Two year ago, four individuals spoke out against hate. As a result, they, and every member of their households, were barred from their community for an entire year.
The community is the Park Slope Food Coop and the form of hate is anti-Semitism.
The Coop’s mission is worthwhile: to make healthy and affordable food available to everyone who wants it. Yet, over the last several years, the Coop has seemingly become obsessed with bashing Israel – and only Israel – tolerating repeated efforts to have Israeli products removed from Coop shelves. It is difficult to understand what the Jewish state has to do with offering healthy and affordable food in Brooklyn, but then anti-Semitism has always been beyond reason. The Coop regularly features anti-Israel articles and letters in its bi-weekly newsletter, provides a platform to anti-Israel speakers at general membership meetings, and repeatedly raises boycotting Israeli products.
By April of 2015, many of the Coop’s members had rightfully had it. At yet another general membership meeting featuring an Israel-hating speaker, dozens of Coop members spoke out and demanded that the speaker stop his assault on Israel. Four members were singled out among the many who objected to the viciously biased presentation, and were suspended from the Coop for disrupting the meeting.
Upon learning of the injustice done to these Coop members and their families, the Zionist Organization of America (ZOA) sent a strongly worded letter, reminding the Coop that boycotts against Israel are illegal in New York State and urged that the four members be reinstated. The Coop failed to respond. Undeterred, the ZOA initiated a petition that garnered hundreds of signatures, asking the Coop to stop its anti-Semitic obsession with Israel and reinstate the four members who spoke out against hate. Again, no response from the Coop.
A former Coop board member did reach out to us in an unofficial capacity. His comments were illuminating – and alarming. He urged the ZOA to stop advocating for the suspended Coop members. He explained that it is Coop policy to allow anyone to speak about anything at general membership meetings, even if the speech is anti-Semitic. Yet he made an exception for speech that might be offensive to African Americans: He did not believe that the Coop would provide a platform to a member of the Ku Klux Klan. When we pushed him about this clear double standard, he explained that those who incite hatred of Israel and Jews at the Coop have “plausible deniability” to the charge of anti-Semitism because their hateful speech is masked as criticism of Israel. But according to the U.S. government’s definition of anti-Semitism, demonizing Israel, and singling out Israel and holding it to a standard that no other country is held to – which is exactly what has been happening at the Coop – are forms of anti-Semitism.
Given New York State’s prohibition against anti-Israel boycotts and a New York City Council resolution condemning the anti-Israel boycott movement, we reasonably believed that state and local officials would be deeply troubled to learn that the Coop was punishing members who strongly objected to Coop activities that could be illegal and violated public policy. We were wrong. We contacted New York State Senators Jesse Hamilton, Kevin Parker and Diane Savino, New York Assembly Members Jo Anne Simon and Pamela Harris, and New York City Council Members Brad Lander and Chaim Deutsch. Each represented either the Coop or one or more of the suspended Coop members. Not a single elected representative intervened, even to express concern about the injustice of the Coop’s harsh punishment and the unfair burden it was placing on the suspended members and their families.
Their suspensions will end next month, but the ordeal they endured, and the failure of our elected representatives to step up to the plate to help them, is an important lesson not only for Coop members, but also for the rest of us. Coop members who simply want to buy healthy and affordable food are still being forced to tolerate fanatical, hateful attacks on the one Jewish state. The Coop’s newsletter is still rife with anti-Israel and anti-Semitic articles. One recent article called for the boycott of Sabra Hummus, because it is “half owned by an Israeli company.” Sabra Hummus, however, isn’t produced in Israel, but in the United States.
All of us should be deeply concerned about the failure of state and local representatives to stand up to the Coop’s tolerance for unremitting anti-Semitic attacks on Israel. While we commend those representatives who supported legislation against anti-Israel boycotts, we – and all of you – expect more from our elected officials. Recent violence, vandalism and threats against Jewish institutions are getting heightened public attention. But the truth is that anti-Semitism has long been a serious problem in the U.S. The FBI’s hate crime statistics bear this out: Jews have always been the biggest target of religious hate crimes. We need to know that when the anti-Semitism is expressed as anti-Israelism, community institutions like the Park Slope Food Coop – and our elected representatives – will not tolerate it. Otherwise, Jew-hatred, however it is expressed, will continue to grow.
Eytan Sosnovich is the Director of Regional Affairs for the Zionist Organization of America
Susan Tuchman is the Director of the Zionist Organization of America’s Center for Law and Justice
This article was published by the Jewish Week and may be found here.