Campus film screening highlights Israeli goods boycott

Local filmmaker Johan Genberg showed his film “Challenging Power” at South Puget Sound Community College, hosted by student group Building Revolution by Increasing Community Knowledge (BRICK).

The film addressed the Olympia Food Co-op’s nationally groundbreaking decision to boycott Israeli goods as the Palestinian civil organization Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) called for against Israeli military occupation. The showing took place during an especially salient time when plaintiffs continue to challenge the boycott’s validity in what may turn out to be a legal first for Washington State.

Why would the co-op boycott Israeli goods?

Genberg said he mainly wanted to capture the message the boycott sent, because he thought that was its strength. He said he did not name the Olympians he interviewed in the film, because he wanted viewers to listen to the message and not be biased by the speakers’ identities.

BRICK member Federica Faggioli brought the club the idea to invite Genberg because of her close personal connection to the conflict. Faggioli spent three years “sharing life” with the people who chose non-violence on both sides in Israel and Palestine.

Faggioli made the trek from her home in Italy through her volunteer membership in an Italian humanitarian organization called Pope John 23rd (PJ23) with which she has worked around the world since 2000. A division of PJ23 Operation Dove (OD) sent her to Israel in 2007 after a month-long intensive training because of the great need in the area. OD’s mission in Israel/Palestine was to aid intentionally non-violent communities in the region.

Faggioli said she found it very important to not “take political sides, but to take the people’s sides” on both sides of the conflict. “I’ve met wonderful people on both sides. I’ve met also jerks on both sides. I’ve met violent people on both sides.”

During the Gaza war in Dec 2008 and Jan 2009 Faggioli worked in a trauma and youth center along the Gazan border on the Israeli side where rockets often forced people into bomb shelters. She met many Israeli soldiers who did not want to be there, but who faced being cut off from their communities and prospects if they did not join.

She said simple daily life was an act of non-violent resistance in one Palestinian community living in the southern Hebron hills, an Israeli-military-occupied area cut off from other Palestinians. OD organized weekly nonviolent events in the community that ranged from marching, to planting olives, to grazing sheep. OD also helped create a “bridge” between this community and non-violent Israeli communities, to create lasting support and morale.

Faggioli and OD also directly protected the children there when they had to walk to school on a public road between an Israeli settlement and an outpost. The adult Israeli settlers had been brutalizing the children with chains, sticks and rocks, so Israel sent a military escort to protect the children.

However, the soldiers didn’t always come or intervene when needed, so Faggioli and her team protected the children when the soldiers didn’t. She said they mostly ran from settlers to avoid the stones they threw at them, but one time the settlers shot at them and killed some sheep.

“I don’t see a possibility of dialogue because of the power imbalance. Israelis want security. Palestinians want freedom. I think the two peoples need to work it out. The basic human rights should be guaranteed for people on both sides,” according to the Geneva Convention, said Faggioli.

Genberg said, “It’s a struggle for land. It’s a colonial project in the Middle East that has resemblance to other colonial projects throughout history, for example, in this country, the genocide of the native population.”

Stand With Us (SWU), an Israeli advocacy group supporting the lawsuit against the co-op board members, published a brochure to show the two-sided nature of the conflict between Israel and Palestine. The brochure called the death of Rachel Corrie “a tragic accident.” The brochure then listed several other women named Rachel who Arab and Islamic terrorists killed.

“I don’t think we can compare the suffering [on both sides], but we can compare the numbers and the power,” and Israel is the occupying force with the power who thus should take responsibility to start “to break the circle of violence,” Faggioli said.

“We are culpable” as U.S. citizens, because so much of our tax dollars go to Israeli military occupation, said Rachel Corrie’s mother Cindy Corrie in “Challenging Power.”

U.S. involvement comes from a “selfish interest,” a “strong lobby,” and “controlled discourse in mainstream media,” said Genberg. Israel is the primary receiver of US foreign aid, “not money used for peace, but for weapons,” he said.

SWU agreed that it is in US interest to support Israel.

The boycott:

On July 15, 2010 the Olympia Food Co-op adopted a boycott of Israeli goods in response to the BDS movement. The move received global attention as the first US grocery store to adopt the boycott.

Co-op board member Rochelle Gause said in Genberg’s film that the founders created the co-op in a political act based on values the staff continue to honor.

Genberg said when many other co-ops have “lost their values” and use the cooperative structure mainly as a “marketing feature,” the Olympia Food Co-op “has stayed true to those values.”

