Gelt not Guilt

Just the other week, news broke that a San Francisco institution — Rainbow Grocery, a veritable shrine to progressive politics and guilt-free purchasing — was not selling Chanukah gelt, (chocolate coins wrapped in gold foil) because the bulk foods and packaged goods sections of the store had voted to ban products from Israel. One outraged Jewish customer wrote an email and then they told two friends and so on. The response has turned into a boycott of Rainbow.

The grocery store has since issued a statement saying that it has never had a ban on Israeli products. Whether the ban has been real or not I haven’t been able to confirm. But it’s set off an intense reaction from it’s Jewish customers that is very real. Rainbow was flooded with emails and phone calls, including one from a Jewish organization. The whole debacle illustrates the limitations of ‘all of nothing’ progressive political methods, and the growing difficulty of being Jewish and progressive.

Jewish identity is a tenuous thing in the Bay Area. It’s probably the most assimilated place in the country. The wonderful tolerance for difference and the tendency of people to come to the Bay Area to reinvent themselves has (among many other influences) led to the one American city without a visible Jewish neighborhood. At this point, it’s less subversive or likely to be out in San Francisco as gay than it is as a Jew. And that has a great deal to do with changes and cultures that people of Jewish-origin have set up for themselves in San Francisco. It also has to do with the unique Jewish anxieties about Jewish identity. Food is one of the few links that people like this often have left who are Jewish. And even that link is tenuous in San Francisco. It is easier to find food from Ethiopia or Burma or Nepal than the food from my grandma’s kitchen. In the absence of active, positive associations with Jewishness in ones life, it’s easy to connect with Israel as the sole way to identify as a Jew. And among those who do identify as Jewish in some way in San Francisco, many do not support the oppressive aspects of the Israeli government policies. They are also upset by the suicide bombings in Israel. But the progressive culture of San Francisco combined with the general invisibility of a Jewish middle in San Francisco, means that litmus tests are inevitable. You’re either completely against Israel or you’re not progressive. Rainbow just happened to focus everything on chocolate.

Is Rainbow treating this situation about Israeli products similar to choices about products from other countries? A large percentage of Israel opposes the occupation of the Palestinian territories. A large percentage of the US opposes the saber-rattling and likely war on Iraq. Will Rainbow divisions consider banning American foods as well? Or are they separating the producers of American foods from the policies of their current ruling government?

Maybe one reason I don’t feel outraged by either then ban or the Rainbow boycott is because I assume the intentions are good on both sides. Call me Anne Frank. I only wish that it were as easy to get enthusiastic about more pragmatic action that would bring us together, rather than a clear bright line, like a ban or a boycott, that asks people to take sides. This helps you feel good and righteous about your side, whatever it is, but ignores whether or not any of these actions is actually helping the situation in Israel and Palestine get better.

The ban on Israeli products and the boycott of Rainbow in response only offer binary options for people. “You’re with us or against us.” That’s exactly the kind of retaliatory approach that is continuing the carnage in Israel and Palestine. Why build or reinforce identity through victimhood?

I’d just rather focus on what we can all be for, rather than what we are against. And Rainbow is in a good position to do this because sharing food is one of the best ways to open people up and bring them together. Getting us more involved, rather than choosing sides, would likely make us all better customers and more effective politically. What happened to old-fashioned progressive active listening? Why not send food to Palestinians? Why not host local meals that bring us together and educate people about the conflict? I would be happy to have the first one. If we are going to make things better we have to know and hear each other. After all, it is said that the Oslo accords were reached, in part, because Rabin and Arafat were fed constantly.