Sunday, October 7, 2007

"Israeli-product boycott sought over nation's treatment of Palestinians"

Detroit Free Press:
October 7, 2007

"Co-op's sale of couscous sparks a Mideast debate:
"Israeli-product boycott sought over nation's treatment of Palestinians"


Photo: Man parks his bike outside People's Food Co-op in Ann Arbor on Friday. A group of co-op members wants to ban the sale of Israeli products because of what it deems mistreatment of Palestinians by Israel. The results of a vote on the proposal are due Thursday.


ANN ARBOR- Walk inside the People's Food Co-op in Ann Arbor and you'll find goods from around the world: organic beans from California, jasmine soap made in China and Turkish figs.

But goods from one country -- Israel -- have drawn the ire of a group calling for the store to stop selling Israeli products because of what they see as that country's mistreatment of Palestinians.

Last month, about 1,100 members of the co-op voted on a proposal that, if approved, would ban the store from selling goods from Israel. The results are to be released Thursday after a year of debate across metro Detroit. The co-op has many members in the tri-country area who have closely followed the controversy.

Opponents of the proposal say it is a misguided effort that unfairly targets Israel, won't do anything to help Palestinians and ignores moderates in both camps. They say that Israel often suffers from attacks against its civilians, and that the store sells products from countries such as China that aren't democratic and have poor human rights records.

"It's wrong to single out Israel without making an effort to address Palestinian violence," said Dan Cutler, a co-op member from Ann Arbor who opposes the boycott. "This is a divisive tactic that doesn't help build a future for both people to secure prosperity and safety."

Allan Gale of Bloomfield Township, associate director of the Jewish Community Relations Council of Metro Detroit, said a boycott would be divisive.

"It's a negative effort, it's one-sided and biased," Gale said. "You need to promote cooperation and investment, buying more products from both Palestinians and Israelis because that will bring a better life for both and less radicalism, and more support for peace."

Cutler, who formed the group Ann Arborites for Middle East Peace to educate co-op members on why the boycott is a bad idea, said the co-op should instead consider selling products from joint ventures between Israelis and Palestinians.

The controversy started when a shopper got upset after seeing that the store was selling Israeli couscous. A petition drive was launched, and a group called Boycott Israeli Goods garnered enough signatures to get a ballot proposal on which the co-op's roughly 6,000 members could vote.

Two previous co-op boycotts involved tuna that harmed dolphins and grapes, in support of farm workers. Both boycotts ended years ago.

Last month, members cast ballots on the Israeli-products boycott. At times, the arguments involved anti-Semitic sentiments. Some boycott supporters held up Nazi swastikas outside the store, concerning many shoppers.

Karen Deslierres of Detroit, a co-op member who supports the boycott, said she is concerned about what she calls the "degradation of the Palestinians."

Regardless of the vote results, the process has been a healthy exercise, said Linda Diane Feldt, co-op president.

"This is democracy in action," she said.

Contact NIRAJ WARIKOO at 248-351-2998 or