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Shelved: How A Borders Bookstore Linked the Economic Crisis with the “Israel Lobby” (and why I won’t shop there anymore)

July 4, 2009

UPDATED 7/15/09:   As an update to the post below, I understand that the management of the local Borders has altered the  offending display after determining that an employee acting on his/her own accord placed the Mearsheimer and Walt book in “recommended books” display.  I also understand from individuals familiar with the matter that the display was not, as previously suggested to me by store management and  customer service, intended to include the Mearsheimer/Walt book.  While I am appreciative of the fact that this display was not by the design of Borders’ corporate headquarters,  I am nevertheless troubled that this incident occurred and could occur in the future. Borders has a responsibility to regulate its own employee’s behavior, especially when that individual is acting as an agent of the store in stocking and displaying books. I urge Borders to confirm is employee policies in regard to this type of occurrence so it can be limited from happening again.

I spend hundreds of dollars annually at my local Borders bookstore, purchasing books and periodicals that I consume at a pace (and to my wife’s chagrin, cost and volume) that makes it one of my largest discretionary expenses.  I love books, and despite the cost (and space in my home) I refuse to give in to the digitized/Kindle-ized future that I know is forthcoming.

But now I will refuse to do something different – I will refuse to shop at Borders bookstores. Here’s why – in its merchandising design and choice of book recommendation it made a choice that I find deeply irresponsible and equally offensive, both as a consumer and as a Jewish American.

In the front of my local store in Atlanta, Borders has a display that groups books together as a form of suggestive advertising (“Like these?  “Try these…”).  On this particular shelf, Borders suggests that if you like The Shock Doctrine: The Rise of Disaster Capitalism by Naomi Klein, you should try:

•    Between the Lines:  A View Inside American Politics, People and Culture by Jonathan Alter

•    Reckless: How Debt, Deregulation and Dark Money Nearly Bankrupted America (And How we Can Fix It!) by Byron Dorgan

•    Now or Never:  Getting Down to the Business of Saving Our American Dream by Jack Cafferty

The Israel Lobby and U.S. Foreign Policy by John Mearsheimer and Stephen Walt

Photo of Bookshelf  (Like These? Try These...)

Photo of Bookshelf (Like These? Try These...)

Read that list and look at that picture closely. See something wrong with it?  I sure do – and it is why I won’t shop a Borders anymore.  Chaos, American politics, dark money, saving the American dream and… the Israel Lobby.  On one shelf, Borders visually (and not so subtlety) links commentary on the “disaster capitalism”  and the global economic crisis with reckless assertions (and conspiratorial theories) about the power and influence of advocates for a strong U.S./Israel relationship. On one shelf, Borders reinforces the perception oldest of anti-Semitic canards (that distressed economic environments are linked with the power and influence of Jews) while reinforcing the dangerously modern trend of delitigimization of Israel and its supporters in subtle and not so subtle ways.

With the stocking of one shelf, Borders reminded me of the subtle danger in every economic crisis – the danger that it will be used to question the Jewish role in economic and political spheres of influence.

Now to be clear, I am not asserting that Borders should not stock and sell Mearsheimer and Walt’s book, nor am I suggesting that Borders not display the book towards the front of the store. Borders is a commercial enterprise that has the right to market and sell all sorts of books in the manner it desires, and I don’t question that right or prerogative. I am also not suggesting that we revisit the substance and the merits of the Mearsheimer/Walt book. While I think it is a deeply flawed and strongly biased work that diminishes rather than enhances the debate about the basis and nature of the U.S. foreign policy relationship with Israel, there have been far more experienced critics that have taken Mearsheimer and Walt to task on the substance of their research and argument, and I will not rehash those arguments.   Although I would not encourage anyone to read its faulty reasoning and distorted analysis (other than to see it for what it really is), Mearsheimer/Walt’s book should not be censored.

Nor should it be suggested reading – especially by a national bookstore. And even more so, it should not be suggested reading to readers with an interest in the arguments about the current economic crisis.

That is what concerns me the most – how subtle the suggestion is, and how the association of contemporary American challenges and the “Israel Lobby” is not only displayed, but suggestively reinforced. When I first noticed the shelf I struggled to reconcile the display with common sense. Perhaps all the books were on “contemporary topics of political interest,” as I am sure Borders might suggest. But that argument doesn’t hold. The other books  focus on economic and domestic issues and the causes/challenges of our current economic environment  (even the Klein book, which makes some one-sided and dubious charges against Israel, is largely a book on the nature of global capitalism) – so what is the link with U.S. foreign policy, especially US/Israel foreign policy?  If a book on international affairs was to be included on that shelf, why not include a book about U.S./China economic relationship or a book about the influence of bank lobbyists (topics that are much more likely to relate to the current U.S. recession than U.S. foreign policy towards Israel)?  Why direct readers to this particular book when they have a particular interest in unrelated economic circumstances?

I hated to ask why, because I hated to contemplate the answer.

However, I did question store management and then, via phone, Borders customer service. Specifically, I asked who makes the decision how to stock shelves the particular “suggestion” shelves. Both representatives told me the decision to group books in that format, and the particular groupings, are determined by individuals at corporate headquarters. They didn’t know what the factors were in choosing the books, or who approved the selections. Regardless, those books ended up stocked on a shelf in one of Borders busiest in the Atlanta metro region (and presumably elsewhere) – directing curious readers about contemporary issues to a book of questionable academic veracity and one that openly questions the motivations of hundreds of thousands of Jewish and Christian Americans that actively support Israel.

We need to call this what it is – a bookseller of national influence’s deeply irresponsible decision that propagates a dangerous myth of an associated relationship between the current economic crises and the Jews.  It is offensive, and it is outrageous. And while we must be vigilant in not over-exercising the assertion that such decisions are in and of themselves driven by anti-Semitic biases, we must recognize that these types of decisions further establish an environment where anti-Semitic and anti-Israel attitudes do not garner the outrage they deserve.

Chaos, American politics, dark money, the need to save the American dream and… the Israel Lobby. On one shelf Borders connects dots that have no basis to be connected. And it does so in a way that even discerning shoppers may not realize. Borders may not have an obligation to advance public discussion and intellectual curiosity, but when it undertakes to do so it has a responsibility to do so in a conscientious, rather than in a biased and provocative manner.

Everyone has a right to shop how and where they choose, and stores have the right to attract and serve those shoppers in any way they see fit. Personally, I will not support booksellers who specifically recommend to buys a book that misrepresents Jewish political involvement as a nefarious activity, and especially when that book is suggested to readers who found unrelated books of interest. Accordingly, my support of Borders has been shelved, and I suggest readers consider shelving their support as well until Borders explains its rationale and utilizes policies that prevent theses types of irresponsible decisions from occurring again.

If we all don’t stand up now to these types of subtle messages that reinforce ancient biases and faulty reasoning, then there may be new chapters in the long history book of how times of economic distress have fomented anti-Jewish bias. And that is an updated history book I don’t want in my collection – no matter how much I love books.

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One comment

  1. I think that’s a pretty far-fetched anti-semitic innuendo you’re seeing.

    It’s a big display about the current affairs, international relations, and “problems” the U.S.A. is facing at home and abroad. (Including two purely descriptive books: The Next 100 Years and The World Is Flat).

    Why shouldn’t a book about the allegedly undue and negative influence of one lobby on American foreign policy be there? (An interest group that, incidentally, has plenty of non-Jewish backers and does not have the support of many Jewish-Americans.)



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