In Brooklyn’s upscale, politically liberal and increasingly family-friendly Park Slope, the battles that have seized most of the headlines in recent years have concerned fancy strollers that occupy too much sidewalk space — and not so much Israel’s occupation of the West Bank.
But a proposed boycott of Israeli products at the Park Slope Food Co-op — a thriving grocery/community institution known for its wide selection of organic foods and the strict work requirements it imposes on its more than 15,000 members — is bringing the Mideast conflict to the land of brownstones.
In a recent official statement submitted to the co-op, Rabbi Andy Bachman, whose Congregation Beth Elohim is just a few blocks away from the co-op, explains that he and the Reform temple oppose the boycott because of the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement’s singling out of Israel, its long-term goal of delegitmizing the right of Israel to exist as a Jewish state and because a boycott “will greatly divide the delicate fabric of a community institution with as diverse a membership as any democratic community organization in the United States.”
Rabbi Bachman, who spends five weeks each summer in Israel, teaching in the Bronfman Youth Fellowship program, spoke with The Jewish Week about how the issue is playing out in his community.
Q: Are you a member of the co-op and are many of your congregants?
A: My family was formally suspended because we have owed work shifts for two years. … I have no clue how many synagogue members are co-op members, but a lot. And a lot of members of the broader Jewish community are members of the co-op. It’s a real Park Slope institution.
Does the co-op sell a lot of Israeli products?
The only Israeli products that immediately come to mind that I’ve seen there are Sabra hummus and SodaStream products. I’m not aware of a huge amount of produce imported from Israel. It’s a symbolic gesture. What BDS is attempting to do is isolate Israel for symbolic purposes. It’s not that there’s actual hope that a boycott of Israel will have the ability to pressure Israel economically to make concessions to the Palestinians. That’s very clear to me as a pretty left-wing person.
Does the proposal have a chance of passing?
Most people I talk to don’t think it will pass, especially because it seems to be targeted against Israel, rather than a broader look at the co-op’s purchasing policies in general. Not to be overly ridiculous, but if you look over the last six months at the ongoing Chinese repression of people in Tibet and the continual documented human rights abuses in China and in Syria all summer long, I sincerely doubt those people are going through the co-op shelves and writing up a referendum to boycott any products from Syria or China. … This isn’t a rational effort here; that isn’t BDS’s goal. And that is to my mind what’s so reprehensible about it. You don’t have to go very far inside the BDS movement to understand what they’re really advocating is the end of Israel as a Jewish state. They don’t believe in a two-state solution.
What are you hearing from your congregants and from others in the community?
Most people’s perception of it is that it’s a nuisance. They don’t think it’s going to pass, and they’re exhausted from all these efforts to delegitimize Israel. … The idea that someone is singling out Israel in public, you have to oppose it and deal with it, but it ends up becoming a distraction from the real efforts people ought to put their energy into. … The moderates among Israelis and Palestinians need to get their acts together and make peace, because there’s more dangerous things happening out there: bloodshed in Iraq, Afghanistan and Syria. It’s crazy to think all the instability is Israel’s fault, and I say this as someone committed to two states for two people, not as some kind of all-of-a-sudden right-wing activist.
You’ve served on J Street’s rabbinic cabinet and been a fairly vocal critic of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and many of Israel’s policies. How do you feel about targeted boycotts of West Bank settlements?
I don’t think what might come out of a successful boycott would have any appreciable impact. I just don’t think boycotts are the way to go; it doesn’t seem like a good strategy to get Israelis and Palestinians to peace.
What do you think about Israel’s recent anti-boycott law?
It’s a terrible law. … I don’t support a boycott, but if someone supports it, they should have a right to and shouldn’t be prosecuted. In democracies, people get to disagree.
If not through BDS, what is a legitimate way for people to express concerns about Israel and advocate a better life for Palestinians?
Strengthening all the civil society work people are doing there, the organizations that are strengthening the hands of moderates so a moderate Palestine can be built and Israel’s civil society can thrive.
Your congregation offers a lot of programs that target Israelis living in Brooklyn. How do they feel about what’s going on at the co-op?
It can be very alienating for them to be far away from home and have the feeling that Israel is isolated and is perceived as the enemy. Many of them have found a home here. My statement went on the temple blog, and I got lots of e-mails from Israelis in Brooklyn saying, “Thank you. It’s hard for us to get singled out for criticism.”