Israel, Starbucks and the new irrationalism
In that coffee shop gutted by Gaza protesters, on the basis of rumour and prejudice, we can glimpse the emergence of cultural anti-Semitism.
For me, the most striking image from Saturday’s big London demo against Israel’s invasion of the Gaza Strip was the gutted Starbucks coffee shop. On Kensington High Street, opposite the Israeli Embassy, hardcore anti-Israel protesters clashed with police on the evening of 10 January. The violence escalated and some protesters turned their anger towards Starbucks. Other shops were slightly damaged, but the Starbucks was completely destroyed: metal railings were thrown through its windows; fittings were ripped out; coffee machines were smashed to pieces. A special fury was visited upon this little shop.
Why? Because Starbucks funds Israel’s war in Gaza. This Jewish-owned company (CEO: Howard Schultz) is ‘funding Israel’, said protesters; it is donating ‘all of its profits’ from the past two weeks ‘directly to the Israeli army’ (1). One protester against Israel says everyone should avoid Starbucks unless they ‘want to be involved in the slaughter of innocent people’. In the online discussion forum of the UK Muslim Public Affairs Committee, anti-Israel activists warn people to ‘avoid Starbucks like the plague’ (2). You certainly won’t be able to buy a frappuccino in Kensington any time soon, or in West Beirut, where a Starbucks was also forced to close by protesters angry that this corporation ‘donates money to the Israeli military’ (3).
There’s only one problem with these piques of rage over the global, Gazan-massacring coffee corporation: it isn’t true that Starbucks donates money to the Israeli army. It is a rumour, built on myth and misinformation, and even satire mistaken for fact, and spread through the ranks of the anti-Israel lobby by text message and email. The attack on Starbucks in London was not an expression of anti-imperialist rage but an act of undiluted irrationalism – and it revealed much about contemporary Israel-bashing.
For the past two weeks, internet discussion forums and mobile phone networks have been bombarded with the following message: ‘Starbucks and McDonald’s are donating their next two weeks of earned revenue to Israel. Please BOYCOTT them and forward this message to everyone you know.’ Other versions of the message say Starbucks and McDonald’s are ‘donating their next two weeks of earned revenue to the Israeli military’. A Facebook group set up in opposition to the war in Gaza includes other fast-food corporations in the story: ‘KFC, Pepsi, Coca Cola, Starbucks and McDonald’s are donating their next two weeks of earned revenue to Israel. Boycott them.’ (4)
This is nothing more than an anti-capitalist conspiracy theory, where we are expected to believe that the biggest manufacturers of fast food and fizzy drinks have clubbed together and decided to donate all of their profits for precisely a two-week period to a national army in the Middle East. If it were true, it would be a world first.
The rumour has stuck faster to Starbucks than it has to the other corporations. Some point out that the individuals who smashed up Starbucks on Kensington High Street were a ‘violent minority’, yet the anti-Starbucks sentiment was a central part of Saturday’s 50,000-strong demonstration. At the rally in Hyde Park earlier in the day, the rapper Lowkey, one of the invited speakers, was wildly cheered when he attacked companies – including Starbucks – that have ‘Zionist’ links: ‘You say you know about the Zionist lobby, but you put money in their pockets every time you’re buying their coffee.’ A combination of internet rumour, text messages that spread like wildfire, and condemnation of ‘Zionist coffee’ from a platform shared by Bianca Jagger, Annie Lennox and Lauren Booth (sister-in-law to Tony Blair) may have rattled and riled the protesters into believing that Starbucks is part of the Israeli war machine. No wonder they later smashed up one of its shops.
However, it is completely untrue that Starbucks funds the Israeli military. In response to the social-networking conspiracy-mongering, Starbucks released a statement saying that the ‘rumours that Starbucks Coffee Company… supports Israel are unequivocally false’ (5). If you don’t believe Starbucks spokespeople (after all, if they have no qualms about killing Gazan children, they’ll have no qualms about telling lies), then how about looking at the facts? According to an investigation by an Egyptian journalist for Business Today, ‘Each year Starbucks issues a massive tome outlining its donations to charities around the world, from children’s literacy and hurricane relief to the pitifully small sums it gives to the families that grow its coffees. It doesn’t mention the word “Israel” once – and nor do its filings with the Securities and Exchange Commission.’ (6)
As to Starbucks’ alleged political lobbying on behalf of Israel, Business Today points out that Starbucks ‘does lobby’ but ‘not for the Jewish state’. Its political work is restricted to ‘zoning and regulatory issues’ – that is, where it can build its stores and how freely it can sell its coffee (7).
