Jewish Journal

Starbucks and the Holocaust

by Brad A. Greenberg

May 29, 2008 | 12:47 am


Fortunately, Starbucks hasn’t been around long enough for this to be one of those stories.

Speaking to MBA students at UCLA today, Starbucks Chairman and CEO Howard Schultz, I was told, related business ethics, and his brand’s success, to compassion during the Holocaust. Schultz is a dedicated Jew—his company was boycotted because of a fabricated letter that claimed buying a latte supported Zionism—and he pulled a lesson from what an Israeli rabbi had shared with him and a group of American men on a recent visit.

The rabbi explained that when Jews arrived at the concentration camps, blankets were only given to every sixth man (I’m not certain about the veracity of this statement, but that is irrelevant). Auschwitz wasn’t exactly in a tropical setting, and these blankets were in high demand. But despite needing the warmth, the men lucky enough to receive a blanket were prone to share with their fellow prisoners.

This, Schultz said, was the human condition. We desire social connection, and we want to help those we perceive as suffering. It’s a reason, he said, that employees and customers enjoy the Third Place environment that Starbucks created. And it’s a reminder—out-of-business Joe Coffee Shop owner may want to stop reading now—to look out for the little guy in your industry.

No doubt this is a healthy lesson for UCLA’s future business leaders. And the fact that Schultz was the one to share it only means it will stick. But is it true? Is the human condition really one of compassion?

We don’t have to believe we are “moral animals” to disagree. Often, all we have to do is look in the mirror.

The United States is the richest country in the world (not per capita, but overall). We also have more than 200,000 identified Christians living here, and among the most important elements of Christianity are charity, justice and love. To boot, there might even be evidence that giving makes you richer. And yet, the sad reality is what Bill McKibben found in this still-amazing, three-year-old cover story for Harpers. Here’s how it begins:

Three quarters of Americans believe the Bible teaches that “God helps those who help themselves.” That is, three out of four Americans believe that this uber-American idea, a notion at the core of our current individualist politics and culture, which was in fact uttered by Ben Franklin, actually appears in Holy Scripture. The thing is, not only is Franklin’s wisdom not biblical; it’s counter-biblical. Few ideas could be further from the gospel message, with its radical summons to love of neighbor. On this essential matter, most Americans—most American Christians—are simply wrong, as if 75 percent of American scientists believed that Newton proved gravity causes apples to fly up.

Asking Christians what Christ taught isn’t a trick. When we say we are a Christian nation—and, overwhelmingly, we do—it means something. People who go to church absorb lessons there and make real decisions based on those lessons; increasingly, these lessons inform their politics. (One poll found that 11 percent of U.S. churchgoers were urged by their clergy to vote in a particular way in the 2004 election, up from 6 percent in 2000.) When George Bush says that Jesus Christ is his favorite philosopher, he may or may not be sincere, but he is reflecting the sincere beliefs of the vast majority of Americans.

And therein is the paradox. America is simultaneously the most professedly Christian of the developed nations and the least Christian in its behavior. That paradox—more important, perhaps, than the much touted ability of French women to stay thin on a diet of chocolate and cheese—illuminates the hollow at the core of our boastful, careening culture.

You can imagine where it goes from there.

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Since launching the blog in 2007, I’ve referred to myself as “a God-fearing Christian with devilishly good Jewish looks.” The description, I’d say, is an accurate one,...

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