The human spirit: Political dilemmas in the supermarket
Swimming goggles and vacation activity books are yielding to bargain
back-to-school bags and colored markers.
The branding experts
from Coca Cola insist that the average consumer takes but seconds in the
beverage aisle of the supermarket to determine which soft drink they’re going to
put in their shopping carts. So why am I taking so long deciding whether or not
to purchase an American-brand liquid detergent? It’s already in my cart. I’m
standing in the long checkout line at my favorite Jerusalem emporium that
features groceries with strict kosher supervision, abundant fresh produce and
consumer-centered seasonal bargains.
Swimming goggles and vacation
activity books are yielding to bargain back-toschool bags and colored markers.
The huge supermarket features appealing imports from an American warehouse store
that I’m partial to. Alongside the giant boxes of plastic cutlery I’ve bought,
rationalizing that they’re for Succot, I’ve added an American-brand low-priced
detergent, even though it’s not our usual purchase. Is it really American, I
wonder? I squint at the fine print. In Hebrew, the label says this is a special
import order “for only Gaza and the West Bank.” The origin is France, but it’s
presumably repacked and distributed from the industrial zone of Beitunya,
To buy or not to buy, that is the question? I can’t help
thinking of another recent controversy over another cleaning product headed for
Gaza. The Israeli distributer of Garnier cosmetics contributed facial cleansers
to our IDF women soldiers in Gaza. The estimable Israel advocacy nongovernmental
organization StandWithUs urged a shout out for Garnier for adding beauty
products to the care packages for women in uniform. When I first heard there was
a protest about the posting, I thought the objections came to the language of
the describing the donation “girly” products, for our “girls” trying to “take
care of themselves” in military service.
I thought some might have
objected to sending soldiers feminine products, even though I’d heard of combat
infantrymen who’d received a dozen deodorants from good-hearted supporters.
But, no. The real backlash emanated from those who despise Israel, and
wanted to punish the company. They urged a universal boycott of Garnier, and its
mother company L’Oréal. They posted political photos of themselves dumping
exfoliators and conditioners. Of course, I decided to fill my medicine cabinet
with Garnier fine line erasers and rejuvenating hair butter. But before I could
make a statement in the aromatic shelves of the pharmacy, Garnier offered up an
“Garnier USA is aware of recent activity in social media,” it
said. “It is very important to us that our fans know that Garnier worldwide
promotes peace and harmony and has a strict policy of not getting involved in
any conflict or political matter. Garnier was astonished to discover this in
social media. After investigation, the hand-out of about 500 products appeared
to be part of a onetime local retailer initiative. Garnier disapproves of this
initiative managed strictly at local level and is very sorry to have offended
some of its fans.”
Now there are reports of Israelis protesting the
apology and passing over Garnier products.
To buy or not to buy? I grew
up in one of those American-Jewish families that declared we didn’t buy German
products. Looking back, there weren’t too many German products to avoid in
Colchester, Connecticut. It wasn’t as if the A&P was stocked with foreign
brands. We chose between Hershey’s and Nestle, not Kinder and Mozartkugel. The
car dealers carried Chrysler, General Motors and Ford, the last avoided because
of the views of Henry Ford. Later, at the University of Pennsylvania, no one I
knew on college campuses ate grapes because we wanted to support Cesar Chavez
and the United Farm Workers in their dispute with table grape growers in
California. No controversy there. But there was less agreement about the campus
pro-Cuban activists who objected to the refusal of the United States to supply
replacement parts for American machinery being used in Cuba that had once
presented a missile threat.
When I immigrated to Israel after college, I
realized that most Israeli consumers were pragmatic and bought whatever
appliance was the best match of reliability and price, no matter where they were
manufactured. Nearly everyone wanted a German washing machine, if they could
The manager of my supermarket happens to walk by the
check-out line and I ask him about the detergent.
“Our chain has an
agreement with the manufacturer,” he says. “We only noticed the label when it
was in our stores.
And what could we do, pour it out?” An agreement!
Maybe this import of detergent via Ramallah is a good thing. I think of an
intriguing film I’d seen earlier this year by the NGO Search for Common Ground,
where an Israeli and West Bank Palestinian go into business together to produce
solar energy in the West Bank.
Suddenly the American brand detergent
becomes the expression of hopeful peace agreements, a sudsy road map. This could
be the fulfillment of the wise advice that former Bank of Israel chairman
Stanley Fischer reportedly gave his Palestinian counterpart. Weren’t there trade
agreements signed by (Likud) MK Yuval Steinitz and PA prime minister Salam
Fayyad in 2012, after more than a year of secret meetings aimed at expanding
bilateral trade? Steinitz hailed them as an important step. Prime Minister
Binyamin Netanyahu said this agreement furthered his policy of strengthening
Palestinian economy and civil society in the hope it would lead to progress on
And speaking of fronts, didn’t it make sense that we might
have gotten a supply of detergent because Operation Protective Edge had
prevented it from reaching washing machines in Gaza City and Deir el-Balah? But
is that a reason to buy or not buy the detergent? The line is moving forward.
One of my daughters happens to phone. She’s fastidious about her family’s
laundry. I summarize my dilemma.
“Beside the point,” she says. “Wrong
And, with authority, she names a different brand that
she claims is superior for getting out summer fruit stains.
Just for fun,
I run back and investigate the other brand’s label and country of origin. Don’t
think that’s easy. There are three possibilities, and you have to find the tiny
code to see from where your detergent hails: the Czech Republic (they gave us
arms in the War of Independence), Russia (currently invading Ukraine) or – as my
pack turns out – Turkey. Can I buy soap powder from a company providing material
support for Hamas? On my latest trip to the US, our Hadassah convention shared a
Vegas hotel with the International Premium Cigar and Pipe Retailers Association,
a group that lobbies for the rights of adults to enjoy tobacco. Among their
1,600 exhibitors were promoters of Cuban cigars. It’s a global world.
Global economy notwithstanding, those who share my check-out line are getting
restless. It’s too hard to decide.
What do they say? No soap, radio.