Sarah Irving

I do things with words, mainly English and Arabic

When 'co-operatives' aren't so great

You could say I’ve done a lot of my growing up in the co-operative movement. I joined my first worker co-operative (Ethical Consumer magazine) at 23. I’ve worked for Manchester-based radical artists’ collective UHC, helped to establish Palestinian fair trade and tours co-op Olive in 2004, and was a tenant-member of Hulme co-operative workspace Openspace. I’ve been a consumer member of the UK Co-op for years (and this year I even got a divvy!) and have made a point of shopping in Manchester co-ops like Unicorn and On the 8th Day for as long as I’ve lived in the city.

I believe that co-operation (while not the cure for all ills that some members of the movement might have you think) can be a great force for good. It can give workers a genuine say in their own conditions and consumers a role in shaping the ethics of their daily purchases. It can pull together the resources that allow groups of people to get things done.

So it pisses me off to see the co-operative model being used as a convenient way to entrench the racist policies of the State of Israel. As Jonathan Cook reports in this week’s Electronic Intifada, the ‘co-operative associations’ framework of many small towns in Israel has been used in several occasions by Jewish residents of towns such as Katzir, near Umm al-Fahm, and Rakefet, near Sakhnin in the Lower Galilee, to try to exclude Palestinian citizens of Israel. As Cook outlines, the admissions committees of co-operative communities have used racist criteria with varying degrees of blatancy to refuse applications from Palestinian families, accusing them of lacking ‘social suitability,’ of being ‘too individualistic’ or of having insufficient ‘knowledge of sophisticated interpersonal relations.’

Amongst less critical members of the co-operative movement (or those who sympathise with Israeli policies anyway), Israel has been portrayed in the past as a major success story for co-operation. The well-known kibbutz and moshav agricultural communities are essentially co-operative forms, with kibbutzim entailing communal ownership of land, while moshavim allow individual farmers to own their own land but providing a framework for co-operative sharing of labour, equipment and marketing. As in many countries, agricultural co-marketing co-ops are common in Israel.

But the co-operative movement there has also been completely complicit with Israel’s racist structures. The Registrar of Co-operative Associations has entrenched rules allowing ethnic privileges to apply to co-ops. ‘Arab’ – Palestinian – citizens of Israel have largely been excluded from the benefits of co-operation, with their role in the agricultural sector, for instance, often confined to providing cheap labour. Many of the settlements along the Jordan Valley are technically moshavim – but the Palestinian women working illegally long hours under unsafe conditions for low pay certainly don’t see any of the benefits of co-operation. And the Egged bus company, one of Israel’s largest public transport providers, is a worker-owned co-op which also serves the West Bank settlements and transports many of Israel’s soldiers (I have weird and unpleasant memories of catching an Egged bus from Jerusalem to Beit She’an (Bisan) in 2002, to leave via Jordan after a summer with ISM. Allenby Bridge was closed because of the Intifada so I had to leave via Sheikh Hussein Bridge in the north of Israel. The bus stopped at every agricultural settlement up the Jordan Valley and almost every other person on board with me was a soldier. On the outskirts of Jerusalem, an Israeli army officer in what looked like fairly high-ranking uniform sat down next to me and proceeded to nod off, leaning on my shoulder. I sat, frozen, for the entire trip).

In this latest case of Israel racial discrimination, one of the towns involved, Rakefet, was established in the early 80s as a co-operative moshav (moshav shitufi, with more co-operative activity than a standard moshav but less than a kibbutz), although it downgraded its ‘co-operativeness’ to that of a ‘community settlement’ in 1989. The other, Katzir (meaning ‘harvest’), was established in the early 80s as a communal settlement and was expanded ten years later to accommodate new immigrants from the former USSR. Despite their roots in co-operation, neither has been open or co-operative enough to welcome people from overcrowded local Palestinian communities wanting to find new places to live amongst the subsidised, high-quality housing provided for Israel’s Jewish population.

And now that two Palestinian families have established precedents which could allow more Arabs to claim the right to live in Israel’s ‘communal settlements’ instead of in the under-resourced, expensive Palestinian-only towns the State of Israel would like them to stay in, that State is taking steps to make sure that Israel’s co-operatives have stronger legal grounds to exclude non-Jews. According to Jonathan Cook:

“In October, the Israeli parliament moved to enshrine in law the right of these associations, comprising nearly 70 percent of all communities in Israel, to accept only Jews. The Constitution, Law & Justice Committee approved a private members’ bill that will uphold the right of the communities’ admissions committees to continue excluding Palestinian Arab citizens, who make up one-fifth of the population. The bill is expected to pass its final reading in the coming weeks.”

The proposed legislation will join recent bills which allow inhabitants of Israel who refuse to swear allegiance it to it as a ‘Jewish State’ to be stripped of their citizenship, and moves by major Israeli companies to stop employing Arab workers.

The co-operative model has made some fantastic strides in Palestine in recent years, with some really exciting examples amongst Fairtrade olive oil farmers, such as the East Bani Zaid co-op, and women’s handicraft and soap producers, of whom my favourites are the twinkly-eyed, feisty crowd at the women’s embroidery co-op in Al-Khalil (Hebron). The way in which the co-operative movement in the UK has got behind some of these initiatives has also been deeply heartening. But the principles of the boycott, divestment & sanctions movement also needs to apply within co-ops, and international bodies in the co-op movement need to think long and hard about their approach to, and approval of, co-ops which help to reinforce and entrench Israeli racial discrimination.

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