Who’s who behind the Olympia Food Co-op lawsuit

Israel/Palestine
on 20 Comments

The first court hearing in the lawsuit against the Olympia Food Co-op will commence on Thursday, February 23. The lawsuit seeks to force the Olympia Food Co-op, the first US grocery store to publicly honor the boycott of Israeli products, to nullify the boycott and once again stock gluten-free ice cream cones specifically sourced from Israel.

Supporters of the boycott and of the Olympia Food Co-op released a video calling for support and have asked supporters to sign a statement of solidarity.

Lawsuit not about Israel?

The lawsuit against the Co-op can be classified as a SLAPP—a Strategic Lawsuit Against Public Participation—whose sole purpose it to deter political expression.

The defendants (current and former Co-op board members) have filed a motion to dismiss the lawsuit under Washington State’s anti-SLAPP law.

However, in order to conceal the censoring nature of the lawsuit, the five plaintiffs claim that the lawsuit is not politically motivated and is not about Israel. Instead, they contend that as Co-op members, they are simply opposed to the process in which the boycott was instituted and would have no problem if a boycott of Israel was insituted under an alternate method.

Yet previous statements and actions belie such claims.

Let’s look at some of the players behind this “apolitical” lawsuit, from the plaintiffs to the StandWithUs-affiliated attorneys to the Israeli officials. You can jump to the various players by clicking on the links below:

We begin with the plaintiffs, four of whom appeared in this melodramatic StandWithUs video explaining the dangers of STDs BDS:

Of the four plaintiffs in the video, three of them (Susan Trinin, Kent Davis, and Linda Sternhill Davis) attempted to overturn the boycott by running for the Co-op board of directors in November 2010. All three lost by a considerable margin to candidates who supported the boycott. The winning candidates are now among the defendants in the lawsuit, even though they did not serve on the board when the boycott was approved.

Susan Trinin (plaintiff)

In a local alternative newspaper, Susan Trinin wrote an incoherent essay against the boycott, in which she rambled about “turds” in sandboxes and faulted the Co-op for not “address[ing] the secret/underground national security government” instead.

While running for the Co-op board, Trinin made the following statement at an Olympia synagogue on October 24, 2010:

Pardon me, but nowhere do international politics figure in [the Co-op mission statement]…We are to support the long-term health of this business…The reason why I am running for the board in the Olympia Food Co-op is because I want to get back to groceries. I want to get back to my community…I want to keep our community together, and I want to get out of international politics.”

She lost the election, and is now suing the Co-op instead.

After losing the election, Trinin appeared at the subsequent Co-op board meeting on December 16, 2010, where she tried and failed to get one of the winning board candidates disqualified.

At the same meeting, she proclaimed the board election “the dirtiest election since the Bush dynasty,” comparing it to “a third world country with ancient blood feuds bubbling to the surface.”

Co op trinin
Jeff Trinin and Susan Trinin

Jeff Trinin (plaintiff)

On August 12, 2010, at a Co-op–sponsored community forum, I implored boycott opponents to follow Co-op procedure and institute a member-initiated ballot rather than resort to bullying tactics to rescind the boycott.

Jeff Trinin, who spoke immediately after me, responded that he planned to do just that. This was recounted in the Olympian newspaper:

Some boycott supporters suggested that those against the boycott launch a member-initiated ballot to overturn the board’s decision. That’s what longtime member Jeff Trinin said he plans to do. Trinin, also unhappy with the process, has collected 350 signatures that he soon plans to submit to the board for consideration, he said.

However, when Trinin and his colleagues finally submitted the petition to the Co-op board, it turned out not to be a formal petition for a member-initiated ballot, but rather a call to bypass standard Co-op procedure and immediately rescind the boycott.

Although the plaintiffs claim to “have exhausted all means within their reach to obtain compliance,” they rejected the most straightforward procedure available to them. Moreover, they attempted to force the Co-op board to disregard Co-op procedures in order to rescind the boycott, yet they are now suing the Co-op for supposedly not following procedure.

Linda Sternhill Davis (plaintiff)

Co op davis
Kent Davis and Linda Sternhill Davis

Linda Sternhill Davis is perhaps the most overt fearmonger in the group. In an “open letter” email addressed to me on Oct. 14, 2010, Davis wrote:

Kent [Davis] and I have worked tirelessly on issues involving human rights for decades, but because we both believe that there should be a two-state solution, with separate, self-determination in both Israel and Palestine, we have not been involved with the efforts of the BDS movement whose global leaders have admitted that they seek a one-state solution which would replace the Jewish state of Israel with a Muslim state of Palestine.

