Monday, November 28, 2011

Shop Jewish?

I got an email a while ago from an online Judaica shop (for the record, they were sending me email as early as Halloween telling me to make sure I got started on my Hanukkah shopping early!) encouraging me to "Shop Jewish" this Hanukkah season.
This year, especially, where you shop matters.

If you are buying gifts this year: please shop your synagogue shops, corner Judaica stores, Judaica shuks, and online at [X]. We are small businesses, enhancing the Jewish experience in meaningful ways. 
If you shop this Hanukkah: Shop Jewish.
I must admit to being a little taken aback by this. I'm familiar with the value of trying to help a fellow Jew make a living, but there's also something a little uncomfortably ethnocentric (to say nothing of chutzpahdik) about encouraging someone to patronize your business because you're both from the same ethnic group. (To their credit, they also suggested going to other Jewish businesses. Looks like I'm going to have to google my closest Judaica shuk.)

Apparently this one shop is not alone in doing this. There's also a related version of this being run as an attempt to counter anti-Israel boycott campaigns, too.
Although there have been other so-called “buy-cott” campaigns to counter BDS efforts, organizers believe this will be the largest recent effort to promote Israeli goods - and one they hope will be repeated and expanded in years to come.
“The promotion of Israel products isn’t just economical, it’s psychological and political,” Zelazny said. 
“People see that Israel isn’t isolated; you see the breadth of creativity, the range of products from food to high-tech. People don’t think of Israel in that sense. There are really some amazing food and consumer items. 
“Instead of buying excellent Chilean wine, they can buy wine from Israel. We want people to next time not buy shoes made in Italy, but in Israel."
I think the Buy Israel campaign makes more sense if you have lots of money to blow on luxury items and you're trying to decide between status symbols that are basically interchangeable (should I get shoes from Italy or Israel? Wine from Chile, or Israel?). It doesn't really work if you tend to buy specialized items. (Example: I have terrible feet and the only orthotic shoes that work for me are made in China. It doesn't matter how nice Israeli shoes are; unless they can do what my Chinese ones do, I'm not switching. By the same token, since my Chinese shoes are really expensive, I am not in a position to buy wine from either Israel or Chile.)

I'm not sure how I feel about the Shop Jewish concept. As a young and semi-idealistic consumer, I certainly understand trying to be thoughtful about where your dollars go and who you give your business to (if Jeff Bezos ever becomes a jerk it will be a big challenge to stop using Amazon), but while I can relate to shopping your values, "buying Jewish" is not in itself a value that I share. I suppose I agree with the general principle that if you're buying a Jewish ritual object, it's probably nice if you can buy it from a Jewish manufacturer/seller. But honestly, these days so much commerce happens through a computer screen that the idea of making a purchasing decision based on the seller, as opposed to the item, is a challenging, and somewhat foreign, concept.

It also contrasts with a vaguely democratic consumer ethic that I inherited from my parents. Generally, the principle was that you decided what you want, and then you went wherever you had to to get the item. The biggest priorities were whether they had what you wanted and if it was a good price. We didn't boycott certain stores or exclusively privilege other stores; we went to whoever had what we wanted at a price which was reasonable. Basic free-market.

Now that I'm older and looking at the past twenty years (particularly in light of the present economy), it's becoming clearer that availability and price are not and should not be the only things to pay attention to. If the only bottom line is getting your stuff, then smaller business can't compete, and then you wind up losing all your local small businesses and are stuck with major chains. (Again, this is easier with face-to-face transactions, like groceries, but harder with "pleasure" items, such as books.)

That said, it's still difficult for me to shift my growing economic awareness to accept the idea that if I'm buying someone a gift for a Jewish holiday, my priority should stretch even further and privilege a Jew over a non-Jew. I think part of that is that while I can appreciate making selective economic decisions to support businesses you agree with, "Buy Jewish" suggests that the priority is making sure that a Jew-- any Jew, potentially-- gets my money rather than giving it to a Gentile. That's not how I operate. Inasmuch as ethics play a role in my consumerism, it's in trying to give my money to the least evil groups around with the lowest amount of financial sacrifice from me. Whether or not they're Jewish doesn't enter into it.

The "Shop Jewish" mantra particularly fails for me because of where I live (we have three Judaica shops in the city that aren't shul gift shops-- one is at the JCC, one is at Chabad, and only one which seems to actually have any potential) and what I choose to buy. When it comes to myself, my Jewish tastes (usually book-focused) are extremely eclectic-- to the point that a standard Judaica store usually either doesn't have things I'm looking for or only has them at cost-prohibitive prices. By contrast, when buying for other people (except for Mrs. Yid), I tend to almost never buy anything with Jewish content, because most of my friends and family aren't interested in that. Adding "Shop Jewish" to the list of priorities (along with "decent price", "right item" and "not an evil company") starts making the whole process a lot more complicated. Am I supposed to order my comic books through Eichlers? Should I buy my brother a new camera from B&H in New York and spend twice as much rather than get it on Amazon?

As mentioned before, I also feel that putting the emphasis on the seller and not the products is largely contrary to the present economic model put in place via the internet. It seems more suited to the age of the general or department store than online sellers. In an era where most commerce is not face-to-face, it's hard to encourage people to only buy from a certain group of people. (Even if you decide you do want to shop Jewish; how am I supposed to tell which sellers are Jewish and which aren't?) By contrast, if your starting position is, "I must Shop Jewish this Hanukkah," and you only look at Jewish websites, then I suppose you have more control... but you're also putting a lot of limitations on yourself and taking a big risk of not getting what you're actually looking for-- and there are lots of smaller merchants (Jewish and non-Jewish) that probably won't get your business because you're starting with the bigger names.

While I understand the impulse behind the "Buy Jewish" or "Buy Israel" campaigns, I think, as always, the devil is in the details. The concept might be decent, but I think there needs to be more clarification to get me on board. If it's about trying to find companies that share your values, fine. If it's about trying to support Jewish businesses during Jewish holidays, ok. But just telling me to "Buy Jewish" because Jews should give their money to Jews... that one doesn't work for me.

1 comment:

MIghty Garnel Ironheart said...

Only a few people would ever believe that you should always exclusively choose the "Jewish" product in all cases. I knew some BT's like that, they'd buy the crappy Hadar mayonnaise and ketchup which was twice the price as the generic brands because they wanted to support other Jews. Me, I like Heinz.
Where it kicks in for me is with comparable products. Given a choice between Chilean and Israeli wine, I'll buy the Israeli one for nationalistic reasons. On the other hand, I have bought seforim from Amazon because I don't live in a town with seforim stores and dammit, Amazon is so convenient.
However, the buy-cott is an important consideration. We Jews are one giant family and an attack on one of us is an attack on all of us. Jews throughout the centuries have learned that the hard way. If people are boycotting something because it's Jewish (and let's face it, they're not boycotting the Arabs of Israel, just Jews) then it's worth fighting back to show support.