Many of the claims about ‘Zionist coffee’ and a link between Starbucks and the Israeli military spring from a letter allegedly written by CEO Howard Schultz. Dated 11 July 2006, and titled ‘A Thank You To All Starbucks Customers’, Schultz apparently said that ‘with every cup you drink at Starbucks you are helping with a noble cause’: ensuring the ‘continued viability and prospering of the Jewish State’. Schultz seems to say that the $5 billion donated by America to Israel every year is ‘no way near enough to pay for all the weaponry, bulldozers and security fences needed to protect innocent Israeli citizens from anti-Semitic Muslim terrorism. Corporate sponsorships are essential [too]’. Schultz thanks Starbucks customers for helping him to raise ‘hundreds of millions of dollars each year’ to support the state of Israel (8). This seemingly Starbucks-damning letter has been on the internet for two-and-a-half years, and it now underpins much of the current anti-Starbucks, pro-Gaza protesting. It has appeared on anti-war websites; it has been cited as evidence by those spreading the ‘Boycott Starbucks’ SMS; Daily Egypt, an English-language paper in Cairo, says that ‘Egyptians and Arabs [have been] circulating emails’ containing the Schultz letter (9).
However, the ‘Schultz letter’ is a hoax; worse than that, it’s a piece of satire that has been accepted by some people as fact. The letter was written, not by Schultz, but by Andrew Winkler, an Australian-based ‘anti-Zionist media activist’ of German origin. It was published as a parody of Schultz, and clearly advertised as a parody, on the anti-Zionist website ZioPedia on 11 July 2006. Winkler later wrote: ‘The Howard Schultz spoof letter has caused quite a bit of a stir… Howard Schultz never wrote that letter, I did.’ (10) Yet now it has become something like a modern, internet-shared version of the Protocols of the Elders of Zion: a hoax document supposedly written by a Jew which is cited by some people as evidence of Zionist wickedness.
Like many conspiracy theories, the fantastic myth about Starbucks backing the Israeli military has spurted forth from a minuscule seed of fact. Schultz, an American Jew, is a ‘friend of Israel’, in the sense that he has cultural and family ties with the state and supports its right to exist and flourish. In 1998, he was awarded the Jerusalem Fund of Aish HaTorah’s ‘Friend of Zion’ award, which is given to politicians, writers and businesspeople who support close ties between America and Israel (11). In short, he’s an Israel supporter. This unspectacular fact has been massively distorted, and transformed into the myth that Starbucks itself supports Israel, funds Israel, funds the Israeli military, and provides the weaponry, bulldozers and security fences with which Israel oppresses Palestinians. Some claim that, given Schultz’s personal support for Israel, it doesn’t matter if the ‘Schultz letter’ is a satirical invention since ‘the essence of the letter is accurate’ (12). In other words, a lie can reveal a truth, and a hoax can be acted upon by protesters if they feel it contains some ‘essence of accuracy’ (a contradiction in terms, surely). This reveals a frighteningly Orwellian undertone to contemporary conspiracy-mongering.
That Starbucks has become the subject of a full-blown conspiracy theory is clear from the fact that, previously, the coffee company has been accused by others of being pro-Arab. When in 2003 Starbucks ended its operations in Israel and closed its six coffee shops there (so much for being an insanely pro-Israel company), an internet rumour claimed that it had sided with ‘radical Arab countries who are working to destroy America’. Yet as one legend-busting writer in America discovered, ‘Starbucks didn’t remove itself from Israel because it was pro-Arab or anti-Israeli; it did so because this was the business decision that appeared to make the best sense’ (13). That Starbucks can be accused of being both rabidly pro-Israeli military and madly pro-radical Arab demonstrates the extent to which it has become the object of a free-floating paranoia, of conspiracy theories in search of some sliver of evidence.
The destruction of Starbucks in Kensington had nothing to do with a principled anti-war stance; it was the violent culmination of a campaign of mythmaking, distortion and conspiracism. It was a purely irrational act, executed by the gullible and the prejudiced, and fuelled by respectable speakers condemning ‘Zionist’ coffee. This is not any kind of anti-imperialism I want to be associated with; we might call it the anti-imperialism of fools.
