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Israel-Backed Group Sues Food Co-op for Boycotting Israeli Products

In 2012 and 2014, courts ruled that the anti-boycott litigants pay damages to the Olympia Food Co-op’s board members.

The sign for Olympia Food Co-op, the US-based seller that voted to boycott Israeli products, in a photo taken on February 27, 2011. (Photo: Jason Taellious; Edited: LW / TO)

Washington State’s Supreme Court has been hearing arguments in a case against current and former members of the board of directors of a food co-op in Olympia, Washington. The plaintiffs are arguing against a 2010 decision by the Olympia Food Co-op to boycott Israeli products. The plaintiffs argued that the defendants had acted beyond the scope of their authority and breached their fiduciary duties as co-op board members through their decision to boycott goods produced in illegal Israeli settlements.

The co-op in Olympia was the first grocery store in the United States to publicly support the Palestinian-led boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) campaign, which is aimed at forcing Israel to comply with international law and respect Palestinian rights. The movement opposes the increasingly violent and unlawful Israeli practices of apartheid, such as uprooting Palestinians from their homeland; destroying their homes, property and farmland; arresting, incarcerating and putting them in administrative detention; forcing Palestinians in Gaza to live under nearly a decade of suffocating blockade for electing the “wrong” political party (Hamas); killing Palestinians with impunity; subjecting them to dozens of discriminatory laws; and preventing them from returning to their rightful land and homes – simply because they are not Jews. Israel has also been accused of testing new weapons on Palestinians, mostly in Gaza, and then selling them to world markets, branded with slogans such as “field-tested” and “battle-proven.”

“The strategy currently being employed by Israel-aligned groups in the US is to crush the BDS movement by all means necessary.”

BDS has rapidly become global in scope, and is becoming more powerful with time.

Many see the case of the Olympia Food Co-op as an act of desperation by supporters of discriminatory and oppressive Israeli policies.

“The strategy currently being employed by Israel-aligned groups in the US is to crush the BDS movement by all means necessary,” Nora Barrows-Friedman, an editor with the news website The Electronic Intifada, told Truthout. “These are desperate acts to quell a growing, global, grassroots movement that stands for justice for Palestinians and an end to Israel’s violations of their rights, and that is gaining more victories every day.”

Resisting Apartheid

In July 2010, the co-op’s board decided to stop carrying all goods produced in Israel, becoming the first grocery store to join the growing international boycott.

Five members of the co-op objected to the move, so the co-op’s board handled the matter by following its existing procedures: putting the matter up to a member-wide vote. Rather than following the normal procedure, the co-op members who opposed the boycott against goods produced by an apartheid state refused to participate in the vote and opted to run for election to the board itself. None of them were elected onto the board.

The Center for Constitutional Rights, (CCR) which is representing the co-op board members who are being sued by the anti-boycott co-op members, has argued that the aim of the lawsuit is simply to silence the stand the co-op has taken against ongoing human rights violations committed by Israel.

Things have not gone well for the pro-Israel co-op members who have attempted to sue the board members for their stand. From early on in the case, proof of affiliation with and backing from the US-based Israel lobby group StandWithUS has been widely known. The Electronic Intifada also revealed that the plaintiffs were also backed by the Israeli government itself.

In 2012, a judge threw out the lawsuit, and the same year the anti-boycott group was forced to pay $160,000 in damages to the co-op’s board.

In 2014, the courts again ruled that the anti-boycott litigants pay each of the co-op board members $10,000 for damages (attorney’s fees and costs), in addition to legal fees. CCR also requested that the case be dismissed as strategic litigation against public participation, or a SLAPP suit. According to Washington State law, a SLAPP is an abusive lawsuit with the purpose of preventing or deterring “people from exercising their constitutional rights by saddling them with expensive litigation.”

CCR also argued that the Israel-backed lawsuit was a move aimed at silencing the co-op’s moral and principled stand against ongoing human rights violations being committed by Israel.

Olympia-based BDS activists have continued to support the co-op’s stance throughout the unfolding drama.

“We are thrilled to hear that, as 16 individual co-defendants, our right to freedom of speech has been upheld,” Grace Cox, a co-defendant and co-op staff member, told The Electronic Intifada at the time of the 2014 court ruling. “Boycotts are a longstanding form of non-violent political expression; using the Court system to attempt to silence our right of expression clearly qualifies as a Strategic Lawsuit Against Public Participation.”

The lawsuit is not entirely unique: The group Palestine Legal has chronicled ongoing litigative attempts by anti-Palestinian organizations to shut down Palestine solidarity activism, including BDS efforts.

The next hearing for the trial is scheduled for February 11, when the judge will hear a motion to dismiss, but there is a significant chance that the counsel for the plaintiffs will request more time to review the documents before the next hearing.

Barrows-Friedman, who has been covering Palestinian human rights issues for more than a decade, spoke to the lengths to which Israel-aligned groups are going in order to silence those fighting for Palestinian liberation, even when it means violating the US Constitution itself.

“From attempting to silence criticism of Israeli policies by smearing solidarity organizing and BDS activists as ‘anti-Semitic,’ to punishing local businesses for pulling Israeli products from their shelves, to working with local, state and federal lawmakers to criminalize BDS activity – these are all clear violations of the First Amendment,” Barrows-Friedman said.

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