What happened with Target.com in Israel, and what we need to learn for the future

On Wednesday morning, December 7, I wrote a researched and well-vetted article on my website, Janglo, where I called out discount retail giant Target.com for blocking Israeli users from accessing its website. By late afternoon, the Internet had warped the story into an ugly libel attack full of unsubstantiated accusations of anti-Semitism and worse. Understanding what transpired, and the lessons we can learn from this incident, is important for any thinking person involved with this incident.

On Sunday, Jennifer Bayer, a long-time user of the Janglo web site, posted a message to the site:

Are you having trouble accessing the Target.com site? …  Phone-based customer service is unable to respond to this issue.  Try writing to the CEO and COO.

I rejected her message, saying that she couldn’t publish her message until she had contacted the company to fix the issue, adding, “I bet the reality is different than you think.” She replied that she had in fact “called customer service twice for 20 minutes each time while they pass me around…unaware”. She also forwarded me an email, in which a customer service rep effectively blew off her question. She clearly stated that she was not accusing Target of anti-Semitism, but that she felt a public protest would bring the issue to the attention of Target’s management so they could fix it.

Our email conversation went on for several more hours, and I was impressed with Jennifer’s persistence in getting the issue addressed, and comfortable that she seemed to understand the responsibility that comes with making public claims against an organization.

For me, social responsibility has always been a core value. I founded Janglo more than 15 years ago to help English-speakers in Israel find jobs, housing, events, and all the basic information they need to live well in Israel. Over the years, we’ve helped tens of thousands of immigrants build their lives here, even as we’ve evolved from a Yahoo Group to a profitable business. Our weekly newsletter is known as one of the most useful sources of information in Israel, and our Facebook page shares practical news that others don’t cover.

But I’ve always understood the great danger of letting anyone say anything they want about anyone they want publicly, and from the beginning I’ve enforced strict limits on what can be said. I’ve seen too often how an unsubstantiated claim by one hysterical individual can cause great harm and suffering, and my approach has always been to enforce this even more strictly than do other sites and forums like mine around the world.

Anyway, by Wednesday morning, I had all but forgotten about the Target issue until Jennifer sent me a new reply Target had sent, asking what I thought. I had been sure that the whole issue was an oversight, so the email’s wording shocked me:

The reason you’re unable to place orders on Target.com from Israel is to ensure the data security of all our guests. Target.com has made the conscious decision to block IP addresses originating from Israel, as it is one of the top 5 countries from which malicious attacks against our website originate.”

Really Target? You’re writing off our entire country because you don’t feel like dealing with web security challenges? One doesn’t have to go the antisemitic route to feel snubbed by this kind of “conscious decision.”

Now, I want to defend Target for a minute. It’s quite possible that the cost of maintaining Internet security for the web site actually outweighs the profits that Target makes from their Israel operations. When Target first started shipping to Israel about a year ago, we at Janglo welcomed them warmly, but noted that the high cost of shipping prevented them from being the “shopping hero” Israelis wanted them to be. Shopping online at America’s discount giant wasn’t much cheaper than shopping locally, and we in Israel forget about Target, for the most part. So I’m not in a position to criticize Target’s decision, but the wording of that email left a bad taste in my mouth.

At that point, I decided to publish the news on Janglo. As one of the top English sources of consumer news in Israel, there was no question that this was a story I had to share.

The article I posted at 1:28 p.m., Wednesday didn’t take an accusatory tone, and definitely didn’t make any claims of BDS or anti-Semitism. I laid out the facts as I had them, and shared the article throughout my social channels. In the first few minutes, I saw some people commenting that it must be anti-Semitism, but others would quickly come and correct them. The situation was under control.

Somehow, the message got warped dramatically as it crossed the ocean. More and more people saw the news and jumped to conclusions about anti-Semitism without reading the article.

Then, a writer at OnlySimchas.com picked up the story and gave it his own sensational spin in an article that was shared 9200+ times. He also launched a petition entitled “Target.com Should not contribute to BDS and unblock Israel from their site!” The online petition, which features the image of a dog representing target with blood dripping from its fangs, had 981 signatures as of this writing Friday morning. By mid afternoon Israel time, Jews around the world were out with pitchforks to boycott Target.

An online petition promoting hate through misinformation.

The good news is that by 7:30 p.m. or so Wednesday evening, Target had unblocked Israeli users, and full access was restored. We in Israel could now see the page normally, include the offer “Take ILS 80 off your order of ILS 400* or more ▫ use code ISRAELSHIP.” That page was actually live the entire time, and if one would have looked at Target’s Israel page from elsewhere in the world, they would not have known there was a problem. Only Israeli IP addresses were blocked from viewing the site, which makes me think that the whole fiasco stemmed from miscommunication among Target’s various divisions. In any case, as Jennifer had predicted, Target restored our access once public pressure was applied.

But at what price? At a time when America is waking up to the dangers of how quickly hate and lies can spread through social media, I think we as a community need to consider very seriously the lessons of what happened here.

If you contributed to the hatred by spreading misinformation without understanding the facts, SHAME ON YOU. In today’s social media world, and especially after the world saw so recently how powerful lies are in spreading hatred, everyone needs to think before jumping to conclusions. We all need to understand how easily hysteria spread, and how far-reaching its effects can be. Everyone needs to understand that enabling and spreading misinformation without understanding it properly is as harmful to our surroundings as pollution and theft. I hope that individuals and community leaders will consider what needs to be done and take real action.

Finally, a public note to Target: I want to apologize on behalf of the entire Jewish people for the false accusations made against you. You’ve been a friend to Israel, and we hope that you’ll continue to work with Israel and expand your presence here. I’ll remind you that while we Israelis have no patience for our haters, we also have tremendous love and loyalty for those who love us. As an American citizen living in Israel, I know that the market here is incredibly hungry for a store like Target to open here, and that the business opportunity here is tremendous. Contact me offline and I’ll connect you to the people who can make it happen.

About the Author
Zev is the founder of Janglo, Israel's largest online community for English speakers. www.janglo.net