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Port Townsend Food Co-op board rejects proposed Israeli product boycott

This article, originally published in October 2010, is part of WIP’s 25th anniversary celebration.

In a move that ignored boycott endorsements from social justice leaders such as Rabbi Lynn Gottlieb, Archbishop Emeritus Desmond Tutu, Craig & Cindy Corrie, and many others, the majority of Port Townsend Co-op board members showed that when they are presented with difficult social justice issues, they are all talk and no walk. Acting in direct contrast to the third principle of the Port Townsend Co-op’s mission statement which reads: “creating a model for economic, social, and environmental justice, sustainability, democracy, and integrity”—and after board president Sam Gibboney met privately with an Israeli official—the Port Townsend Co-op board rejected a proposal to boycott products made in Israel.

Board member Rick Sepler motioned to reject the boycott proposal on the specious argument that Co-op policy provided means to boycott products, but not countries. Only two board members, Dan Goldstein and Dorn Campbell, voted to support the boycott. Board members Gibboney, Steve Moore and Janet Welch sided with Sepler.

Israeli Deputy Consul General Gideon Lustig flew in from San Francisco to work alongside StandWithUs astroturf “activists” to defeat the Port Townsend Co-op’s proposed boycott of Israeli goods. Unsurprisingly, Lustig stated he was pleased with the results of the vote. He then repeated StandWithUs’ misrepresentation of the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanction movement’s motives, emphasizing the false notion that the entire BDS movement is aimed at demonizing the people of Israel and destroying the state of Israel. The truth is that the goal of the BDS movement is to end the apartheid of Palestinians that has been imposed by Israel due to a U.S.-funded Israeli military policy. Proponents of the boycott movement wish to send the message that Americans do not condone oppression and violence, which has been so great that international law expert Francis Anthony Boyle has called it an undeniable genocide.

In a recent article, Ha’aretz reporter Nehemia Shtrasler tied the growing support for the BDS movement to Operation Cast Lead, a three-week-long armed conflict during which the Isreali military lost only 13 soldiers while well over 1,000 Palestinians—most of whom were civilians, including hundreds of children—were killed. Some of Port Townsend residents were especially upset by this because of the proximity of the Naval Ammunition Depot Indian Island just across the water south of town. It is likely from this depot that Israel is supplied with the US arms used in the attack.

More than a week before the Olympia Co-op announced its decision to boycott goods from Israel, five long-time members of the Port Townsend Co-op joined together to present a boycott proposal to their board.

Karma Tenzing Wangchuk explained, “A couple years ago, the former depot commander told local Chamber of Commerce members ‘Israel is one of our best customers.’ So, if you want to support using weapons that came from Indian Island, including cluster bombs, white phosphorus, DIME (dense inert metal explosive), and depleted uranium, to kill Palestinian women and children, then you should buy Israeli. Food is political. That’s why there’s a boycott policy. And a lot of boycott opponents want to eradicate that policy.”

Port Townsend anti-boycott voices echoed many of the same sentiments heard in Olympia. In Port Townsend, as well as in Olympia, the process to decide whether or not to support the call for a boycott was difficult for many. It was frequently claimed that the Co-op is not a place for political expression. Questions were also raised as to why there wasn’t a push to boycott goods made in China. Feelings were hurt in both camps. However, every single instance of vitriol that I am aware came from the anti-BDS crowd. Charges of anti-Semitism were bandied about, and racist comments regarding Palestinians were printed in the local papers. In Olympia there were hundreds of death threats aimed at a boycott supporter. In Port Townsend, someone spat at a boycott supporter and a woman screamed her hope that the boycott supporters should be “taken down” in a modern Holocaust. Frequently these insults and threats were accompanied by a plea that boycott supporters “stop being divisive.”

The boycott process begins with the boycott’s proposers. In Port Townsend a boycott proposal may only be brought forward by Co-op members. In both Co-ops those who call for a boycott are charged with providing information about the reasons for the boycott. There is then an in-depth investigation and discussion before the boycott call is decided upon. At this point the Olympia Co-op sends the boycott proposal to the managers of the relevant departments. The managers write up recommendations, which they then pass on to the whole Co-op staff. A consensus-based process is then used to discuss the merits of the boycott proposal and to eventually decide whether or not to support it. If the boycott is approved, the managers of the affected departments post a sign explaining the reasons for the boycott and the Merchandising Coordinator notifies the affected company.

The Olympia Co-op relies primarily on member-volunteers to staff the store, thus this process inherently engages many of their most committed co-op members at all points in the process. The Port Townsend Co-op has a staff that is compensated in hourly wages and benefits and, although they too are certainly very committed to their Co-op, the process that is in place is by design intended to engage a wider community discussion that, in theory, would help the board make a better informed vote.

In the first step of the Port Townsend process the board decides if the boycott proposal meets the criteria set by their boycott policy. The proposal that was rejected on Tuesday, September 21, had already passed this step. At this point, the board is responsible for educational posting in the store and providing a tabling spot in front of the store for supporters of the boycott to use in educating members about the boycott proposal. The next step is for a committee to look further into the boycott proposal and then send a recommendation to the board to either boycott the entire product line, a sub-set of products, or to decide against the boycott. In Port Townsend, a recommendation was made to the board that if Israeli products were to be boycotted, they should not include one of three kinds of peace oil on the shelves, and that efforts should be made to stock Palestinian products. Instead of following this recommendation, the board chose to reject the proposal completely.

When you take into account the following facts…

Before the boycott vote occurred, the board president of the Port Townsend Co-op, Sam Gibboney—in clear violation of Port Townsend Co-op policies—met privately for at least an hour with Israeli Consul General Gideon Lustig,

Lustig attempted (and may have succeeded) to meet privately with Port Townsend City Manager David Timmons, who works directly with Port Townsend City Planning Director Rick Sepler,

Lustig was spotted in a Port Townsend coffee shop, with his attaché, and Seattle StandWithUs director Rob Jacobs huddled over their laptops planning how to manage meetings and interviews,

Jacobs was also involved in organizing the anti-boycott rallies outside the Olympia Co-op.

…then the similarities of the anti-boycott arguments which were widely used in both communities, and the failure of the Townsend Port Co-op to vote for the boycott is not a mystery.

Indeed, it is clear that the major difference between the Port Townsend Co-op’s BDS boycott process and that of the Olympia Co-op’s is the level of forthrightness and good faith in the process. Olympia’s process shined like a gold star on a favored child’s report card, and Port Townsend’s process, which allowed outside influences to intimidate and manipulate the process, achieved what one Seattle-based pro-Israel organizer has declared a “victory” failed miserably.

Boycott advocates in Port Townsend point out that although the vote has been cast, the process is not yet over. There is still some light shining around the edges of this very dark cloud. The Port Townsend Co-op boycott policy flatly states that even when a boycott proposal is rejected, educational posting of the issues involved will continue. This will help the movement grow.

One day soon, according to Wangchuk, “Israel will have to do a lot more than send some deputy general consul here to cover up Israel’s crimes against humanity and try to help our co-op board do the wrong thing.” He went on to say “It’s been good to see and work with some of my old Olympia pals on this. I expect we’ll do great things down the road, and have a lot of fun while we’re at it.”

Back at ‘cha, my friend…. Right back at ‘cha.

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