The Value of Values

Thirty years ago the movie Trading Places came out, and 30 years later I finally understand it. One of the best birthday presents I could have gotten is a report from NPR, which explains the ending I never understood.

The movie concerns the wealthy Duke brothers who bet each other that they can take a homeless man (Eddie Murphy) and make him wealthy and a wealthy man (Dan Ackroyd) and make him homeless, driving him to crime. The two get wind of the scheme, team up and in a climactic scene in the Securities Exchange, amass great wealth at the expense of the Duke brothers by trading orange juice futures.

You can read or listen to the story yourself, but in short, they succeed because of a simple fact: value is relative.

I think about this as we mark the third anniversary of the Olympia Food Co-op boycott of Israeli goods. Three years ago the board of the OFC instituted a boycott of Israeli products, and as one may recall, it was done without any member input, and after the staff of the Co-op failed to reach consensus on a boycott. (According to OFC policy, it is the staff which must consent to all boycotts.) The move created ill feelings in the community, especially in the Jewish community, because of the focus on Israel and the negativity associated with it, and because of the way the Co-op board managed the situation.

And three years later, it is still a live issue for people. TBH members and long-time Co-op members Tibor Breuer and Laura Schrager recently wrote letters to the editor. And anecdotally I know of people who have stopped shopping at the Co-op, or do so very minimally.

The one group for which it does not seem to be a live issue is the Co-op itself. Since the boycott the Co-op has done little to nothing to promote the boycott, use its resources to educate members on the conflict, or even mentioned it in the newsletter. Strange behavior for an organization which took, in its mind, such an important social justice stand.

I sometimes wonder about what happened at that July Board meeting three years ago. At that meeting, it was reported to the board that the staff will not reach consensus on the boycott, and in keeping with OFC policy it would seem that the boycott would be moot. However that night, in a room packed with over 30 supporters of the boycott, the board agreed to institute a boycott.

So what happened? Did the Board feel unduly pressured by a group of people confronting them and pleading with them to institute the boycott in the name of social justice, Rachel Corrie and others? In response to that did the Board misread the impact this issue has in the community in failing to decide to be prudent and take it slow? Or did they know it would cause upset, and just figuring it was easier to upset an invisible subset of their membership rather than the people in the room at the time? Did they not understand that even though they had authority to make a decision this was an issue which was best turned over to the membership for an advisory conversation? Did they assess how this decision would impact the staff and jeopardize its own fiduciary responsibility by ignoring its own policies and the mission of the Co-op, and instead take the lead from an outside organization (BDS)?

Much has been made of the fact that it impacted only a few products on the shelves, and so the boycott is primarily a symbolic action. But should that make a difference when making decisions around social justice? Consider another issue the Co-op had to decide recently–how to support striking Teamsters in their conflict with UNFI, the Co-op’s main distributor. To support the workers by not ordering from the distributor would have come at real financial cost to the organization. After polling the membership (imagine that!), the Board decided not to order from UNFI for one week in a symbolic gesture, but not put the Co-op in financial harm by stopping its ordering until the strike was settled.

So: for an issue that would not put the Co-op in a financially precarious position, the Board acted hastily and enacted a boycott. For an issue which would impact the organization, the board acted cautiously and did not take significant action. Apparently it’s easier to make a social justice decision when the stakes are low.

But shouldn’t a values-based organization stand by its values no matter what the cost? The issue with the Teamsters demonstrates that the primary mission of the Co-op is not as a social justice organization, but as a food store. Therefore, social justice positions, which are secondary, need to be made with much deliberation and thought. This is where the Co-op failed regarding the Israel boycott. Why didn’t the Board use the same prudency in the Israeli boycott as the Teamsters action, irrespective of the cost to the organization? Why isn’t the Board willing to take action that carries real risk, rather than just safe, symbolic actions?

The Co-op has demonstrated that the value of values is relative. Now they just need to admit it.

Three years later, what others and I desire from the Co-op Board is some form of accountability. So ultimately what may be required by the Co-op, in order to show some leadership on this issue, is an acknowledgment of this fungibility of its approach to social justice, and a reckoning by the board as to how and why it took the action it did on the Israel boycott, why it did not consider member input on the matter prior to making the decision.

In addition, the lawsuit that was filed against the Co-op in response to the boycott has raised some other issues I would like the Board to address, namely: one, honesty around the fact that the Co-op is not actually a cooperative, but a non-profit, and how therefore it generally views the relationship between the members and the Board. And two, why in its defense of the lawsuit it chose a course of action which was meant to punish those members who brought the suit.

There are those who will deflect these questions in talking about the necessity of the boycott, that the real issue is Israel/Palestine, and to challenge the boycott is to support human rights abuses, etc. This is and will continue to be an illogical red herring. Many who oppose the boycott support a just peace for Israelis and Palestinians, myself included. The means of the boycott is a separate issue. Besides, shouldn’t peace begin at home, and shouldn’t we be first and foremost responsible for how we treat each other here in our own backyard?

And whither Israel in all this? We know that the OFC boycott had zero effect on bringing about a peaceful solution, and that the local BDS supporters went for one symbolic action and called it a day. The peaceful futures of Israel and Palestine are not going to be secured by anyone in Olympia.

So therefore the news coming out of the Middle East is hopeful: Secretary of State John Kerry is successfully working at getting peace negotiations started again and bringing together the key leading parties. This news unfortunately will not satisfy those boycott supporters who have a black and white view of the conflict and trade in strict notions of what defines social justice. But a negotiated solution that acknowledges the sins of the past, recognizes the realities of the present and sets a vision for the future is the only viable course of action. Because justice, like the price of orange juice, is also relative.

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