Starbucks Doesn't Mix Coffee With Politics

Consumer Ire Hits Cafe Chain From Both Sides of Israel Debate

Tall Order: Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz grew up in a modest Brooklyn Jewish household.
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Tall Order: Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz grew up in a modest Brooklyn Jewish household.

By Nathan Guttman

Published August 14, 2014, issue of August 22, 2014.

It took only a few hundred online activists to bring coffee shop giant Starbucks to denounce as “unequivocally false” claims that the company and its founder support Israel financially.

The chain’s immediate disavowal of ties to the Jewish state, issued in a public statement on August 5, could be seen as a victory for the movement promoting an economic boycott of Israel. But Starbucks argues it is no more than a tempest in a venti cup.

The statement, Starbucks officials told the Forward, was merely an attempt to “set the record straight” and a reiteration of long-standing policies.

But for Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz, the Seattle coffee magnate who grew up in a modest Brooklyn Jewish family, dealing with Israel has always been a touchy issue. In 2004 he was accused by supporters of the Jewish state of caving in to Arab pressure when he moved to shut down Starbucks operations in Israel. At the same time, the coffee king came under fire from pro-Arab activists for backing Zionist organizations in America. When trying to run a multinational mega-business, Schultz has learned, addressing customers’ political sensitivities is a balancing act.

“Businesses like Starbucks would rather be all things for all people,” said Bernard Avishai, a Dartmouth College business professor known for his progressive writings on Israel. “If they feel they are branded in a certain way that hurts them with a certain group, they will try to assuage the fury.”

The claims regarding Starbucks’s ties to Israel and Schultz’s own support of the state surfaced as Israel launched its recent military operation in Gaza.

The call for consumers to “stop buying Starbucks coffee,” was posted on the popular online boycott app Buycott, which offers users instant information on the business practices and boycott status of virtually any product and of the company that produces it. Activists on Buycott described Schultz as a “propagandist for Israel,” mentioning that he was honored in 1998 by Aish HaTorah, a pro-Israel Orthodox organization. The activists using the app claimed that “Starbucks also sponsors fundraisers for Israel.” It also referred to donations made by Schultz to pro-Israel campus activity during the second Palestinian uprising a decade ago.

A representative of Starbucks confirmed that Schultz received an award from Aish HaTorah, but the company insists it does not raise funds for Israel.

Calls by anti-Israel activists to boycott Starbucks date back to 2006 and are often repeated on pro-Palestinian websites. But the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement, a group of civil society leaders in the Israeli-occupied West Bank that has been leading the call for economic pressure on the Jewish state, has not taken up Starbucks as a potential target.

The recent boycott campaign, launched July 22, had gained only 333 supporters online by August 12. It did, however, create an Internet buzz that reignited many of the claims against Starbucks that had been leveled in the past.

Starbucks responded by reposting an updated version of its Israel policy, stressing emphatically that the company has nothing to do with the Israeli government. “No. This is absolutely untrue,” the company stated in response to claims that Starbucks or Schultz provides financial support to the Israeli government and army. It also rejected as “absolutely untrue” claims that it had given such assistance in the past.

Starbucks posted similar statements on its website in 2006, 2009 and 2010, when Middle East turbulence also prompted calls to boycott its outlets.

A Starbucks spokesman stressed that there was nothing new about the recent response. But this time around, it drew much more media attention. “Starbucks: We Don’t Give Money to Israel,” The Huffington Post blared in one typical headline.

Starbucks turned down requests from the Forward to interview Schultz.

Describing Schultz’s views on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the Starbucks spokesman said, “The company and Mr. Schultz have been steadfast in urging peace in the Middle East and a stable and safe Israel.” He added that “Mr. Schultz is a proud Jewish American.” Asked about Starbucks’s view on the movement to boycott companies supporting Israel, the spokesman said, “The company does not have a position on this issue.”

While noncommittal on Israel, Schultz has not shied away from mixing politics into the coffee his company serves to millions of Americans every day. Under his leadership, Starbucks has staked strong positions in support of gay and lesbian rights and has called on customers not to enter its shops with openly exposed guns, as some gun rights proponents believe they are legally entitled to do. The company, however, also chose a more business-oriented approach when pushing strongly for a bipartisan budget, and when voicing only reserved support for a minimum wage increase and for ObamaCare.

Schultz, 61, grew up in the Bay View housing project in the Canarsie section of Brooklyn and studied in the city’s public schools. He was the first of his family to attend college, and after graduating he took on a job as a salesperson for a foreign coffee company. Through this job he encountered Starbucks — at the time a small coffee bean shop in Seattle. Soon after, Schultz joined the company and turned the shop into a leading national, and later global, coffee shop chain. His fortune is now estimated at $2.2 billion.

An integral part of Seattle’s Jewish community for years, Schultz has kept his Jewish life private. He has not taken up leadership positions in communal institutions and has not made his mark as a major funder of Jewish causes. “His involvement is minimal,” said Bruce Phillips, a professor of Jewish communal service at the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, Los Angeles who studied the Seattle Jewish community. “He’s very low profile.” Schultz is not listed as a key donor of the Seattle Jewish federation.

“Mr. Schultz supports a range of Jewish spiritual and humanitarian causes,” said a spokesman for Starbucks, who would not provide details regarding Schultz’s charitable giving to the community. Schultz has made public, however, some of the non-Jewish causes he supports, including a $5 million job creation fund, a $30 million gift to support Iraq and Afghanistan veterans, and a $1 million donation last year to United Way.

A fundraising official for a Jewish organization said that while Schultz’s donations to Jewish causes are smaller in size and unannounced, he is often approached by Jewish groups and maintains ties with some of their senior officials.

These ties have come in handy in the past, when Starbucks faced criticism relating to Israel. The company closed its business in Israel in 2003, during the height of the second intifada. This step, which the firm said was taken due to business considerations, led to a barrage of criticism from pro-Israel activists who claimed the company had caved in to anti-Israel pressure. It was the Anti-Defamation League that went to bat for Starbucks, issuing a statement saying there was “no evidence” to support these claims.

A spokesman for the ADL did not respond to the Forward’s request for comment on Starbucks’s and Schultz’s most recent disavowal of financial ties to the Jewish state.

Other Jewish organizations, many of them quick to react to any sign of response to anti-Israel boycott measures, also remained silent. But, Paul Burstein, a professor of sociology and of Jewish studies at the University of Washington in Seattle, noted, for example, that other Seattle based mega-business, such as Costco and Microsoft, have vocally resisted anti-Israel boycott campaigns.

“There is something peculiar about the intensity of their statement and about their desire to have it published,” said Burstein.

But Avishai argued that direct boycott should be the least of Israel’s worries. “It’s not boycott, but a sense of discomfort of doing business with Israel,” said Avishai, who warned that the huge loss suffered by Israel during the Palestinian uprising a decade ago “would be nothing compared to what we will face in the next five years.”

Meanwhile, some online pro-Israel activists have launched a counter-boycott campaign against Starbucks on the Buycott app, calling for consumer retribution against what they view as Schultz’s eagerness to distance his firm and himself from Israel.

“If he’s so concerned that anti-Israel boycotters will hurt his business,” authors of the counter-boycott petition wrote about Schultz, “let’s show him what pro-Israel folks can do!” The counter-boycott, whose organizers go unnamed in the on-line petition, has gained nearly 1500 supporters within two days.

Contact Nathan Guttman at guttman@forward.com or on Twitter, @nathanguttman



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