Lawsuit Aims to Punish Olympia Food Co-op for Boycott of Israeli Goods

A lawsuit, filed Friday in Thurston County Superior Court, aims to punish the Olympia Food Co-op for enacting a boycott of Israeli Goods. Plaintiffs, including several candidates who’s recent Co-op Board of Directors campaigns failed by large margins, threaten financial harm unless the local food cooperative rescinds its boycott.

An ultimatum from the plaintiffs sent to the Co-op before the lawsuit was filed reads: “If you do what we demand, this situation may be resolved amicably [...]. If not [...] this process will become considerably more complicated, burdensome, and expensive than it has been already.

Groups opposed to the boycott of Israeli goods have repeatedly refused to bring the issue to a vote of the Co-op membership – a democratic option available to any Co-op member – and have instead turned to the court system, prompting some to question the legality of bringing suit at all. Laws prohibiting “strategic lawsuits against public participation” or SLAPP suits aim to protect individuals and organizations that participate in protected speech. SLAPP suits have frequently been used as means of repressing public participation by way of legal and financial intimidation.

According to leaked documents, the Northwest chapter of the international pro-Israel and anti-boycott lobby group StandWithUs and Akiva Tor, the Israeli Consul General for the Pacific Northwest, have been working closely with the plaintiffs to bring the lawsuit forward. In an interview with the online news publication The Electronic Intifada, director of StandWithUs Northwest Robert S. Jacobs acknowledged advising the plaintiffs to focus on procedure rather than substance, noting that trying to persuade the Co-op Board to reverse their decision on the basis of political and moral arguments would “probably not [be] very successful.”

StandWithUs Northwest is also actively combating community boycott initiatives at several other food cooperatives, including a local initiative in Port Townsend, where StandWithUs recently brought Israeli Deputy Consul General Gideon Lustig to speak against the proposed boycott.

When asked about the lawsuit, Olympia Food Co-op Staff Representative Jayne Kaszynski remained focused on the Co-op’s commitment to social justice: “We can assure you that this lawsuit will not diminish our commitment to the rule of law and universal human rights for all people.”

The Co-op’s boycott of Israeli products was enacted on July 15 last year by a consensus decision by the Board of Directors. The boycott urges Israel to comply with international law, end its occupation of Palestinians, and respect the rights of refugees. The Co-op’s decision to boycott Israeli products sparked several months of constructive discussion on the store’s relationship to social justice, on Jewish identity, anti-Arab racism, anti-Semitism and Islamophobia. Last November, the election for the Co-op Board demonstrated widespread support for the boycott among the membership when five publicly pro-boycott candidates won by a large margin in a record turnout election.

“As as Palestinian refugee and a member of the Olympia Co-op I wholeheartedly support the boycott, as a way to save Israel from its own excesses, and to end the continued dehumanization of the Palestinian people under Israeli control,” says Farihan Bushnaq, Co-op member since 1983.

The Olympia Food Co-op is a cornerstone of the community in Olympia, WA, bringing healthy food to over 15,000 members. The Co-op draws connections between food sovereignty, local production, democracy, and collective management, and strives to “make human effects on the earth and its inhabitants positive and renewing and to encourage economic and social justice”. The boycott in question is follows various other boycotts and measures intended to promote these values.

The plaintiffs, who allege that procedural violations on the part of the Co-op’s Board led them to “sustain irreparable injury,” are seeking “an award of damages in an amount to be proved at trial” and that the Co-op’s boycott of Israeli goods be “declared unenforceable, null, and void.” The Co-op, an organization largely supported by community engagement and volunteer work, could be economically devastated by such a process.

“We’re all just shocked that the boycott opposition would risk closing the store just to make their point. It’s disgraceful,” says Andrew Meyer, a member of the local activist group Olympia BDS (Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions).

Sources:
“Uncovered: Israel’s role in planned US lawsuit to fight BDS,” Electronic Intifada, http://electronicintifada.net/content/uncovered-israels-role-planned-us-lawsuit-fight-bds/10350

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