Israeli Products Boycott

The Olympia Food Co-op joined the boycott of Israeli products in support of Palestinian human rights in 2010. Below is a brief overview of Co-op boycotts, how we came to join the boycott of products made in Israel, and what has happened in the years since it was enacted.

BOYCOTT OVERVIEW

The Olympia Food Co-op makes decisions about which products to stock based on many factors, from food quality to social justice. Product decisions made by individual managers or department teams are governed by our Product Selection Guidelines. Some considerations in choosing products for the store include:

  • whether the food is organically grown
  • environmental impact
  • food politics / boycotts (including GMO status)
  • packaging considerations
  • whether the product is local, or created by a collective, or a cooperative business
  • economics
  • special dietary needs or desires, as well as cultural considerations
  • whether additives and preservatives are used
  • how meat or poultry is raised

Boycotts
The Co-op’s Boycott Policy states:

“Whenever possible, the Olympia Food Co-op should honor nationally recognized boycotts which are called for reasons that are compatible with our goals and mission statement.”

The Co-op has a long history of taking part in boycotts called against individual companies, states, or countries. Currently, the Co-op boycotts:

  • products made in China, in support of Tibetan human rights
  • products made in Israel, in support of Palestinian human rights
  • Coca Cola products, due to union busting activities, particularly in South America

The Co-op has also joined many boycotts in the past, including:

  • Colorado, due to anti-gay legislation passed in the early 90s
  • Norway, due to its decision to resume commercial whaling
  • IAMS pet food, due to its sponsorship of the Iditarod sled race
  • The Nature Conserve, due to inhumane animal trapping by the organization that its proceeds supported

What is a boycott?
“A boycott is an act of voluntary and intentional abstention from using, buying, or dealing with a person, organization, or country as an expression of protest, usually for social, political, or environmental reasons..Wikipedia>Boycott.”

The idea and practice of boycotting has existed for a long time, and the term “boycott” was coined in 1880, in Ireland. At that time, Irish tenant farmers organized against the feudal management of Irish land by absentee landlords. In County Mayo, a group of tenants demanding lower rents and an end to evictions instituted a form of social shunning against the absentee landlord’s local agent, Captain Charles Boycott.

Since then, innumerable boycotts have been called across the globe. Boycotts are aimed at individuals, companies, organizations, municipalities and nations. Some notable boycotts include:

  • The American boycott of British goods during the American Revolution
  • The Montgomery Bus Boycott during the Civil Rights movement
  • The United Farm Workers’ grape and lettuce boycotts
  • The Indian boycott of British goods led by Mohandas Gandhi
  • The boycott of South African products and investments to protest apartheid

History of Israeli product boycott
In 2005, a coalition of Palestinian civil society groups (ranging from lawyers’ associations to childcare centers, farmers, and others) called for a boycott of Israeli products, divestment from Israeli companies, and sanctions. Their call stated:

“These non-violent punitive measures should be maintained until Israel meets its obligation to recognize the Palestinian people’s inalienable right to self-determination and fully complies with the precepts of international law by: 

1. Ending its occupation and colonization of all Arab lands and dismantling the Wall   

2. Recognizing the fundamental rights of the Arab-Palestinian citizens of Israel to full equality  

3. Respecting, protecting and promoting the rights of Palestinian refugees to return to their homes and properties as stipulated in UN resolution 194.”

A growing number of organizations and individuals have joined the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement. Some notable supporters have included Desmond Tutu, Nelson Mandela, Alice Walker, Steven Hawking, and Howard Zinn, as well as organizations such as the American Studies Association, Pax Christi, and Jewish Voice for Peace.

How the Co-op made the Boycott Decision
In March of 2009, a working member at the Olympia Food Co-op suggested that the Co-op consider joining the BDS movement by boycotting products made in Israel. Over the next year, other suggestion forms were received that also urged the Co-op to join the boycott.

The original suggestion made its way to the Front End/Member Services group at the Co-op (this group includes staff members who work as cashiers, in customer service, and in various administrative roles). From this group, it made its way to the Merchandising team, the group responsible for considering boycott recommendations and proposing boycotts to the rest of the staff.

 

In May of 2010, the Merchandising team reported to the Board that they could not come to a decision about whether to propose the boycott to the staff collective and asked the Board to take up the issue. The Merchandising team recommended a membership forum, followed by a membership vote.

