A DANIEL PEARL INVESTIGATIVE JOURNALISM INITIATIVE PROJECT
The nation’s first and only boycott of Israeli products by a food co-op ignites a fiercely personal community and legal battle in Olympia, Washington, the hometown of Rachel Corrie.
It’s a rare blue skied day in Olympia’s historic downtown strip. At Traditions Cafe—a fair-trade coffee shop and bakery—a slightly grainy black-and-white poster of a young Rachel Corrie hangs in a window. She’s smiling and tucking a lock of her straight, straw-colored hair behind her ear. Beneath her photo is a single word: “Peacemaker.” Below that is another, smaller poster that reads “This property has been declared a Caterpillar-free zone. Stop corporate human rights abuses.”
These posters and their political message are right at home in Washington’s humble state capital, 60 miles south of Seattle. With views of the Olympic Mountains, the city of fewer than 50,000 residents is the home of indie label K Records, where the riot grrrl punk movement laid its roots, where Kurt Cobain wrote most of Nevermind and where “queercore” got its moniker. With both the Olympia Food Co-op and The Evergreen State College located within its bounds, the city has the feel of an extended commune or even a college campus, with posts on a popular message board such as “Radical Mycology 101” (“Come learn about the amazing properties of fungi!”) and “Cops, Ports; Shut ‘Em Down!” As the message board, Olyblog, exclaims: “If you care about this community and are tired of corporate media, then this is the place for you.”
Olympia is the hometown of Rachel Corrie, the Evergreen student, who while on an independent-study program in Gaza, was killed by an Israeli bulldozer while acting as a human shield for a Palestinian home in 2003. Her tragic death at 23 sparked international outcry, but nowhere was it felt as deeply as in Olympia.
Much has been written about the day when Corrie placed herself between the bulldozer and the residence of Palestinian pharmacist Samir Nasrallah. To the International Solidarity Movement (ISM), the group she was working with, she was a victim of Israel’s occupation; to the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF), she was an overzealous and naïve girl who put herself in danger. An IDF investigation ruled the death an accident, with the driver saying it was impossible for him to see her from his vantage point. After her death, ISM—a Palestinian-led movement that resists Israel through non-violent means—charged: “The Israeli Army is attempting to dishonour her memory by claiming that Rachel was killed accidentally when she ran in front of the bulldozer. Eye-witnesses to the murder insist that this is totally untrue.”
The tragedy thrust her parents, Craig and Cindy Corrie, an insurance actuary and homemaker, into the limelight. The Midwest natives, their faces framed by gray hair, took up the Palestinian cause, traveling around the world and back and forth to Israel, where their civil lawsuit, Corrie v. The State of Israel, is still playing out. They filed the suit against the Defense Ministry seven years ago, claiming that the IDF either deliberately killed Corrie or is at least guilty of gross negligence. A decision is expected this August.
The Corries also founded the Rachel Corrie Foundation for Peace and Justice, based in Olympia. Its mission is “promoting peace, justice, and greater understanding across cultures and communities,” according to its website, and it has funded a water desalination project in Gaza as well as college scholarships. A big presence in a small city, it has as one of its main projects the Olympia-Rafah Solidarity Mural Project. Rafah, Olympia’s sister city, is where Rachel established a pen-pal project and where she died.
Downtown, not far from Traditions Cafe, the mural of an enormous, spray-painted olive tree with leaves bearing artwork and messages spans an entire side of a building, dwarfing the cars in the parking lot below. On one leaf, a white dove soars; on another, a fist breaks through a bar code in a call for boycott. Another depicts maps of the U.S. and Israel side by side with red splotches to indicate the decimation of the “indigenous populations” of both countries. According to the foundation, the mural “tells a tale of two cities, Olympia and Rafah, linked through tragedy and resilience.”
Shortly before Corrie was killed, Rabbis Yohanna Kinberg and Seth Goldstein moved to Olympia, home to an estimated 500 to 1,500 Jews, many of them unaffiliated, and three synagogues. Goldstein became the rabbi at the Reconstructionist Temple Beth Hatfiloh, and Kinberg took a position at Temple B’nai Torah, a Reform synagogue in nearby Bellevue. The couple shared the community’s social justice values and was delighted with their new city, which Kinberg, 39, calls an “amazing place to raise a family.”
