Thursday, August 30, 2007

"Call to boycott Israeli items stirs controversy at co-op:

"People's Food Co-op members to vote on protest action"

by Jo Collins Mathis, Staff Reporter

Thursday, August 30, 2007

Ann Arbor, Michigan

* In the "Ann Arbor News", with news photo, at:

* In the main "Ann Arbor News" site, without photo, at:


"Anne Remley, left, and Linda Wotring, both of Ann Arbor, stand out in front of the People's Food Co-op on Fourth Avenue in Ann Arbor, with a photograph of two Palestinian women sitting a pile of rubble that once was their home. The pair are heading a group from Ann Arbor called B.I.G., Boycott Israeli Goods. They are upset that the People's Food Co-op is carrying Israeli couscous."

The last couple of times the People's Food Co-op of Ann Arbor held a boycott, nobody protested the protest. After all, it wasn't exactly controversial to boycott grapes at the urging of United Farm Workers, or tuna caught at the expense of dolphins.

This time, it's different.

Co-op members next month will be asked to decide if the co-op should boycott all Israeli goods.

"We definitely hear from people on both sides of the issue almost on a daily basis," said Kevin Sharp, marketing and member services director for the co-op, which has been the city's community-owned natural foods grocery since 1971.

It all started last winter when a few shoppers noticed some Israeli couscous for sale.

They formed a group called Boycott Israeli Goods, stood outside the co-op and collected about 600 signatures of co-op members who believe the issue should be put to a vote. That was enough to force a referendum on the issue among the nearly 6,000 members.

Because only a handful of the store's products are made in Israel, a boycott would be mostly symbolic.

A full page spread in the current issue of the co-op's newsletter gives members the low-down on the proposed boycott referendum, including voting procedures, and viewpoints from both sides of the issue.

The pro-boycott calls it a "time-honored peaceful protest against state violence and repression," while the other side says it runs counter to the mission of the food co-op; irrationally singles out Israel for condemnation; and is counterproductive to peace in the region.

BIG member Anne Remley said the campaign highlights the need to show resistance to Israel's military occupation of Palestinian land.

"We are inviting the members of the co-op to stand up for Palestinian human rights and to send that message to the government of Israel from the well-informed, ethical, caring people who tend to be co-op members," said Remley, a co-op member for 36 years.

Robert Oppenheimer of Ann Arbor, a co-op member since 1986, is against the boycott. He said he has a photograph of Nazi storm troopers in 1933 boycotting his grandfather's shoe store in Cologne, Germany, and doesn't like the idea of boycotts in general. Also, he's offended every week by pickets outside Beth Israel Congregation protesting Israel's actions in the Middle East conflict.

"As a Jewish peace activist, I think this is not a good approach," he said. "Engaging with Jewish and Palestinian peace activists is a better approach."

He predicts the referendum will fail because, he said, co-op members are thoughtful and considerate.

But Remley thinks it will pass for the same reason.

"Co-ops are committed, and this one in particular, to a sustainable community for all," she said, adding that a boycott would allow the co-op to join a world-wide humanitarian movement.

Co-op board president Linda Diane Feldt said the issue has been divisive, generating about 100 or so e-mails and phone calls., mostly from people unhappy with the idea of a boycott.

The co-op usually gets about 40 new members a month. In July, 87 people joined, including some who want to vote in September. Those who join after July 31 are ineligible to vote.

Sales have not yet been affected, but Feldt predicts a loss of members either way the vote goes.

Although the board is facilitating the referendum, and therefore not taking positions on either side, Feldt has spoken out against the degree of nastiness she's seen in the past weeks, particularly from two anti-Zionists who are not members of B.I.G. In fact, she said, the board is no longer allowed to use the Kerrytown meeting space it had used free of charge for five years due to the outbursts and profanity used by one of those two protesters last month.

She said the boycott has dominated the board's time for several months, and because five of the seven board members were new in May, "normal business has been highjacked."

"People are stirred up," said Feldt. "We support the democratic process that is the co-op, and defend the members' right to bring this initiative. But we need to figure out a way that is not as disruptive and harmful to the co-op."

Co-op vote

• Members of The People's Food Co-op, 216 N. Fourth Ave., Ann Arbor, will vote in September on whether the co-op should boycott products from Israel.

• Ballots are available in the store or on the Web at .

• Ballots must be turned in to the ballot box by 10 p.m. Sept. 30.

• The Ann Arbor B.I.G. (Boycott Israeli Goods) Campaign will show a film on the issue Wednesday at 7 p.m. at the Ann Arbor District Library, 343 S. Fifth Ave. A discussion will follow.


--Jo Mathis can be reached at or 734-994-6849.

[End of Article]


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