Wednesday, October 17, 2007

"The group is dedicated to boycotting Israeli goods, mimicking how South African goods were boycotted during the Apartheid."

Community High School
Ann Arbor, Michigan

Click on photo to enlarge it.

"Co-op Boycott"

by Luis Leon
September 25, 2007

Full article on the Web at:

It all started last February with a box of couscous.

“One of my friends, a [Fourth Ave. Food] Co-op shopper saw that they were selling Israeli couscous. It made her angry,” Gloria Harb, member of Boycott Israeli Goods (BIG) Ann Arbor said.

“[It made her angry] to see Israeli couscous at a Co-op that is for peace and justice and fair trade,” Harb said. Due to humanitarian concerns of Israeli treatment of Palestinians, Harb and some friends got together to form BIG Ann Arbor.

The group is dedicated to boycotting Israeli goods, mimicking how South African goods were boycotted during the Apartheid.

“There are eight core members,” Harb said. Many of them coincide with other activist groups in the area. “I’m Palestinian; we have three Jewish members, a couple of Quakers. It’s a mixed group,” Harb said.

After the group’s conception, it took its concerns to the board of the Co-op. “They listened to us and looked at their bylaws,” Harb said. But there was no immediate answer.

The Co-op is a democratic organization, so even though it is run by a board, referendums can be put to a vote of the members. For past boycotts, such as the one against tuna that is not dolphin safe, the board has exercised its right to bypass the members and vote on referendum itself. “I don’t think they’ve ever asked a group to get a signed petition. The board usually makes their own decisions, but in a matter so controversial, they wanted to put it to the members,” Harb said.

“The board said that according to the bylaws we had to get seven percent of the members [to sign a petition] to put it to the membership as a vote,” Harb said. The Forth Ave. Co-op is comprised of around six thousand members, so BIG needed around 410 signatures.

“Frankly, we didn’t think we could get the signatures, but we thought it was a great way to educate the public about what’s really going on,” Harb said. However, this isn’t how it turned out. “When we started standing out front [of the Co-op] we were really surprised how willing people were to sign,” Harb said. Harb attributes this to the unusual awareness of Co-op shoppers. “They’re a group of people with a social conscience,” Harb said.

Around the time that BIG had gathered enough signatures – last May – opposition started to form. Co-op shopper Jessica Lieberman noticed the demonstrations in front of the Co-op and called to see what was going on; it was then that she found the referendum would be up to a vote of the membership.

“I noticed the people were the same as those who protest outside my synagogue. So I was put off by them,” Lieberman said. Lieberman has three main reasons for opposing the referendum.

“My first set of concerns were focused on the Co-op, I’ve been a member of the Co-op for my entire life,” Lieberman said. “The people pushing for the boycott are not pushing for a boycott based on any of the concerns that Co-ops are guarding, labor practices, fair trade, etc.,” Lieberman continued. Lieberman also feels that the boycott is using an excessive amount of the board’s time. “The board has put all of its time into this issue,” Lieberman said. She also insists that, “They [BIG] are using the Co-op because of its openness.”

Harb won’t deny this. Harb says that trying to get a boycott at a locally owned, member run Co-op is much less complicated than taking on the corporate offices of, say Whole Foods.

It should be known that the scope of the boycott is extremely small. “When we started there were only three or four [Israeli] products that we knew of,” Harb said. There products are: vitamins, bell peppers, a sauce and couscous. Neither the Co-op or Israel will suffer from this boycott; Israeli products make up one tenth of one percent of the Co-op’s annual sales. This is a boycott of principle.

Lieberman’s second concern was one that was echoed by many other members: the language of the referendum, which was drafted by BIG when they circulated the petition. “The boycott could not end until the BDS called it off,” Lieberman said. BDS, or Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions, is a Palestinian umbrella group promoted by all Palestinian political factions, who promote boycotts, divestments, and sanctions of Israel. “They were in a boycott they [the Co-op] couldn’t end,” Lieberman said. However, Harb insists this isn’t true. According to Harb it is the board’s policy to review all boycotts; it could, at any time, put up another referendum to end the boycott.

Lieberman’s third concern is founded in what she calls BIG’s “one-sidedness.” “They are oversimplifying the issue of peace. They are trying to pressure Israel into making concessions they are willing to make; they need a partner,” Lieberman said.

These concerns led Lieberman to form the group Ann Arborites for Mid-East Peace, which is spearheading the opposition to the boycott.

The tactics of both sides have been mainly demonstrating in front of the Co-op. “Our target audience is those who can vote, so we’ve been focusing on those who go to the Co-op,” Harb said.
This seems the most logical approach because, as she explained, “When you have a list of 6000 members, I don’t know how many are really active, how many actually come to the store, or how many even read the newsletter.” To make their job more difficult, the board would not give them a copy of the mailing list because they felt it would set a bad precedent. This has led BIG to try and give literature to as many people coming in and out of the Co-op as possible, a strategy which is seen by some as overly aggressive.

“We are purposefully less aggressive than they are,” Lieberman said, “Our people have huge signs they hold up and piles of pamphlets we don’t hand out much because we’re so unaggressive.” Lieberman and Ann Arborites for Mid-East Peace feel that their signs speak for themselves. And their results have been great. “I have 12 to 14 people out there a week at different times,” Lieberman explained, “Without exception, they report that five to ten people during the week and ten to twenty on the weekend give them glowing responses.”

This has lead Lieberman to be extremely confident about their chances in the voting. “I can’t imagine we can lose based on the response we get when were out there,” Lieberman said, “They [BIG] held what they call an informational session; thirty people came. Ten of those I sent.”
Lieberman attributes their success largely to the fact that “They’ve painted the picture so black and white that they literally call us murderers. They can’t think that people can be Pro-Israel and sympathetic to the Palestinians.”

Lieberman cites two former members of BIG who passed out flyers with swastikas, which compared the Israeli’s actions towards the Palestinians to the Nazi treatment of Jews. BIG does not allow any member to pass out flyers or hold signs with content not approved by a consensus. As the swastika flyer was not approved the two were asked to stop. “They insisted on using it and withdrew from the group,” Harb said, “It was a hard thing to go through. Those two people had done a lot of peace work and some of us were good friends with them.” But this is not enough for Lieberman. “We don’t buy that they’re separate,” she said.

Harb is less optimistic about BIG’s chances. “I really don’t know,” Harb said, “I really would like to be optimistic. But in my experience Zionists have always won.” But Harb isn’t hopeless. “Best case scenario, it would set a precedent that a boycott of Israeli goods is possible,” Harb said, “It would show it is not anti-Semitic to criticize Israel; it’s not anti-Semitic to question the U.S.’s unquestioning support of Israel. I would want to see the wall of silence about the issue abolished. I would like to see it openly debated.”

Despite working in such close proximity BIG Ann Arbor and Ann Arborites of Mid-East Peace have had no formal meetings. This has much to do with Lieberman. “I disdain any contact with them. I find them very simple minded and hateful,” Lieberman said, “I can’t deal with people like that.”

Maybe all either side needs is the other to be a partner in peace.

Depending on what happens at the end of September when the voting is done, what started with couscous could make history. According to Harb, if this boycott is successful it will be the first of its kind in the United States.

Find out the outcome of the boycott petition. Click here.