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Is it Ethical to Boycott BP?

Is it Ethical to Boycott BP?

Rabbi Joshua Hammerman is spiritual leader of Temple Beth El in Stamford, Conn.

Q- Do you think it’s right for people to boycott BP and get their gas elsewhere, as punishment for the oil spill?

There is definitely a "punish at the pumps" mentality afloat with regard to BP and the Deepwater Horizon oil spill, and I must admit, I haven’t stopped at a BP since it happened. Gassing up at BP in this hostile climate would be like wearing a mink at PETA convention.

We all have the freedom to boycott companies that displease us. But as negligent as BP has been in this case, I agree with those who state that boycotting BP is both futile and unethical. To put it more cynically, as Newsweek did, "Boycott BP! Because it’s much better to give your money to Exxon."

What you need to understand is that BP stations are independently owned, so by boycotting you would only be hurting the local little guy, not the bigwigs back in London (or, for that matter, the poor, elderly British pensioners whose life savings are tied to the company’s fate).

Have you noticed how, as soon as the Gulf of Mexico sprung a leak, people stopped talking about Toyotas? A few months ago, Toyota was on the skids as their corporate woes accelerated. Now the car company is reporting a global sales surge that seems to have coincided with BP taking over the front pages. With the public’s attention span so short and our zest for scapegoats so great, we’ll undoubtedly move on to another villain as soon as the Gulf leak is plugged.

Some boycotts are OK, others aren’t. Look at Ethical’s complete list of current boycotts and you’ll see a lot of familiar names.

Israel, of course, is a prime victim of this boycott mania. Israeli financier Shai Baaton has proposed a Jewish boycott of companies continuing to deal with Iran, a movement that is gaining some traction. This boycott has ethical grounding, but the blog "Ethics Alarms" questions all boycotts, calling the current BP shunning "close to the worst variety, blunt and destructive mob anger akin to the reaction of the excitable citizens of Homer Simpson’s Springfield, whose solution to every crisis seems to be a riot."

Traditionally, a Jewish boycott begins when a rabbi declares something unkosher. Rabbinical certification is now addressing ethical concerns in food production, in the wake of the Rubashkin fiasco. So now, with Kosher Conscience, Ethical Kosher, the Conservative Magen Tzedek and the Orthodox Rabbinical Council of America’s new ethical guidelines, the food industry will soon have its own BP’s and Toyotas, and we’ll have rabbinical permission to shun them.

Rabbinic boycotts extend well beyond food production. The Hebrew word for boycott is based on the term for excommunication, cherem. It is a religious category, the nuclear weapon in a rabbi’s arsenal, and one that has been all too often abused.

So while boycotts for us are as common as "two Jews, three synagogues," in the case of BP it would be best to channel your Gulf-related anger into more constructive responses.

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