The daughter of a Moroccan immigrant to Israel who resettled and raised her family in Eugene, Oregon, Kinberg identifies strongly with her Israeli roots. But like many other Jews in Olympia, she is often critical of the Israeli government and aligns herself with leftist Israeli organizations. But in 2010, the Olympia Food Co-op, a beloved local institution, became the first and, so far, only food co-op in the United States to boycott Israeli products. Tensions created by the decision have divided the community, set Jew against Jew and exacerbated an already tense anti-Zionist culture for Jewish students attending the Evergreen State College, a public institution.
The conversation about Israel has become so one-sided, says Kinberg, that any pro-Israel sentiment is rejected out of hand. Even so, she and her husband were shocked when in 2009 their eight-year-old son told them about a lesson he had learned in class. The couple had enrolled him at Lincoln Options Elementary School, an alternative program within the public school system. It’s the same elementary school that Corrie attended, and where, in fifth grade, she gave an impassioned speech against hunger and child suffering. “They were talking to us about Rachel Corrie,” he told her, “and how Israelis murdered her on purpose and drove over her with a bulldozer.” He said, “I felt so embarrassed and ashamed to be Israeli.”
Kinberg began to see Olympia in a new light. “I had never really seen the dark underbelly of what that would mean until my child was in an environment where being very negative, stereotype-filled and hateful toward Israel was really the norm,” she says. “We chose this beautiful place to live, and in some ways it turned so ugly for our family.”
Kinberg believes that Rachel Corrie has become a martyr in Olympia, a designation to which Cindy Corrie objects. “I don’t think she’s thought of that way at all in Olympia,” she says. But she notes that her daughter “was a part of Olympia for all of her nearly 24 years. So her killing touched hundreds if not thousands of people here. Nearly nine years later, I still encounter people who I haven’t met before who tell me stories about having worked with her.What happened to Rachel engaged many people in the community,” she adds. “A lot of activity is happening in Olympia, but it was happening here before.”
Noah Sochet entered Evergreen in 2006. A native of Berkeley, California, he thrived at the school, founded in 1967 as a state liberal arts college for students who didn’t fit into a conventional school setting. With fewer than 5,000 students, Evergreen has always attracted a lefty crowd, investing its energy in Central American politics in the 1970s and 1980s and college campus causes du jour. It was at Evergreen that the blonde, curly haired, Jewish Sochet became friends with Palestinians for the first time and began to see the Israeli-Palestinan conflict in terms of apartheid and occupation. Rachel Corrie’s story resonated deeply. “Her family cast a long shadow in town,” he says.
He joined TESC Divest, a student-led group in Olympia working to pressure the college to divest from Israeli companies as well as Caterpillar, the company that manufactured the bulldozer that killed Corrie. From there he and a few friends founded the original Olympia Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) coalition, sharing the mission of the national BDS coalition to pressure Israel to end “its occupation and colonization of all Arab lands” and dismantle “the Wall” through international boycotts of goods, divesting from Israeli corporations and government sanctions.
Sochet worked as a volunteer cashier at the food co-op. Founded in 1977, the immensely popular institution has two branches and approximately 22,000 members. Sometime in 2008, Sochet dropped a note in the suggestion box of the East Side store, asking the co-op to boycott Israeli products. In the past, the co-op had voted to boycott products from China (human rights abuses), Norway (whaling abuses), Colorado (anti-gay legislation) and Gardenburger (farm worker abuse), and Sochet and his friends thought Israel should be next.
Sochet felt that it was his responsibility as a Jew to bring the topic to the forefront. “It seems to me that Jews as a community have such a capacity to make change,” he says, “and yet we sort of are taught from when we’re kids that, at best, [the question of Palestinian rights] is more complicated than we can engage in. . . For some reason we’re not able to talk about Israel-Palestine in the same way we talk about everything else.” As he wrote in a statement supporting the boycott in 2010: “I’m Jewish, and Jewish voices are nearly always given extra weight on this issue, and while I’d prefer that the voices that were given such care were those of Palestinians, if it needs to be a Jewish voice to be heard, so be it: this is a Jewish voice, calling for boycott, and I add my voice to a chorus of others here, in Olympia, and to the hundreds and thousands of other Jewish voices across this country and the world. We are Jewish and our morality, our spirituality, and our Jewishness, demand that we take action against the suffering in Palestine.”
