Dr. Ira Unger loves Scotch, but not more than he loves Israel.
That’s why, at his daughter’s recent high school graduation party, he chose to serve bourbon over his preferred Scottish single malt.
“I’ve developed a taste for Scotch,” said Unger, a member of Beth El Congregation of the South Hills’ Men’s Club, “but if this boycott of Israeli goods isn’t solved, I can certainly develop a taste for bourbon.”
So what does Israel have to do with cocktails? Recently the answer has been, quite a bit.
In January 2009, the West Dunbartonshire Council (WDC) in Scotland declared a boycott on the purchase of Israeli goods, citing excessive military action against Palestinians during the IDF’s Gaza incursion that year. Earlier this month, Rabbi Charles Simon, executive director of the Federation of Jewish Men’s Clubs (FJMC), sent an email to many of his constituents calling for a response boycott of the Scotch whisky brands created in the region.
In less than a month, the FJMC boycott has found supporters all over the country — from Men’s Club-sponsored Kiddush drinkers to events outside the synagogue.
The distilleries targeted by the FJMC boycott include Morrison Bowmore, which produces Bowmore, McClelland’s and more; Loch Lomond, which produces Scots Earl, Littlemill, Craigslodge and others; and Chivas Brothers, a distillery owned by French liquor magnate Pernod Ricard and producing Scotches including Ballantine’s, Chivas, Clan Campbell, The Glenlivet and Jameson — an Irish whiskey.
Since Simon’s e-mail was first sent, “this [boycott] is kind of going viral,” said Warren Sufrin, a past president of Beth El Congregation Men’s Club, and current FJMC president of the Tri-State region. “Sometimes the actual communication occurs after things have already happened. On a local basis, it is already happening.”
There are five local Men’s Club chapters — Adat Shalom, Beth El Congregation, New Light Congregation, Tree of Life/Or L’Simcha and Congregation Beth Shalom — of FJMC’s 250 in the United States and Canada, boasting 25,000 members. The boycott is spreading mainly through personal, not official, means, much like Unger’s party.
“People are talking about the boycott. It’s received a lot of discussion,” said Stephen Neustein, past president of Beth Shalom’s Men’s Club and international treasurer of FJMC.
While Beth Shalom will contact its congregants about the boycott soon, said Neustein, other congregations are taking their time.
Bud Kahn, president of Adat Shalom’s Men’s Club, said the boycott will not be addressed until the June congregational board meeting “to determine what position, if any, we will take as a congregation.”
The counter-boycott has capitalized on what many Diaspora Jews see as a need to protect Israeli economic interests.
“Judaism is a people, and [the WDC] is attacking our people,” said Neustein. “As a family, we respond to being attacked in a measured, careful manner. This is not because we want to attack these companies; we have no other way to attract attention to this county. [The distilleries] represent a major faction of their economy.”
FJMC members are not too worried about missing Scotch. Many commented that bourbon would be a fine replacement for personal consumption as well as Kiddush use.
“Our Kiddush doesn’t have to be Scotch,” said Sufrin. “We don’t say ‘b’rai p’rie ha-Scotch.’”
But the opposing boycotts are not as simple as they seem.
In a statement sent to the Chronicle, the WDC called claims that their boycott of Israeli goods is racist “entirely inaccurate.”
“The boycott was instigated in response to conduct by the Israeli state and applies to no specific ethnic or religious group,” the statement continued.
Among the many published claims against the WDC are that Israeli books in the West Dunbartonshire libraries would be trashed or even burned. But, according to the WDC, those claims are “false and… mischievously motivated. There are books by Israeli authors on the shelves of West Dunbartonshire Council’s libraries.”
Requests for interviews with WDC officials were denied.
As the WDC boycott is on Israeli goods and exports, FJMC members say the counter-boycott must focus on the same.
“The only way we can support in kind is to hurt them economically,” said Neustein.
Several major distilleries in the region have made efforts to distance themselves from the WDC decision. In a statement, Morrison Bowmore Distillery maintained that it does not “take any political stance and this policy has been made independently from us and without our consultation. We have written the WDC to ensure it is fully aware of the potential implications of its policy.”
Jack Shea, spokesman for Pernod Ricard USA, told the Chronicle, “the WDC does not represent our views. In the U.S., Pernot Ricard has been a longstanding supporter of Jewish humanitarian causes.”
As distilleries make their concern known to the WDC, the boycott already seems to be working. As Simon said, in an e-mail to the Chronicle, “It’s about changing the mind of the council and trying to get the producers to assist us in this effort.”
Complicating the boycott, many people are not distinguishing which Scottish distilleries are located in the region, and which are not.
“As long as there’s a boycott, most people are going to avoid Scotch in general,” said Neustein.
Further, according to Shea, neither Chivas nor The Glenlivet, two of the best-known Scotches of Chivas Brothers, “are distilled or bottled in the Dunbartonshire territory that is governed by this council.”
Still, FJMC members say the counter-boycott may change the policy of this South Scotland region.
“I think this is a case where we can actually make a difference,” said Sufrin. “Should the boycott on Israel continue, I have no doubt that 250 congregations will be drinking bourbon instead of Scotch.”
(Justin Jacobs can be reached at email@example.com.)