To ask, or not to ask...that is the question
August 12, 2003 1:17 PM   Subscribe

It's illegal to answer questions about where something is produced... if it's produced in Israel. Or so a Missouri company has just discovered. They've been fined for answering the question, "Are any of these products made in Israel, or made of Israeli materials?"
posted by dejah420 (32 comments total)

 
This is the scariest line of the story, I think:
"the Bureau of Industry and Security, formerly known as the Bureau of Export Administration."
posted by MrMoonPie at 1:31 PM on August 12, 2003


None of the materials used in the creation of this post were made in Israel.

Oh, wait. I typed some of it using a little Israeli fig.
posted by stupidsexyFlanders at 1:41 PM on August 12, 2003


This is really strange, or else I'm just not getting it. Is the US Government, in a really round-about way, trying to make it illegal not to buy Israeli products?

So if you take a moral or ethical stance against Israel, and choose not to buy anything from Israel (as a individual, or as a business person) on those grounds, that's illegal? Or is it only illegal to sell something with Israeli materials, and admit to others that your product contains Israeli materials along with US materials?

Very strange...
posted by SweetJesus at 1:46 PM on August 12, 2003


If I read this correctly what the govt is saying is thaty will not allow anti-Israel counteies (ie, Arab nations) impose boycotts on Americans by telling us that we must comply with their wishes and agree that we (Ameicans) are not dealing with a proudct that has any connection to Israel. Now, this on the surface may seem not the govt's biz, but then if you dislike Israel, for example, you need only examine a product and decide you will not buy it....or from China, etc Doesn't strike me as odd that our govt refuses to allow outside countries dictate to us in this manner.
posted by Postroad at 1:51 PM on August 12, 2003


It's illegal to answer questions about where something is produced... if it's produced in Israel.

Actually, no. In fact, in the situation you're describing, the product was not made in Israel.

And I'm sorry, but what's the news here? The antiboycott regulations were enacted in 1976 and 1977. They have been enforced by Democratic and Republican administrations. It wasn't as big of an issue when the Arabic countries didn't enforce their boycott. Now that the boycott has been renewed, the U.S.'s enforcement of its anti-boycott regulations has been renewed. I'm sure you're trying to imply this is the result of some insidious Bush administration policy, but that's not the case.
posted by pardonyou? at 1:51 PM on August 12, 2003


While I can appreciate the US looking out for Israel, the case sounds weird.

If I had a widget company and I sold millions in widgets every year I might get all sorts of crazy feedback from customers. If someone asked "oh by the way, are any parts in the widgets made in Sri Lanka?" I might not even bat an eye when answering yes or no. It's an odd request, but doesn't seem like it's anything illegal for someone to ask. It sounds like a law that no one knew existed was broken.

And then why is the fine $6,000 for not filing the request with the obscure department I've never heard of and answering the question? Is it a percentage of the sale made?
posted by mathowie at 1:55 PM on August 12, 2003


So if you take a moral or ethical stance against Israel, and choose not to buy anything from Israel (as a individual, or as a business person) on those grounds, that's illegal? Or is it only illegal to sell something with Israeli materials, and admit to others that your product contains Israeli materials along with US materials?

It has nothing to do with the purchaser. It has everything to do with a U.S. seller. And it has nothing to do with whether the product was made in Israel, but rather whether the seller is somehow knowingly participating in the buyer's boycott. The regulations prohibit numerous things, including furnishing information about business relationships with boycotted countries or blacklisted individuals.
posted by pardonyou? at 1:58 PM on August 12, 2003


It sounds like a law that no one knew existed was broken.

Matt, you might not have known about it, but I can pretty much guarantee that if you were a U.S. manufacturer of widgets that sold in the global marketplace, you'd know about it. The law's pretty well known.
posted by pardonyou? at 2:03 PM on August 12, 2003


It sounds like insanity to me. People have a right to know about what they're buying, and make informed decisions.