At a forum that took place at an Olympia synagogue on October 24, 2010, Davis stated the following:

I wish the Olympia Food Co-op board had looked at the actual wording of what this boycott language entailed. If you read the fine print, it’s going to replace the Jewish state of Israel ultimately with a Muslim majority Palestinian state, regardless of what Olympia BDS wants everyone to believe. I am concerned that those facts are not getting out to our community…They [Olympia BDS] don’t want the whole truth to come out.

Although Davis fears that Israel will become a Muslim caliphate because of the Co-op boycott, she wants us to believe that she doesn’t mind, as long as the boycott is instituted in a more egalitarian way.

Kent Davis (plaintiff)

In the lawsuit, Kent Davis claims to be a Co-op member who was wronged by the passage of the boycott. However, the Olympia Food Co-op approved the boycott proposal on July 15, 2010, and Davis did not become a Co-op member until one month later.

Moreover, he was not a member of The Evergreen State College campus community when he addressed a May 11, 2011 meeting of the Evergreen board of trustees. At that meeting, Davis told the college board to ignore the overwhelming student vote calling for a socially responsible investment policy and divestment from the Israeli occupation. He explained:

One of the three mandates of the BDS movement is the right of return, which would lead to the end of the Jewish state of Israel by causing an influx of heirs whose ancestors of their own volition left Israel. The number of heirs is exponentially greater many times over than the original ancestors who left Israel.

Let’s just ignore the fact that some of these “ancestors” are still alive and shop at the Olympia Food Co-op. 

Co op davis2
Kent Davis at The Evergreen State College, imploring the
board of trustees to ignore the will of the students

Davis also accused The Evergreen State College of being “hostile against Jewish students,” despite the fact that several Jewish students spoke before and after Davis at the meeting, all of whom supported the divestment measure, except for a single Jewish student who was on the StandWithUs payroll.

In the StandWithUs video above, Davis claims that the Co-op’s boycott

gives license to people who are not completely balanced. It gives them license to express anti-Semitic thoughts, which then lead to anti-Semitic actions…I really don’t think it’s comfortable for Jews to live in the city of Olympia and be outwardly expressive Jews…I just don’t feel comfortable discussing my religion or my beliefs in a mixed-group environment anymore.

Yet we are to believe that Davis would be content if the boycott passed some other way. As much as Davis is concerned about anti-Semitism, there is no discussion of anti-Semitism in the lawsuit.

Robert Sulkin (plaintiffs’ attorney)

Co op sulkin

Robert Sulkin is one of two attorneys representing the plaintiffs in the lawsuit. Sulkin told an Olympian reporter that the goal of the lawsuit “is to bring people together at the end of the day.” However, Sulkin’s connection to pro-Israel advocacy organizations would seem to indicate he has other motives.

Sulkin is a founding member of McNaul Ebel Nawrot & Helgren, a high-priced Seattle law firm dealing in corporate litigation. Sulkin is also a prominent figure in the Seattle mainstream Jewish community. He serves as board president of the Jewish Day School of Seattle, is on the board of directors at the Shalom Harman Institute in Jerusalem, and is a co-founder of Hope for Heroism, an organization based in Seattle that provides assistance for disabled Israeli soldiers, which Sulkin praises as “showing our commitment to Israel and her people.”

But that’s not all. Robert Sulkin’s wife Alayne recently served as a “row host” for a StandWithUs annual community reception. On the web page where she is listed as a row host, we can view the HTML source and find, commented out, that at one point, Robert Sulkin was also partnered up with his wife to be a row host for StandWithUs:

Co op source code

In other words, the plaintiffs to the lawsuit, while denying that they are being managed by the pro-Israel organization StandWithUs, are being represented by an attorney affiliated with StandWithUs.

Avi Lipman (plaintiffs’ attorney)

Co op lipman

Avi Lipman is a junior member of McNaul Ebel Nawrot & Helgren who works under Robert Sulkin. On March 10, 2011, six months before he filed the lawsuit on behalf of his clients, Lipman traveled to Olympia, where he met with StandWithUs regional director Rob Jacobs (also from Seattle), StandWithUs co-chair Carolyn Hathaway (from Bellevue, Washington), and Israeli consul general Akiva Tor (from San Francisco). The meeting was also attended by the future plaintiffs in the lawsuit.

At the meeting, according to StandWithUs minutes, a “legal presentation” was given. Further meeting minutes signal that the legal presentation concerned strategy for fighting BDS by suing the Olympia Food Co-op. The lawsuit is described as a “project” of StandWithUs.

