Boycotts are sensitive issues to Jews, and they are often discussed and carried out in incongruous ways. When we see the BDS (Boycott Divest Sanction) movement gaining steam on college campuses across the United States, we want to lash out, telling them how wrong they are about Israel. However, when we know that many Eastern European Jews and their descendants cringe at the idea of owning a Mercedes or Volkswagen, it’s an oddity that we accept and even deal with as we conveniently park the German car around the corner so the neighbors don’t see.
BDS efforts were first introduced two years before Israel’s independence in 1948 when the Arab League established and has since maintained a blacklist of companies that trade with Israel. Names on that list are often blocked from the lucrative Arab markets.
Groups like the Anti-Defamation League and others from the alphabet soup of Jewish organizations staged public, direct and indirect campaigns at boycott compliant companies. The BDS movement has moved beyond products and trade; to academia and education – to prevent the flow of knowledge from Israel’s thinkers to the world and to keep new ideas out of Israel as well.
Boycotts work, clearly, as it did in apartheid South Africa. It is the reason that so many who oppose Israel for everything from ideological and religious reasons to base anti-Semitism try to make the groundless and wounding comparison between Israel and the apartheid regime.
The unique history of the Jewish experience has helped create an almost understood, unstated list of products and companies that were associated with Jewish suffering. Earlier, when companies such as PepsiCo and Toyota were alleged to be adhering to this boycott, Jews took notice. Most Japanese automakers boycotted Israel until the Gulf War of 1992 cracked holes in the trade walls.
For years, Pepsi products were not allowed in our home, and my father and grandfather would mock any Jewish friend or relative with a German car. As a writer, however, my father always used the most advanced IBM Selectric typewriter with the neat typeball that even came in a Hebrew font. My grandfather’s law office had three, and I used them all for my school papers as well.
So why did IBM get a pass? It was a little known fact back then that the American Behemoth, International Business Machines, headquartered in Armonk, NY, collaborated with the Nazi regime to help track down every Jew in Germany and Eastern Europe. In his landmark book released in 2001, IBM and the Holocaust, writer and investigator Edwin Black documented how the “concept of massively organized information quietly emerged to become a means of social control, a weapon of war, and a roadmap for group destruction,” through the use of IBM’s first tabulating machine, arguably the first computer, the Hollerith tabulation machine – built by Buffalo born Herman Hollerith.
Black argues that IBM, with the knowledge of its New York headquarters, willingly customized and specialized applications for the Nazis. IBM’s profits soared during the Third Reich, and it kept sending more cards and providing parts to maintain the machines that had been deployed to just about all concentration camps and regions under German control.
IBM sent samples of customized punch cards back and forth to Reich offices until they met Hitler’s specifications. While IBM argues its virtue, the cards could only be designed, printed, and purchased from IBM; there were no generic alternatives back then. Additionally, the machines were not sold, but leased; and they were maintained and restored solely by IBM.
IBM denies any knowledge or complicity and claims that it cannot be responsible for what its machines were used for once purchased. Yet, as the war raged on and news of the extermination camps spread to the world and, needless to say, to New York as well, IBM’s German affiliate had grown to be a serious economic engine for the company.
On the tenth anniversary of the book’s launch, and more than 1.5 million books sold, Edwin Black prepared a second edition printing with smoking gun, never-before published IBM internal correspondences and government documents. Mr. Black has spent the past ten years filling in the small blanks left and answering the claims of IBM as a result of his work. On Sunday, February 26th, at Yeshiva University’s Furst Hall, the book will be launched while the author speaks before a live and an Internet webcast audience.
Michael Hirsh at Newsweek wrote, “IBM facilitated the identification and roundup of millions of Jews during the 12 years of the Third Reich... Black’s evidence may be the most damning to appear yet against a corporate accomplice.”
The next time you hear someone make a snide comment about a Mercedes or a Braun coffee maker, ask why the ThinkPad on his desk is any better. Boycott’s are not the answer, and blaming a company today for the actions of its leaders during WWII may satisfy individual rage, but will not change the facts. Remembering what happened, uncovering the truth, knowing who benefitted and facilitated, and teaching new generations not to hate are far more productive recourse.
Juda Engelmayer is an executive with the NY PR Agency, 5W Public Relations.