A grocer buys into apartheid

Palestinian solidarity activists got an answer drenched in hypocrisy when they asked a Portland grocer to boycott Israeli goods, reports Wael Elasady.

A New Seasons grocery store in PortlandA New Seasons grocery store in Portland

THE PORTLAND BDS Coalition is continuing its campaign to get local grocery chain New Seasons to remove Israeli-made products from its shelves, including holding informational pickets and organizing a letter campaign signed by 500 individuals and a number of local organizations.

So far, New Seasons' response has been dismissive. In response, the Portland BDS Coalition has organized several informational pickets in front of New Seasons stores. During the actions, activists handed out more than 600 pamphlets detailing Israel's human rights violations, listing the Israeli products New Seasons carries and explaining the reasons boycotts are crucial to ending Israeli apartheid. Customers were also asked to fill out New Season's "ask us" comment cards to show their support for the campaign and urge the store to comply with the boycott.

The reaction from New Seasons customers, and some New Seasons workers, has been very positive, with many expressing support for the campaign and specifically mentioning Israel's brutal assault on Gaza in 2008-9 as well as U.S. inaction and complicity in these ongoing abuses.

New Seasons was founded in 1999 as an alternative to the big-box supermarkets--it focuses on local and organically grown foods. Since then, New Seasons has continued to thrive, capitalizing on the loyalty of customers attracted to its environmentally and politically conscious image. Today, New Seasons has 10 stores and has plans to open its eleventh later in 2011.

On its Web site, New Seasons touts its "true commitment to its community, to promoting sustainable agriculture and to maintaining a progressive workplace" as the secret behind its success. The company works hard to maintain its progressive image, implementing a range of policies from refusing to carry cigarettes or farmed salmon to giving a percentage of its profits to local charities.

Optimistic that this mission statement would predispose New Seasons to be sympathetic to its campaign, the Portland BDS Coalition approached the company to ask it to honor the Palestinian call for boycotts of Israeli products until Israel stopped its human rights abuses and violations of international law.

The Portland BDS Coalition drafted a letter to New Seasons, explaining the violations of international law being committed by Israel, including its continued illegal occupation of Palestinian lands, its refusal to allow refugees to return to their homes as stipulated by the Geneva Convention, the continued treatment of its Palestinian residents as second class citizens and most recently the war crimes committed during its two-week-long assault on Gaza.

The letter also included a request for a meeting with the board of New Seasons to present in more details the moral implications of doing business with Israel and to explain why the boycott campaign was a crucial aspect of ending Israeli violations.

The letter quickly gathered more than 500 signatures, many of them customers of New Seasons. The list of endorsing organizations grew to include Students United for Palestinian Equal Rights, Americans United for Palestinian Human Rights, Jews for Global Justice, Portland Peaceful Response Coalition, Friends of Sabeel, the International Socialist Organization, the Oregon Progressive Party and Lutherans for Justice in the Holy Land.

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THE REPLY of New Season's CEO Lisa Sedlar came quickly and unequivocally--New Seasons would not participate in the boycott. What's more, she explained that New Seasons' management had no interest in meeting with representatives of the local organizations who endorsed the letter.

Sedlar cited two main reasons for not complying with the boycott in her email reply to the BDS Coalition organizers. The first was the store's commitment "to carry the products that meet the many diverse needs of our community," and the second was her claim that New Seasons is not the "food police," and only makes decisions on what to carry or not to carry based on "relative sales movement."

Both of these justifications for New Seasons' inaction are bogus. New Seasons' refusal to comply with the boycott because it needs to meet "the diverse needs of the community" seems to stem from the mistaken idea that somehow pulling the Israeli products would make it difficult for some of its Jewish shoppers to find products needed for fulfilling their religious obligations.

But the BDS Coalition from the very beginning offered to assist New Seasons in finding alternatives to the Israeli-made products being targeted by the boycott, and within weeks, the organizers had put together a list of kosher alternatives for every Israeli product that New Seasons carries to ensure that their stores could comply with the boycott while still meeting the religious dietary needs of any of their customers.

The second reason given by New Seasons is even less convincing. New Season's claim that the store only makes decisions based on "relative sales movement" is simply false. As stated earlier, New Seasons refuses to carry cigarettes or farmed fish, and of course, New Seasons is not pretending that a lack of demand for nicotine or tilapia in the Portland area is the reason it isn't carrying these products.

But New Seasons has not only acted as "the food police" when it comes to health or environmental issues, the owners have also decided to pull Rock Star energy drink off their shelves because of the political views of the company's owner, far-right talk show host Michael Savage.

Savage's hate-filled highlights include applauding the abuse at Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq, calling for the dropping of nuclear weapons on whichever Arab country he happens to be thinking about and getting fired from MSNBC for telling a gay caller to "get AIDS and die." As co-founder of New Seasons Brian Rohter stated in a New York Times article, it was not negative "sales movement" that prompted New Seasons to drop Rock Star Energy Drink but rather the fact that "some things are so obviously wrong."

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IT'S ABUNDANTLY clear that New Seasons has removed or refused to carry products that it views as crossing a line in harming our environment and health or products that its owners see as supporting politically abhorrent actions. And in this case, the boycott of Israeli products should be even more compelling because those who directly suffer under Israel's occupation are calling it for.

This means that removing Israeli products from New Seasons shelves would not simply be a symbolic gesture against Israeli abuses by some idealists on the opposite side of the world or another attempt by a corporation to cynically use popular social concerns to make itself more appealing to its customers, as has occurred with the phenomenon of "green washing," but rather an important victory for a growing movement that is placing real economic and political pressure on Israel to end its illegal occupation and dismantle its system of apartheid.

Another example of the glaring contradictions in New Seasons' corporate mission statement is its pledge to give 10 percent of its profits to local charities.

So, at the same time that New Seasons donates to programs to "feed the hungry, educate youth and improve the environment," it stocks Israeli products despite Israel's blockade of Gaza that has led to a shortage of school supplies and even basic food goods for hundreds of thousands of Palestinians.

The blockade of Gaza has produced severe malnutrition in one third of children in refugee camps often resulting in stunted growth syndrome, according to a 2009 report by the British medical journal Lancet. Furthermore, Israel's vicious attack on Gaza in 2008 destroyed several schools, leaving thousands of children without an education.

Israeli bombs also targeted Gaza's agricultural sector, leaving 45 percent of farmland unusable and killing more than 35,000 cattle, sheep and goats, according to an Oxfam investigation conducted in the aftermath of the attack.

Meanwhile Israel's continued siege on Gaza has led to a lack of construction materials to build new wastewater treatment facilities or repair existing ones. The siege also creates a chronic shortage of fuel to run existing waste treatment plans, resulting in an average of 20,000 cubic meters of raw sewage being dumped directly into the Mediterranean Sea every day.

So despite New Seasons' claims to support education, environmental and anti-hunger efforts, its continued sale of Israeli products makes it complicit in keeping Palestinians hungry, without access to education, and living in a contaminated environment.

Nevertheless, BDS campaigns such as this one offer one of the most effective means to end Israeli apartheid. BDS campaigns not only allow those who oppose Israel's violations of international law to voice their concerns but it also gives them a vehicle to take action.

BDS campaigns also allow activists to compel progressive organizations, such as antiwar groups, and unions, who although perhaps sympathetic to the human rights abuses faced by Palestinians have been hesitant to take any clear action, to face the reality that remaining neutral on this issue is in fact silent but deadly support for the oppressor.