OLYMPIA - About 300 people filled Olympia Center on Thursday night for a passionate debate on a recent controversial decision by the Olympia Food Co-op board to boycott Israeli-made products.
Nine of the 10 board members were at the meeting, and co-op members and nonmembers lined up early for the 6 p.m. start. By 5:30 p.m., more than 100 people stood in line; some had arrived as early as 3 p.m., said Dr. Muhammad Ayub, who spoke in support of the boycott. Ayub said he arrived at that time and was the fourth person in line.
Public testimony didn’t get under way until 7 p.m., and it wasn’t clear whether the meeting would extend beyond its scheduled completion time of 8:30 p.m.
Maralise Quan, executive director of the Pierce County Dispute Resolution Center, spelled out the ground rules and set the tone for the meeting. She asked for tolerance and that no speaker be disrespected. Rather than applaud, she asked that people show their support for a speaker by waving their hands in the air.
One by one, board members introduced themselves to the audience, but only board member Ron Lavigne spoke at length, saying the board understood its decision would be controversial but was there “to address the hurt and anger and to try and heal the community.”
About 115 people signed up to speak at the meeting, and speakers were asked to limit their comments to three areas: the decision to boycott, the process leading up to the board’s decision to boycott and how the co-op community should proceed with the issue.
During the first hour, about 20 people spoke in support of the boycott, and 10 people spoke against it. Boycott supporters struck a theme Thursday night, with many saying that the board’s decision was a “beacon of hope” for the Palestinian people.
Before he spoke publicly, Ayub said the boycott will be good for Israel in the long run, just as an international boycott was for eliminating apartheid in South Africa.
“We don’t tolerate bullying in schools; why should we tolerate it in world politics?” he said.
But others in the audience zeroed in on what they view as the lack of public process leading up to the board’s decision, saying 10 board members can’t speak for thousands of co-op members.
“No situation is so urgent that we must exclude voices,” David Scherer-Water told the audience.
Noah Sochet, who said he has worked at the co-op for six years, said the board’s decision was not made overnight, that the idea of boycotting Israeli products started two years ago.
“We’ve been talking publicly about this for along time,” he said.
Some boycott supporters suggested that those against the boycott launch a member-initiated ballot to overturn the board’s decision. That’s what longtime member Jeff Trinin said he plans to do. Trinin, also unhappy with the process, has collected 350 signatures that he soon plans to submit to the board for consideration, he said.
The tone of the meeting largely was cordial, although some emotions began to fray after the first hour. Co-op member Tibor Breuer finally had had enough, yelling an expletive before he stormed out of the meeting.
The controversy got its start July 15, when the 10-member Olympia Food Co-op board voted to approve a boycott of Israeli products. Nine board members voted to approve the boycott, while a staff representative to the board, Harry Levine, chose not to vote because not all staff members agreed with the board’s decision.
The board voted to boycott Israeli products as a way to “compel Israel to follow international law and respect Palestinian human rights,” according to a statement the board released. The boycott announcement has been posted on the co-op’s website, www.olympiafood.coop, as well as at its two stores.
Following the vote, the co-op’s two Olympia stores removed gluten-free crackers, ice cream cones and a moisturizing cream. Small signs were affixed to shelves at the stores, explaining that the products had been removed. The items were donated to the Thurston County Food Bank.
This is not the first time that the co-op has been involved in a boycott.
The board has a boycott policy that is spelled out on the co-op website, and it has used the policy to protest whaling by Norway and China’s human-rights record in Tibet.
The 33-year-old co-op has 15,000 to 20,000 members who are considered active. It costs $29 over a period of four years to join the co-op, although $24 of that is refundable if a member leaves.
The board’s decision mobilized the South Sound Jewish community, which protested at the co-op’s eastside location in the days following the July 15 decision. They eventually were joined by supporters of the board’s decision, with both groups demonstrating outside the eastside store. Jewish residents said they felt left out of the board’s decision-making process, while supporters made clear that they were not targeting Jews, but the Israeli government.