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The Times, Politicians and a Co-op Vote

A Big Fight Over Israel at a Small Food Co-op

by ARI PAUL

On Tuesday night, members of the Park Slope Food Co-op in Brooklyn voted against having a referendum on whether to boycott Israeli products, a largely symbolic move that would have taken a few items like hummus and paprika off the shelves if enacted. The debate pitted the co-op’s more radical members against Israel supporters and those who want to keep politics out of their beloved cheap food store.

The debate featured the usual arguments for and against the boycott of Israeli products. It’s a peaceful way to put pressure on the Israeli government to end the occupation of Palestine, say some, countered with others saying that Israel is being vilified unfairly and these measures are meant to destroy the Jewish state.

But the real shanda is not within the co-op itself, a private business where only its members, who have to work a three-hour shift each month, are allowed to shop. The problem is the New York City politicians who have gone out of their way to denounce even discussing such a thing, and the local media’s decision to give these hacks airtime.

The co-op is a private entity, and a boycott would have no effect on the general public. However, on Tuesday morning, the New York Times ran a story showing how three Democrats who will likely run for Mayor in 2013–City Council Speaker Christine Quinn, Public Advocate Bill de Blasio and Manhattan Borough President Scott Stringer–lambasted the push to boycott Israeli products; Stringer called it anti-Semitic. But these people aren’t speaking as co-op members with a dog in the fight (only de Blasio, who is not a member, even lives in the borough of Brooklyn). They are speaking as candidates trying to win the Jewish vote.

Mayor Michael Bloomberg, who has a record of telling businesses what food they can and can’t sell, also denounced the plan in the Times piece. This is his last term, which will end in 2013, and he has not indicated whether he will run for another office.

These politicians, regardless of their non-participation in the co-op, are still entitled to their opinions. The question is: Why has the Times given their opinions such prominence when the vote does not affect the public but only those members of that co-op?

The piece is a demonstration of several sad facts about the newspaper. One, it serves as a free microphone for prominent politicians to promote their positions whether or not they are relevant to actual news in order to advance their campaigns. Two, the paper aims to discredit criticism of Israel or an organized protest against the Israeli occupation even if that protest would have no impact on the public at large. It featured no political voices in support of the vote. Would it have been too much to call City Councilman Charles Barron, who may have spoken in favor of the boycott, or at least explained why people wanted to boycott these products? He’s a Democratic politician, too, and is running for a Brooklyn House of Representatives seat.

A previous article in the Times did raise interesting questions about the co-op’s debate. The more progressive faction of the co-op saw the boycott of Israeli products as following the tradition of past food boycotts such as the one against apartheid in South Africa. But those who were against the boycott represented a change in the co-op and, of course, in the neighborhood of Park Slope, the Times stated. It is no longer a cheap haven for idealistic radicals. Park Slope is now an expensive Brooklyn neighborhood, mocked for its armies of well-to-do moms parading down Seventh Avenue clutching a latte in one hand and pushing a stroller in the other. The co-op, for them, isn’t a place for a food justice. It is a place to get epicurean goods at a nice price. The Times’ coverage should have ended there until actual news regarding the vote happened.

My own feelings about boycotting Israeli products are mixed. I think sometimes it is appropriate, but in general I’m skeptical of sweeping campaigns to cut off economic activity with any state, because it can do more harm than good. Further, a blanket boycott of all Israeli goods, I believe, is impractical.

But that is hardly the point here. If my household were to decide not buy Israeli products, I shouldn’t expect to hear politicians rallying against that private decision on what to consume and what not to consume in order to promote themselves. And if any of them had a personal problem with my household’s decision, I should expect that the Times would have more important things to cover.

The same goes for the Park Slope Food Co-op.

Ari Paul is a contributor to Free Speech Radio News and the Indypendent. His articles have also appeared in The NationThe GuardianZ Magazine and The American Prospect.