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Food Fight

A proposed boycott of Israeli products at the Park Slope Food Coop in Brooklyn, a 38-year-old grocery where political passions run high, is raising worries among its sizable Orthodox Jewish membership

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Outside the Park Slope Food Coop. (Chris Hondros/Getty Images)

Pity the Park Slope Food Coop. Drubbed almost annually by some crabby reporter in the New York Times, satirized by author Amy Sohn in her last novel, Prospect Park West, the 38-year-old cooperative grocery store in the heart of gentrified Brooklyn suffers from an image problem. The conventional wisdom is that it’s a bastion of smug bourgeois bohemians flitting around organic produce aisles in yoga pants, proclaiming their virtuosity on everything from international politics to composting. It’s an image that hasn’t been helped by the coop’s latest media storm: a proposal by a tiny cohort of members to have Israeli products pulled from its shelves.

In truth, the coop’s nearly 16,000 members are actually a varied bunch, representing a cross-section of Brooklynites seen in few places outside of the subway. Yes, many are like me: a white, liberal, college-educated parent who lives in brownstone Brooklyn. But the aisles are also populated by Rastafarians in knit hats, silver-haired women surviving on Board of Education pensions, artsy kids who live with 10 roommates in Bushwick, and a sizable number of Orthodox Jews loading up their carts on Thursday nights in preparation for Shabbat.

It’s the last group that would likely feel most compelled to leave the coop were the proposed boycott instituted, although many nonreligious Jews and non-Jews probably would as well. Barbara Mazor, a coop member since 1988 who lives in Midwood and describes herself as “ultra Modern Orthodox,” is one of the most vociferous opponents of the proposed ban. She estimates that as many as 20 percent of members would leave the coop if such a ban did pass.

The effort to have the coop join the international campaign of boycotts, divestment, and sanctions against Israel has percolated on the fringes of the organization for years, largely through vociferous letter-writing to The Linewaiters’ Gazette, the coop’s house newspaper. Proponents consider Israel’s occupation of the West Bank illegal and its treatment of Palestinians unconscionable, and they believe in blocking the sale of Israeli goods as a nonviolent way to denounce such actions. (Identical measures have roiled other food cooperatives around the country, passing in Olympia, Wash., and defeated in Ann Arbor, Mich., and Sacramento and Davis, Calif.) The effect at the Park Slope Coop would be almost entirely symbolic since it currently carries only four Israeli products: paprika, bath salts, vegan marshmallows, and the SodaStream seltzer machine.

The issue was officially discussed at a monthly coop general meeting this winter, the first step in a long process to try to establish a ban. Because the coop is just that—a cooperative—it’s governed by deeply democratic processes that allow everyone a voice and often move at a glacial pace. At general meetings, for example, any member can submit any subject for discussion (this could hypothetically include, say, a discussion about whether the earth is flat or dill pickles are superior to half-sour). But on July 26, the proposed boycott finally came up for discussion at the general meeting. There was no vote on whether to put the matter before the entire membership, but that could eventually happen if attendees at a future general meeting vote in favor of holding a membership-wide referendum—a rare, slow, and expensive process that hasn’t occurred since the landmark “Should We Sell Meat and Beer?” vote of 2002. (This was a real referendum that did eventually pass.)

Anti-boycott members have been organizing in opposition to the effort, arguing that the proposal runs counter to the coop’s mission of being accessible to and respectful of all, and that the boycott movement is wrongly focused only on Israel’s role in the Middle East conflict and ultimately seeks the dissolution of Israel as a Jewish state.

Barbara Mazor, the Orthodox Midwood resident who has been a coop member for 23 years, was incensed by the proposed ban. Last March she began organizing, launching a blog (“Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions really means Bigotry, Dishonesty, anti-Semitism,” it proclaims), founding the anti-boycott group of 130 members that dubbed itself “More Hummus, Please,” and spearheading the writing of group letters to The Linewaiters’ Gazette.

“I think what it’s really about is being able to circulate their Israel vilification propaganda to the 16,000-person membership, just constantly creating this ‘Israel is a bad state’ narrative,” Mazor said. “Do I think it would pass? I would hope not, but I don’t see it out of the realm of possibility. That’s why we’re campaigning against it.”