Sochet was not the only Jew involved in Olympia’s BDS push for the boycott. “The proportion of Jews working in the movement is incredibly high.” says soft-spoken David Langstaff, a 27-year-old Evergreen graduate, also from the Bay Area, who is one of the group’s main organizers. Langstaff, too, says it is his Jewish identity that drives him to fight for the rights of the Palestinian people and objects to the belief that Jews need to build a “territorial fortress” to be safe from anti-Semitism.
In proposing the boycott on behalf of BDS, Sochet followed all the rules of the co-op’s boycott policy, established in 1993, which says that any member can suggest a boycott and that once a suggestion is made to follow a “nationally recognized boycott,” the staff will meet to reach consensus on whether to observe the boycott. In this case, the staff met and, despite trying, could not come to a consensus, so it brought the issue to the board—elected by members—to decide.
At the July 15, 2010, board meeting, the minutes note, “The board was surprised to find 30 or so community members gathered at the meeting in support of the boycott.” After impassioned speeches by Sochet and Rochelle Gause, a friend of Rachel Corrie’s, followed by “thorough discussion,” the board voted to approve the boycott of Israeli products and the termination of Israeli investments. The minutes say that the “board shared concern for the staff and members that are opposed to the boycott.”
The tangible effect of the boycott is negligible. Banned products include Edward & Sons ice cream cones (gluten free and regular), ENER-G gluten-free crackers, several flavors of Rice Dream dairy-free chocolate bars, hand moisturizer and baby wipes. Peace Oil, an Israeli-Palestinian fair-trade product, remained on the shelves. But the number of products was not the point. Sochet says that he and his friends went back to business as usual, not realizing that the vote would have local, national and international repercussions. “We didn’t understand what a shit storm it would be,” says Sochet, who has since moved home to California.
The co-op board’s resolution to deshelve Israeli products shocked other Jews in the community who felt excluded from the decision making process. While other co-ops around the state— including ones in Port Townsend and Seattle—and country—most recently in Park Slope, Brooklyn—have proposed boycotts, lengthy intra-community debates and membership votes have ultimately led the proposals to fail. But in Olympia, none of the three local congregational rabbis even knew a boycott was on the table. Reflecting the outrage, Rabbi Cheski Edelman of Olympia’s Chabad center, says: “The only way it can get passed is behind closed doors.”
Since co-op board meeting agendas are posted online but not sent out to members, Kinberg, who is a co-op member, says she was not aware of the debate until she received an email announcing the decision. Jeffrey Trinin, another Jewish member, says he knew a boycott was in discussion but assumed it was going through staff channels, according to due process. “Everything that happens at the co-op [usually] happens very slowly and deliberately,” he says. And member Hava Aviv, 32, says she was “shocked and appalled” when the boycott passed. The co-op “is member-owned. I own it. And no one told me.”
Kinberg leapt into action, creating a sandwich board and picketing outside the co-op alone for two days. “I was shocked by how many horrible anti-Semitic things were said to me,” she recalls. “Like ‘stop killing Palestinians’ or ‘you have all the money.’ Classic anti-Semitism. ‘Murderer.’” Worse, Kinberg says, is the way she was simply ignored by acquaintances. According to Aviv, after the co-op boycott announcement, the conversation with the larger community and with Olympia BDS “made the rest of us look like anti-humanitarian, racist bigots. I have dyke tattooed on my left forearm,” she says. “I had a child at 19. I’ve marched with the poor, with people of color…how is it that all of a sudden I’m a racist, anti-humanitarian bigot?”
She and other outraged members formed “It’s Our Co-op.” About 90 people attended its first public meeting on August 22, 2010, where possible responses were mapped out. They held protests outside the co-op and tried to convince the board to revisit its decision. When that failed, five co-op members, including Trinin, filed a lawsuit in September 2011 claiming that the process to implement the boycott had been unfair, and asking the court to prevent its enforcement.
The 16 defendants named in the suit—board members including Corrie’s friend Rochelle Gause—filed a motion to dismiss it, invoking Washington State’s new anti-SLAPP or Strategic Litigation Against Public Participation law. (The law was created to prevent corporations from using lengthy and expensive court proceedings to intimidate or silence critics.) They hired Bruce Johnson, who drafted the law, and Center for Constitutional Rights lawyer Maria LaHood, who represented the Corries in their suit against Caterpillar, which was dismissed in 2005. Their lawyers argued that the plaintiffs had unlawfully targeted their constitutionally protected free speech.
