Sacramento Natural Foods Co-op debates Palestine politics

No matzo, no peace

By Lien Hoang

This article was published on 09.16.10.

Matzo and bath salts are stirring up controversy over at the Sacramento Natural Foods Co-op, where a fraction of its 12,000 owner-members is moving to boycott products that come from Israel.

The boycott is being pushed by the Sacramento Boycott, Divestments, Sanctions Working Group. The group says the boycott would end when Israel stops its Gaza blockade, exits the West Bank, grants Arab Israelis the same rights as Jewish Israelis and lets Palestinian refugees return.

More than anything, the controversy is a war of symbols, as the half-dozen Israeli brands that would be affected constitute less than 1 percent of SNFC inventory.

“If we can stop carrying products tested on animals, surely we can stop carrying products that violate human rights,” activist and Co-op member Maggie Coulter said at a meeting of the Co-op board on September 7.

That meeting drew two dozen people to the Co-op on Alhambra Boulevard, where boycott backers accused Israel of creating a system of apartheid for Palestinians. They said rather than support the nation by buying its goods, the store should do its part in pressuring Israel to make concessions to Palestine.

Opponents questioned the legality of a boycott, which would alienate Jewish customers and set a double standard for other human-rights violators, including China and countries in Africa and the Mideast. Besides, they said, the board should stick to managing SNFC finances and leave the politicking to President Barack Obama.

They also delivered a letter from California Senate President Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg, who wrote that the protest would try to “delegitimize and demonize Israel … as a pariah nation.”

Those attacking the boycott option worried it targeted an ethnic and religious group, but supporters shot back that the target was a government’s policies.

When one woman at the meeting lamented a distorted news media funded by Jewish dollars, Barry Broad pounced.

“That’s anti-Semitic,” the chairman of the Sacramento Jewish Community Relations Council said, addressing the board. “You said you wouldn’t tolerate anti-Semitism.”

Coulter says 400 Co-op owners have signed form letters of support. But Len Feldman, director of the Sacramento JCRC, cited a study in which 80 percent of SNFC owners surveyed opposed boycotts for political ends.

“You have a small group of people trying to turn Co-op members into political pawns,” he said outside of the meeting.

A five member Co-op policy committee will investigate the boycott request for the next three months. The committee will make a recommendation to the Co-op board for a final decision

In March, a similar effort at the Davis Food Co-op failed, while four months later, one at a natural foods Co-op in Olympia, Wash., succeeded.

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