Pinny Lew, a Lubavitcher from Crown Heights and father of seven who has belonged to the coop for eight years, said that a neighbor of his left the coop about a year ago, disgusted that a boycott was being considered. Lew noted that despite his own family’s deep commitment to local, organic, and fair-trade food, they too would leave were the boycott instituted. He doubted it would come to that. “It’s hard for me to believe that more than 5 or 10 percent of the total coop population, confronted with the facts, would say, ‘I’m for this,’ ” he said. In my nonscientific polling of about a dozen religious Jewish members, the general consensus was that they would leave the coop if the boycott passed (as would I) but were skeptical that it will actually happen.

Another Orthodox man, from Cobble Hill, concurred. “I would feel ethically obligated to leave the coop, but since it’s the best source of food we have, it would be very difficult,” said the man, who didn’t want his name used. Referring to the international campaign of boycotts, divestment, and sanctions, he added, “It isn’t going to be able to have as much power here as they have in other communities. The value of political diversity will win out over imposed conformity.”

But Mazor is less sanguine. She fears that the boycott proposal might pass if it does ever come to a coop-wide referendum. The issue has already caused her to curtail her own coop shopping, but not for the reasons one might assume. “Because I’m spending so much time doing this,” she said of her campaigning, “I don’t have as much time to shop at the coop. I get takeout from Avenue J.”

CORRECTION, August 16: The Park Slope Food Coop is 38 years old, not 28. This error has been corrected.

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waste of an article. have you been able to find anyone who is actually proposing this boycott?

It’s simply amazing how ignorant Americans are of their own history. How did those people in the food coops in California think that their state become part of the USA? After exterminating the native Americans CA became part of Mexico. When Mexico refused an American offer to buy it the USA cooked up a war against Mexico during which thousands were killed and many residents were driven out. When the USA won they demanded California and the Southwest as part of the peace treaty. We’re not talking ancient history–this was 1848. And now the descendents of these same imperialists think that they can preach to Israel.

The coop was founded in 1973, which makes it 38 years old, not 28.

Further to what Carl has to say – just who exactly is picking American-grown fruit, or vegetables from the Mediterranean countries such as Spain and Italy? Migrant workers who are denied the rights of citizens of the countries in which they work.

But of course, that’s another issue for another day. Let these Brooklynites enjoy a pinch of self-righteousness along with their fair-trade coffee. A measure of smugness really adds so much to even the humblest meal.

My grandmother used to say about certain people that “by talking to them you make them look smarter” (sounds much better in Yiddish). As a coop member who has been following the debate in the Gazette, I noticed that other than Mazor’s group most people just wished the debate moved someplace else, since the coop is obviously not the place to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and they’d rather debate food and ideas for running the coop better.

While I’m sure Mazor’s intentions are noble, getting into a head-butting match with a bunch of radicals within the framework of a food coop (a FOOD coop) only calls more attention to what they’re saying and reinforces the image of the aggressive Israeli who can’t take no for an answer.

The smarter way to do this would have been to counter-propose a boycott of products from any occupying country. BDS would have to accept if they wish to avoid the double standard accusation, and the debate would then expand to include countries like the US, UK, France, Spain, Morocco and many more.

Embrace, Extend, Extinguish, FTW!

Jennifer says:

FOUR PRODUCTS?! That’s it? What the hell is wrong with these people.

just me says:

I’m a lifelong Brooklynite who has never liked the Food Co-op. It’s a super-annoying place, and the politics just adds to the annoyance factor. And while I do support Barbara (hi) I am just glad not to be part of this institution that doesn’t even have good parking near it.

Ehud– What was your grandmother’s expression in Yiddish?

George One says:

Bravo, Ehud. Those proposing a boycott just show their ignorance of history. Israel has been the victim of continual agression since 1948 – not the other way round. Any land it occupies is the result of defensive wars. It is the boycotters who are racist bigots.

