The drive to defeat a proposed boycott of Israeli goods at the Park Slope Food Co-op resembled an election campaign in more ways than one, said Hindy Poupko, a communal professional who worked with rabbis and co-op members involved in the battle.
Nearly 2,000 of the co-op’s 16,000 members attended the store’s monthly meeting last Tuesday night to vote on the proposal, which called for a referendum among members on whether or not to join the international Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement against Israel. In the end, they rejected the proposal 1,005 to 653, or roughly 60 percent to 40 percent, ending a contentious debate at the co-op that began three years ago.
One reason for the size of the crowd was the concerted effort mounted by a number of groups to boost the attendance of pro-Israel members of the co-op, said Poupko, director of Israel and international affairs at the Jewish Community Relations Council of New York.
JCRC worked with rabbis in Brownstone Brooklyn and More Hummus, Please, the co-op faction opposed to BDS, to draw attention to the vote and craft the right message, Poupko said. In essence, she added, the message conveyed the idea “that BDS does nothing to promote peace and that it’s bad for the co-op.”
Toward that end, the ad-hoc coalition of groups distributed flyers, posters, e-mail blasts and postcards with the same design and the same language. Aimed at appealing to a progressive audience, a large part of Brownstone Brooklyn, the material said, “Say yes to a Jewish state. Yes to a Palestinian state. No to BDS.”
The agency also organized a panel discussion, “Progressive Voices Against BDS,” and created a website, Voices Against BDS. The event, hosted by Congregation Beth Elohim, included representatives of J Street, the New Israel Fund and Americans for Peace Now, all of whom spoke in opposition to BDS.
All three organizations — J Street, NIF and APN — are anathema to many on the Jewish right. But Poupko and her colleagues believed “it was important for the community to hear [about BDS] from organizations and individuals they respect.” She added that the area’s rabbis helped “identify those organizations that have resonance with their members.”
In the past few days, JCRC also solicited statements from elected officials in the area denouncing the BDS movement, Poupko said. Among the nine leaders who provided statements are U.S. Reps. Jerrold Nadler and Yvette Clarke, both Democrats who represent parts of Brownstone Brooklyn.
Mayor Michael Bloomberg also condemned the proposed boycott during a news conference Monday, where he was asked about his views, the JTA reported.
“I think it has nothing to do with the food,” Bloomberg said. “The issue is there are people who want Israel to be torn apart and everybody to be massacred, and America is not going to let that happen.”
The crowd that turned out for Tuesday’s vote exceeded the size of any previous co-op meetings, which normally draw about 300 members, co-op officials said.
The three-hour meeting, closed to everyone but members, included a lengthy presentation by BDS supporters, who spoke of alleged human-rights abuses by Israel and showed slides of alleged Israeli atrocities, according to reports from the gathering.
But members of More Hummus, Please weren’t allowed to make a similar presentation, said the group’s founder, Barbara Mazor, who explained that the rules of the co-op only allow the sponsors of a proposal to speak at such length. Those rules, she added, were drawn up years ago by people who never anticipated “an issue as controversial as this one.”
The discussion also included shorter speeches, limited to two minutes each, by members for and against the proposal. One of those who spoke was Rabbi Andy Bachman, spiritual leader of Congregation Beth Elohim, who told listeners that he’s a lifelong liberal and that he favors a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, but that BDS seeks the end of Israel.
The rabbi’s comments echo those of others opposed to BDS, a movement whose leaders, they believe, are misleading or disingenuous when it comes to talking about Israel.
As a result, Mazor said, “many people don’t understand the seriousness of this issue. When you point out that BDS is opposed to Israel’s existence as a Jewish state, they say, ‘It can’t be so,’ ‘That can’t be right,’ ‘How do you know?’”
Asked about that postition, Phan Nguyen, a BDS activist who writes about the movement and belongs to the Park Slope Food Co-op, told The Jewish Week that many BDS advocates support a one-state solution — one in which there’d be no Jewish state — while others support a two-state solution. The movement’s literature doesn’t speak of either solution, he added.
But BDS literature does speak of the “right” of Palestinian refugees to return, making no differentiation between the West Bank and Israel proper — a demand that would certainly spell Israel’s demise as a Jewish state. Pressed on the issue, Nguyen said he supports “Jewish self-determination” and “security for all peoples,” but he questioned whether Israel could even be called a Jewish state and declined to say if he favored one.
Meanwhile, both sides in the Park Slope controversy are claiming victory in the aftermath of Tuesday’s vote.
Nguyen, for instance, is “impressed” by the fact that 40 percent of the co-op’s members voted in favor of a BDS referendum despite “all the political statements” against a boycott. Like others in the store’s BDS faction, he also believes the battle made BDS part of mainstream conversation among New Yorkers.
But Poupko sees things differently, pointing out that “1,000 people voted against even holding a referendum on the issue” — a fact that “tells us there’s little appetite for this in the community.” She also noted that a percentage of those who voted the other way supported a referendum on the issue but oppose BDS. Opponents of the referendum, including Mazor’s group and most of the area’s rabbis, believed it would have been divisive and counterproductive.
Whatever the case, the anti-BDS vote represents another in a long string of losses for the BDS movement, which has targeted nearly a dozen food co-ops across the country in the past few years, said Jon Haber, an anti-BDS activist and blogger. The only such store at which a boycott has been implemented is the co-op in Olympia, Wash., where the store’s board made the decision without input from staff or members.
Although Nguyen said he knows of no plans for further action by BDS supporters at the co-op, Mazor and others are convinced that the BDS faction will keep pushing its agenda — a prospect that concerns Mazor.
A member of the co-op for 23 years, Mazor found the presentation by BDS supporters a powerful one. “If I didn’t know what I know, I may have been taken in by it,” she said. She added that “no one [at the meeting] mentioned terrorism, no one mentioned Hamas, no one mentioned peace talks, no one mentioned national rights.”