By Emily K. Alhadeff, Associate Editor, The Jewish Sound
On April 7, the Washington State Court of Appeals struck down the 2011 lawsuit brought against the Olympia Food Co-op for its boycott of Israeli products. This is a shame, and a shame that taps into a much larger picture of the tension that has been evolving between pro-Israel and activists in the boycott, divestment and sanctions movement (BDS) in this country since the co-op’s decision on the fateful evening of July 15, 2010.
Make no mistake: The Olympia Food Coop board voted to deshelve Israeli products behind closed doors in a board meeting essentially hijacked by activists in support of BDS. Board minutes from that evening relay that “the board was surprised to find 30 or so community members gathered at the meeting in support of the boycott.” After two impassioned speeches, the “board shared concern for the staff and members that are opposed to the boycott.”
Members of Olympia’s Jewish community were by all accounts shocked to hear this news, and that is not a coincidence. Having investigated this turn of events for Moment Magazine in 2012, I am confident to say that the BDS activists — suspecting that bringing such a resolution even in Olympia, where slain Palestinian activist Rachel Corrie’s memory runs deep, would be viciously fought — avoided publicizing their initiative to get it quietly passed.
The pro-Israel residents of Olympia are by and large far from hawkish. Nevertheless, they were horrified by this measure in their quaint, community-minded hometown. In response, five of them elected to swing back at the co-op by bringing a lawsuit that charged current and former board members with violating their own bylaws by not bringing the boycott proposal to the community first.
The problem with the legal response was that it also failed to invoke public opinion. The plaintiffs could have tried to bring a reverse decision about through a petition, but by choosing a legal course they likely expected to call out the board, swiftly and plainly. (According to many, they doubted they could reverse the board’s decision in the first place.)
The problem is, they lost. Twice. Turning to the Center for Constitutional Rights, the defendants cited the lawsuit as a Strategic Lawsuit Against Public Participation, and invoked what was then the state’s new anti-SLAPP statute, calling out the plaintiffs for trying to silence their right to free speech.
At this point in time, this ruling has larger significance. Just weeks earlier, Northeastern University — my alma mater — was thrown into the national criticism blender for suspending Students for Justice in Palestine. The SJP was cited for violating student conduct, including vandalizing property and slipping mock eviction notices under residence hall doorways. Civil rights advocates and SJP supporters are calling the temporary suspension politically motivated and pressured — using essentially the same language and approach as CCR when it struck back with the anti-SLAPP law.
This is a trend I expect to see continue. Political advocacy, legal action, rule-setting, and other tried-and-true American courses of action are beginning to look like thin veils for the suppression of free speech. The question now is, what is the organized Jewish community going to do about it?
I would be remiss not to mention that many leaders of BDS-aligned groups are Jews themselves. The first seed of an idea to boycott the Olympia goods was planted by a Jewish co-op worker. Open Hillel, the movement to loosen Hillel’s Israel guidelines, is picking up interest and support around the country. Groups like Jewish Voice for Peace are written off as anti-Semitic, yet are full of members who love Judaism — minus Israel.
In dozens of interviews with (mostly young) Jewish Israel critics about their relationships to Israel, I have found not self-hating or even necessarily ignorant people, but rather people who are heavily influenced by a culture of peace and justice, who are disillusioned with a Jewish State that doesn’t represent their interests as Jews.
Oftentimes, because of the backlash and character assassinations they receive at the hands of their own Jewish communities, they find more comfort with the organizations that have become inimical to the pro-Israel cause. The legitimacy of an anti-Zionist Jewish identity is hotly contested, but at the end of the day, Jews are Jews, and God — better than perhaps anyone else — knows we can’t force people to believe in things.
Traditional pro-Israel American Judaism is changing. The middle is shifting, and new affiliations are forming. And it will be increasingly threatened by a younger generation whose identities as Jews without Israel are perfectly reconciled.
The court’s decision to rule against the traditional pro-Israel approach in favor of a First Amendment argument highlights a broader trend and a serious issue for the pro-Israel world, and between Jews and other Jews.
What are we going to do about that?