At the Board’s May 20th, 2010 meeting, the Merchandising team’s recommendation was considered. A small group of Co-op members attended the meeting and urged the Board to approve the boycott. Instead, the Board determined that staff should attempt to obtain consensus, as the boycott policy stated.

The Co-op Board and staff both use consensus process to make decisions. In consensus decision-making, there is no majority vote. Instead, everyone must either consent (agree), or stand-aside (similar to abstaining from a vote) in order for a decision to be made. Any single person can “block” a decision.

The matter was sent to staff, where several staff members indicated their intent to block the boycott. The staff representative to the Board and another staff member attended the next all-staff meetings; they let staff know that the Board planned to consider the issue at their next meeting and they gathered staff feedback to be shared with the Board.

Staff opinions on the boycott were wide-ranging: some staff members strongly supported the boycott, some strongly opposed it, and some fell in the middle or expressed uncertainty.

At the July 2010 meeting, Board members received this staff feedback, and heard comments from about thirty people who attended the meeting to urge the Co-op to join the boycott. After robust discussion, the Board came to consensus to enact the boycott of Israeli products. The decision was based on the evidence presented, as well as the Co-op’s mission, bylaws, and boycott policy.

The staff representative stood aside from the decision, because staff members held differing opinions. The Board immediately set a date for a member forum to discuss the decision, and noted that if members strongly disagreed with the decision, the Co-op’s Member Initiated Ballot process remained an option.

Member and Community Response
Community response to the adoption of the boycott was mixed. Some members strongly supported the boycott; other members strongly opposed the boycott. Members who supported or opposed the boycott did so for a variety of reasons. Many members either did not have an opinion or didn’t feel that they knew enough to form an opinion.

The group It’s Our Co-op formed to urge the Co-op to end the boycott. Meanwhile, Olympia BDS rallied support around the decision. Members of both of these groups protested (or showed their support) outside of the stores in the first few weeks after the decision was made. Many other organizations and groups in the community worked together to host speakers and other educational events which expressed nuanced and varied views on Israel and Palestine.

After a national group, Stand With Us, made contacting the Co-op about our boycott decision their “action of the week”, thousands of emails and phone calls flooded the Co-op. Staff and Board were overwhelmed, and it became nearly impossible to determine which of the emails were from actual Co-op members, and which were from people in other states or even other countries.

Although Stand With Us’ suggested messages were polite, many of the telephone calls that staff received were abusive, with callers cursing and threatening whoever picked up the phone. Caller ID showed that these calls were arriving from as far as the East coast, and abroad.

The response was far broader than the Board had originally anticipated; it was a challenging time for staff and Board, and also for the community.

AFTER THE BOYCOTT

The Co-op took steps to reach out to Co-op members after the boycott was announced, and committed to making changes based on member feedback.

Member Forum
The member forum on the boycott decision was held in August of 2010. During the event, more than 300 people packed the room, and members gave passionate testimony about the boycott. Opinion was mixed, with some strongly opposing, and others strongly supporting the boycott. Every member who wanted to speak was given a chance to do so; the Board of Directors and members listened to testimony for three hours.

Next Steps
In September, following the member forum and other meetings with community members, the Board reported back to the community on the next steps. They pledged to create a Boycott Policy Committee to propose long-term changes to the Co-op’s current policy. They also reported that the Board had considered rescinding the boycott, but did not reach consensus to do so.

Elections
From October 15 – November 15, 2010, the Co-op held its annual elections for the Board of Directors. The boycott decision dominated the election, with most candidates expressing strong opinions about the topic. The Olympia BDS group endorsed five candidates, and signed up to distribute information on their endorsements in front of the stores. All groups were welcome to table in front of the stores, but Olympia BDS was the only one who chose to do so. It’s Our Co-op held an open forum to which all candidates were invited to speak and answer questions; they provided Co-op ballots via their website, but did not endorse particular candidates.

A record number of votes (1093) were cast in the 2010 election. Candidates endorsed by Olympia BDS won by a large margin; the five BDS-endorsed candidates received between 545-693 votes each, while the next runner up received 315, and the lowest vote-receiving candidate received 132.

