Friday, May 17, 2002 | return to: opinions


Should Jews back boycotts, or not? A united front has forced positive changes since 1867

by Rafael Medoff

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As growing numbers of American Jews cancel their newspaper subscriptions to protest anti-Israel bias, some critics are charging that it is wrong for Jews to engage in boycotts, since Jews and Israel have themselves been the targets of boycotts. This argument has been raised in recent days by, among others, the editor of a major American Jewish newspaper, a leader of the Anti-Defamation League and The New York Times columnist Frank Rich.

Yet the history of American Jewry is replete with instances in which Jews used the boycott weapon, often with considerable success.

In 1867, for example, Jewish organizations launched a boycott against insurance companies suspected of discriminating against Jewish clients. The companies soon changed their policies.

Ten years later, Jewish groups boycotted stores and other businesses owned by the A.T. Stewart Company after one of its resort hotels refused admittance to a prominent Jewish banker, Joseph Seligman. The boycott brought about the cancellation of the hotel's discriminatory policy.

An increase in the price of kosher meat from 12 cents to 18 cents per pound in 1902 prompted Jewish women on New York City's Lower East Side to organize a boycott of kosher butchers, complete with picket lines, carefully organized neighborhood boycott committees, and patrols to enforce compliance. Within weeks, the Beef Trust agreed to drop its prices.

A 1905 speech by a Brooklyn school principal urging students to be "more like Jesus" provoked parents to undertake a citywide boycott of classes by Jewish pupils. The protests compelled the Board of Education to restrict activities such as the singing of Christian religious hymns in public schools. A 1930s boycott of products from Nazi Germany met with mixed results, in part because of divisions within the American Jewish community. Immediately after Hitler's rise to power in January 1933, grassroots Jewish activists began promoting a boycott of German goods, arguing that a sustained boycott campaign could bring about "ruin and disaster" for the German economy and thereby "put Adolf Hitler out of power." Major Jewish organizations such as the American Jewish Committee and B'nai B'rith opposed the boycott, arguing that it might arouse anti-Semitic accusations that Jews were dragging America into a conflict with Germany. The American Jewish Congress declined to join the boycott movement during its six months, and even after endorsing it did not establish its own boycott bureau until the following year. AJC president Stephen Wise later explained: "As a pacifist, I was hesitant about the boycott because it is an economic weapon." Historians are divided as to whether an immediate and broadly based boycott could have seriously harmed Hitler's regime. Melvin Urofsky, Wise's biographer, notes: "Hitler had promised to end the depression and unemployment, and his base of popular support would diminish unless he could produce some results. A foreign boycott of German goods could have serious effects on the economy, a fact the chancellor's economic advisers well knew." Whatever its impact on Germany, the boycott certainly did not have the impact on America that its critics feared; there is no evidence that it caused domestic anti-Semitism.

More recently, during the 1970s and '80s, many American Jews boycotted Pepsi Cola products because of that company's business deals with the Soviet Union. Soviet Jewry activists believe the boycott contributed to the economic pressure on the USSR that resulted in increased Soviet Jewish emigration.

Mexico's vote in favor of the 1975 Zionism-is-racism resolution at the United Nations prompted major Jewish organizations to declare a travel boycott, and thousands of American Jews canceled their planned vacations to Mexico. A month later, the Mexican government publicly reversed its position on Zionism.

Two years ago, many American Jewish organizations called for boycotting Austria in response to the inclusion of Jorg Haider's extremist Freedom Party in the Austrian coalition government.

Supporters and opponents of today's newspaper boycotts will no doubt continue to debate timing, choice of targets, and other tactical considerations. Of one thing they may be certain, however: There is ample precedent for the use of boycotting as an American Jewish protest tactic.

Rafael Medoff is visiting scholar in the Jewish studies program at State University of New York at Purchase. He is co-author of "A Race Against Death: Peter Bergson, America, and the Holocaust," which will be published by The New Press later this year.


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