On February 27, the co-op defendants, backed by a courtroom full of BDS activists and Cindy and Craig Corrie, prevailed. Judge Thomas McPhee of Thurston County Superior Court denied the plaintiffs’ request for a cross-motion for discovery, which would have allowed the plaintiffs to investigate any subversive BDS activity leading up to the board’s vote, and dismissed the case. The same judge will determine the penalties the plaintiffs must pay; the co-op has asked for $400,000. His decision is expected in July.
The battle has led to accusations that both sides are receiving financial support, advice and even marching orders from national and international entities. The plaintiffs have been accused of getting help from StandWithUs Northwest, an organization whose mission is to promote “greater understanding and support for Israel in the Pacific Northwest” by helping those who feel attacked because of their pro-Israel beliefs. “We focus on local activities…targeting anti-Israel campaigns and misinformation,” says Rob Jacobs, its director, who has closely followed the boycott and resulting lawsuit.
Jacobs and Akiva Tor, the consul general of Israel to the Pacific Northwest, have been cited by BDS organizers as secret funders of the co-op lawsuit, which they assert is backed by the Israeli government. This allegation first appeared in a September 6, 2011 article published by the pro-Palestinian Arab blogger Ali Abunimah of the website Electronic Intifada. In a post called “Uncovered: Israel’s role in planned U.S. lawsuit to fight BDS,” he casts suspicion on StandWithUs Northwest after accessing the organization’s internal communications, which were located on an unsecured site. He thinks that these communications show StandWithUs’s desire to suppress BDS activities by forcing its own agenda, shutting down pro-Palestinian groups, and crying anti-Semitism. “It should serve as a red flag that however small and tight-knit a community, powerful pro-Israel groups, in coordination with Israeli officials, are prepared to go to any length to smear and harass people,” Abunimah wrote.
Critics of StandWithUs also point to a news segment on the boycott lawsuit that aired on Israel’s Channel 10. In it, Deputy Foreign Minister Danny Ayalon explains that he involves himself with global affairs concerning Israel, working with global Jewish and non-Jewish groups, and mentions StandWithUs by name. “It is very important to make use of all the means at our disposal, primarily judicial means,” he said “and it is true—we are using…StandWithUs for leverage.” Seattle-based blogger Richard Silverstein claims on his “Tikun [sic] Olam” blog that this is proof that “the Israeli government itself is willing to sponsor these lawsuits and presumably pay the legal bills.”
StandWithUS Northwest is one of 15 U.S. branches of a Los-Angeles based international non-profit that also has offices in Israel, France and the United Kingdom. The organization—also known as the Israel Emergency Alliance—receives funding from organizations such as the Jewish Federation of Los Angeles and Birthright Israel International as well as from well-known Jewish philanthropists. Some of its efforts focus on training student leaders in the U.S. and Canada to act as “campus emissaries of the Jewish state.”
Jacobs, whose salary is paid for by Israel Emergency Alliance, says the Northwest office, which does everything from monitoring local press for anti-Israel sentiment to bringing pro-Israel speakers to local synagogues and community centers, survives on tax-deductible local donations, the largest of which has been $7,572, and the vast majority of which are $18 and $36. Jacobs denies he has received outside money to support the Olympian Jews who are fighting the co-op. The plaintiffs’ attorney, Robert Sulkin, says that he handled the co-op case pro bono. “I never once asked to be paid,” he says. “They’re people who feel that they’re in a tough spot, and I wanted to help them.”
Jacobs says that the person who hacked into the organization’s email provider’s system managed to get hold of a board agenda that included discussion of the anti-boycott effort in Brooklyn. “All of a sudden we became the center of this national conspiracy, the anti-boycott headquarters of the nation,” he says.
At the same time, Olympia BDS has come under fire from the pro-Israel side for its connections to the larger BDS movement. There are multiple groups like Olympia BDS around the country, all loosely united under the umbrella of the Boycott, Divestment & Sanctions Campaign National Committee, founded in 2007. Its mission echoes that of the international BDS coalition, which has been endorsed by more than 170 Palestinian political parties, organizations, trade unions and movements: Its goal is to pressure Israel to end “its occupation and colonization of all Arab lands” and dismantle “the Wall” through international boycotts, divestment from Israeli corporations and government sanctions.
