Like many of those she knows at the Park Slope Food Co-op, Barbara Mazor has never been an “overly” political person.
“I’ve supported things” in the past, she says, adding that she and her husband send money every year to Stand With Us, the pro-Israel advocacy group, and attend the annual Salute to Israel Parade, “but I’ve never spearheaded or led anything before.”
That changed for Mazor last spring as a three-year debate over a proposed boycott of Israeli products at the co-op heated up once again, prompting the 55-year-old Midwood resident to form More Hummus, Please.
The group’s creation means that the membership-only co-op is now divided into two factions — Park Slope Food Co-op Members for Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions and Mazor’s anti-BDS group, each with its own blog and each with an e-mail list numbering in the hundreds.
The battle could come to an end — or its continuation for many years could be guaranteed — at the co-op’s next general meeting, Tuesday, March 27. Acting to cap the debate, the co-op’s board of directors decided to schedule a vote that evening among the institution’s members on whether to hold a referendum on boycotting Israeli goods.
In a sign of the turmoil caused by the debate, more than 1,000 of the co-op’s 16,000 members are expected to attend the monthly meeting — far more than the 300 or so who normally attend general meetings. As a result, the co-op’s managers have shifted the venue from Park Slope’s Congregation Beth Elohim, where co-op meetings usually take place, to the more spacious Brooklyn Technical High School in Fort Greene.
In the meantime, the issue has drawn attention not only from local political and religious leaders, but from national figures on both sides of the political spectrum and from “The Daily Show.” Among those figures are Glenn Beck, who has called the potential boycott anti-Semitic; U.S. Sen. Charles Schumer, a resident of Park Slope, who told one newspaper that the proposal was “misguided and counterproductive”; and Alan Dershowitz, the Harvard law professor, who has threatened an effort that would close down the co-op should a boycott be adopted. “The Daily Show,” meanwhile, has scheduled a segment on the controversy for its March 26 episode.
The controversy has also struck some observers as so absurd that it’s generated humor of the sort recently found in a New York Observer article, which noted that Israel and the 40-year-old co-op “have a lot in common. Both were founded in part by Jewish socialists,” the article said. “Both are governed by raucous democracy with laws and rituals to rival the Talmud. Both have a soft spot for hummus and couscous. And now both are plagued by the Palestinian question.”
Adding to the sense of absurdity, in the eyes of some, is that the co-op currently carries only six items produced in Israel, including an olive pesto manufactured by PeaceWorks, a venture aimed at uniting Jews and Arabs as business partners.
But more seriously, the BDS campaign has also anguished those, like Barbara Mazor, who joined the co-op 23 years ago to purchase items she couldn’t buy elsewhere and suddenly finds herself confronted with what she calls “political slogans.”
Discussing why her group opposes even a referendum on a boycott, Mazor, an Orthodox Jew and vegetarian, said such a move would pave the way for months of additional “propaganda against Israel,” wasting the co-op’s time and money. By approving the referendum, she added, the general meeting would also be sending a message “that the political position of some people in the co-op should be imposed on other members of the co-op.”
In Mazor’s view, a co-op “is based on people working together” and “not a place for politics,” especially proposals as divisive as this one.
Mazor’s anguish is shared by others in the community, including a group of rabbis in Brownstone Brooklyn, the area that encompasses Park Slope and nearby neighborhoods. Led by Rabbi Andy Bachman of Congregation Beth Elohim, the rabbis contacted their Christian counterparts at local churches to produce an interfaith statement opposing the boycott.
Signed by 11 members of the clergy, including six rabbis, the statement says the clerics are “fully cognizant of the deprivations endured by the Palestinian people,” but believe that “the best path for a resolution lies in face-to-face negotiations between the parties.” The BDS movement, it adds, “looks for simple solutions to complex challenges” and “stands in the way of meaningful dialogue and engagement.”
Rabbi Bachman, a member of the co-op, said he and other rabbis got involved in the issue after More Hummus, Please contacted him. But he added that he’s spoken about the BDS movement many times from the pulpit and in his blog, telling his congregants that he views the effort as immoral.
“I can’t think of another example in the contemporary world where there’s a movement afoot to dissolve a state,” the rabbi told The Jewish Week. “There’s a kind of insidious aspect to the BDS campaign,” he said, adding that “they don’t believe Israel should exist as a democratic, Jewish state,” but couch that view in language aimed at fogging the issue.
Mazor’s group has also received assistance from the Jewish Community Relations Council of New York, said Hindy Poupko, the agency’s director of Israel and international affairs.
On the other side of the debate is the co-op’s BDS faction, which took shape after one of the co-op’s members, an artist and filmmaker known as Hima B., rose at a general meeting in 2009 to suggest a boycott of Israeli goods. A flurry of newspaper articles reported her comments, followed by angry letters in the co-op’s biweekly newsletter, Linewaiters’ Gazette, but the issue died down until last summer.
Members of the BDS faction reflect the co-op’s diversity and include a good number of Jews, one of whom is Ora Wise, an Israel-born resident of Crown Heights and educational director of Kolot Chayeinu/Voices of Our Lives, an independent congregation in Brooklyn.
Explaining that she spoke for herself and not the congregation, whose members include BDS supporters, BDS opponents “and everyone in between,” Wise told The Jewish Week that “Israeli society depends on the exploitation and oppression of Palestinians.” The co-op should boycott Israeli goods as long as that situation continues, she said.
Wise dismissed suggestions that politics has no place at a food co-op, saying that “food, and how it’s produced and how we get it, are inherently political. … Here in Park Slope, as long as Palestinians are not allowed to farm their own land or thrive as a people, if we don’t support the boycott, then we’re being hypocritical.”
Pressed on whether she supports or opposes Israel’s existence as a Jewish state, Weiss objected to the question at first, but finally said that “the struggle” for Palestinian rights wouldn’t end “until Palestinians have access to their entire homeland,” including Israel proper. “The occupation goes much deeper” than just the West Bank, she added, and is part of Israel’s “colonization” of the area.
Comments like Weiss’ sound familiar to Jon Haber, a resident of the Boston area who follows the BDS movement for DivestThis, a blog he created in 2009.
An anti-BDS activist, Haber said the Park Slope battle fits a recent pattern for the BDS movement, which has targeted food co-ops in recent years after proving unsuccessful elsewhere. Co-ops have loose governing structures and are built around progressive communities, making them a “soft target” for BDS supporters, Haber said.
The only place where a BDS campaign has succeeded is in Olympia, Wash., where the co-op’s board of directors implemented a boycott suddenly, stunning both staff and members. “Once co-ops saw what happened in Olympia,” Haber said, “they’ve been rejecting boycotts ever since.”
That seems to be the case in Park Slope, where Joe Holtz, the co-op’s general manager and one of its founders, has appealed to members to reject the BDS referendum. Writing in the current issue of the Linewaiters’ Gazette, Holtz said he and others launched the co-op “because we believed in the beauty and power of people working together for the collective good.” Joining BDS, on the other hand, would divide members and “can only harm” the co-op’s future.