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.

A WOMAN holds a sign during an anti-Israel protest in Berlin on August 1. (photo credit: REUTERS)
A WOMAN holds a sign during an anti-Israel protest in Berlin on August 1.
(photo credit: REUTERS)
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, Ramallah.
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 apology.
“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 afford one.
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 other fronts.
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 brand altogether.”
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.
The author is a Jerusalem writer who focuses on the wondrous stories of modern Israel. She serves as the Israel director of public relations for Hadassah, the Women’s Zionist Organization of America. The views in her columns are her own.