Co op SWU1

Co op SWU2

Rob Jacobs (Northwest regional director of StandWithUs, Seattle)

Jacobs’s complicity in the Olympia Food Co-op lawsuit is well-covered in Ali Abunimah’s exposé on the matter. Abunimah interviewed Jacobs, who gave answers inconsistent with the details we now know from the StandWithUs weekly reports.

On July 30, 2010, in an unsoliticted email to an Olympia activist who accused StandWithUs in Seattle of intervening against the Olympia Food Co-op, Jacobs wrote:

By the way, we’ve had no active part in the growing movement within Olympia against the Olympia Food Coop Boycott. That is being planned and organized by local community leaders.

But a year later, soon after being outed by Ali Abunimah as a major player in the campaign against the Co-op, Jacobs attempted to make his involvement self-evident. In a September 2011 mailing to StandWithus supporters, Jacobs wrote:

For more than a year, ever since the Olympia Food Co-op last year passed a boycott of all Israeli products with no notice to its members and no public discussion, StandWithUs Northwest has been working closely with a dedicated group of anti-boycott activists [in Olympia].

Akiva Tor (Israeli consul general, San Francisco)

I have partly covered Tor’s involvement in an earlier post.

On March 10, 2011—following Tor’s meeting with StandWithUs, the plaintiffs, and their lawyers—a number of Olympia activists (including myself) confronted Tor at a local restaurant. At the time, none of us were aware of Tor’s meeting about the lawsuit earlier that day, although we suspected that his visit was related to squashing BDS in Olympia.

Our meeting with Tor was recorded, and I have transcribed a portion below, where local activist Anna-Marie Murano asked Tor why he was in town:

Tor: There’s a very strong BDS movement in Olympia. I do not understand how that is going to get us to a peace—
Murano: Is that—
Tor: One second, one second—
Murano: Are you here because of the BDS movement…
Tor: No! I’m here because the state capit— I’m here—
Murano: …and are you visiting city officials? And are you visiting college campus presidents?
Tor: I’m here because the state capital—
Tor’s assistant: I’m sorry to interrupt. We have a flight in about an hour and a half.
Murano: I really want to know, are you here in Olympia—
Tor: I’m here in Olympia—I’m here in Olympia because it is the state capital of Washington—
(unknown): Could you speak up a little bit, sir?
Tor: I’m here in Olympia because it’s the state capital of Washington, and I had a full day in your state capital, meeting officials about issues that are important for Israel–State of Washington relations, such as alternative energy and trade.

Somehow Tor had forgotten that he had a meeting about the Olympia Food Co-op lawsuit earlier that day, six months before the lawsuit was actually filed.

Danny Ayalon (Israeli deputy foreign minister)

Co op ayalon
Danny Ayalon on Tzinor Layla

News of the Israeli government’s possible involvement in the Olympia Food Co-op lawsuit was covered in the Israeli press. As Richard Silverstein noted on his Tikkun Olam blog, two weeks after the lawsuit was filed, the Israeli Channel 10 news program Tzinor Layla reported on the connections and asked Danny Ayalon if the Israeli Ministry of Foreign Affairs was involved in the lawsuit.

Ayalon, who is Akiva Tor’s superior, gave a circumlocutory response that was essentially affirmative:

It is very important to make use of every means at our disposal, mainly legal means. It is against American law to engage in boycotts certainly on any political basis, including this one. We are moving to a policy that is much more proactive, a policy that doesn’t just react.

And it’s true, we are using this organization, StandWithUs, to amplify our power. There are other organizations, some Jewish and some non-Jewish, with which we are partnering in the same fashion. This is certainly an approach which will become even more evident with time. (Translation by Richard Silverstein)

This is just a sampling of the long story behind the efforts to derail the Olympia Food Co-op boycott of Israeli goods. More details may be provided as the court case progresses.

For further information about the Olympia Food Co-op lawsuit, visit the following links:

The first hearing of the Olympia Food Co-op lawsuit will be live-tweeted by the Palestine Freedom Project via @palfreedom, beginning at 9 am PST on Thursday.

About Phan Nguyen

Phan Nguyen lives in New York and has a Twitter account: @Phan_N

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20 Responses

  1. pabelmont
    February 22, 2012, 1:49 pm

    Plaintiff Kent Davis: “I really don’t think it’s comfortable for Jews to live in the city of Olympia and be outwardly expressive Jews…I just don’t feel comfortable discussing my religion or my beliefs in a mixed-group environment anymore.”

    Is he indeed uncomfortable expressing JEWISH beliefs? How odd? But, of course, he should surely be uncomfortable expressing mindless pro-Zionist beliefs. Maybe he’s got these things mixed up in his mind. I think it is anti-semitic to assert (even to oneself, mentally) that Jewish belief requires or implies giving the OK to murder, assassination, anti-H/R, and general lawlessness.

