Monday, February 23, 2009

LESS THAN MEETS THE EYE: Park Slope Food Co-op: not yet considering Israel boycott

Park Slope Food Co-op: not considering Israel boycott

Last week, I posted a piece from the Forward indicating the Park Slope Food Coop is weighing whether to boycott Israeli products. They, and I, got only a part of the story, and we got it wrong. In fact, an anonymous individual stood up during the public comment portion of a coop general meeting. She identified herself as South African in origin and compared Israel to Aparheid South Africa. She asked whether the coop carries Israeli products (it does have a few, as she readily could have found out for herself with a little research). Then she said that the coop should boycott Israeli products.

Thus far, she has not followed up and had not submitted a written proposition for the next general meeting to consider. She has not scheduled debate of the issue at the next meeting. She has not garnered any significant visible support for the boycott idea. All that's happened is that she stood up and spoke extemporaneously. There's no indication that she's done anything about this since.

On the other hand, as Gersh Kuntzman, a coop member/worker who also happens to edit a local paper (The Brooklyn Paper), has written that this isn't the first such proposal. He found (here, page 11 of the pdf) two letters to the coop newsletter from a member supporting a boycott. Not exactly a groundswell and not exactly a news story. Less than meets the eye.

In the words of Allen Zimmerman, a coop administrator (read here: comment #8):

The Park Slope Food Coop has 15, 000 members, 3 of whom have expressed their opposition to the Israel conflict in Gaza. The issue of a boycott was raised by a single member at our January membership meeting during our open microphone period, and no one else spoke on this at all. That is the entire extent of this issue so far. I am part of the management team at the coop. When Fox News came to interview me on 2/19, they roamed the store, interviewing members. Later, I asked them how it went. They told me that they were unable to find a coop member who favored a boycott of Israel. They were disappointed, because like me, they couldn’t find the tempest in our teapot

For the record: The Park Slope Food Co-op is NOT considering a ban on Israeli-made or -grown products.

This myth, reported around the globe by the Jewish Forward and dozens of blogs that seem to regard the 16,000-member supermarket as some kind of anti-Israel committee rather than a great place for produce, evolved from a stray comment at an open meeting in January, when a Co-op member who identified herself only as Hima inquired about whether the Co-op sells Israeli products.

“I don’t know whether or not we carry Israeli products,” she said, “but I propose that we no longer carry them.”

Sorry, Hima, but that’s now how it works at America’s largest, member-run food cooperative. Stray comments at a Park Slope Food Co-op general meeting don’t become Co-op law until — and please believe me because I know this from personal experience — extensive debate, discussion and more mudslinging than at an organic composting facility.

And that’s just to get the item on the AGENDA for an upcoming meeting! You should have seen the battle over selling beer! An earlier proposal to sell meat nearly ended in murder (of humans, not cattle)!

Alas, the above fact doesn’t matter to America’s blogosphere, which ran with the story that the Co-op was considering a blockade of Israel.

“Park Slope Food Coop Bans Israeli Food,” read the headline on New York Magazine’s Grub Street blog.

“Food Fight: Brooklyn Co-op Mulls Israel Ban,” read the headline in the original Forward article that set off the explosion of coverage.

Only the New York Post seems to have gotten the story right — by doing what it does best: taking the grain of truth and calling Assemblyman Dov Hikind to get angry about it.

“‘Ban Israel’ bid mushrooms into B’klyn Food Fight,” said the Post headline — accurate, of course, because the Post went out and created the “food fight” itself.

Like any decent reporter, I heard about Hima’s comments at the January meeting and knew there was a great story here. But unlike most of the bloggers and chatterboxes masquerading as reporters these days, a few phone calls and a little shoe-leather investigating revealed that Hima did not do the necessary paperwork to get her “Israel ban” on the agenda for the February meeting on Tuesday, Feb. 24.

Oh, and there’s paperwork! The instructions alone on “How to Develop an Agenda Item for the General Meeting,” is two pages, single-spaced. Then the submission form for said agenda item requires an essay.

Hima didn’t do it (for now, at least), so in other words, the Park Slope Food Co-op is NOT considering a ban on Israeli goods — currently persimmons, red peppers and sometimes, mushrooms — at its February general meeting.

This is not to say that talk of a ban won’t come up again. After all, such a ban would find plenty of support among the peaceniks who prowl the aisles at the Food Co-op. From my years as a Co-op member, I have seen the supermarket take positions on a wide variety of liberal causes — most of them having to do with non-violence and the environment, including the well-publicized ban on plastic bags and bottled water.

Indeed, there are plenty of members of the Co-op who think Israel’s battle with rocket-launching Gaza militants is evidence that the Jewish state is a violent thug. There are others, judging by letters in supermarket’s house organ, the Linewaiter’s Gazette, who think Israel’s treatment of its Arab population is the equivalent of Apartheid.

And there are others, of course, who think the Co-op is a supermarket that should focus on what it does best: selling low-cost, organic produce to a diverse collection of Brooklynites, from Muslims to orthodox Jews to atheists to vegans.

But whatever your opinion on Israel — and persimmons — however, the Co-op’s “Israel ban” is a myth.

At least, for now.

Gersh Kuntzman

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