Is there anything more pathetic than a bunch of liberal secular self-hating Jews?

anonymous says:

I’m confused by the article’s focus on Orthodox Jews only. Why not interview conservative/reformed or non-religious Jews as well?

As a signer on Mazor’s letter and someone who submitted his own letter to the Gazette I’d like to point out two corrections:
1) This is not an “Orthodox” effort. The agreement on this matter spans the entire range and rainbow of Brownstone Brooklyn Jewish community.

2) Mazor had been advised to avoid butting head with the radicals which – as the Yiddish expression correctly identified – more legit. Just the same, from all corners of the PSFC members have been indicating this is a FOOD coop first, and a platform for world peace only a distant second.

“Self-Deleting” Jews, not “self-hating Jews.” We’re trying to get a new meme going here.

avishay says:

Ehud:
I do not want to belittle your grandmother, however when people are bent on distorting the truth and intend on keeping up pressure to spew their hatred then even at the risk of elevating the argument the argument must be countered.
The people (and i do hope its just a minority) in the PSFC who have brought BDS to the general meeting will not go away if we ignore them. In fact the opposite effect will happen. If someone keeps telling a lie long enough people start to believe it. As stupid as the argument is for BDS it must be countered. There are too many people who do not know enough about the issues and if they only hear the lies spewed out by a handful of people they will begin to believe those lies.

tillkan says:

So you all think because the US was founded on extermination centuries ago it is okay for Israel to do it now? Is Israel allowed to have slavery too? After all, we did have it here.

Bill Pearlman says:

If Israel is exterminating anybody they really suck at it.

Suri Friedman says:

Oh! so that’s where Pinny Lew went.

Coop Member says:

Dear Editors.

“A proposed boycott of Israeli products at the Park Slope Food Coop in Brooklyn…”

The word proposed is what I take issue with. There is no proposed boycott. There has been a discussion, that is all. There is a huge difference in our by-laws and procedures between the two, not a semantic one that lets you shrug your shoulders and claim, “I don’t see the difference.”

Bill Pearlman says:

Its not like this is anything new. Ein Reich, Ein Volk, Ein Fuhrer

Pathetic idea brought to you by the usual self hating/ liberal missguided Jews and their liberal pals. Disgusting idea to even consider a boycott of Israeli products.

Bill Pearlman says:

I see Kiora Feldman ( she who pretends to be Jewish and stole a birthright trip ) was heard from on mondofront on this. Makes for intersting reading.

jacob arnon says:

Jews should boycott the coop, period.

Kenneth Dym says:

I joined the coop in 1975 and was probably one of the earliest members. I have not lived in Brooklyn since 1983 but I fondly remember the coop and have always thought it was was made Park Slope a great place to live. The coop has always been political and food conscious – I remember early on a lengthy discussion going into the night as to whether we should selling products with white flour. I gather the coop has come a long way. So it is incredibly disturbing to read about this “debate.” I do not in any way support Israel’s settlement policy. I think it is short-sighted, often racist, and in the long run will have a negative effect on both Israel and Jews around the world. With that said, it is, to say the least, hypocritical to single out Israel by proposing a boycott. Does the coop sell products from China, from various non-democratic Arab countries, etc? Are there serious wrongs going on in Israel and among its neighbors? Absolutely. But singling out their products, while letting other gross injustices go on, is a false morality, politically unethical and yes, smacks of(or is) anti-Semitism.

I find the parenthetical comments by the author distracting and indicative of poor journalistic skills. Also, only a small number of coop members were interviewed, and while I do not doubt the unlikelihood of such a ban, the piece would have been much more valuable had the author done a little more preparation.

Raymond in DC says:

Call me when the coop boycotts products from Turkey (occupying northern Cyprus), Morocco (occupying Western Sahara), Turkey (again), Iran, Syria and Iraq for occupying Kurdistan, the Palestinian territories (for their treatment of Christians), or for that matter almost every Arab/Muslim country for their treatment of women and minorities.

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Food Fight

A proposed boycott of Israeli products at the Park Slope Food Coop in Brooklyn, a 38-year-old grocery where political passions run high, is raising worries among its sizable Orthodox Jewish membership

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