Customers refuse to have Woolworths pulled over their eyes
Following the controversy surrounding Woolworths’ decision to remove its only Israeli product from its shelves, many in the Jewish community are demanding answers and reconsidering their longstanding support of the beloved retail chain.
On the flip side, targeted Jewish-owned businesses are continuing to bear the brunt of virulent anti-Israel boycott campaigns.
“Removing the one product we had on our shelves that was imported from Israel, Pearl Couscous, wasn’t a decision we took lightly,” a Woolworths spokesperson told the SA Jewish Report this week. “We faced credible threats of protest action, and we needed to keep our employees and customers out of harm’s way.”
Yet, amid feverish headlines declaring the company’s decision to “boycott Israeli products”, and in response to a press statement issued by “human rights non-government organisation” Africa4Palestine welcoming such a move, rumours began to swirl. Local Jewish consumers, many of whom either have Woolworths shares or shop there frequently enough to be considered honorary shareholders, were left reeling.
For many, a press statement issued by Woolworths on 17 November in response to the media storm brought little comfort. “Articles claiming that Woolworths supports an Israeli boycott are inaccurate, and we want to set the record straight,” the company stated. “In spite of reports commending us for taking a pro-Palestinian or anti-Israeli position, we haven’t. Woolworths would like to explicitly affirm that we neither support nor boycott anyone. Woolworths has no political affiliations, and doesn’t support any political party, organisation, or country.”
Though the statement says Woolworths made the “decision to pre-emptively suspend the sale” of its one Israeli import to ensure the safety and well-being of employees and customers, it remains the subject of much debate among many Jewish organisations, businesspeople, and consumers.
“Woolies always endeavours to do the right thing by our employees, our customers, and society at large,” the company’s statement concluded. “We continue to do this as we navigate these very challenging times.”
For many Jewish consumers and Woolworths investors, this statement simply wasn’t enough. “I sold all my shares yesterday, and wrote a letter of no confidence to the chief executive, Roy Bagattini,” says a Johannesburg Jewish businessman who is believed to be one of a number of Jewish businesspeople who have taken similar steps.
“Dear Sir,” the businessman wrote in his letter, “I was most disappointed to read your company’s announcement that you had capitulated to certain threats and have decided to remove an Israeli-made product from your shelves. Even if it’s only one product, it sends a message where you stand in the conflict, and I doubt Woolworths will order Israeli products in the future.
“You may say that you’re trying to protect your customers and staff,” he says, “but if you give in to extortion once, you’re leaving the company open to future such threats, and come across as a soft target.
“In my opinion, conceding to a third party as you have done, is an indication of your management’s unwillingness to take a stand and rather seek the easy way out. If you do so on this issue, how many other decisions do you take that are simply more expedient than moral?”
Emphasising that he has sold his holdings in Woolworths, the businessman hopes that other “moral investors” follow suit.
Karen Milner, the national chairperson of the South African Jewish Board of Deputies (SAJBD), says, “We’re pleased that Woolworths has clarified that there’s no boycott of Israeli goods, confirming once again that the [members of the] Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions [BDS] [movement] are liars. However, its position that Israeli goods were removed by it due to fear of disruption is highly problematic. If there’s a credible threat, Woolworths needs to lay charges, alert the authorities, and return those goods to its stores.”
When questioned about the origin and nature of the threats Woolworths received, the Woolworths spokesperson told us, “We’re unable to make this information public as the matter is being attended to by our compliance and risk department.”
In the meantime, impassioned boycotts against Jewish-owned businesses including Cape Union Mart and Paul’s Homemade Ice Cream have intensified in the past week, with pro-Palestinian supporters even protesting outside selected stores at Rosebank Mall over the weekend. Indeed, many boycotted businesses are becoming progressively quieter amidst increased vitriolic messages being spread by BDS.
“The boycotts of South African Jewish businesses are antisemitic to the core, representing acts reminiscent of the worst period in Jewish history,” says Milner. “They will have no impact whatsoever on Israel or the war in Gaza, but are designed simply to hurt Jews.” The SAJBD has written to Trade and Industry Minister Ebrahim Patel, calling on him to support these businesses. We encourage all South Africans to do likewise, thus continuing to protect South African jobs and support our economy.
Many Jewish consumers have heeded this call, encouraging those on their social media pages and groups to do the same. One such advocate is Benji Shulman, the director of public policy for the South African Zionist Federation, who for his birthday this week, launched what he termed a “buycott”. Instead of traditional presents, he asked his friends to buy products from retailers who have been targeted by anti-Israel crusaders, such as Cape Union Mart, Poetry, Paul’s Homemade Ice Cream, Dis-Chem, and others. He asked them to send him pictures of themselves with the item, and a short message.
“Buy something, anything, big or small, and keep it or give to it to a friend, a colleague, a family member, the security guard, or a random,” he wrote. “I intend to print an album of all the photos and messages I receive as a record of my people for this year’s birthday.”
“Given what’s been going on, a normal celebration didn’t quite feel in order,” says Shulman, explaining the thinking behind his idea. The album Shulman plans to make will serve as a special birthday present that, in years to come, will be a reminder of what the community faced and how we banded together to support one another.