The Real Lesson of the Olympia Food Co-op Boycott Lawsuit (Hint: It’s Not About Israel/Palestine)

Without much fanfare, the lawsuit against the Olympia Food Co-op regarding the boycott of Israeli products has seemingly come to a close. Two weeks ago, Thurston County Superior Court Judge Carol Murphy dismissed the suit, finding no injury on the part of the plaintiffs. The suit has gone on for a long time, with motions and counter motions, and an interesting turn at the state Supreme Court which ended up overturning the state’s anti-SLAPP statute.

From the beginning, I viewed this lawsuit from a distance. I was not a party to it nor was I particularly a fan of legal action. The three remaining plaintiffs are not members of my congregation. And indeed, one of the plaintiffs, Linda Davis, wrote a scathing, ad hominum attack against me in the JTNews, the (late) Jewish newspaper out of Seattle.

And while the lawsuit is dismissed and the case is over (barring appeal) and the boycott remains, there are still some issues that are not settled which for some are necessary to be addressed to heal.

The boycott started eight years ago. The Co-op has a Boycott Policy which states that the staff decides on boycotts, using the formal consensus model of decision making. Under formal consensus, everyone must agree to an action in order for it to be enacted. One has the option to “stand aside”—i.e., not necessarily agree with the action, but also not willing to stop it either. And one has the option to “block”—meaning one is opposed to the decision and is unwilling to step aside. Even if one person blocks, the action is not enacted.

For the Co-op, after a member suggested the Israel boycott in March 2009 and a year of consideration, in May, 2010, the Merchandising Coordination Action Team reported to the Board that it had reached an impasse, and recommended a membership forum and a vote. The Board then asked the full staff to try to reach consensus on the issue and report back in July. In July, it was reported that the staff would not reach consensus, that there were members of the staff who would block it. The Board, recognizing that the staff would not initiate the boycott and rejecting the idea of a member vote, consented to the boycott proposal. (These are the facts of the boycott as found in legal affidavits of the lawsuit.)

Legally, was the Board permitted to take this action? As far as I understand non-profit law (as a lay observer, not a lawyer or legal expert)—yes, as long as they don’t violate the organization’s by-laws, a Board of a non-profit is charged with the oversight of that organization, and can make and rescind policy and take actions it feels it is in the organization’s best interest.

So the questions that have been asked and will continue to be asked:

  • Why did the Board not stand by its boycott policy and honor the process of the staff?
  • Why did the Board not take the recommendation and hold a member forum and vote? [In an act of organizational chutzpah, the Board, in passing over the recommendation for a member vote and consenting to the boycott themselves, then announced that members who did not like the decision could petition for their own vote to overturn the Board action.]

These are the issues that remain. (I won’t even go into corporate personhood.) Those on the extreme either side of the boycott have staked out their camps. Those opposed call those in favor anti-Semitic, and those in favor claim those opposed are complicit in the oppression of the Palestinians. Neither strikes me as correct: the claim that opposition to the boycott equals support for the Occupation is a false equivalency. And there is a distinction between explicit anti-Semitism and ignorance or neglect about how Jewish oppression uniquely works and what it means to engage on an issue that is deeply personal to a minority population.

For me, it is not about BDS or Israel/Palestine. Personally I stand in opposition to the Occupation and in support of Palestinian rights and self-determination, and I believe it is time for a moral reckoning for Israel and the American Jewish community around this issue. Indeed, it is not despite but because of my commitment to Jewish community, values, and history that I take this position.

No, the issues that remain after the dismissal of the lawsuit are about justice work in general: what is the relationship between ends and means, and what is the commitment of an organization dedicated to justice to exercise justice in all levels through a commitment to transparency and process. Even exercising legal rights can be ethically questionable.

There are times in working for social change that we need to be in solidarity with those with whom we do not agree with on every issue. It happens within the Jewish community, in interfaith work, and in the broad coalitions we see forming today on issues as diverse as race, immigration, and others. It requires a consciousness of when to act and when to refrain from acting, a consciousness of who is in the room and in what capacity, and ultimately a consciousness of who we are in community with, not just for today, but for the long haul.

2 thoughts on “The Real Lesson of the Olympia Food Co-op Boycott Lawsuit (Hint: It’s Not About Israel/Palestine)

  1. Sue Prince

    I am all for Palestinian rights and self-determination only if the Palestinians openly recognize the Jewish state of Israel. This takes both sides to recognize each other equally. We need more than pretty words.

    Like

  2. Allen Roth

    I welcome the opportunity to be part of a discussion group regarding Israel and Palestine. For me, both groups are a reality and that needs to be the starting point in order to go forward. More in our future group.–Allen Roth

    Like

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