Sarah Wellington held up signs in support of boycotting Israeli products in front of the Park Slope Food Co-op, while Michael Rieman handed out fliers opposing the boycott
A graphic designer came to buy ingredients for dinner. So did an entrepreneur and a musician, an engineer and a law firm employee — all streaming into the Park Slope Food Co-op in Brooklyn for its bounty of organic produce, artisan cheese and fair-trade coffee.
The foot traffic the other night reflected in part the changes in Park Slope, an increasingly upscale neighborhood where the store was founded 39 years ago by a group of shaggy idealists inspired by the socially conscious ethos of the time.
Now, though, this cultural and retail anchor on Union Street, which counts about 16,000 members and had $45 million in sales last year, is engulfed in a debate that evokes its social and political roots: whether to boycott products from Israel to protest the Israeli government’s policies toward Palestinians.
The debate has splintered the membership, turned neighbor against neighbor and provoked threats of litigation.
Yet above all, many people seem uninterested in, or even annoyed by, all the arguing. Their reactions point up how the co-op has evolved from a countercultural upstart into a neighborhood institution as conventional as children’s soccer leagues on Saturday morning.
As one co-op member, an Internet entrepreneur, put it, “A lot of people couldn’t care less about the progressive stuff.” (He asked that his name not be published because he did not want to wade publicly into the debate.)
On Tuesday, at the co-op’s monthly meeting, members will vote on whether to hold a referendum on the boycott — “a vote on a vote,” as some have taken to calling it. Turnout is expected to be so large that organizers have shifted the meeting from its usual location — a nearby synagogue that fits 350 people — to the auditorium of the Brooklyn Technical High School, which can hold about 3,000.
The push for a boycott is part of an international lobby against Israel called B.D.S., which stands for Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions. The boycott is intended to force Israel to withdraw from the occupied territories and recognize “the fundamental rights of the Arab-Palestinian citizens of Israel to full equality,” according to the movement’s Web site.
In recent years, calls for anti-Israel boycotts have embroiled food co-ops around the country, including those in Sacramento and Davis, Calif.; Seattle, Olympia and Port Townsend, Wash.; and Ann Arbor, Mich. All but the effort in Olympia have been unsuccessful.
The Park Slope boycott debate has percolated for several years but started gathering force in 2010, spawning competing groups and jousting blogs. Members use the co-op’s bi-weekly newsletter, the Linewaiters’ Gazette, to air their views about the boycott and, more broadly, Middle East politics.
Opponents have accused boycott supporters of anti-Semitism and contended that a boycott would achieve nothing, pointing out that the co-op carries at most about a half-dozen Israeli items, including Sodastream soda makers, organic paprika and bath salts.
“I can’t believe how much attention this is getting,” said Barbara Mazor, a founder of an antiboycott group called More Hummus, Please. “It’s very strange. It’s a grocery store!”
“We’re being asked to take a position that’s not going to make a bit of difference,” she added.
Boycott supporters said that the symbolism mattered and that every bit of pressure on the Israeli government counted. “It’s saying, if you want to be valid in the eyes of the world, you have to cooperate with international law,” said Liz Roberts, a member of the Park Slope Food Co-op B.D.S.
The supporters said accusations of anti-Semitism were unfair and a diversion, and they pointed out that some in the co-op’s boycott lobby are Jewish.
The aisles in the store have remained largely civil, but emotions have boiled over on the sidewalk out front. Pro-boycott activists say they have been kicked, pushed and spat on.
While the co-op has a reputation for vegetarian fare like kale and quinoa, it also stocks the kind of upmarket products found at Whole Foods, like grass-fed beef, chocolate scones and craft beer. Prices are often far lower than other supermarkets because labor is provided by members.
Members are required to work a shift of two hours and 45 minutes every four weeks. Jobs include stocking shelves, running the register and staffing the child care room. The co-op also has a small paid staff.
Membership has grown so rapidly in recent years that at times, checkout lines snake through the aisles. Many members are from other neighborhoods in Brooklyn and even elsewhere in the city and the region. The co-op also prides itself on its racial diversity.
“I see people from everywhere, from all layers of society,” said Jörgen Wahlsten, a software engineer from Sweden and a co-op member. “It’s become more and more mainstream.”
The co-op is no stranger to political action, approving boycotts on the sale of products from South Africa, Chile, Colorado, General Electric, Coca-Cola and Domino, among others.
Joe Holtz, the co-op’s general manager and one of its founders, has been in the fray of all of those debates. He was a 22-year-old college dropout when he and eight friends decided to form the co-op.
“The co-ops came out of that whole upheaval of different movements: the civil rights movement, the women’s rights movements, anti-Vietnam War, the gay rights movement,” he recalled. “We were very attracted to the idea that cooperation meant working together, and that working together would make for a better world.”
The other boycotts were adopted without much fuss, he said, because there was near-unanimous support. But this is the first time the store has waded into Middle East politics, he said, and never has the debate over a boycott been so threatening to the stability of the organization.
“This just reeks of divisiveness,” said Mr. Holtz, who opposes the boycott.
For many members, it seems, the vote could not come too soon.
Outside the co-op the other night, activists from both sides of the debate tried to buttonhole members, only to be ignored by most.
“Can we encourage you to vote no?” an antiboycott activist asked as he thrust a leaflet at Ron Eugenio, who was with his wife, Jenny, and daughter, Violette.
“I’ll read it and figure it out,” Mr. Eugenio replied, quickly moving away.
As the couple carried their purchases to their car, Mr. Eugenio, a case manager at an intellectual property law firm, and Ms. Eugenio, an admissions director at a private school in Manhattan, said they joined the co-op for the healthy, inexpensive food.
“It’s not to make a political statement,” Mr. Eugenio said.
As she waited for a car to pick her up, Mechama Marcus, a graphic designer, patiently listened to an activist’s arguments. After a pause, she chirped, “I’m for good food!”
The activist moved toward another target. Ms. Marcus looked down at her brimming shopping cart and sighed. “I have a lot of cooking to do,” she said.