In a letter to The Olympian in August 2010, Kinberg speculated that BDS activists in Olympia were being paid “to achieve their ends by the means of exploiting our community and creating division between community members.” But she later said she has no formal proof of financial backing, just suspicions. “It seems clear that either they are all independently wealthy or someone is sending them on all these trips and to trainings,” she says.
Local BDS organizers scoff at the idea that they’re paid. “Olympia BDS is simply a grassroots organization of several community members,” says Andrew Meyer, a lead organizer, Evergreen student and Rachel Corrie Foundation board member. David Langstaff says that Olympia BDS consists of only about five core organizers. “There’s no central, international organization,” he says. “Like all grassroots organizations, there’s communication” between groups. Money is raised through donations, he says, “as opposed to the opposition to this movement.” A representative who answered the phone said Olympia BDS does not have nonprofit status but can accept tax-free donations through DonationPay.org, a low-fee processing site similar to PayPal or Network for Good, that was co-founded by Noah Sochet.
Kinberg’s letter to The Olympian was excerpted and republished by BDS activist Phan Nguyen on OlyBlog. Nguyen, an Evergreen graduate who was an ISM organizer when Rachel Corrie set out to Gaza, condemned Kinberg’s “misinformation” and “lies” in a posting titled “What do you do when a clergy member libels you?” He is one of Olympia’s loudest pro-boycott and anti-Zionist activists, despite his relocation to New York where he became involved with the failed Park Slope Co-op boycott effort. “No one is getting paid to tout BDS,” he writes. “We’re losing our own money and our own time working on these efforts and having to battle all the lies that Rabbi Kinberg and others keep spreading.”
But critics of BDS insist that the activist network cannot possibly be operating alone. “There’s no question that there’s money,” says Jon Haber, the blogger behind DivestThis.com, a website devoted to tracking the wider BDS movement. “They charter ships to send across the Mediterranean.” Haber, whose prolific, impassioned posts put him on par with Electronic Intifada’s Abunimah, explains that BDS operates as a network of loose-knit organizations that fall apart, come together, change their names and organize around tactics. This stands in stark contrast to the organized Jewish world, he says, which is far more bureaucratic.
According to NGO Monitor, a watchdog group based in Israel, governments, foundations and religious charities throughout the world legally fund BDS-affiliated non-governmental agencies. In May of 2011, for example, a Dutch report revealed that around 10 million euros [$12.7 million] from the Dutch Foreign Ministry had gone to Dutch and Palestinian NGOs advocating for boycotts and other anti-Israel measures.
Despite the international interest, reporter Jeremy Powloski, who covered the co-op legal battle for The Olympian, says that the conflict is at heart a local one. “There are definitely a lot of people who are concerned about Palestinians—that’s home-grown, that’s part of Olympia,” he says, adding that for both sides the funding issue is more important than it should be. “I see it as white noise, as either side wanting to score their points.”
Adina Holzman, who monitors the BDS movement for the Anti-Defamation League, confirms that in most instances of co-op boycott activity there is an internal party that is guiding the initiative. “Obviously, to some extent they get some help from outside forces, in terms of language and statement,” she says. “But I don’t see it as organized from the outside.”
She adds that it is not surprising that Olympia is home to the only successful co-op boycott of Israel. “Olympia is a unique situation in general,” she says, “a liberal community with a strong anti-Israel consensus with an anti-Israel university and Rachel Corrie and her parents who are now anti-Israel activists who work to legitimize it in their circles.” The atmosphere at Evergreen College, she says, plays a crucial role in feeding the community’s anti-Zionist stance.
Recent Evergreen graduate Emily Weisberg brushes aside her long bangs as she describes how her grandparents moved to Israel in 1948 to fight for its independence. After the war they helped found Kibbutz Sasa, but later grew critical of Israel’s development as a country and returned to America. “The Israel they fought for is not how they feel Israel is today at all,” says Weisberg, choosing her words carefully and speaking with conviction.
By the time she was a sophomore, Weisberg was involved with TESC Divest, and through Birthright she traveled around Israel, extending her stay to visit the West Bank. Her experience only strengthened her criticism of Israel. “It’s an incredibly racist organization,” she says of Birthright. “We were told things like ‘the difference between Jews and Arabs is that Jews value life and Arabs value death.’ We were told that if we stepped foot in the Muslim Quarter of the Old City in Jerusalem we would probably be shot. It was really, really awful. And it was also people just, like, buying it.”
