserve the right to choose for themselves what products to buy.

“They shouldn’t be telling me what to eat,” she said.

Since the proposal was made, public notice has been posted on a bulletin board at the front of the store. Small signs also hang near products currently under review by the PRC. Phillips said she feels such displays make a political statement on their own and do not belong in the Co-op.

“I believe the notices, in themselves, make a political statement that I think we should avoid, as we have done in the past,” she wrote to the board.

Others opposed to the boycott feel clear signage could serve as a tenable alternative to a boycott. Debi Steele, for example, wrote, “Leave the products but mark them so we can choose to buy them or not.”

Wangchuck said informing members of the products’ origin through labeling is a fine idea and should remain an option should the board choose not to boycott. But for now, he said he is grateful for the opportunity to discuss the issue.

“We have several weeks now of an opportunity to try to educate ourselves and others to sit down and be the peace we want to evoke in the Middle East,” he said.

Dividing the community

Phillips said such politically-charged notices in the Co-op serve to divide the community and inevitably make some members uncomfortable shopping in their own Co-op.

“I think it certainly has the potential to stir up anti-Semitism – whether the organizers feel that way or not,” she said. “Haven’t we learned yet that this head-on divisiveness gets us nowhere?”

Wangchuck and Bugel-Shunra couldn’t agree more. They have seen first-hand the reaction to their proposal while presenting it at a table set up outside the Co-op doors.

“We’ve had people come by our table and yell at us with venom,” Wangchuck said. “One person said something like, ‘If there is a Holocaust here and you’re the targets, I hope they take you down.’ And this was spat at us with extreme verbal violence. We need to hear that clearly and feel where that can be coming from.”

He said fears of anti-Semitism miss the mark. The goals of the proposed boycott are humanitarian in nature and ultimately aim to foster peace, he said.

“What I see is that a lot of the objections to the boycott are not coming from a point of thoughtfulness, care, concern and rationality,” he said. “But rather from pain, fear and hate.”

Seattle stays neutral

Jane Deer of Jewish Family Services, located across the street from Central Co-op’s Madison Market in Seattle, said she has watched as the Seattle co-op’s board of trustees struggled to appease their members. She has shopped at the co-op for years and since April has been a member of the Product Issues Committee (PIC), which is essentially equivalent to Port Townsend’s PRC. She said the board has recently dropped the matter after receiving hundreds of phone calls in opposition.

“I think big political issues coming up like this at a food co-op is not a good idea because there are too many other things to deal with already,” she said. “[Members] are there to buy healthy food and be environmentally conscious. They are not there to solve the problems of countries thousands of miles away. [The board] would have to be really knowledgeable and informed to really do this right.”

Deer said she feels the DBS boycott movement is working to bring about the destruction of the state of Israel and feels a boycott is reminiscent of anti-Semitism.

“I would be heartbroken if co-ops around the state went this way,” she said. “It’s as if Israel is the only nation bad enough for the co-op to boycott.”

Many in Port Townsend have questioned the boycott’s targeting of human rights violations in Palestine, suggesting the Co-op also consider boycotting Chinese products and other nations that violate human rights. Olympia’s co-op also has a boycott on Chinese products, for example.

Wangchuck said he would likely sign on to a boycott of Chinese products; however he said the United States’ relationship with China is far different from its relationship with Israel. The United States does not award $3 billion in military spending to China, he said.

Jefferson Healthcare

Peace Oil

Shortess said the board could choose to adopt a full boycott, no boycott or a partial boycott, which would involve some products and not others. One product under dispute is Peace Oil Olive Oil, which is jointly produced by Palestinians and Israelis. Olympia’s co-op chose to exclude Peace Oil from its list of products under boycott.

In a letter to the Port Townsend Co-op’s board, Terry Segal wrote, “To suggest, for example, the boycott of fair-trade Peace Oil, a product that represents the joint efforts of Israeli and Palestinian farmers who create a beautiful, sustaining food, is a frighteningly short-sighted and dangerous proposal.”

Daniel Bugel-Shunra, one of the four who proposed the Port Townsend boycott, said Peace Oil is a wonderful product, yet he is wary of the labor relationships that lead to its Israeli-based distribution. In a letter titled “Why I am against BDS,” the oil’s proprietor, David Sokal, reports that 75 percent of Peace Oil’s olive oil comes from Canaan Fair Trade, which is a Palestinian-owned and operated company representing 1,700 farmers on the West Bank. Daniel Bugel-Shunra said he is surprised more of the oil doesn’t come from Canaan.

“[Canaan and the Palestinian farmers] are very capable of selling it themselves,” he said. “They don’t need Israeli middlemen.”

Daniel and Dena Bugel-Shunra said they prefer to buy the Canaan Fair Trade oil rather than Peace Oil because they want to more directly support Palestinian farmers.

Why boycott, why now?

The Bugel-Shunras and Wangchuck compare the Israeli-Palestinian conflict to South African apartheid. Their ultimate goal, they said, is to lift the apartheid of Palestinians created by a violent, U.S.-funded Israeli military policy.

“The people who live in Palestine now – whether they are European Jews who went there as a result of the Holocaust and because they were expelled from Europe, or native aboriginal Palestinians – all have to live together in that land,” Daniel Bugel-Shunra said. “They have to find a way – whether in a combined state or two separate states next to each other – to live together.”

He said the BDS movement and boycott campaign is not interested in defining the solution to the conflict, instead that must be left to the Israelis and Palestinians. The ultimate goal of boycotts is to send a message that despite U.S. financial and arms support, American citizens do not condone violent oppression and instead support the disarmament of Israelis and Palestinians alike, said Dena Bugel-Shunra.

Wangchuck said the BDS has opted to use nonviolent boycott due to its effectiveness during the 20th century. Dena Bugel-Shunra said she hopes a boycott of Israeli products could help change Palestinian perceptions that Americans are complicit with the oppression and violence.

Wangchuck said while discussing human rights violations can be painful and often come with emotional baggage, the Co-op’s commitment to “social and economic change and improvement within the larger community” means recognizing the interconnectedness of food and community.

“The mission statement says the Co-op is a life-affirming association,” he said. “We’re doing nothing but trying to foster life-affirming democracy” for Palestinians in Israel.

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