Department store John Lewis has moved to quash an allegation in a Jewish freesheet claiming that it was considering a boycott of Israel goods.
The false claim was made in an article in the Jewish News by Mill Hill rabbi Yitzchak Schochet, who called for a boycott of the store, and which John Lewis says has cost it thousands of pounds in cancelled sales.
After a viral email campaign supporting the boycott call, John Lewis has been inundated with emails, letters and complaints from customers, many of whom have cancelled orders. Waitrose, the supermarket chain which is part of the John Lewis group, has also been hit.
Andy Street, John Lewis’s managing director, called the JC “because we want to set the record straight and repair as quickly as possible the damage this has caused to our reputation with the Jewish community and our Partners (the John Lewis staff)”.
Mr Street continued: “The best words for this are that it was most unfortunate it came about in this way. There was literally no story here.
“John Lewis has always been, and remains, a non-aligned organisation that sources products from all over the world, including Israel. We intend to continue to source products from Israel, and I cannot make it any clearer than that.
“To the best of my knowledge, neither the newspaper nor the rabbi checked before publication with us.
“Both customers and our own partners have been very concerned by what they saw.
“If Jewish community members thought we were considering a boycott, they would feel very strongly about it and that is an alarming thing. In fact, the whole thing has been an unnecessary alarm.”
He said the store had had to publish an internal statement “because I want our Jewish staff to be absolutely confident that we are not doing what we are being accused of. The most important thing right now is that the Jewish community knows the truth”.
The claim appeared in the Jewish News two weeks ago. Totally Jewish, its owner, has issued what it called a “clarification” of the paper’s “Ask The Rabbi” column by Rabbi Schochet.
The rabbi’s advice was based on a memo sent to a John Lewis supplier, asking if any products sold by the company had their origin in Israel.
In his “Ask The Rabbi” column, Rabbi Schochet wrote: “Boycott the boycotters! If two hundred thousand Jews in London would stop buying at John Lewis, my guess is they’ll feel the pinch.”
Mill Hill Synagogue subsequently issued a press release headed “UK Rabbi Triggers Boycott At Major Chain Store” and went to explain what had happened.
Rabbi Schochet, meanwhile, has issued his own clarification about the column. He said: “I am mindful that John Lewis never suggested a boycott on Israeli products whatsoever. I would point out that nowhere in my article did it explicitly state that John Lewis is boycotting Israel.
“But I do question their need to pander to such queries of those customers who suddenly want to know whether they stock Israeli goods. Are they assisting those who are seeking to boycott the purchase of Israeli products — and possibly even the store itself as a result? Is this a reprehensible or weak-willed course of action by the store?”
A John Lewis spokeswoman responded: “Rabbi Schochet has assumed that customer enquiries related only to those who might wish to boycott Israeli-sourced goods.
“He might be interested to know that some enquiries have been from those who wish to proactively support goods from Israel, a point that he appears to have missed.
“Had he taken the trouble of asking before publishing his response, we would have been delighted to confirm this.
“Whenever customers ask questions about anything — including product sourcing — we inform partners who meet customers, and from whom customers expect informed product knowledge.
“There is no question of being proactive with any product sourcing information and certainly not, as the rabbi suggested, to be ‘assisting those who are seeking to boycott the purchase of Israeli products’.”