When I first met Howard Schultz at the King David Hotel in Jerusalem in 1998, the chairman and CEO of Starbucks Corp. was in Israel as part of a mission with Aish HaTorah, a religious outreach organization renowned for its aggressive marketing tactics and ability to make traditional Judaism attractive to nonobservant people.
The yeshiva brought Schultz and his family to see Israel with other semi-celebrities, such as former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, a U.S. senator and a congresswoman.
Schultz had just announced his plans to bring Starbucks -- and the Starbucks culture -- to Israel, vowing to open some 10 branches in Israel, beginning in 2000.
Raised Conservative and a member of a Reform temple in Seattle, Schultz said it was his first trip to Israel. "I was blown away. I had a sensory overload," he told me for a story in The Jerusalem Post.
In the five years since we spoke, I have no idea if Schultz remained involved in the yeshiva -- he might have become a rabbi, for all I know -- but I am sure that he is at least as connected to Israel and Judaism now as he was back then.
Which is why it came as such a big surprise when I received dozens of the following e-mail marked URGENT!!!:
"STARBUCKS CLOSING ALL STORES IN ISRAEL
Just heard that Starbucks Coffee is closing all their stores in Israel. Starbucks says that it is a business decision, not a political decision. They ARE NOT CLOSING any stores in Arab or Muslim countries.
Let us as, Jewish people, let them know that we will not patronize their stores for their position on Israel. When they lose enough business, maybe they will get the message that we, as a Jewish population, will not tolerate their actions.
We have to get the word out, so please send this message to any and all Jewish people."
As the month of May progressed, the e-mail took on more exclamation points and capital letters, with added urgency and additional commentary.
Needless to say -- needless, because it is written in the e-mail itself -- the store closures are a business decision. A quick search of the Web provided the information that analysts attributed the failure of Starbucks in Israel to competition from established cafes. Indeed, anyone who has ever been to Israel understands that the "hanging-out-at-cafes" culture -- which Starbucks made ubiquitous in the United States beginning in 1982 -- has long been a staple of Israeli life (think "government office coffee break").
Israel's leading business daily, Globes, found that 22 major international chains that came to Israel in the last decade didn't make it. Globes attributed the failure of the chains to three factors:
Oversaturation: Especially in estimation of the "new peace in the Middle East," which failed to materialize and led to the creation of more franchises than Israel's tiny market could sustain.
Arrogance: Franchises like Starbucks did not adapt to local traditions, believing that "American know-how" would trump the population.
Changing the hordes: Successful franchises partnered with the right local companies to adjust to the Israeli market, rather than force the opposite situation. But Starbucks and other failed ventures did not do so.
But I suppose the "facts" mentioned in the e-mail above are beside the point, or at least they are to the dozens -- probably thousands, by now -- of people taking the one second to forward the Starbucks e-mail to everyone they know, without pausing for a moment to check if it might be true.
"We will not patronize their stores for their position on Israel," the e-mail states. Why the quick rush to condemn?
Perhaps I should understand that in these tumultuous times -- with anti-Semitism on the rise in Europe and anti-Zionism extremely problematic even here in America -- that people are not wrong to find motives where none exist. And yet, what does that make us? At best, ill-informed, and at worst, paranoid.
Last week, as my e-mail account was being shut down by junk mail like the aforementioned boycott messages, a woman called me to request an investigation of Coca-Cola and its use of swastikas in Japan. Apparently, the soft drink manufacturer was giving out toy prizes with the symbol, which in Japan actually signifies something other than the Nazi emblem. By the time she called me, Coke had recalled the product and the issue was resolved.
Before I could explain this to her, she shocked me with the following statement: "I think we should do what one restaurant in New York did -- boycott Coke and buy only Pepsi."
"Buy Pepsi? Do you know how long Pepsi was involved in the Arab boycott of Israel?" I asked her incredulously. She did not. And perhaps she did not understand the irony.
Starbucks could not be reached for comment. Perhaps because it too is struck by the irony of the other call for a boycott against it by a pro-Arab group that was incensed recently by Schultz's comments at a Seattle temple in which he condemned Palestinian terrorists.
"It is obvious that Mr. Schultz is unconcerned with the suffering, humiliation and torment, which the Palestinians endure daily at the hands of Sharon's forces," the group wrote. "This letter is to inform you that an immediate boycott on all your products is in place. It will remain in place until Starbucks ceases all monetary support for Israel's terrorist apartheid regime."
If we are so quick to point out the silliness of reactionary boycotts -- for example, against Israeli academics, scientists or medical professionals -- perhaps we should think for a minute or two before we start one of our own.