S.F. grocerys boycott of Israeli goods enrages Jews

A San Francisco man who was shocked to learn of a grocery store boycott of Israeli packaged or bulk goods is now organizing a boycott of his own — of the Rainbow Grocery Cooperative.

Ian Zimmerman learned of the situation when his wife returned from the employee-owned grocery collective after having been told she could not buy chocolate Chanukah gelt for their toddler because the store was boycotting some Israeli-made goods.

Persia Sarnataro, a Rainbow customer-service representative, confirmed that the store's packaged and bulk goods departments opted to cease stocking Israeli goods "in support of freedom for the Palestinian people."

Zimmerman fired off an angry e-mail last Friday to hundreds of Bay Area residents urging would-be shoppers to voice their displeasure and avoid the store. Apparently, the e-mail has made the rounds; Rabbi Doug Kahn, executive director of the Jewish Community Relations Council, said he's been forwarded dozens of copies.

"Please make your feelings known to Rainbow and any other business that chooses to play the boycott game," wrote Zimmerman in his letter. "Let them know that life is a two-way street and every decision has consequences."

Scott Bradley, a member of the San Francisco store's PR committee, said about a year ago members of the two departments decided to stop stocking Israeli products, such as chocolate coins, but the ban was not widely noticed until customers attempted to buy Chanukah products before the holiday this year. Other departments still stock Israeli products, such as candles, herbal supplements and lotions, he said.

He added that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict was a contentious issue among store workers, with employees feeling passionate on both sides. Bradley said the packaged and bulk goods departments' decision does not reflect storewide opinion and "there is no Israeli boycott" — though Justice in Palestine Coalition member Eyad Kishawi was quoted in Wednesday's San Francisco Chronicle saying that his group was "very close" to pushing a storewide boycott and was hoping to do the same in roughly 30 other left-leaning Bay Area businesses.

Kishawi could not be reached for comment.

Bradley said Rainbow's departments are not ceasing to stock products from nations other than Israel.

Zimmerman said it didn't make any difference to him that the boycott only extended to two departments within the store.

"I think the decision is wrong, wrong, wrong whether it affects one department or another," he said.

"It's that simple. The decision itself is mean-spirited and wrong; I think it's a knee-jerk reaction without the knee. Was there ever a vote taken considering boycotting any other country? If not, why?"

Kahn said he's hoping to meet with Rainbow workers to discuss and possibly reverse the decision, which he labeled "irresponsible and outrageous." Kahn urged members of the Jewish community to "send a strong message to the store, so Rainbow will know how deep the hurt and outrage is in the community."

Some have already voiced their anger against the Folsom Street store without being prodded by Kahn.

Dr. Rick Levine, an internal medicine specialist at Kaiser Permanente Medical Center in Oakland, wrote an e-mail to Rainbow Grocery, which was forwarded to the Bulletin.

"My large family spends several thousand dollars a year at Rainbow. That stops immediately," wrote Levine.

"My wife and I are both physicians and make nutritional recommendations to our thousands of Bay Area patients, usually naming specific products at Rainbow as being nutritious, ecologically healthy and economic. That practice now reverses. Your policy is naive and ignorant."

Levine went on to write that only a public apology would be enough to alter his position, and he noted he was forwarding the letter to "scores of local physicians and synagogues."

Kahn said he couldn't think of a Bay Area store ever instituting a boycott on Israeli goods before, and he believed the closest situation was KQED TV's decision to delay indefinitely the airing of an Abba Eban-narrated documentary about Israel in 1993. In that situation as well, Kahn urged members of the Jewish community to make their feelings known. Some canceled their memberships and some threatened to do so, while others called the station to complain.

KQED opted to air the documentary after several months.

Both Kahn and Zimmerman said a simple reversal of the policy would be enough to satisfy them.

"It's easy to make a politically chic decision when there are no consequences," said Zimmerman, a lawyer who lives in the Noe Valley neighborhood.

"The situation in the Mideast is very complex. No question there are abuses on both sides. But to just come out with a reflex response, which I think is half-baked and wrong — especially when they don't set forth any criteria, don't name any other countries — it just seems so sophomoric to me."

Joe Eskenazi

Joe Eskenazi is the managing editor at Mission Local. He is a former editor-at-large at San Francisco magazine, former columnist at SF Weekly and a former J. staff writer.