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.

15+ Questions for the Board of the Olympia Food Co-op

Just a bit more on the Co-op boycott, three years out. Based on my last posting and some recent conversations, certain questions have crystallized in my mind. I think the Board answering some of these questions in an open way would be a good step in helping to address some of the difficulties which have come about because of the boycott and how it was implemented.

How and why did you make the decision to institute a boycott of Israeli products?

Are you sensitive to the unique relationship between Jews and Israel? If so, why didn’t you approach the Jewish community before the boycott decision? If not, then presumably Jews who support the boycott and argue for it “as Jews” will have no special consideration either, correct?

Why wasn’t the membership in general consulted before the boycott?

From the standpoint of the Board, what were the practical results of the forum held after the boycott decision?

Why hasn’t the Co-op allocated resources to educating about the boycott and issues of Israel and Palestine, and are there any plans to do so?

In your opinion, what has been the actual impact of the boycott decision on the movement for a just peace in Israel and Palestine? How much effort have you put in spreading the boycott to other Co-ops?

Why do you popularly portray yourself as a co-operative, but when push comes to shove, (i.e., defending the boycott decision) you rely on your legal status as a non-profit? Do you ever plan to openly address this discrepancy between perception and reality? Or legally re-incorporate?

Because the OFC is not legally a co-operative, how do you view the general relationship between Co-op members and the Board? In other words, what are the standards and guidelines for when an issue needs to go to the membership for an advisory conversation and when does it not?

In what instances is non-consensus deemed a conflict that needs to be resolved, as it was in this case, and when is non-consensus simply non-consensus?

Irrespective of the issue, why doesn’t a conflict between a subset of the membership and the Board fall under the “conflict resolution” clause of the by-laws?

Since the Board now distinguishes between “staff initiated boycotts” and “Board initiated boycotts,” what are the guidelines and procedures for deciding the latter?

Why did the board decide to use punitive action in making a SLAPP claim against its own members, rather than simply defend itself by invoking its legal authority as a Board of a non-profit?

Was there any conflict of interest in being represented by attorneys who actually wrote the SLAPP statute? (I.e., they would have a vested interest in a legal precedent to support their previous work.) What was the process for hiring the lawyers?

Do the Board members elected subsequent to the boycott who were involved in boycott activities prior adequately vet their conflict of interest in making decisions about the boycott now that they are on the Board?

Now that the Board is on record as affirming corporate personhood and cites Citizens United in its defense, will the OFC be funneling money to political candidates?

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.