The defeat of a referendum in support of the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement’s campaign to boycott Israel at Brooklyn’s Park Slope Food Coop was a victory for peace. Most fundamentally, and as we heard consistently from the dais on the night of March 27 at Brooklyn Tech High School’s auditorium, where the debate and vote took place, food co-op members want peace — as passionately among themselves as they do for those living under violence and oppression. In fact it may well be, years from now, that social historians will see the efforts to isolate Israel diplomatically at various food co-ops throughout the country as stemming as much from the self-satisfied values of the organic food movement as from any realistic attempt to rectify injustices.
After all, the debate, which inspired 2,000 of the co-op’s 16,000 members to attend, ignored any discussion of those foods conspicuously absent from boycott lists, foods that are products of any variety of oppressive regimes around the world: Syria, China, Ecuador, Nigeria, Uganda — the list is potentially endless. And if Israel, why not Palestine? Surely victims of terror deserve their day in court, no? It just may be that an organization dedicated to good farming and good eating can’t very well practically start picking and choosing its objects of boycott and therefore might as well just leave things as they are: If you don’t like a product, don’t buy it.
After waiting for an hour to enter Brooklyn Tech, the arguments I heard once I finally took my place among my fellow co-op members were overwhelmingly of the variety that stated, succinctly: “I like my co-op. Despite our differences, we learn to get along. The food is good and cheap. Don’t mess with it.”
On the other hand, we gained a lot from the ongoing work that our community engaged in over the past several months in response to the co-op referendum — assembling a coalition of multidenominational Jewish and Christian clergy who oppose BDS; sponsoring two large public forums in which divergent views could be expressed; hearing from foreign affairs experts like Elliott Abrams and Robert Malley, and assembling a panel at our synagogue with leaders from Peace Now, J Street and the New Israel Fund, organizations that have been demonized and vilified for their efforts on behalf of peace and two states for Israelis and Palestinians. This all allowed us to demonstrate to the broader New York Jewish community that a reasoned and nuanced debate about the way forward is possible. We needn’t resort to exaggeration, name-calling and hatred. Rather, we can, as intelligent and discerning beings, argue, listen, reason and debate — while struggling together to find our way toward peace.
I’ll add another piece to the puzzle. On our February congregational trip to Israel, when 22 members of our community traveled throughout the country, we met Israelis and Palestinians from the right and left of the political spectrum; we spent a day with Sudanese and Eritrean refugees in Tel Aviv; we marveled at the complex, challenging and inspiring reality of a contemporary Jewish democracy in an ancient land. And as the debate raged at the food co-op, the listserv from our congregational trip was able to debate these issues actively and watch the results unfold, as well. There is nothing like a genuine engagement with a genuine reality. When it comes to Israel, it truly matters because it enriches the debate. Platitudes fall away, and differing perceptions of reality take center stage. The debate then raised the stakes and made us all have to decide in an informed way what we really think about these complex issues.
What I felt ultimately in the auditorium of Brooklyn Tech is that the reasonable center prevailed. It was the intellectually cooperative result of what happens when a community is willing to model tolerance of perspective and moderation in behavior. Our community has made a decision to get along, to support even those whose views are defeated by the majority, to understand that there is always more that unites us than divides us.
Just before the vote, I had a brief engagement with an anti-Israel agitator. I know of no other way to say this except to say that he had hatred of Jews in his eyes. You know when you know. The blood quickens; defense mechanisms engage. I can’t believe that in the 21st century there are still those who believe that Jews are the root of all evil. My first impulse — I won’t lie — was to break his nose. My second impulse, after cogitating about the fact that I am a father, husband, rabbi and leader — was to demur. Thank God for second impulses.
This attitude helped me tolerate the intolerable comments I heard from a few speakers that night: Jews control the media; Jews control Congress; Jews in America have shut down the debate about Israel. Fuming while listening, I remained paradoxically calm, even bemused. For in my profound discomfort, I was hearing what I didn’t want to hear. Which meant that my opponents were subjected to the selfsame rules. And in turn, we were privileged to articulate a way forward that was rooted in reason, tolerance, justice and peace. While the “moral equivalency” rule that “everyone’s opinion is valid” strikes me as classic cooperative sophistry, I knew that in the end, the reasonable argument would prevail. People would recognize that neither Israelis nor Palestinians are perfect. And that with enough food and room around the table, there may be something to discuss, after all.
Andy Bachman is the senior rabbi of Congregation Beth Elohim in the Park Slope neighborhood of Brooklyn, and a member of the co-op.