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E-commerce Entrepreneurs Learn That ‘jewish’ Can Be Hard to Define

When Ilan Alon, a 27-year-old Israeli living in Los Angeles, decided to launch a Jewish version of eBay, he never intended to be a rabble rouser. Unfortunately for Alon and three fellow entrepreneurs — Miron Moalen, 29, Daniel Scherl, 33, and David Stern, 37 — JewishBuys.com has found itself knee-deep in controversy since its launch six months ago.

In addition to Dead Sea cosmetics, kosher wine and chuppah decorations, the Web site contains books of Holocaust propaganda, T-shirts that say “Shalom Motherf***er” and Jewish stars adorned with crosses, courtesy of Jews for Jesus.

Almost all of these items are posted by Jews — and opposed by other Jews, Alon says.

“We got reactions like, ‘How can you post that?’ ” Alon said. ” ‘How can you let people put those T-shirts on the same Web site as books of Torah? This is supposed to be an appropriate Jewish Web site. How you can let the word f’*** be on a Jewish Web site?’

“Thank God we don’t have any nudity from Jewish artists or anything like that — yet,” he added.

The company may be small, but its travails illustrate how difficult it is to define what makes a site “Jewish” as entrepreneurs jostle for attention in the burgeoning e-commerce sector.

JewishBuys.com began when its founders — two Israelis and two Americans — met in an eBay chatroom.

“We did research and discovered that one of the top selling items on eBay is Judaica,” Alon explained. “There are 50,000 items running on eBay in Judaica per month. We realized there’s a big market for that.”

The site, which was called Jewishmuseumonline for its first few months, has grown to include 400 sellers and more than 2,000 registered users. At one point, when it was advertising on Google, Alon said the site received 3 million hits in four days.

The way JewishBuys.com is structured, users are free to sell any item they like — which, until now, has allowed items with no Jewish content, or that some Jews might find offensive.

Some users have capitalized on this unregulated environment. One post, advertising a T-shirt with the words “Jewish American Princess,” reads, “When you’re a hot JAP you gotta say it out loud! Make all those cute Jewish boys drool with this sexy American apparel.”

Another post, reads, “Who doesn’t want peace??!! We sure do, but we express it in our own way with this “Shalom Motherf#*$r” shirt.”

A few clicks away stand sacred Jewish texts and relics from the Holocaust.

Though such items have angered some shoppers, Alon said he doesn’t like the idea of playing cop on the site.

“Telling anyone how to describe the word ‘Jewish’ or what Judaica means is hard for me to do,” he explained.

But that stance has proved problematic. One user said he decided to sell a book of Nazi propaganda on JewishBuys.com to highlight the lack of an on-site filter.

“Another reason that I am putting this item up for sale is to protest this site’s permission of one seller to promote Christianity,” the man wrote in the product description “I think it is disgusting as well as self-defeating to have Jews come to a Jewish-oriented Web site, do a search and become exposed to Christian-oriented material which may cause them to one day to convert to Christianity.”

Such fiery posts have put JewishBuys.com in an awkward position.

“From the point of view of the law, we can’t be touched,” Alon explained. “But from the point of view of our PR and how we’re going to look to the community, it’s difficult.”

Alon said he had been approached by a religious organization that owns Jewish Web sites and that wanted JewishBuys.com to be more “kosher,” not operating on Shabbat and selling only religiously oriented Judaica. Alon rejected the demands.

For now, however, Alon and his partners are considering some form of oversight. He said the team plans to start removing items that evoke Jews for Jesus paraphernalia or that involve nudity. In addition, JewishBuys.com will no longer house materials unless they are connected to Judaism in some way.

As far as further regulation is concerned, Alon remains hesitant.

“I’d like to get a public response on other items,” he explained. The company’s investors and shareholders, he said, “are the most important thing for us. Their opinions, and the public’s opinions, are No. 1.”

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