    But who am I? It doesn’t seem to be regarded as anti-Semitic in Israel. perhaps he should move there.

    • American
      February 22, 2012, 3:38 pm

      “Plaintiff Kent Davis: “I really don’t think it’s comfortable for Jews to live in the city of Olympia and be outwardly expressive Jews…I just don’t feel comfortable discussing my religion or my beliefs in a mixed-group environment anymore.”

      Well I think that guy is just using a bulls*** hasbara whine, but my reply to his nonsense would be neither the US nor the world is obligated to make him ‘feel comfortable’. We and it have created laws and numerous legal privileges to protect Jews and other religious and minorities. If that’s not good enough he can stay out of ‘mixed-group discussions’ in the US or move to the Israeli nursery school for more comfort.

      The US law against boycotting Israel has I think been used a grand total of twice in two very small incidents–which I am willing to bet were set ups just to set a precedent in law because the money and companies involved were so inconsequential. The law itself is so easy to get around it might as well not exist. You can’t sue a company that buys from vendors that offer the best price…well you can but you would lose. Whole Foods could lose and then go right back to buying US gluten free instead of Israel gluten free on a 2 cent price difference.
      But I would love to see the US try to tell US retailers who they had to buy from or that they had to buy a certain amount of Israeli goods (like the US imposed on Egypt having to use Israel goods in their cotton exports)—-that would bring some hellish monied lobbyist out against Israel.
      Yea, I’d love to see Walmart vr Israel.LOL

      • Mooser
        February 22, 2012, 5:29 pm

        “I just don’t feel comfortable discussing my religion or my beliefs in a mixed-group environment anymore.”

        And that doesn’t tell you something about your “religion” or your interpretation of it? It should, do-do!

      • piotr
        February 22, 2012, 8:06 pm

        “As a Buddhist, I am convinced that eating chicken, kosher or not, will lead to reincarnation as an animal. But I am not comfortable discussing my religious beliefs with non-vegetarian Jews.”

        In good old days, people from different religions could freely exchange notes who will go to hell and who will not. But now it is not comfortable anymore. :-(

  2. pabelmont
    February 22, 2012, 1:56 pm

    Good report, Phan. We hope to hear more about the progress of the lawsuits, motions to dismiss for SLAPP or frivolity or whatnot. Keep us posted.

  3. Dan Crowther
    February 22, 2012, 2:22 pm

    Great post Phan.

    I always love when zionists talk about fears of anti-semitism and of discussing their beliefs in a mixed group environment – but have absolutely no problem in browbeating people who disagree with them. I mean, how worried can you really be? People who are trying to come to an understanding don’t incessantly sue others, ya know?

    • DICKERSON3870
      February 22, 2012, 3:33 pm

      RE: “People who are trying to come to an understanding don’t incessantly sue others, ya know?” ~ Crowther

      MY REPLY: Welcome to The Age of Lawfare. It’s part of the “Iron Wall”!

      FROM WIKIPEDIA [Iron Wall (essay)]:

      (excerpt)…Jabotinsky argued that the Palestinians would not agree to a Jewish majority in Palestine, and that “Zionist colonisation must either stop, or else proceed regardless of the native population. Which means that it can proceed and develop only under the protection of a power that is independent of the native population – behind an iron wall, which the native population cannot breach.”[1] The only solution to achieve peace and a Jewish state in the Land of Israel, he [Ze'ev Jabotinsky] argued, would be for Jews to unilaterally decide its borders and defend them with the strongest security possible…

      SOURCE – link to en.wikipedia.org
      ALSO: The Iron Wall, Vladimir (Ze’ev) Jabotinsky, 1923 – link to mideastweb.org

    • Mooser
      February 22, 2012, 5:24 pm

      “I always love when zionists talk about fears of anti-semitism and of discussing their beliefs in a mixed group environment – but have absolutely no problem in browbeating people who disagree with them. I mean, how worried can you really be? People who are trying to come to an understanding don’t incessantly sue others, ya know?”

      Bingo, Crowther! Bull’s Eye!

  4. Mooser
    February 22, 2012, 5:38 pm

    Since I live a scant hour away from Olympia, I feel qualified to judge, and I would say the rhetoric employed by the Trinns is most typical of political discussion in Washington State. You’re thinking I must be crazy, but any time you want to prove it to yourself, most of the Washington papers are online, and have well-utilised comment sections. In Washington the non-sequitur is the king of discourse!

