In the United States, a grassroots movement is gaining momentum to boycott American firms that publicly declare their support for the government of Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon.
Experts believe the boycott — which targets cosmetics brands such as Estee Lauder, Aramis, Clinique, and Aveda, and perfumes that bear the logos of Tommy Hilfiger, and Donna Karan and Kate Spade — may be hard to stop.
Formal boycotts of Israel are not new. In 1945, the Arab League declared that Jewish products and manufactured goods "shall be considered undesirable to the Arab countries," adding that all Arab "institutions, organizations, merchants, commission agents and individuals" were called upon "to refuse to deal in, distribute, or consume Zionist products or manufactured goods."
The Arab boycott, as it evolved after 1948, was divided into three components: A primary boycott prohibiting direct trade between Israel and the Arab nations. A secondary boycott directed at companies that do business with Israel.
And a third tier of the boycott that "blacklisted" firms that trade with other companies that do business with Israel.
American efforts to resist the Arab boycott began in 1977, when the US Congress enacted amendments to the Export Administration Act that prohibited companies from cooperating with the Arab boycott. Creators of the amendments believed that US firms must be "prevented from implementing foreign policies of other nations which run counter to US policy." Then-US President Jimmy Carter, when signing the Congressional bill into law, had a more global perspective: "The [new law] goes to the very heart of free trade among nations."
Carter’s initiative let much of the steam out of the Arab boycott. A more telling blow to the Arab boycott came in 1994, when six members of the Gulf Cooperation Council announced they would no longer support the secondary boycott.
Later, at a February 1995 meeting in Taba, Egyptian, American, Jordanian and Palestinian trade leaders also signed a document — the Taba Declaration — supporting "all efforts to end the boycott of Israel."
The passage of time saw additional cracks in the primary boycott as nations like Qatar, Oman and Morocco began to negotiate trade deals with Israel. Furthermore, few countries outside the Middle East continued to comply with the boycott.
Japan, for example, exponentially increased trade with Israel as the Peace Process began to gather momentum.
Today, enforcement of US antiboycott laws is the responsibility of the Bureau of Industry and Security at the US Department of Commerce. "Since 1979, when the anti-boycott compliance requirement were put into force, a total of $26.5 million dollars in civil penalties have been imposed," says Eugene Cottilli, spokesman for the Department of Commerce.
In the face of a maximum fine "of up to $50,000 and imprisonment for up to ten years," fewer US companies now report receiving requests to engage in activities that further or support the boycott of Israel. Lately, in fact, monetary penalties imposed on violators have been relatively small; many firms are simply mailed letters of reprimand.
But law enforcement officials are finding it harder to deal with the new call for a worldwide boycott of Estee Lauder cosmetics.
This is because no foreign government or legally accountable entity is calling for the boycott. Instead, demands for a boycott are being communicated on the Internet.
The E-mail message advocating the Estee Lauder boycott, for example, cites the fact that Ronald Lauder, an American citizen who heads the cosmetics empire, also presides over conservative, pro-Israeli lobbying organizations such as the Jewish National Fund and the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations.
"Pursuing a criminal or civil prosecution of the organizers of these boycotts is not under our purview," says a Commerce Department official, speaking to Strategic Policy on condition anonymity.
"It’s not an issue that Dexter Price, the Commerce Department director responsible for antiboycott compliance, would take an interest in."
"I think a lot of mainstream Americans would be happy to join a boycott of US firms that openly support Israel," says Richard H. Curtis, executive director of the American Education Trust, a Washington-based foundation critical of US policies with Israel. "But it’s a big order.
For one thing, Israel doesn’t have any hot properties for sale in the United States.
And, although there are a handful of American companies — like the House of Seagrams and Estee Lauder — headed by people who give financial support to Israel, it’s hard for consumers to completely know which firms support the State of Israel. Send questions and comments to: [email protected].