By Aarian Marshall
Something’s afoot in the Park Slope Food Co-op.
If you are not a local of bourgeois Brooklyn, if the New York Times Metro Section isn’t quite your thing, you may have never heard of the co-op. It began in 1973 in Brooklyn’s Park Slope, founded by a “group of committed neighbors who wanted to make healthy, affordable food available to everyone who wanted it” (according to its website). Today, the co-op is famous for its organic emphasis, low prices, huge membership (roughly 15,000 New Yorkers belong), and rules so strict that one blogger likened the establishment to “a Soviet-style re-education camp.” Co-op members must work for their groceries—one 2 ¾ hour shift every two weeks.
This kind of participatory grocery shopping creates a community that cares deeply about food—and that has the weekly newsletter and town-hall-meeting packed schedule to prove it. The latest issue to hit the Park Slope Food Co-op? Not that members have been discovered sending their nannies to fulfill their work requirements (that was last month). No: last week, BDS became the hot topic at the Park Slope Food Co-op.
The BDS movement, which urges participants to boycott, divest from, and sanction Israel, began in 2005. It was launched by the BDS National Committee (BNC) and was initially endorsed by 170 Palestinian groups. Since 2005, the movement has gained steam: Elvis Costello pulled out of a concert set to take place in Israel; DePaul University discontinued its sale of Sabra Hummus; the University of Johannesburg cut ties with Ben-Gurion University on that grounds that the school was too closely linked to the Israeli military.
Park Slope Food Co-op, then, is just another frontier, another battleground upon which to wage intellectual, socio-political battle. And a primarily intellectual fight it is—the co-op imports few products from Israel, and divestment would mean very little financial skin off that nation’s back. So what does it mean for a food co-op, of all places, to take a political stand? This question is not unique to the Park Slope Food Co-op—other American co-ops have raised similar ones—but the store is unique in that much of its membership, and much of Park Slope, is Jewish.
Things have changed since the period immediately following the Six-Day War, when being Jewish was synonymous with a pro-Israel stance. For Jewish liberals, especially, supporting Israel is fraught. As of March 2010, a Gallup poll showed that while 80 percent of Republicans viewed Israel favorably, only 53 percent of Democrats felt similarly. A 2007 study showed that only 54% of non-Orthodox Jews under the age of 35 are “comfortable with the idea of a Jewish state.”
For the American Jewish establishment—groups like AIPAC and the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations—these statistics are disturbing. Why aren’t Jews coming out for Israel in the way they have in the past, especially when danger, the prospect of a nuclear Iran, looms so large? Barbara Mazor, a leader in the anti-BDS Co-op faction, told the New York Observer that she suspects some kind of “coolness” factor is at play: “From reading [the pro-BDS Co-op member’s] letters from the past two years, they don’t seem to have a terribly sophisticated understanding of the situation [in Israel],” she said. “I think they’re latching onto it like slogans. Like true believers, it’s the cool thing to do. You know, ‘I’m a progressive, and it’s a progressive cause,’ so I think that’s how it’s coming through, very thoughtlessly.” As a native Brooklynite (lo, I have been to the trenches), I feel as if I can confirm this impulse. For many liberal Jews, Israel is staid, embracing it akin to “drinking the Kool-Aid.” If Mom and Dad love it, if Grandma prays for it, it can’t be hip. And for Jewish youngsters on the cutting edge, who like their arugula organic and their kalamata olives fresh and imported, finding the next big counterculture thing—like BDS—is a social imperative.
But perhaps there’s something larger at work here than the fact that Israel has been endorsed by one too many bubbes. In 2010, writer Peter Beinart made waves when his essay, “The Failure of the American Jewish Establishment,” ran in the New York Review of Books. “Particularly in the younger generations,” he wrote,
fewer and fewer American Jewish liberals are Zionists; fewer and fewer American Jewish Zionists are liberal. One reason is that the leading institutions of American Jewry have refused to foster—indeed, have actively opposed—a Zionism that challenges Israel’s behavior in the West Bank and Gaza Strip and toward its own Arab citizens. For several decades, the Jewish establishment has asked American Jews to check their liberalism at Zionism’s door, and now, to their horror, that are finding that young Jews have checked their Zionism instead.
American Jewish organizations, Beinart alleged, have handed Israel a blank check—“we will support you to whatever end.” But Israel has made decisions that have simply flown in the face of liberal values, he continued, and though these may be justified in the name of security, a frank dialogue concerning the clash between democratic principles and national safety has just not emerged. Instead, “groups like AIPAC and the Presidents’ Conference patrol public discourse, scolding people who contradict their vision of Israel as a state in which all leaders cherish democracy and yearn for peace.”
Fair enough. But let’s get back to the original question, the one that started it all: should a food co-op take a political stand? Sure, we need a dialogue—but is a trumped-up grocery store the place to start? Way across the country, in Sacramento, co-op members have dealt with similar issues. A BDS campaign that began this summer has generated a spate of local op-ed articles, the majority of which come down against BDS. In a piece published by the Sacramento Press, Steven Maviglio (who happens to be the President of the co-op’s Board of Directors) concludes his tale of organic famers with the following statement: “[Talking to organic farmers] made me realize—despite the recent negative attacks and lawsuits by BDS on our store—what the co-op is all about: supporting local growers and providing organic food to the Sacramento community.”
I’m not sure I buy it. Both co-ops state that they ascribe to the internationally recognized principles of the cooperative movement, which include, democratic member control. Despite arguments that it’s not germane, a strict co-operativist would say that if co-op members want BDS Dialogue, that should be what they get.
And maybe that isn’t a bad thing. If we follow Peter Beinart’s line of thinking, then the co-operative conversation happening in Jewish Park Slope does not spell doom for the relationship between liberal Jews and Israel after all. “All points of view really need to be heard,” said one Jewish co-op member. “If we start proposing things like boycotts, it’ll prompt more discussion, and that’ll help educate people.” So perhaps the discussion spilling out onto pages of the Food Co-op’s newsletter (The Linewaiters’ Gazette), the discourse taking place in the cereal aisle (right between the steel cut oats and the organic bran) is a necessary one, one that is long overdue.