It's Israeli Boycott 'Primary Night' at the Park Slope Coop

The Park Slope Food Coop is gearing up for a meeting tonight that may be the most talked-about Park Slope Food Coop meeting in history. But do you know what is at stake? The topic is boycotting products from Israel, but there is more: vegan marshmallows! shift credits! parliamentary procedure! We put together a preview.  

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The Park Slope Food Coop is gearing up for a meeting tonight that may be the most talked-about Park Slope Food Coop meeting in history. But do you know what is at stake? The topic is boycotting products from Israel, but there is more: vegan marshmallows! shift credits! parliamentary procedure! We put together a preview.

The main issue to decide at the meeting, which will take place at the Brooklyn Tech High School auditorium, a subway ride over in Fort Greene to accomodate the number of members who are expected to attend, is whether the Coop will in the future hold a Coop-wide vote on boycotting products from Israel -- that is, the meeting is to hold a vote on whether to hold a vote. Possibly making it more ridiculous, at least to some, is the list of products at stake. According to the Coop's statement on the proposed BDS (Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions) referendum: "The Coop carries very few items produced in Israel. Here is a list as of 3/8/12: Sodastream seltzer maker and replacement cartridges, organic paprika, Israeli couscous, olive pesto or tapenade, vegan marshmallows and organic yellow peppers. This list is subject to change."

Overlooked in some of the run-up to the meeting is one of the reasons -- in addition to passionate feelings about Israeli pesto, of course -- that more than 1,500 members have signed up to attend (the Coop is planning for more than 2,000 of its 16,000 members to be there; total capacity of the auditorium is approximately 3,000): Attending monthly meetings can allow Coop members to get "makeup" credits for shifts that all members are required to work at the store. That was why Chadwick Matlin, whose day job is as a senior Reuters Opinion editor, was on hand at the February's meeting where the Israel issue was debated and his subsequent live-tweets inspired the outside world to weigh in. "Last month I needed a work credit, and these meetings can be dreadfully boring, the kind of monotonous droning that you're used to in 30-minute chunks, but not 2.5 hour I tweeted," he told The Atlantic Wire. Coop members can only use credits for attending meetings twice a year — the leadership doesn't "want you using civic participation as your workslot fulltime," Matlin explains — so when he returns tonight (this time covering the story for New York's Daily Intel) it will be the last time he can claim credit for doing so for the year. The meeting starts at 7 and is scheduled to go to 9:30, so it could be a late night. What, exactly, can people expect to happen? Matlin was succinct: "Tonight should be a really angry shitshow." (Of those six products at stake, he confessed to The Atlantic Wire, "There's probably some organic paprika in my house.")

Gilly Youner, a 24-year resident of the Slope and Coop member since 1993, was a bit more circumspect.  "I haven't been to a General Meeting," she told The Atlantic Wire, "But I can't imagine this will be a normal meeting—both in terms of scale, and also, it's about a particularly contentious issue. It's like the primaries of the Coop. I feel there will be a lot of people showing up who've made up their minds and who will be very passionate and try to convince people to vote one way or the other." 

From the statement from the Coop, it certainly sounds so (and it also sounds like traditional Coop-type behavior, with talk of open democracies and transparencies):

The Coop recognizes that its member-owners stand on both sides of the debate over the BDS movement, reflecting the diversity of the Coop membership that we value deeply. Furthermore, we know that groups of members have organized themselves to promote and to oppose a referendum to decide if the Coop will be boycotting Israeli products. The Coop functions as a democracy--an intrinsic principle of a cooperative--and we hope our members exercise their responsibilities as member-owners thoughtfully and seriously. The Park Slope Food Coop thrives in part because of this transparency and open democracy. This transparency empowers Coop members to participate in our democracy by bringing issues to our General Meeting.

But what of the New York Times article reporting on the apathetic contingent, the people who either don't care, or are annoyed their cheap fruits-and-veggies shopping is being disturbed for broader social discourse? There are a few elements at work there, and one is primarily economic. Youner points out that there have been changes in the makeup of the Coop over time, but especially since 2008, or the recession, when many people joined because they realized they could indeed save money on groceries that way. Those people, she says, aren't so committed to the "Coop"-y, or activist, side of things. Matlin, who joined the Coop in 2011 to save cash on groceries—"the basic tenet is that everything is 20 percent cheaper than a normal store; really it's worth it for the cheese alone," he said — pointed out that, in general, "it's definitely possible not to involve one's self in the politics of the Coop." But the canvassing associated with the BDS issue has taken it to a new level, with activists standing outside the Coop with fliers. "They really get you coming out," he said. "And they look like you, these canvassers! They're part of your flock."

The "new" folks who've joined primarily for financial reasons may be the same ones who believe that the Coop shouldn't be spending so much money on this meeting, though that may apply to older members as well. Youner said she's heard estimates ranging anywhere from $4,000 to $40,000 spent on the meeting and a possible future referendum. Another, more philosophical, complaint is that it's a hypocritical boycott -- it doesn't address all the countries involved in abuses. "Why are we not boycotting Apple products after hearing about fatalities, or products from China and the U.S.? Why are all these people (all of us) carrying iPhones?" asked Youner.

Coop member and blogger Allison Pennell agreed. "I'm torn between gratitude that the Food Coop could be forever safe from Allen Dershowitz and Andrea whats-her-name," she said, "and thinking this is a serious waste of time and energy. For what? To ban cooperatively produced pesto, Sodastreams and paprika? We carry products from a lot of crappy countries. China, for one. And we'd have to ban ourselves too because the U.S. hasn't exactly been batting 1.000 on human rights either."

Youner, who said she's not aligned with either side and has interests in both, thinks the meeting is a good thing in terms of allowing for communication and avoiding the escalation of "a general divisiveness." At the same time, she said she doesn't think the boycott of six products is going to make a significant difference to anyone economically. "I personally don't think it's a useful approach," she said. "I support people individually boycotting products, on various issues, from many countries, but I don't think it should be dictated to a store that is a Coop run by its members." She also cites "compassion fatigue." Are we just tired of all these agendas? "People get burned out," she says.
Yet, as Matlin, who plans to vote yes on tonight's vote, said, "The secret of the Coop is that it's probably the most diverse place I've come into contact with in my New York City experience...socioeconomically, racially, age-wise, etc." And with that diversity comes a wide array of opinion: "Certainly it's all people who are engaged, but what they're engaged in varies."

So ... Will the vote be killed? Will it pass, meaning that at some point down the road, a referendum will be mailed out to all members asking them vote on whether products from Israel should be boycotted? Will there be fistfights? Free fascist snacks (apparently that's a no)? "I haven't a clue," said Youner. "That's why I think the live-tweeting will be so interesting."

The system in which the vote will be taken, however, is quite clear. Ann Herpel, General Coordinator of the Coop, informs us, "Members will be issued a paper ballot when they check in. When the vote is called, the members will fill out their ballots and they will be collected by a group tasked to tally the vote. The Chair committee will supervise the count of the ballots and the results will be reported back to the meeting. The the Board of Directors will meet to receive this advice. The Board of Directors has to vote in order to make an action taken by the members at the meeting official."

Another thing that's clear from years of historical precedent at this Coop and others: this won't be the first issue, nor the last, the Coop will face. "That's why I am pro-vote," says Matlin, "so we can have our little bits of catharsis, find out what the people want, and then move on to far more important things, like whether or not we should have plastic produce bags." Just because they're Coop members doesn't mean they don't think it's funny. Youner adds, about the overall contentiousness associated with the Coop, "'If you don't have a sense of humor about it, why bother?"
This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.