Members of the Davis Food Co-op want the grocery store to boycott Israeli goods in response to what they call, a pattern of severe human rights violations perpetrated by the Israeli government against the beleaguered Palestinian population that also inhabits the country.
Many Davis Co-op customers enjoy partial ownership of the Davis Food Co-op. After paying a fee, Co-op members can cast votes to elect board members and decide company policy.
The group of shareholders calling for the boycott has joined with an international movement called the Boycott Disinvest Sanction (BDS), which began in the occupied Palestinian territories in Israel and has since become an international grass roots movement.
On Sunday night, a Davis-based organization called the Davis Peace Coalition held a public debate at the Davis Veteran’s Memorial Theatre. UC Davis International Relations Professor Zeev Maoz argued against the boycott. Maoz is an Israeli citizen who teaches and specializes in Middle East studies and international conflict. Maoz debated Omar Barghouti., a Palestinian graduate student at Tel Aviv University in Israel and founding member of the BDS movement.
The Davis branch of the BDS successfully collected enough signatures from shareholders to bring the initiative to vote in the 2010 Co-op ballots but has met resistance from the Co-op board, which acts as the store’s legislative body.
Mikos Fabersunne, a Co-op member who has joined with BDS in calling for the boycott, criticized the board’s reluctance to introduce the legislation.
“This flies in the face of numerous Co-op principles … It is very clear that the Co-op is responsible to its members,” he said, adding that he understood the board was afraid of losing sales but that it is important to allow the boycott to come to a vote because of the democratic nature with which the store’s policy is decided.
Many Co-op members oppose the boycott. Some disagree with BDS about the Israeli role in the 60-year old conflict with Palestinians. Other members simply do not feel that the Davis Food Co-op is the right venue for political expression. Ralph Libet is one such member.
“I would say that looking at it from a practical perspective I don’t think it’s going to help anyone – not any of the Palestinians in Israel,” he said, explaining that nobody in Israel will even notice one small grocery store’s boycott in the U.S. He added that the issue will only create a divisive atmosphere in Davis.
“It’s not a healthy policy for a health food store,” he said.
The debate drew a crowd that nearly filled the small theatre. There were several picketers from a group called “Stand With Us Campus” who were protesting the boycott and the Sunday debate. They distributed a flier accusing the debate coordinators of not fairly representing the pro-Israel side.
“A panel consisting of one Palestinian and one far-left Israeli guarantees an unbalanced discussion … this is a propaganda event disguised as a debate,” the flier read.
Inside the theatre the crowd was well behaved and respectful to the speakers, though at one point the host had to instruct several audience members to refrain from applauding until after the debate was officially over.
Maoz and Barghouti each had fifteen minutes to speak and then got two rebuttals. Barghouti began by mentioning the 2009 Goldstone report. The report was a United Nations-sponsored study of the situation in the occupied Palestinian territories. It found that both sides in the conflict were guilty of war crimes but largely focused on Israel’s misconduct. However, the report was condemned by the Israeli and U.S. governments as being one-sided. Barghouti explained that Israeli policy in the occupied Palestinian territories amounts to what he called a slow genocide.
“With its latest aggression Israel has unleashed a huge wave of violence. Most conditions in the occupied territories conform to the U.N. definitions of ethnic cleansing,” he said.
Barghouti explained that the ultimate goal of BDS is similar to the disinvestment campaign that was launched against South Africa during the apartheid years. The campaign eventually turned the government in South Africa into a pariah state.
Maoz introduced himself as a former Israeli soldier that fought in three wars and also served in the Palestinian territories.
“I am a supporter of a two state solution,” Maoz said, referring to the long discussed possibility that Palestinians could form a nation independent of Israel. “I am also a citizen of a democratic society. Whenever I have not been in a uniform I have participated in the peace movement.”
He added that disinvestment in Israel would hurt the Palestinians first since the economy in the occupied territories is completely dependent on Israel.
“Whenever the Israelis have felt pressure it has made the situation worse for Palestinians” Maoz said, adding that negotiations were the best solution and that the BDS movement is unfairly demonizing Israel.
Maoz explained that there is no such thing as a good military occupation, but that Palestinian terrorist attacks against Israeli civilians have aggravated the conflict making it harder for the sides to reach an agreement.
Both debaters agreed that the discussion was productive and that it was important to keep dialogue open even if the subject is a painful one.
SAMUEL A. COHEN can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.