Middle East Monitor / March 2, 2020
Advocates for the state of Israel have suffered an embarrassing defeat in a decade-long legal battle to sue Olympia Food Co-op over its decision to boycott Israeli goods. The US grocery store, which campaigns for ethical food consumption, was fully vindicated by a Washington appeals court on 20 February in a legal case that is likely to have positive ramifications for the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) campaign for Palestinian rights.
The original case that was filed in 2011 by five co-op members, purporting to act on behalf of the co-op and seeking to block the boycott, sought to collect monetary damages against the board members.
The case was dismissed five months later as a SLAPP, or Strategic Lawsuit Against Public Participation, but reinstated when Washington’s anti-SLAPP statute was struck down.
Two years later, an appeals court upheld that judge’s ruling and the plaintiffs were ordered to pay $160,000 in statutory damages – $10,000 to each of the 16 co-op board members – as well as other legal fees.
Last week’s ruling dismissed the case a second time.
Board member, Grace Cox, who supported a measure to ban Israeli products from the store’s shelves, were put through years of litigation by several former Co-op members who worked closely with the Israel advocacy group StandWithUs.
The right-wing Israel lobby group is reported to have secretly planned the lawsuit in coordination with Israeli government officials in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, which has been authorised to lead the global campaign against BDS.
In its press release, the Centre for Constitutional Rights, which has represented the defendants during the entire legal battle, said that it had discovered emails between the plaintiffs celebrating the news from StandWithUs that the lawsuit had successfully discouraged other co-ops from boycotting Israeli goods.
StandWithUs, which is described as one of many groups trying to suppress the growing US movement for Palestinian freedom, took credit for filing the case, stating that it was a by-product of the partnership between StandWithUs and the Israeli Ministry of Foreign Affairs.
Following their victory Cox said: “As a co-defendant, I am pleased, but not surprised, that the courts have once again found in our favour. When the plaintiffs first threatened to sue us, they promised a nuisance lawsuit, and they have delivered.”
Deputy Legal Director for the Centre for Constitutional Rights Maria LaHood spoke of the wider ramifications of the case, viewing it as a victory for free speech. “In the face of widespread assault, the right to advocate for Palestinian freedom, including via the time-honoured tradition of boycotts for social change, has again been vindicated,” said LaHood. “This victory demonstrates that although the fight can be long, it’s necessary in order to achieve justice.”
Lawyers say the lawsuit is part of a broad and growing pattern of suppressing activism in support of Palestinian rights, a phenomenon that the Centre for Constitutional Rights and Palestine Legal have documented and called the “Palestine Exception” to free speech.
The two organisations have documented the widespread use of administrative disciplinary actions, harassment, firings, legislative attacks, false accusations of terrorism and antisemitism, and baseless legal complaints. Palestine Legal has responded to 1,494 incidents of suppression targeting speech supportive of Palestinian rights between 2014 and 2019.