Co-op won’t boycott Israeli produce

PHILADELPHIA, May 24 (JTA) — You would be hard-pressed to find many members of northwest Philadelphia’s vibrant Jewish community fully in favor of the presence of Israeli settlements in the West Bank and Gaza Strip. Still, many members of an area co-op refused to go from there to boycotting produce grown in the territories. The controversy began in January, when a small group within Weavers Way Co-op, a food store owned and operated by its members, threatened to boycott produce from Israeli territories they consider illegally occupied. Working under the title Campaign Against Settlement Products, the group, with both Arab-American and Jewish members, claimed that buying the products supports the degradation of water resources in the area. The boycott proposal was brought to a vote in mid-May at the co-op’s biannual member’s meeting. It was overwhelmingly rejected, losing by at least 100 votes. But that victory materialized only after nearly five months of argument. Mount Airy, the neighborhood that is home to the co-op, prides itself on being a comfortable community for Jews to live in, Rachel Falkove, president of Germantown Jewish Centre, said. She voted against the boycott. “We couldn’t be silent, couldn’t just let it happen [or] ignore it,” she said. The issue was first raised back in January by co-op member Linda Hanna, an Arab-American. She and the five members who make up the campaign learned where Israeli imported products originate. At the same time, members of local Jewish organizations — the Germantown Jewish Centre, Congregation Mishkan Shalom, P’nai Or Religious Fellowship of Philadelphia, the Jewish Children’s Folkshul, Brit Tzedek v’Shalom and the Tikkun Community — banded together to fight against the boycott. “Initially we were very nervous about it,” Stuart Katz said. Katz, a Weavers Way board member, worked with leaders of those Jewish groups to form an organized response against the boycott. There were many points of view on Israel and the settlements, and what the best way to support a cause might be, but no one in the Jewish groups supported a total boycott of Israel products. Instead, the Jewish groups — some of whose members are found on Friday afternoons across the street from the Israeli Consulate in downtown Philadelphia, protesting the government’s continuing to build settlements — offered alternative solutions to the boycott. In literature handed out at the recent meeting, opponents of an outright ban suggested buying olive oil produced by Palestinian firms or goods grown or made by Israeli-Palestinian joint ventures. “The response of our community should be to create more connections between Israel and Palestine,” said co-op member Steven Masters, a national leader of Brit Tzedek, a Jewish peace group. “We can make peace more possible by creating a market for Palestinian products so the people are able to look forward to create a state and not just work on basic survival.” After the pro-boycott group learned that most Israeli products on the co-op shelves did not originate in the West Bank or the Gaza Strip, Hanna and her supporters tried to withdraw the proposal and postpone the vote until the fall meeting. The co-op’s bylaws, however, wouldn’t allow them to do so. According to Weavers Way’s general manager, Glenn Bergman, the only produce possibly affected by a boycott would have been basil. The co-op carries basil from Israel, but its exact origin could not be verified. But, in the end, the threat of a boycott raised much larger questions for co-op members. “Some people felt very vulnerable as Jews coming into a place where there was literature that was anti-Zionist,” Falkove said. “It’s a slippery slope from anti-Zionism to anti-Semitism.” Katz also saw the boycott as having deeper repercussions than just causing a couple of basil leaves to be pulled from the co-op’s shelves. “The amount of staff time required to distinguish between those products from Israel proper and those from the settlements would make it economically impossible to carry out,” he said. “We would end up carrying no products because it would be easier not to carry any than to figure out where they came from. The effect would be an absolute boycott of Israel.” The co-op rarely has boycotted products, Katz said. In the 1970s, California grapes were targeted because growers used pesticide. More recently, the co-op banned the sale of Nestle chocolate because of alleged child-labor violations. The chocolate boycott is still in place. The Weavers Way produce vote comes nearly two years after a similar controversy reared its head in San Francisco. There, a Jewish shopper at the Rainbow Grocery Cooperative who was looking for Chanukah gelt discovered that boycotts of Israeli goods in two of the store’s departments had been in effect for some time. When the issue surfaced, the co-op’s members overwhelmingly voted the boycotts down, then restructured the rules so that department heads could no longer institute boycotts without store approval. The crushing defeat of the Weavers Way boycott should render the issue closed, but Hanna says that her group will not give up the fight. “The group definitely is committed to it,” she said. “We know we have a lot of support. We just have to evaluate how we move forward in an open manner to be heard and feel heard.” But even if some co-op members keep on trying to institute the boycott — most say they wish that the issue would just go away — Rabbi Leonard Gordon of the Germantown Jewish Centre thinks the fight has shown that it is possible for people with differing political views to live in harmony. “This really could have become an us vs. them divisive issue, yet we still managed to come out as a community that wants to work together,” Gordon said. “There were people that were active in the Jewish community who were sponsors of the boycott, but at the end of the day, we are still all together in synagogue.”

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