Human Rights Advocates Challenge Harvest Co-op Board Decision to Halt Referendum to Boycott Israeli Hummus
Cambridge, MA - Over 20 human rights advocates attended a Harvest Co-op board of directors meeting last Monday to push the Harvest board to reconsider their decision to stop a proposed membership referendum from moving forward to a vote. The referendum in question proposed removing the Sabra and Tribe hummus brands from the co-op's store shelves - on the grounds that both brands were owned by Israeli companies complicit in that nation's human rights violations against Palestinians. The board called the meeting after co-op members in the Boston Hummus Campaign pushed for more discussion on the referendum - which failed to meet the requirements of Harvest's bylaws that a referendum can only be called with the support of 10 percent of the active co-op membership. Advocates had filed 481 member signatures (plus over 500 signatures from non-member co-op shoppers) in support of the referendum by the required date earlier this year, but the board then indicated that over a hundred of those members were inactive. Bringing the final tally of signatures under the required minimum number of active members.
The Boston Hummus Campaign - part of the Boston Coalition for Palestinian Rights, which is the local node of the international Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions network that was called to non-violent action against Israeli policy on Palestine by a coalition of Palestinian non-governmental organizations several years ago - feels the co-op board has consistently maneuvered against their attempt to bring the issue before Harvest members since matter was first raised in 2010. Much of the meeting was taken up by ten advocates laying their case against board policy on their referendum request, and in detailing the long history of co-op involvement in product boycotts.
Eleanor Roffman, a Harvest Co-op member and Boston Hummus Campaign advocate, said, "We were at the meeting because we strongly believe that the Coop’s process was undemocratic, and not reflective of the values so many Co-op members hold dear. Their policy regarding referendums seemed to be constructed in relationship to our efforts. The closer we got to fulfilling their policy, the more it seemed to change against our favor. Many of us have been long time Co-op members because we believe that what we eat, and what we support in this economy should be reflective of a commitment to social justice, which the Coop claims to hold as a value as well. In the meeting one member said that the way we are being treated is a metaphor for how so many people in this country deal with the plight of the Palestinians, that is silencing opposition to the mainstream narrative and unconditional support of Zionism and Israel."
Christina Lively, the Harvest Co-op board president, responded in a detailed email sent on behalf of the entire board. She disagreed that referendum process had been anything but fair, "The Board has heard from members with diverse views on this issue, and we need to consider these diverse views as we represent the entire co-op. As a food co-operative, our purpose is to sell food and educate around that food. We cannot consider every possible issue that may arise around every product. We recognize that members may prefer we did not carry certain products, and that each member can make a personal decision to choose not to buy a certain product. If 10% of active members wish to have a referendum on a certain issue, then the co-op can have a referendum. If fewer than 10% of active members wish to have a referendum, the co-op needs to use its limited resources to pursue other pressing issues."
Patricia Stuelke, another Harvest Co-op member and Boston Hummus Campaign advocate, has taken a close look at Harvest referendum bylaws and concluded, "The bylaw question is complicated. The bylaws outline the beginning of the referendum procedure: they state that if a group brings a referendum matter before the board, they can declare a vote right away, or they can make them collect signatures - they have to gather 10 percent of signatures from active members in order to vote. The bylaws give the board discretion in how to define an active member: it says they may decide on the basis of how much money a person spends in the store annually, and/or payment of member dues. [...] The bylaws also dictate the way the referendum vote can be evaluated: 25% of active co-op members must vote, 60 percent of the voters have to vote yes for it to pass; if 10 percent of the total active membership vote against the effort, it fails.
"Other than those stipulations, the bylaws don't mandate any referendum procedure. It was only after we had been collecting signatures for a year that the Harvest board decided to tackle this problem by inventing a referendum policy. [...] This policy is pretty draconian: in the future, they say they will only allow groups six months to collect signatures, they won't allow an issue to be raised again if one group doesn't get enough signatures for a referendum, etc. But of course, even in this new referendum policy that is not in the bylaws, the board gave itself the power to decide unilaterally whether a group could just have a referendum ...."
As part of a long explication of the the board's interactions with the advocates on the referendum, Lively said, "There were times when existing policy did not address an issue raised by the group, so the Board would need to decide on the policy, as the Board makes policy decisions for the co-op. [...] Throughout the process, the Board worked to answer questions and clarify policies in a timely and courteous way, while following our bylaws as we are required to do. When we needed to clarify procedure or write new policy, we informed the group about that need and the results."