Weisberg spurns accusations that she’s a “self-hating” Jew, and describes herself as an “anti-occupation” Jew. She became a center of controversy in the winter of 2011 after she hung a photography exhibit in Evergreen’s student-run Flaming Eggplant Cafe depicting her travels around the West Bank. In one description she wrote, “Hebrew has become the language of abuse.” In a letter she later wrote to Evergreen’s student paper, The Cooper Point Journal, she elaborated: “I think Hebrew is a beautiful language. I think Judaism is a beautiful religion and culture. I am proud to be Jewish. But as the Israeli government co-opts this identity, I feel as if my Jewish identity is being taken away from me.”
Her statement about Hebrew upset some of the few openly Jewish students on campus. “To a bunch of us who pray in Hebrew and sing in Hebrew and wander through the campus with a bottle of Manischewitz finding Jewish students to say kiddush with in Hebrew, hearing people describe it as the language of abuse without any qualifiers was deeply upsetting,” says Joshua Levine, then student president of the Evergreen Hillel. Levine describes himself as a liberal, Reform Jew, who used to be singled out in his hometown of Los Angeles for being progressive on Israel matters. He decided to organize a night of Israeli song, Shir L’Shalom, to reclaim Hebrew as a language of peace. BDS, however, held a panel discussion on Hebrew as a language of abuse during the same time slot. Levine says BDS scheduled it to compete with his event, but BDS contended it was Levine who counter-scheduled. The Hillel “invited pretty racist Jews from StandWithUs, from as far away as Canada, to basically protest me,” says Weisberg. Both sides recall the night of dueling events as a powderkeg.
Weisberg’s views are representative of those of many Jewish and non-Jewish students on campus, who are motivated not only by social justice, but by ideas about Israel perpetuated by anti-Zionists such as Norman Finkelstein, who was invited to speak at Evergreen on the occasion of Israel’s 60th anniversary in 2008. A number of very active groups on campus represent this point of view, including BDS and TESC Divest—which led a 2010 petition drive to divest from Israel (that was vetoed by Evergreen President Les Purce). There are no active groups that promulgate a more sympathetic point of view toward Israel: The Hillel is currently inactive, as is Students Interested in Israeli Advocacy and Peace (S.I.I.A. Shalom), a group founded by six students in response to the Finkelstein lecture and “because there’s a lot of teachers who teach from the pro-Palestinian or anti-Israel point of view,” says former Evergreen student and original S.I.I.A. Shalom member Michael Dennis.
While S.I.I.A. Shalom was meant to broaden the debate, it inflamed it. Rabbi Cheski Edelman remembers that the group’s posters were defaced and torn down, prompting a school-wide discussion at which a passionate activist declared that “Evergreen has to be a hate-free zone,” and that “the flag of Israel is hate speech already.” Says Edelman, “It was the worst feeling I’ve ever had in my life. To have 200 students looking at you with hatred in their eyes.” He adds that the organizers of S.I.I.A. Shalom were the most hated people on campus.
Dennis recalls how a display of the Israeli flag, posters and inspirational quotes the group put up in the window of the school’s bookstore became a center of contention. According to internal school memos and police reports, a bookstore staff person reported “malicious graffiti” to campus police services on February 24, 2009. Someone had scrawled a five-foot long message, “We [heart] apartheid” on the window in front of S.I.I.A.’s display. A group called Students Educating Students About the Middle East (SESAME), now known as the Mideast Solidarity Project, then installed a display with “bloody handprints” and references to apartheid. The final item in the report notes that “there is a ‘die-in’ scheduled to occur in front of the bookstore’s display windows sometime tomorrow, 2/25.” Says Dennis: “They came at lunchtime and laid on the ground and acted like they were dead for a few minutes.”
