Ban on Israeli goods has shoppers in uproar: Some demand Rainbow co-op end boycott

Rainbow Grocery’s ban on carrying certain Israeli-made goods has angered some customers and prompted the Jewish Community Relations Council in San Francisco to demand that the Mission District co-op reverse its boycott immediately.

The worker-owned store is losing business over its decision to remove Israeli products from two of its largest departments, packaged foods and bulk foods, a Rainbow spokesman said.

Other store departments — each of which enacts policies independently — still carry Israeli-exported health and beauty items and candles.

But a months-old ban on some Israeli foods means Rainbow isn’t carrying, among other things, the chocolate coin-shaped candies commonly called gelt, which are popular among Jews during Hanukkah, an eight-day holiday that began Friday night. The ban was adopted through a vote of workers empathetic to Palestinians. They felt the store should take a stand at a time of escalating violence and uncertainty in the Middle East. Reactions to the boycott, which was the subject of a Chronicle story Wednesday, demonstrate how Israeli-Palestinian tensions have found their way into the aisles of a 27-year-old neighborhood supermarket in a city with a reputation for tolerance and diversity.

Similar debates have found stages on university campuses and through divestment campaigns targeting large corporations with money in Israel. At Rainbow, the topic has divided employees and customers — many of whom are neighbors — emotionally and politically and fueled e-mail and Website discussions nationally.

About 100 people called the store with reactions Wednesday, mostly to disagree with Rainbow’s partial boycott, said spokesman Scott Bradley, who has worked at the store for three years.

“Ninety-nine percent of it is people calling up and being very polite and saying they’re not going to shop here anymore,” Bradley said.

Those callers included San Francisco resident Michael Disend, who said he was a longtime Rainbow Grocery customer. That changed this week.

“Rainbow is a store that I hold in great esteem, because I share those cooperative values… . When I saw the (newspaper) piece today, it was a blow to the heart,” Disend said.

He said Rainbow’s selective boycott of Israeli products smacks of anti-Semitism. He urged a boycott of the store and a picket line on Folsom Street in front of the entrance if Israeli products aren’t restocked.

“People are very, very serious about getting it together,” Disend said. “I would be one of the very first people out there.”

The Jewish Community Relations Council, representing 80 Jewish congregations and organizations in the Bay Area, on Wednesday called for Rainbow to reverse the ban immediately. Council members also want to meet with store leaders to discuss what prompted the action in the first place.

“We are deeply disappointed and angered that they have done this,” said Yitzhak Santis, the council’s Middle East affairs director. “This decision is politically motivated by activists (with) an anti-Israel agenda, and not a human-rights agenda… . They’re not boycotting products from any other countries. They single out Israel. I find this discriminatory and antagonistic.”

A group supporting the boycott, however, said this week that its view is based on human-rights concerns for Palestinians and is part of a broader effort to support Palestinians and minimize financial aid to Israelis.

“For all of the (banned) products we are talking about, there are alternatives. There isn’t anything that is uniquely Israeli,” Eyad Kishawi, a member of the Justice in Palestine Coalition of the Bay Area, told The Chronicle on Tuesday.

The coalition is asking Rainbow to broaden its ban to include all Israeli-made goods and wants similar actions taken by about 30 other Bay Area businesses it considers socially and politically progressive, said Eyad, who could not be reached for comment Wednesday. Among e-mails circulating Wednesday in support of the coalition’s stance were some calling the ban a brave and appropriate action on behalf of Palestinians.

As pressure builds on Rainbow from people on all sides of the Israeli-Palestinian debate, some store employees want more than ever to adopt a storewide boycott, while others strongly disagree with any ban, Bradley said.

“Things take a long time to happen here, because everything has to be voted on,” he said of efforts toward a resolution. Rainbow has about 200 employees, 175 of whom have voting privileges as co-op members; about 60 work in the two departments that enacted the boycott.

Bradley said it’s clear that some customers are turning away. “A lot of workers are worried about it,” he said. “It hurts. We’ve never had a response to anything like this before.”