It was revealing, though. It showed the extent to which the anti-Israel movement in relation to Gaza is disconnected from any real facts, and from the truth of the conflict itself. This eclectic anti-war grouping, consisting of teenage Pakistanis, 1990s anti-capitalists, anti-Zionists and the middle-aged rump of the radical left, is not a united force taking a clear, principled stand in favour of Palestinian self-determination; instead, the Israel/Palestine conflict has been rather arbitrarily adopted for the purpose of expressing a mixed bag of angst and a general, already-existing feeling of disillusionment with contemporary society. How else can we explain the 14- and 15-year-old Pakistani boys – born in Britain in the 1990s, and possessed of no personal or cultural connection to Palestine or historic knowledge of the conflict – screaming ‘Shame on Israel!’ at the top of their voices and throwing shoes and tomato ketchup at the Israeli Embassy? Or the middle-aged white women I saw joining in the energetic chants of ‘Allahu Akbar’ in Hyde Park? For many, attacking Israel has become a way of letting off steam, communicating their dislike for politicians, distrust of the media, hatred for America or simply their sense of alienation (14).
The Starbucks story also shows how susceptible the anti-Israel movement is to myth and misinformation. Because it is not grounded in any clear anti-imperialist ideas, or shared vision or argument on Israel/Palestine, this grouping can be easily invaded and energised by all sorts of myths, horror stories and hoaxes. Lacking a political anchor, it can be swayed by waves of conspiracy and speculation.
Finally, the destroyed Starbucks store provided a glimpse into the most worrying element of the anti-Israel surge, something which we will explore in more detail on spiked next week: the rise of a new form of anti-Semitism. When Israel is being widely attacked outside of any political context of anti-imperialism, and disconnected from any political understanding of its historic and its new relations with the West, there is a danger that it will come to be seen simply as wicked, as evil, as, at root, a collection of Zionists and Jews doing terrible things to other people. In the return of rumour-mongering, conspiracy theories, store-destroying, widespread demands to ‘boycott Israeli shops’ (most of which are actually Jewish-owned, not Israeli-owned) and in the depictions of Jews as uniquely bloodthirsty, we can see the return of some old prejudices in a new form. What we seem to be witnessing today is the rise, not of old-fashioned racist anti-Semitism, but of cultural anti-Semitism – the projection of disillusionment with Western culture and values on to Israel, also known, in our politically illiterate times, as ‘the Jews’.
NEXT WEEK ON SPIKED:
Gaza and the new anti-Semitism: On Monday 19 January, spiked will publish a major essay on the Jew in twenty-first century society, exploring in depth what is behind contemporary anti-Israel sentiment.
Brendan O’Neill is editor of spiked. Visit his website here. His satire on the green movement – Can I Recycle My Granny and 39 Other Eco-Dilemmas – is published by Hodder & Stoughton. (Buy this book from Amazon(UK).)
Creating their own private Gazas, by Nathalie Rothschild
Sanctions did not liberate South Africa, by Tim BlacK
Gaza is not Warsaw, by Nathalie Rothschild
There is no such thing as a ‘good lie’, by Tim Black
Who made Gaza into a bloody trap?, Brendan O’Neill
The antithesis of anti-imperialism, Brendan O’Neill
Whose war is it anyway?, Brendan O’Neill
War without ends?, by Mick Hume
The first Twitterwar, by Nathalie Rothschild
‘We are all Gazans now’, by Tim Black
Read more at spiked issue: War in Gaza
(1) See YouTube video here
(2) See the MPACUK discussion forum
(3) Protesters close Beirut Starbucks branch, Associated Press, 13 January 2009
(5) Starbucks denies Israel support, New Straits Times, 14 January 2009
(6) A thank you to all Starbucks customers, Snopes.com, 10 August 2006
(7) A thank you to all Starbucks customers, Snopes.com, 10 August 2006
(8) A thank you to all Starbucks customers, Snopes.com, 10 August 2006
(9) Boycotting campaign to resurface with Starbucks opening, Daily Egypt, 9 January 2009
(10) A thank you to all Starbucks customers, Snopes.com, 10 August 2006
(11) A thank you to all Starbucks customers, Snopes.com, 10 August 2006
(12) They say it was for business reasons only, Jewish Legends, February 2007
(13) Starbucks in Israel, snopes.com, 10 August 2006
(14) See The antithesis of anti-imperialism, by Brendan O’Neill