The announced boycott of Walt Disney Co. Tuesday by Arab-American and Muslim-American groups to protest the firm’s depiction of Jerusalem as Israel’s eternal capital is being seen as the latest in a series of efforts by anti-Israel groups to use economic leverage to muscle American companies into submission.
Jewish groups are so concerned by this emerging “blackmail” that three of them — the Anti-Defamation League, the American Jewish Committee and the American Jewish Congress — this week set up a task force to confront it.
“Arab countries are negotiating peace, and now Arab-American organizations have decided to declare war on Israel,” said the executive director of the American Jewish Congress, Phil Baum. “It’s a foolish and misguided effort on their part.”
The action against Disney follows on the heels of Arab-American and Arab-Muslim threats or boycotts against Burger King for opening a store in the West Bank city of Maale Adumim; Ben & Jerry’s ice cream for buying water from the Golan Heights, and Sprint for using a picture of the Dome of the Rock in its ads. Sprint pulled the ads, Ben & Jerry’s canceled the contract and Burger King canceled the franchise agreement.
Malcolm Hoenlein, executive vice chairman of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, said there are indications that this is just the beginning.
“We know from sources that they have been researching other companies,” Hoenlein said. “We know that some of the Arab League countries do not want to join a boycott, but the organization [the Arab League] speaks in the name of all of them.”
He said also that part of the Burger King boycott was aimed at convincing the company to grant Palestinians a Burger King franchise in the territories. A spokesman for Burger King said the owner of the franchise in Israel also has the rights to franchises in the territories.
“They [the protesters] were trying to use the threat of blackmail for economic gain for them,” said Hoenlein. “Is this exploitation or a matter of principle? It’s clear that some of them wanted to exploit this to get a franchise.”
Martin Raffel, associate executive vice chairman of the Jewish Council for Public Affairs, which represents 13 national organizations and 122 community relations councils, said his group also was concerned about the “troubling pattern emerging here — the use of economic threats to shape a response on the part of American companies.”
“It’s one thing to express a different point of view, it’s another to declare economic warfare on companies,” he said.
Israel’s ambassador to the United Nations, Dore Gold, said the threats and boycotts were “tests to see what our reaction is. If our voice is muted, it [the boycott movement] will only escalate. We have to be extremely clear that this is unacceptable.”
The national director of the ADL, Abraham Foxman, said he sent a letter last week to Secretary of State Madeleine Albright and National Security Adviser Sandy Berger asking them to roll up the welcome mat for these groups.
“These groups have been given access to the White House and the State Department based on their support of the peace process, and this activity does not square with that,” he said.
At a press conference Tuesday in Washington, a coalition of seven American Muslim groups announced a boycott of Disney. They claimed that Disney failed to adequately address their concerns about an upcoming Israeli exhibit at Disney World’s Millennium Celebration at Epcot Center in Orlando, Fla.
The coalition insisted that the exhibit would inaccurately represent Jerusalem as being a part of Israel, would “marginalize” Muslim and Christian connection to the Jerusalem, and would portray the city as Israel would like to see it when a peace treaty is signed with the Palestinians.
“These elements combine to leave visitors with the false impression that Israel is not in violation of multiple international laws and United Nations resolutions when it comes to Jerusalem,” the group said in a statement.
That same day, the president of the National Association of Arab Americans, Khalil Jahshan, told reporters during a visit to the West Bank Palestinian city of Ramallah that Arab Americans were also launching a boycott of Disney.
“We will not pull back from our boycott of Disney or calling for boycotts throughout the Arab and Muslim world and in the United States,” he reportedly said.
An assistant to Jahshan, Margot Andrews, said she had not heard from Jahshan and was unaware of his announcement. She said he was the only one who could speak for the organization and declined all comment.
An official of another Arab-American organization described the group as small in number but influential and respected.
The boycott would involve all Disney companies, which include the ABC television network, the Disney Channel, A&E and ESPN cable networks, and Miramax films, as well as Disney products.
Although Disney officials met with representatives of the Arab League last week in Washington and reportedly showed them a video that is to be played as part of the exhibit, Jahshan said the meeting proved unsatisfactory.
A spokesman for the Arab League voiced the same view, saying the “justifications given [by Disney] did not convince Arab countries.”
The Egyptian press quoted the secretary-general of the 22-member Arab League, Esmat Abdel-Meguid, as saying Disney “cheated the Arabs by abandoning its decision not to show Jerusalem as the capital of Israel.” And he said he planned to ask member states to “reconsider” their relations with Disney when Arab ministers gather Friday for the meeting of the UN General Assembly.
But a Disney spokesman, Bill Warren, insisted that the Israel exhibit does “not contain a reference to Jerusalem as the capital of Israel.”
Asked if it ever had, Warren replied: “We are not going to get into discussions about how our projects develop. The only thing we will commit to is the finished product.”
An Israeli official suggested that the film was modified to remove any explicit reference to Jerusalem as Israel’s capital. No other changes in the exhibit were made, the official added.
Final-status talks between Israel and the Palestinians on Jerusalem and other key issues began last week.
A spokesman for the Israeli embassy in Washington, Mark Regev, said the Israeli pavilion would “present Israel in a positive way and show the visitor a bit about Jewish history and the uniqueness of the country from a historic, religious and cultural point of view.”
Not all Arab-American organizations are joining the boycott. James Zogby, founder and president of the Arab-American Institute in Washington, said he blamed the Israelis and not Disney for the exhibit.
“The Israelis have committed an act of incitement,” he said. “It’s incitement that’s uncalled for, absolutely uncalled for. Israel has every right to talk of its progress, accomplishments and gifts to humanity, but it should do so without making provocative claims about issues that are unresolved in the Middle East. … You can state your bargaining position, but don’t play it out in Disney World.”
Hussein Ibish, a spokesman for the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee, which describes itself as the largest Arab-American grassroots organization, said it was not joining the boycott because “we wish to build a working relationship with everyone concerned.”
“I think that in the panoply of tools available, boycott is reasonable and normal,” he said. “People have made the term into a bogeyman. … We support them.”
He insisted that the Disney exhibit “means a great deal because Disney has a reputation of credibility and authority. Israel is spending so much time and money on this because it knows that international opinion plays a major role in the final settlement [with the Palestinians].”
Foxman of the ADL said the boycott would end up “hurting the Palestinians in their quest for investments.”
“For the economic phase of the peace process to move forward, it will need the cooperation of American, Israeli, Palestinian and Jewish components,” he said. “If the Arab and Muslim community persists in threatening boycotts, it will destroy this possible coalition and frighten away American companies.”
Controversy about the exhibit began almost from the moment Walt Disney World corporate vice president George Kalogridis flew to Israel last month to announce Israel’s participation in the 15-month millennium celebration along with 23 other nations.
The exhibit, which opens to the public Oct. 1, was to be the center of the celebration, Kalogridis said.
In a statement, Disney said the exhibit would highlight Jerusalem’s importance to Judaism, Islam and Christianity, “while at the same time emphasizing the centrality” of Jerusalem to the Jewish people.” In the final scene, a message of “faith, hope and peace” is delivered in Hebrew, English and Arabic, the company said.
The Israeli Foreign Ministry said in a statement that Israel agreed to participate — and reportedly contribute $1.8 million to the project while Disney put in $6 million — “after it was agreed that … the centrality of Jerusalem as the capital of Israel would be emphasized.”
Warren said boycott talk was triggered by wire stories describing that announcement. He said those stories falsely asserted that the title of the exhibit would be “Jerusalem, Capital of Israel.”