Jews wary as Rainbow toys with another Israeli boycott

Jewish organizations are once again casting a wary eye on Rainbow Grocery Cooperative after a consortium of pro-Palestinian groups held a demonstration last Saturday outside the store urging a formal boycott of Israeli products.

Store employees confirmed this week that employees at the worker-run cooperative have initiated the process in which such a boycott would be voted upon.

In response, Rabbi Doug Kahn, executive director of the Jewish Community Relations Council in San Francisco, said: "I think the JCRC made it very clear, crystal clear to Rainbow Grocery, all the reasons we think it would be a very serious mistake and breach of community trust for Rainbow to endorse a boycott of Israeli goods.

"It would be nice to think this issue is behind us, particularly at a time of major world issues. But if we have to remobilize the community on this issue, we will not hesitate to do so."

The San Francisco grocery store became the epicenter of a controversy in December, when enraged Jewish shopper Ian Zimmerman wrote and ciculated a mass e-mail revealing that two of Rainbow's departments had been participating in a long-running boycott of Israeli goods.

After several weeks of pressure from Jewish organizations and close scrutiny from the local media, Rainbow employees worked out a retraction and apology letter by Dec. 20. A rally outside the store sponsored by the JCRC, Zimmerman and Grassroots for Israel still took place two days later.

It was a different sort of gathering outside the Folsom Street market Saturday as members from about a dozen self-described "human rights, Jewish, Palestinian, women's and lesbian/gay rights" organizations kicked off a "shop-in" while calling for the de-shelving of Israeli goods.

The call for boycotting Israeli goods is "to stop the onslaught against the Palestinian people by the Israeli government, the Israeli military and American support of that," said Samantha Liapes, a member of Jews for a Free Palestine and an organizer of the demonstration.

"We should stop allowing consumer dollars to go toward bullets and tanks. We felt like the de-shelving campaign is an investment in justice and lasting peace."

In December, Rainbow irritated members of the Jewish and general communities by insisting there was "no Israeli boycott" because the measure had not come up for a vote by the store's workforce. That insistence that no boycott was under way led to a highly critical San Francisco Chronicle editorial complimenting the store for "some of the best definition-parsing since Bill Clinton."

Liapes noted that since the formal process wasn't followed, the boycott was "easily quelled." She said this time around, a "formal proposal" has been submitted by workers to the store's board, signatures will be collected, and the issue could come up for a vote by early June.

Rainbow board member Seanetta, who uses only one name, confirmed that a proposal had been submitted, but he would reveal no further information.

Liapes said that since no country benefits from direct U.S. aid more than Israel, it is fair for activists to single out Israeli products for boycott, even if other nations possess equal or worse human rights records.

Her rationale confused Kahn.

"I don't understand that. It seems to me the notion there's any correlation between countries that receive American aid and what countries Rainbow stocks goods from is a specious argument," he said.

"I don't think there's much logic to that argument, frankly."

Steve Berley, the JCRC's director of Israel programs, warned that Rainbow's adoption of a formal boycott against Israel would be a public relations nightmare.

"The Chronicle mentioned that they received more e-mails and letters about this than just about any issue they've ever covered. When we had our December rally there was not one but two Chronicle reporters. All five TV stations had reporters. People in Israel even knew about it; it was in Ha'aretz," he said.

"And that was a false boycott. If they had a bona fide boycott, think of how much attention it'll get."

The Chronicle, however, doesn't speak to Rainbow shoppers, according to Liapes.

"I don't think that how we're displayed in the Chronicle will be a major factor in the decision," she said.

"Rainbow is a cooperative owned and controlled by the people who work there. It's our impression that the people who work there understand the legacy of Rainbow and the sense of responsibility to environmental and political justice."

For his part, Zimmerman could only laugh when informed that boycotting Israel was again on the agenda of some of Rainbow's workers.

"It's just so fundamentally misguided, it's almost baffling. I suppose my laughter was out of amazement they could repeat what was so clearly a miscalculation on their part," said the San Francisco lawyer.

"Not because of the economic implications, but because this is so fundamentally unfair, especially for a store that prides itself on the values of fairness, democracy and freedom. I mean, how wrong can you get?"

Joe Eskenazi

Joe Eskenazi is the managing editor at Mission Local. He is a former editor-at-large at San Francisco magazine, former columnist at SF Weekly and a former J. staff writer.