Behind the Headlines: Burger King is Put in a Pickle As U.S. Arab Groups Show Muscle
Menu JTA Search

Behind the Headlines: Burger King is Put in a Pickle As U.S. Arab Groups Show Muscle

Download PDF for this date

Have it whose way? Burger King Corp. claims to have pulled its name from an Israeli franchise in the West Bank town of Ma’aleh Adumim for breach of contract.

But some Jewish leaders — as well as Arab American and Muslim American groups — believe the Miami-based burger chain made the decision under heat from a threatened worldwide boycott.

The conflict may foreshadow an era in which Arab and Muslim groups in America represent a significant lobbying force on the Middle East.

Burger King argues that its move was based on a “technical reason,” said Malcolm Hoenlein, the executive vice chairman of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, an umbrella group.

But, he said, “That’s not how it will be perceived.”

The decision to pull the Burger King brand from the West Bank franchise came two days after the Arab League announced it would vote next month on whether to declare a boycott against the fast food company.

Meshulam Riklis, the Israeli-born franchise owner, meanwhile, has said he’ll continue to sell trademarked Burger King menu items and keep the restaurant open.

For its part, Burger King said in a statement that it canceled the right of Riklis’ company to use the Burger King brand in Ma’aleh Adumim because Rikamor Ltd. had falsely said the outlet would be located in a food court in Israel.

“It had been clearly understood between the two companies that Burger King would not approve Rikamor opening restaurants in the West Bank at this sensitive time in the peace process,” the statement says.

Morton Klein, national president of the Zionist Organization of America, said Burger King is taking a “pro-Arab position.”

“They are in effect saying that the Jews of Ma’aleh Adumim should have no American businesses to service them, so in a sense they are cooperating with Arabs’ desire to freeze out Jews who live in Judea and Samaria.”

According to Burger King, Rikamor twice said that it would close the counter, but did not follow through.

Burger King said the food counter could remain open, but it could no longer involve the Burger King brand “at this time.”

The controversy points to the developing political savvy and organization of Arab American and Muslim American groups.

A coalition of Muslim groups — led by the five-month-old American Muslims for Jerusalem and joined by the American Muslim Council and the Arab American Institute, among a dozen others — waged a public relations campaign against Burger King, using e-mail as well as the traditional street demonstration.

The nondenominational American Friends Service Committee independently launched a two-day e-mail campaign, which it says reached 20,000 people.

Last year, Arab American groups, as well as groups such as the Chicago-based American Friends Committee and the Israeli group Gush Shalom, protested against an American ice cream company because its Israeli franchise had purchased mineral water from an Israeli supplier in the Golan Heights.

The Israeli licensee canceled its contract with the water company, Mei Eden.

Faced with criticism by American Jewish groups, however, Ben & Jerry’s denied that it was acquiescing to groups who were calling for a boycott of the Israeli product.

In the Burger King flame-up, the coalition of Muslim groups held an Aug. 5 news conference at which they called for a global boycott. The announcement was covered in the major Arab-language media and led to e-mail campaigns and a one- day demonstration at restaurants in the United States.

Compared to 20 or even 10 years ago, today the Arab-American community is “an organized constituency” that is “self-identified and has an agenda and has an awareness of its ability to act” on issues of concern, “domestic and international, local and national,” said James Zogby, the president of the Arab American Institute.

“People are feeling very good about what the community is able to do,” he said in an interview.

In 1980 Zogby founded the Arab-American Anti-Discrimination Committee. He left in 1984 to start the Arab American Institute, which he said, has made voter registration among Arab and Muslim Americans “our principle effort.”

Beyond turning out to vote in above-average numbers, Zogby said, the constituency is sending letters to their congressional representatives and “sending letters to editors.”

The Burger King controversy “is an interesting example of the extent to which people take seriously writing letters and calling” and taking action that says: The community “is here and is a dimension that has to be considered,” Zogby said.

American Muslim groups are indeed acquiring “political muscle and legitimacy,” said Steven Emerson, a specialist on terrorism.

But Emerson believes the movement is led by groups that are largely “fundamentalist and proterrorist,” with which more moderate Arab Americans, such as Zogby, are aligning themselves.

The Burger King issue “is not a 100 percent clear-cut moral issue,” Emerson said, “but it does reflect the growing clout of American Muslim groups in terms of their influence over corporations, their influence over the Arab world and their influence over the media.”

On Aug. 24, the Arab League had announced that it would take up the issue of the Israeli franchise in the West Bank at its conference in Cairo on Sept. 12 and 13.

“No single Arab country accepts this because it violates international law,” Arab League Secretary-General Esmat Abdel Meguid told reporters after the agenda was set for the meeting of ministers from 21 countries and the Palestine Liberation Organization.

In addition to 46 outlets in Israel, Burger King has restaurants in several countries with Arab and Muslim majorities, including Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, United Arab Emirates and Malaysia.

For weeks, Arab and Muslim groups in the United States protested the opening of a Western company’s franchise in the town of 25,000 just east of Jerusalem because they say it tacitly supports Israeli occupation.

“Settlement activity is a human rights violation as far as we’re concerned,” said Hussein Ibish, the communication director for the Washington-based Arab American Anti-Discrimination Committee, one of the American groups that contacted the Arab League about the situation.

Burger King is a unit of a British-based food and drinks group, Diageo, whose other brands include Pillsbury, Haagen-Dazs and several liquor companies.

In its statement, Burger King said it “made this decision purely on a commercial basis and in the best interests of thousands of people who depend on the Burger King reputation for their livelihood.”

The statement goes on to say that “Burger King has no interest in taking sides in the Arab-Israeli peace process, except to welcome its early and mutually acceptable outcome.”

Abraham Foxman, the national director of the Anti-Defamation League, said that because Burger King’s decision comes after the Arab League’s talk of a boycott, it represents a “submission to the boycott.”

Companies have cited “commercial reasons” for not doing business with Israel for 50 years, Foxman said — that is, during the Arab boycott of Israel. That action, initiated by the Arab League in 1945 to prohibit its members from having relations with pre-state Palestine and Israel or doing business with companies that did business with Israel, was eased only in 1994 after the signing of the Oslo peace accord.

In a statement, Hoenlein and the Presidents Conference chairman, Ronald Lauder, said that an attempt by “certain Arab and Muslim groups” to “reassert an economic boycott” at a time when the peace process is moving forward “neither serves the cause of peace nor the interest” of Palestinians or Israelis.

“There is no justification for this kind of blackmail, particularly as we are asked to encourage investments” in all parts of the region, they said.

The statement says Ma’aleh Adumim is part of Greater Jerusalem and its industrial park employs 1,000 Palestinian Arabs.

At least one long-time observer of the Middle East, however, cautioned against drawing comparisons to the Arab ban on Israeli industry.

“We should keep in mind that this is a boycott of a business on the West Bank, not in Israel itself,” said M.J. Rosenberg, director of policy at the Israel Policy Forum, a group founded to support the Oslo peace process.

“So therefore, it’s absurd to liken this to the Arab boycott of pre-1994, which was directed against Tel Aviv, Jerusalem and Israel itself — rather than beyond the Green Line. We know Arabs and Arab Americans oppose the occupation of the West Bank; there’s nothing new in that.

“That’s what this is about,” he said.

Founding Funders

The digitization of the JTA Archive would not have been possible without the generous support of the following donors:
  • The Gottesman Fund
  • Righteous Persons Foundation
  • Charles H. Revson Foundation
  • Elisa Spungen Bildner and Robert Bildner, in honor of Norma Spungen
  • George S. Blumenthal
  • Grace and Scott Offen Charitable Fund