Park Slope Food Co-op suspends four members over Israel boycott spat

Exiled: Millie Ruttner, Al Ettlinger, and Rhudi Andreolli outside the Park Slope Food Co-op, which they can’t go inside for a year.
Photo by Jason Speakman

The Israeli-Palestinian conflict has claimed its first casualties … of the Park Slope Food Co-op.

The iconic Union Street store — where members have been warring for eight years over whether they should boycott Israeli products to protest the country’s occupation of Palestine — recently suspended four long-time shoppers, who it found guilty of interrupting a meeting more than a year ago.

The exiled members acknowledge they literally pulled the plug on a presentation about the sale of an Israeli-made product by the pro-boycott bloc, but at least one contends that they should be praised for standing up to what she believes is a faction of “fascists” dedicated to spreading lies about Israel.

“I didn’t go up there to be a hero, but I am a hero,” said Rhudi Andreolli, a 43-year-long member of the co-op now serving her year-long suspension. “I stood up against tyranny and propaganda. This is so serious when you take a group of people and boycott them because you make up these vicious lies — in a co-op!”

The co-op’s members already voted to keep the store’s then four Israel-made goods in a high-profile 2012 referendum, which received national media attention with the likes of conservative commentator Glenn Beck and a bevy of politicians all weighing in.

But the boycott movement — whose ranks also include many Jewish members — continued, and tensions boiled over at meeting in April last year, where hundreds of members from both sides showed up for a presentation about the sale of Soda Stream, a make-your-own seltzer device which at the time had factories in the West Bank.

The presentation was reportedly proceeding amicably until the boycotters displayed a slide of an Israeli soldier and a Palestinian man, which the Zionist members took to be as an unconscionable propaganda piece, leading several of them — including the four who were suspended — to rush to the front of the auditorium and yank out the cords connecting a laptop to the co-op’s projector.

The [boycott] people put up a number of very proactive photographs,” said Alan Ettlinger. “I jumped up on the stage and tried to get them to take down the photographs.”

One presenter claims the co-op has never seen such a chaotic scene in its 43-year history.

“It was totally outrageous,” said pro-boycott member Thomas Cox, who has admittedly only been privy to five years of co-op proceedings. “We expected that there would be people who were upset, but we didn’t think it would be anything like that.”

Two months later, co-op leaders contacted Ettlinger, Andreolli and her sister, and another woman and notified them that they would have to face a disciplinary hearing — a process usually reserved for shoplifters and members who dodge their mandated work duties — and in April this year, a jury finally found them guilty of uncooperative behavior and sentenced them to the year in Key Foods purgatory.

Ettlinger believes the jury was stacked with pro-boycott faction members, though a co-op honcho maintains that the store’s scales of justice are as well balanced as those in its produce department.

“We did it in a very fair and deliberate way,” said co-op coordinator Joe Holtz. “It took a full year.”

But many of the co-operative grocery’s 16,500 members say they couldn’t care less about either side of the fight, and just want to shop for cheap organic bananas in peace.

“It’s a co-operative, isn’t that a political statement in and of itself?” said 39-year co-op member Arthur Johnson. “Boycotts and stuff I can’t pay attention to and I don’t.”

Reach reporter Colin Mixson at cmixson@cnglocal.com or by calling (718) 260-4505.

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