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The Sacramento Natural Foods Co-op has become a battleground for Middle East politics as some members are trying to get the board of directors to sign off on a boycott of Israeli products.
Arguing that Israel is violating human rights by occupying Palestinian territories, the group of members says that the co-op should not sell products from Israel because that supports human rights violations.
All co-op members are considered partial owners as well.
Co-op General Manager Paul Cultrera said he does not support the boycott in the store.
“We’re here to run a store,” he told The Sacramento Press Wednesday. “I think that the issue about Israeli human rights violations – it’s a valid issue. I’m not taking a side on it, but we’re not here to be political.”
The products in question, he added, mainly consist of six to eight varieties of bath salts from the Dead Sea. The manufacturers are all American companies, and one company gets it from the Jordanian side of the Dead Sea, while the others get the salts from the Israeli side.
Some matzo products are carried as well. During Passover, he added, some wines from Israel are brought in and stocked until they are sold out.
He added that Israeli products make up about $13,000-$14,000 in sales annually. Total annual sales are about $26 million.
“We didn’t bring the products in because they were from Israel,” Cultrera said. “We brought them in because customers wanted them and buy them.”
An ardent supporter of boycotting Israeli products is longtime co-op member Maggie Coulter, who has written several times on The Sacramento Press about the issue.
Coulter said the co-op board is violating its bylaws by not putting the issue to a vote of the membership after a signature-gathering initiative that gained momentum in January and a proposal to the seven-member board at its monthly meeting Feb. 1.
According to Coulter, more than 1,000 signatures have been gathered since the initiative was launched in June of 2010.* The 1,000 signatures include letters and emails that have been collected, sent or submitted to the board, Coulter wrote in an email Thursday. Those included both members and shoppers and supported the initial boycott proposal to allow members to vote on the initiatives.
For the Human Rights Initiative, 250 member signatures were gathered, and 100 are required, she added. For the Restore Co-op Democracy initiative, 175 member signatures were collected.
Some of the signatures were gathered outside the co-op at a table, while others were mailed in, she said.
“The human rights initiative would allow the membership to vote whether they want the store to support Palestinian human rights be boycotting Israel until Israel stops violating the rights of Palestinians,” she said Wednesday.
She compared the issue to the Civil Rights movement of the 1960s in the United States and gay rights issues.
Two others who have posted on The Sacramento Press about the issue are the co-op’s board president, Steven Maviglio, and Director of the Jewish Community Relations Council John Boisa, also a co-op member, neither of whom was available for comment Wednesday or Thursday.
In the conversations of the various articles, questions have been raised about why the group targets Israel specifically.
Cultrera said there are many countries guilty of human rights violations, and they sometimes have products carried in the store.
“We do have items from China – frozen vegetables occasionally come from there, and they are labeled,” he said. “There are probably a few other products from China in the grocery department.”
He mentioned China’s human rights violations in Tibet, and said other countries can be seen as violators of human rights as well, and their products are uncontested at the co-op.
“People claim the U.S. is guilty of quite a few human rights violations,” he said. “You might ask some people down in Guantánamo. We carry a lot of U.S. products. We also carry products from Greece, Italy, Spain, France, Chile and Argentina.... You could probably accuse any of those countries of various violations.”
Coulter acknowledged other human rights violations and said the reason she and others focus on Israel is because, to be successful, any campaign needs focus. And she said that allowing customers to simply not buy the products is not the focus needed to make a change.
“The co-op, for example, doesn’t carry products tested on animals,” she said. “It doesn’t leave it up to consumers. I think that’s fine. Let’s make a statement that we’re not going to carry Israeli products.”
Boycotting Israeli products is not a new concept, and it was attempted at the Davis Foods Co-op a couple of years ago, according to Davis Foods Co-op Marketing Coordinator Melanie Madden.
“It was in late 2009 and early 2010 that a small group of (Davis) co-op shoppers proposed a boycott initiative,” she said. “The wording was found to be ineligible by our board.”
The board said the boycott did not follow its bylaws.
To read the board’s conclusion on the issue in Davis, click here.
“The whole political thing – we’re a grocery store,” Madden said. “We’re politically neutral. Politically based initiatives aren’t really appropriate.”
There are Sacramento grocery stores, however, that do boycott Israeli products. One of those is the Palestinian-owned Red Sea Food Market, 6968 65th St.
“At this store, we never have carried and never will carry products from Israel,” Manager Jim Morrar said Thursday. “We have no problem dealing with Jewish companies and products, but I do have problems dealing with Israeli companies and Israeli products.”
He said most of the food products exported from Israel to the United States come from the occupied West Bank.
“Anybody using Israeli products is in direct support of that action,” he said.
Cultrera, however, agreed with Madden’s take on the role of grocery stores.
“I’d like the two sides to take their issue somewhere else,” he said. “I think the co-op is being used as a place to work out this issue, which has not been worked out at the U.N., in Washington or in (Tel Aviv, Israel). It’s an issue that’s been going on for a long time and will probably continue to go on.”
Coulter, however, said she believes the co-op is inherently a political institution, which takes stands on other political issues.
“Testing on animals is a political consideration, and sustainability is a political consideration,” she said.
At Tuesday’s monthly board meeting, Coulter said an amendment to the board’s bylaws was proposed that would block groups from calling for boycotts based on national origin or for political reasons.
The Sacramento Press will follow up with more details soon.
The co-op is located at 1900 Alhambra Blvd.
*Editor's Note: Information was added to this article after it was published to clarify the 1,000 signatures collected.
Brandon Darnell is a staff reporter for The Sacramento Press. Follow him on Twitter @Brandon_Darnell.