  5. tommy
    February 22, 2012, 9:12 pm

    This post is excellent journalism.

  6. anonymouscomments
    February 23, 2012, 12:08 am

    Those whiners in the second video should just wisen up, and join BDS. If they all join BDS, community “problem” solved, and they help pressure Israel to stop being an ass as well… win-win.

  7. Annie Robbins
    February 23, 2012, 12:25 am

    The first hearing of the Olympia Food Co-op lawsuit will be live-tweeted by the Palestine Freedom Project via @palfreedom, beginning at 9 am PST on Thursday.

    that’s tomorrow morning!

    i’ve just finished reading every link and watching the videos including the one @ silverstein’s. given Ayalon’s comments and the retrieved notes on the meeting it seems pretty clear the israeli government is involved. silverstein:

    Concerning Stand With Us’ involvement in this process, an Israeli journalist who’s followed the group’s activities inside Israel and abroad told me: “Stand With Us is an unofficial arm of the Israeli government.” In this blog, you’ve heard me often talk about groups like NGO Monitor, Im Tirzu, Middle East Forum, The Israeli Project and Stand With Us as doing the bidding of the Israeli government. You’ve heard me claim that they closely coördinate their activities with the government and in effect become its mouthpiece. But this is the first direct confirmation that SWU, at the very least, is literally joined at the hip with the MFA. In the video Ayalon specifically confirms the government’s “partnership” with SWU and acknowledges it has similar partnerships with other Jewish and non-Jewish American organizations. No sense of discretion here. Israel, under the Lieberman-Ayalon Plan, will throw its weight around the world, even attempting to smash food coops in Washington State.

    plus i don’t understand what ayalon means when he says “It is against American law to engage in boycotts certainly on any political basis, including this one. ”

    no it’s not.

  8. Philip Munger
    February 23, 2012, 10:33 am

    I hope the co-op wins this one for Rachel. The ninth anniversary of her death comes up in three weeks.

  9. Les
    February 23, 2012, 10:58 am

    What about the long term health issues of Palestinians subject to US funded occupation and ethnic cleansing by Israel?

  10. Light
    February 27, 2012, 1:42 pm

    This morning the judge ruled that the lawsuit against the Olympia Food Coop was a SLAPP suit and dismissed it.

    • Annie Robbins
      February 27, 2012, 2:35 pm

      YEAH!!!!!

      • Light
        February 27, 2012, 2:46 pm

        The plaintiffs also have to pay the defendants legal fees!

      • Annie Robbins
        February 27, 2012, 3:26 pm

        link to theolympian.com

        McPhee also ruled that the issue of whether consensus was necessary among co-op staff in enacting the boycott was not material to the case, as had been argued by the plaintiffs who brought the suit seeking to nullify the boycott. McPhee ruled that the co-op’s board never exempted itself as the final authority with respect to the right to enact a boycott.

        McPhee also addressed the plaintiffs’ contention in its lawsuit that the boycott was not “nationally recognized,” as is required under the co-op’s boycott policy.

        McPhee said the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement or BDS, which supported the boycott, “is a national movement.”

        Members of Olympia’s BDS movement have supported boycotts, divestment and sanctions against Israel “until it ends occupation of Palestine, respects the right of return of Palestinian refugees, and gives equal rights to Palestinians living inside of Israel,” according to its website.

        McPhee also ruled that the defendants’ speech in enacting the boycott was protected free speech involving an issue of public concern. He also ruled that the SLAPP statute itself is not unconstitutional, as had been argued by the plaintiffs’ attorney, Bob Sulkin.

        Sulkin said following McPhee’s dismissal of the suit that he will appeal McPhee’s opinion to the Washington Court of Appeals.

        McPhee said that after he returns from a week’s vacation, he will consider a written order awarding damages in the case. Under Washington’s SLAPP statute, each defendant in the lawsuit is potentially entitled to an “anti-SLAPP penalty,” of $10,000, in addition to attorney’s fees.

        In McPhee’s concluding remarks, he recognized that his opinion will most likely be appealed by the plaintiff’s’ attorney. He suggested that one way to avoid more costly litigation by both sides would be to put the question of the boycott to a vote by its full membership. McPhee added in his remarks, however, that he has no authority to require any of the parties to put a boycott vote to the co-op membership.

        Johnson pointed out outside court that last year, the co-op board offered to facilitate a member-initiated ballot that would have put a vote on the boycott to the co-op’s full membership. However, Sulkin refused that offer, Johnson said.

  11. Light
    February 27, 2012, 1:47 pm

    Judge says that Anti-SLAPP act protects any lawful conduct in the expression of free speech and public participation.

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