Founded in 2005, BDS has formed alliances across the globe and here in the Olympia area with the Rachel Corrie Foundation, TESC Divest!, and Movimiento Estudiantil Chicano de Aztlán.

Not all Olympians approved of the boycott. Local Jewish activist Allyson Brooks wrote in The Olympian the co-op’s boycott had no real effect on Israeli policy, but the boycott created an anti-Semitic environment in Olympia.

Addressing charges of anti-Semitism leveled at anti-Israeli boycott supporters, The Evergreen State College (TESC) faculty member Therese Saliba said in Genberg’s film that the issue is not about whether the boycott is anti-Semitic, the issue is about Palestinian voices being heard.

“The more angry they get, the better we can measure its effectiveness,” Genberg said referring to the strong Israeli reaction to BDS. He also pointed to the historical precedents set by other boycotts like the Montgomery bus boycott and the boycott of South African Apartheid. “It allows a platform decided by the oppressed,” he said.

Genberg identified a boycott alternative, “constructive engagement,” such as Peace Oil which was an Israeli-Palestinian joint venture now out of business. But, some charters with missions and values without a “sufficient analysis” which tend to “normalize the issue” don’t accomplish much, a lot like the popular discourse around South African Apartheid, he said. People need to look at what organizations are actually doing, not just what they are saying, he said.

Emily Weisberg, interviewee in “Challenging Power” and Jewish TESC student who volunteered in Palestine/Israel, advocated raising diverse Jewish voices to prevent one message being sent in the name of all Jews.

Olympian Gar Lipow responded to Brooks’ op-ed piece with one of his own saying he, a Jew, has joined a diverse group supporting Palestinian rights.

Washington’s first court-upheld anti-SLAPP motion under recent legislation:

Last fall in Davis et al. v. Cox et al., five co-op members filed a lawsuit against the co-op’s board members trying to end the boycott and collect damages. They claimed the board did not follow its own policy established in 1993 which required staff consensus on a boycott and for it to be nationally recognized. Thurston County Superior Court Judge Thomas Mcphee dismissed it as a “SLAPP” in February.

  • SLAPP: Strategic Lawsuit Against Public Participation; a frivolous lawsuit meant to “chill” free speech and public participation.
  • RCW 4.24.525, the revised Washington State “Anti-SLAPP Act” passed in 2010; defendants may show the case involves speech or public participation and demand plaintiffs prove it is not a SLAPP.
  • McPhee found: the co-op’s bylaws allowed the board to adopt a boycott; and, plaintiffs did not meet the Anti-SLAPP Act’s higher standard of evidence, “clear and convincing” not the usual “probable cause.”

“The case is really about corporate power, not about speech,” said plaintiff attorney Robert Sulkin, saying the board cannot exercise the corporation’s right to speak without following its protocol. He said the board violated its duty to the co-op’s shareholders. But, Mcphee said the board’s policy did not restrict boycott adoption to staff consensus.

Some point to Israeli advocacy group Stand With Us (SWU) supporting the plaintiffs as evidence the lawsuit is not about the board’s process but a SLAPP to stop the boycott.

The plaintiffs objected to the “heightened” demand for evidence of the Anti-SLAPP Act combined with its stipulation that all other motions be stayed until the court handled the anti-SLAPP motion. They had made a counter motion for disclosure of information, which may have provided stronger evidence, and which McPhee did not grant because he dismissed the case first.

They also argued that the anti-SLAPP legislation breached the constitutional separation of powers, because the legislation dictated court procedures, an area reserved for the courts. McPhee said even though the law seemed address court procedures, the main purpose was to protect rights, so it was appropriate.

The court will decide May 25 the damages to award the defendants, up to $10,000 per defendant plus attorney’s fees.

Sulkin said the plaintiffs have denied bringing the matter to a vote because, “You first have to do the right thing,” meaning the board must stop the boycott and attempt to get staff consensus. He said the board has refused to do that “because they know they can’t.”

Boycott supporters have said any member of the 22,000-member cooperative can bring a matter up for membership vote by gathering 300 signatures. Sulkin said getting the majority vote was like getting the 66 percent U.S. Congress vote it takes to override a presidential veto, unlikely once in motion.

Boycott supporters have also pointed out that three of the five plaintiffs ran for election to the board during the year the board adopted the boycott and lost by a large margin against those who supported the boycott.

McPhee reiterated the defendant’s invitation to the plaintiffs to put the matter to a co-op membership vote, saying it would be in the interest of all parties and the community. He said that would outweigh whatever ruling to which the expensive case came.

Sulkin said they have time to decide, “but my presumption is that we will appeal.”