Revised boycott language
The Board held meetings with various groups in the community, including members of the synagogue and It’s Our Co-op, members of the local mosque, and members of Olympia BDS. In February of 2011, the Board consented to new language as to “What Will End the Boycott”. The change was based on complaints that the original language was too broad and could lend itself to a variety of interpretations; that it precluded a two-state solution; and that language around Palestinian refugees returning to their homes precluded the option of accepting compensation in lieu of a return to the original property. The old and new language is as follows:

ORIGINAL VERSION: What Will End the Boycott
The Palestinian Civil Society call for Boycott, Divest and Sanction of Israel outlines the following conditions for ending the boycott:

1. Ending its occupation and colonization of all Arab lands and dismantling the Wall

2. Recognizing the fundamental rights of the Arab-Palestinian citizens of Israel to full equality

3. Respecting, protecting and promoting the rights of Palestinian refugees to return to their homes and properties as stipulated in UN resolution 194

NEW VERSION: What Will End the Boycott
The Olympia Food Co-op’s participation in the boycott will end when the following conditions are met:

1A. Israel ends its occupation of the West Bank, the Gaza Strip, East Jerusalem and the Golan Heights. These lands have been identified as occupied by organizations and agencies as diverse as the United Nations Security Council, the U.S. State Department, the International Court of Justice, International Committee of the Red Cross, Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International

1B. Israel dismantles the Wall in accordance with the 2004 ruling of the International Court of Justice

2. Israel recognizes the fundamental rights of the Arab-Palestinian citizens of Israel to full equality

3. Israel agrees to a plan to allow Palestinian “refugees wishing to return to their homes and live at peace with their neighbours” to do so, or to receive just compensation for their losses

Staff and Community Education on Anti-Semitism and Islamophobia
Because speaking out about Israel and Palestine also requires taking a stand against the anti-Semitism that surrounds the issue, the Co-op published blog posts with information on “Anti-Semitism and Progressive Movements” as well as “Islamophobia”.

In June of 2011, the Co-op sponsored two free trainings for Co-op staff and for community members on “Interrupting Anti-Semitism and Anti-Arab Racism: a hands-on workshop from Jewish and Arab perspectives”.

The Co-op Conversation
In early 2012, the Co-op engaged in a multi-month process to engage members in conversations about the future of the Co-op. The boycott of Israeli products was one topic within this conversation. The final Co-op Conversation report included the following recommendations on the boycott:

1. Establish a task force to create a structure for reconciliation with clearly defined goals with a timeline for completing the process

2. Use an outside facilitator trained in conflict resolution

3. Determine when this process ends and the co-op moves forward. There must be a conclusion

4. Develop a transparent, thorough and participatory process for decision-making about future boycotts

The Co-op plans to pursue these recommendations once the boycott-related lawsuit is resolved.

THE LAWSUIT

In early June 2011, fifteen current and former Board members received a letter threatening a lawsuit if the boycott decision was not rescinded. The letter, from five Co-op members, alleged procedural violations and gave recipients thirty days in which to rescind the boycott. The recipients of the letter included:

  • Board members who began their terms in January of 2011, and who were not on the Board when the decision was made
  • Board members who were on the Board when the decision was made but whose terms ended in December 2010 and who were no longer on the Board
  • Two staff members, including the former staff representative to the Board and a staff member who had served as the fill-in staff representative to the Board for a few months

“If you do what we demand,” the letter stated, “this situation may be resolved amicably and efficiently. If not, we will bring legal action against you, and this process will become considerably more complicated, burdensome, and expensive than it has already.” The full text of the letter is available as Exhibit A.

The Board responded, stating that although the members had broadly alleged procedural violations, they had not stated how the Board had violated the bylaws or mission of the organization. The Board requested that they provide more specific allegations for them to respond to. Finally, the Board reminded them that the Member Initiated ballot process was still a viable option to change the boycott decision. The full text of the response is available on page 132 of Exhibit X.

In July 2011, sixteen current and former Board members (including all former letter recipients, plus the current staff representative to the Board) received a letter from a lawyer on behalf of the five members. The letter stated that the Board should already know what the procedural violations were; that it was the Board’s responsibility to take action rather than the members’; and that since the Board had not rescinded the boycott, they would “proceed accordingly.” The full text of the response is available on page 134 of Exhibit Y.

The five members filed their lawsuit in early September 2011. Filings from the defendants and the plaintiffs can be found on the Center for Constitutional Rights’ case page.

Links to the original blog posts
Boycott Overview and Boycott FAQs and Lawsuit FAQs

For further information, you are welcome to contact us
customerservice@olympiafood.coop