Asked about Harvest's past participation in consumer boycotts, Stuelke said, "Harvest has participated as a co-op in boycotts before, mostly notably the grape boycott in the 1970s and 80s. [...] In the case of those past boycotts, no one was made to jump through any hoops, as far as I know; this is the first time Harvest has ever had a group push for a referendum. Also, apparently in the old days of the co-op, if they stocked a product that was the object of a human rights boycott, they used to post information by the product itself so everyone would know. In our initial letter to the board, we asked them to do this with Sabra/Tribe, but they refused."
Lively responded, "Harvest has not had many organized boycotts in the recent past. Harvest does maintain a book with a list of boycotts for shoppers to review. That boycott book contains this statement: 'For the most part, Harvest chooses to inform and educate rather than dictate shopping choices to its members and customers. In that manner, shoppers can decide what boycotts they wish to participate in. The policy of education and individual choice allows for a greater level of awareness, while not forcing members to either passively support a boycott they may not agree with, or shop elsewhere for a product they want.'"
Advocates were generally pleased with the outcome of the meeting. Roffman said, "I think the meeting was a success. There were over 20 people there supporting our position, letting the coop know that there is community support. One of the functions of the BDS campaign is to educate people about the political conditions of the Palestinian people. I also believe that several members of the board heard what we were saying about their policy being undemocratic and frankly unreasonable, especially their position about the issue being ‘abandoned’. If they abandon the issue, they are abandoning any semblance to democratic process. They said they would hold another community meeting for members. So, I look forward to that. It will be an opportunity to continue this discussion."
Lively addressed the question of the co-op board "abandoning" (i.e., dropping) the hummus referendum matter entirely and not allowing another referendum proposal on the same issue, "The bylaws allow for a group to petition for a referendum. If the petition does not contain names from 10% of active members as specified in the bylaws, then the referendum does not move forward."
She concluded that the board already considers the hummus referendum abandoned, "Referenda are an important part of the democratic process. The bylaws allow members to propose referenda as long as they get signatures from 10% of active members. (Article 6 and also Article 3 section 1 d). If a group conducts a signature gathering petition and does not get signatures from 10% of co-op membership, then the group has not demonstrated broad support for the referendum, and the 10% of membership has not indicated that they want a referendum. Since not more than 10% of active co-op members felt a referendum was needed, the issue is considered abandoned.
"It is obvious that gathering signatures is a time intensive process. It is best for all groups involved to set deadlines, come to closure and move to the next step of the process, or to move onto other projects to advance their cause."
There was some disagreement among advocates regarding when the board agreed to hold the promised community meeting about the hummus referendum controversy. Some thought it was in one month, others thought two months.
Asked about the date for the proposed community meeting, Lively said, "The Board needs to decide on this. We will first decide the purpose of this meeting, and the audience. It may be restricted to co-op members, rather than open to the public. We will check schedules, check for room availability and post this meeting date on our website. The actual date depends on logistical details such as when we can get a room for the meeting. The confusion on this meeting is an example of the need for the Board to speak with one voice. The group asked us to promise to have a meeting and to commit to a timeline, but the Board needed to discuss this issue before responding, and then respond with one voice. There was not time at the meeting on September 10 to discuss this issue, so it was not decided."
Boston Hummus Campaign advocates plan to keep up pressure on the board for a Harvest membership referendum over the coming months.
No co-op members with opposing views on the boycott proposal were present at the meeting.
NOTE: This reporter was not allowed to attend the 9/10/12 Harvest Co-op board meeting. I was stopped at the door to the Harvest Co-op business office in East Cambridge, and asked to leave after answering questions about my being a member of the press and confirming that I was not a co-op member. It has since come to light that other meeting attendees were not asked about their co-op membership status by the Harvest board, and that at least one attendee was not a co-op member.
Making the situation even more difficult from the perspective of the public's right-to-know about important news from major community institutions like the co-op, the Harvest board allowed no audio or video recordings at the meeting - a condition the advocates acceded to after some debate.
These matters are addressed more fully in this week's Open Media Boston editorial.
9/19/12 Correction: We just got word from another hummus advocate that she and a few other advocates actually were asked about their co-op membership status before the Harvest co-op board meeting began. Though we hasten to mention that we would not have made this minor error of fact if our reporter had been allowed into the Harvest board meeting to begin with.