In a letter to President Purce in the spring of 2009, Dennis implored the administration to address what he perceived as growing anti-Semitism on campus. In his tenure as an undergraduate and a graduate student, Dennis writes that he had seen a swastika painted in a dorm and racist comments posted on the student listserv. But most shocking, Dennis wrote, are the students who approach him and express their fear for their safety. “Three current students, two of them being freshman [sic] informed us that they feel their safety is threaten [sic] and they all said they plan to transfer after this year.” Other internal memos, letters to the The Cooper Point Journal and conversations with one of the only remaining openly pro-Israel Jewish students at Evergreen indicate that since at least 2009, Jewish students with sympathies toward Israel have gone underground or left the school. Dennis says four or five students transferred or opted for independent studies during their junior or senior year. That they did so, he says, speaks to their intense level of discomfort at the college. “They didn’t feel welcome,” he says. He remembers one conversation, where a student confided “if people knew I was part Israeli, I would feel unsafe on this campus.”
“I really think the administration did a really bad job of addressing the students,” says Dennis regarding their response to his reports of hostility. The anti-Zionist atmosphere, he and others say, is fanned by a faculty perceived to be inconsiderate of Israel, and the school’s faculty-driven hiring process means it can be difficult to hire professors with non-conforming political views. When Sherri Shulman, a professor of computer science, stepped up as the Hillel adviser and began trying to offer a nuanced voice to the hard left opinion, she found herself arguing with political science professors like Steve Niva. Niva, whose latest research looks at the relationship between Palestinian suicide bombings and Israeli military violence, frequently comes up as a faculty member in opposition to dialogue with Israel’s sympathizers. He did not return requests for an interview. “I’m really very much to the left politically. I’m a vocal Zionist in the sense that I believe that Jews have a right to a state. In so doing I got labeled as a right-wing Zionist,” Shulman says.
Says Washington State Representative Reuven Carlyle, who represents Seattle: “My personal view is that the prevailing sentiment and fierce voice against Israeli policy has put a more traditional pro-Israeli viewpoint underground.” Carlyle, who has investigated complaints about Evergreen, says he has “policy concerns as a legislator that the tipping point has been reached and there is a level of anti-Israel sentiment that borders on hostility toward Israelis and other supporters of the Jewish state.”
Evergreen’s media and community relations manager Jason Wettstein brushes off claims from both sides that the administration has been lax on the issues. (After President Purce vetoed the students’ 2010 divestment petition and explained his position, he met with Israel’s consul general Tor, despite vocal complaints from students.) Wettstein says, “it would be unfair to characterize the campus itself as hostile to Jewish students,” and “that the campus climate is not a place that is hostile to any faith…like any campus in America, there is a wide range of opinions here.”
As Olympia awaits the judge’s forthcoming decision on the amount of damages the co-op members who took the board to court will pay—and the Corries await a ruling by the Israeli court—life goes on. In June, a new generation of Evergreen students voted to require The Flaming Eggplant to boycott all Israeli products. And in the spring, pro-BDS demonstrators took to the streets to condemn an Israeli LGBT delegation, accusing hosts of promoting “pinkwashing,” a term used to depict Israel as covering up its human rights abuses by positioning itself as gay-friendly. The activists succeeded in shutting down the delegation’s events in Tacoma and Seattle—and causing the Olympia gathering to move from Kitzel’s Crazy Delicious Delicatessen to a synagogue.
Kitzel’s was opened by Hava Aviv and her friend Irina Gendelman in December 2011 in the hopes of providing a center of Jewish culture outside of the synagogues. “I have to rewire my inner being and stand up for something that is ‘for,’” says Aviv, explaining that the deli is her way of fighting back against the co-op boycott. “If you look at Jewish culture through these lenses [of BDS] all you see is bloodshed.” Although Aviv says she lost business and had to lay off staff during the pinkwashing showdown, the deli, located on the historic strip just down the block from Tradition’s Café, is now thriving.
Kinberg, too, is staying positive. “For all the anti-Israel stuff, I would not trade Olympia for a community that tolerates homophobia or sexism or classism,” she says. “The people in Olympia who are anti-Israel are simply very narrow-minded and dogmatic. They are also often uneducated about the history of the Middle East. At this point I don’t mind fighting for Israel and speaking up. My attitude is: Bring it on.”
The Daniel Pearl Investigative Journalism Initiative, created in memory of the 38-year-old Wall Street Journal reporter slain by terrorists in 2002, is designed to encourage young journalists to write in-depth stories about a modern manifestation of anti-Semitism or another deeply ingrained prejudice. Moment will edit and publish their stories, possibly in conjunction with another media outlet. Applicants must be between the ages of 22 and 38.
For more information about the initiative, click here.