Sunday, June 28, 2009

Pepsi, Coke and Israel

MEMRI and Arutz 7 are reporting that individuals in the Muslim World are again recycling an old, somewhat ridiculous claim that PEPSI is owned or controlled by “The Zionist”, and the name PEPSI stands for “Pay Every Penny to Save Israel”.

This claim has been around for a while and it is laughable for a few reasons. I remember when I was younger Pepsi wasn’t available in Israel and the assumption was that they were boycotting Israel (it was “well known” that “Coke was for Jews", Pepsi was for Arabs”)

To add to the claim, people pointed to the “Anti-Zionist” Satmar Rebbe favourite drink was Pepsi.

People even claimed that Tempo cola was owned by Pepsi (which it is and their logos were similar), but Pepsi didn’t want to sell under their own name in Israel as they were worried about losing the Arab Market.

I don’t believe that there was any truth to the rumours, the reality was that the Israeli market was probably too small for more than one major soft drink manufacturer. At that time Pepsi Cola was also not available in New Zealand.

What people may have forgotten is that the Soft Drink company that was boycotting Israel until 1966 was Coca Cola and ironically they were only forced to start selling in Israel when an Egyptian businessman found a bottle of Coke with Amharic writing and mistaking it for Hebrew accused Coke of selling to to the Zionist. Coke quickly denied selling to Israel, which prompted questions from the American Jewish community as to why not, which eventually forced Coke to open a plant in Israel.

Snopes has a the story…

Successfully doing business in the Middle East often depended upon not doing business in Israel. The Arab League was quick to boycott, and multinational concerns were forced to choose between the smaller market of Israel and the much larger market of the combined Arab states. For firms caught in the middle, it was a "no win" situation.

Coca-Cola's turn in the harsh spotlight of public opinion came in 1966.

April 1 1966: At a press conference in Tel Aviv, businessman Moshe Bornstein accused Coca-Cola of refusing to do business in Israel out of fear of reprisals and loss of profits in the Arab soft drink market. A week later in New York, the Anti-Defamation League of the B'nai B'rith released a statement backing up the charges, triggering headlines across the U.S.A. Coca-Cola was in hot water, and the American public was demanding answers. It was also rejecting the answers it was getting.

In 1949 Coca-Cola had attempted to open a bottling plant in Israel, but its efforts had been blocked by the Israeli government. As long as no one questioned the company too closely, the failure of this one stab at the Israeli market appeared to provide a satisfactory answer for Coca-Cola's conspicuous absence from the Israeli market. In the meanwhile, Coca-Cola was content to continue quietly serving the much larger Arab market, a market it was likely to lose if it began operating in Israel.

In 1961 an incident in Cairo involving civil servant Mohammad Abu Shadi momentarily shattered the quiet. Shadi had come into possession of a Coca-Cola bottle manufactured in Ethiopia, mistaken the Amharic lettering on its label for Hebrew, and publicly accused Coca-Cola of doing business with Israel.

The manager of Coca-Cola's Egyptian bottling operations wasted no time (and little thought) in assuring the press that Coca-Cola would never allow the Israelis a franchise. With their hands forced by their bottler's impolitic statement, company officials quickly invented the explanation that Israel was too small to support a franchise and gave their reasons for staying away as purely economic, not political. For the time being, this seemed to keep a lid on the brewing storm.

It wasn't until 1966 that people began to wonder openly why it was that nearby Cyprus had no difficulty supporting its Coca-Cola franchise despite their having only one-tenth the population of Israel. The comfortable aura of quiet was shattered by Bornstein's charges and the subsequent uproar they raised in the U.S.A.

When these issues came to light in 1966, they proved highly embarrassing to Coca-Cola. The administrators of Mount Sinai Hospital in Manhattan announced they would stop serving Coke, and the owners of Nathan's Famous Hot Dog Emporium on Coney Island followed suit. Faced with the prospect of a Jewish boycott in America, the company attempted to right the tipped canoe by announcing it would open a bottling plant in Tel Aviv.

Pepsi's entry into Israel in 1992 did not go smoothly — the evolution theme of its "Choice of a New Generation" ad campaign (in which man was portrayed as evolving from a monkey into a Pepsi drinker) angered the strictly observant haredi community. Though Pepsi pulled the campaign from Israel, it found itself in more hot water over a 1993 Michael Jackson tour. Jackson's unthinking flashbulb-popping arrival on a Sabbath was viewed by many observant Jews as a desecration. For a time Pepsi lost its kashrut (kosher) certificate because it was deemed to be promoting a culture that would corrupt the nation's youth through rock music concerts and advertisements featuring scantily-clad women.

Today you can get either Coke or Pepsi in anywhere in the Middle East, and the days of the boycott have faded into memory. Even so, there are still those who observe the stricture of "Coke is for Jews; Pepsi is for Arabs." Old wounds are not necessarily healed wounds.


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