I guess people who are boycotting Israeli goods, will just have to boycott US goods, in addition.
posted by Blue Stone at 2:11 PM on August 12, 2003


Sounds like an imperfect solution to try to deal with a problem which, when stood alone, sounds bizarre, but lacking any better solution, surfices. The world is not now perfect nor will it ever be. But fuel for gripes abounds.
posted by HTuttle at 2:15 PM on August 12, 2003


It's a ridiculous law made by a ridiculous branch of the government for which all ideology is subserviant to the protection of one ideal-- a foreign country. Free-trade Pro-Commerce Republicans and Protectionist Democrats can all band together when the issue is a Wonderful and Amazing foreign country. Thank G-d for Bi-partisanship as long as it involves assisting the economies of other countries.

Basically if I want to do business in a country that has a boycott of another country, I should be able to sell them products in what ever manner I please. It's anti-business to the extreme to force American companies to not cater to their customers wherever they may be, and it's putting the needs of a foreign country ahead of the needs of American businesses and their employees.

Of course, because this issue concerns a certain country, which is above all other countries, discussion of this issue will never make it to the national level.
posted by cell divide at 2:17 PM on August 12, 2003


And I'm sorry, but what's the news here? The antiboycott regulations were enacted in 1976 and 1977. They have been enforced by Democratic and Republican administrations. It wasn't as big of an issue when the Arabic countries didn't enforce their boycott. Now that the boycott has been renewed, the U.S.'s enforcement of its anti-boycott regulations has been renewed. I'm sure you're trying to imply this is the result of some insidious Bush administration policy, but that's not the case.

Hey, good job being the first to use the words "Democrat," "Republican" and "Bush" in this thread. It helps speed up the process when you get indignant before anyone actually gives cause for it. Really.

The news here is that this is a law which essentially fines you for saying something- not like libel or slander, where damage is incurred from lies or falsehoods- but saying something that's perfectly true. And, as you noted, regardless of when it was enacted it was recently and pubicly enforced.

There's also an issue with the outrageous double-standard here. I find it hard to believe, pardonyou?, that you'd agree Americans would equally be content with, for example, being legally forbidden from telling or being told if something they're buying came from France, to use an example of products Americans are currently trying to boycott. Or perhaps you'd be happy if the government decided- since a boycott would harm certain industries- that it was illegal to say that the food you're selling wasn't genetically-modified?
posted by XQUZYPHYR at 2:28 PM on August 12, 2003


Whether you agree or disagree with the premise of the Arab boycott, the following is obvious:

If you give up the right to boycott Israel for its treatment of Palestinians, then you should also give up the right to boycott South Africa for apartheid, or France for its "anti-Americanism" or Iraq for just about everything.
posted by Slothrup at 2:37 PM on August 12, 2003


There's also an issue with the outrageous double-standard here. I find it hard to believe, pardonyou?, that you'd agree Americans would equally be content with, for example, being legally forbidden from telling or being told if something they're buying came from France...

Well, you're right with respect to my position, but there's no double standard (let alone an "outrageous" double standard). I do think the law's ridiculous, and I don't think it's good policy. I happen to think free trade should be protected (which is why it's so heartening to see many of you suddenly vigorously defending the free trade rights of U.S. corporations).

My reading of the post -- which I doubt was erroneous -- implied that it's some sort of nefarious new scheme. I simply wanted to point out that it's not exactly new -- it was passed during the Carter administration. There are all kinds of kooky laws that date back decades; I'm not sure if they warrant examination on MetaFilter. The rest of my posts just addressed what the regulations require.
posted by pardonyou? at 2:39 PM on August 12, 2003


My reading of the post -- which I doubt was erroneous -- implied that it's some sort of nefarious new scheme. I simply wanted to point out that it's not exactly new -- it was passed during the Carter administration.

Without agreeing or disagreeing with your point, I do have to point out that, while the law may have been around since Billy Beer, active enforcement is a decision that is made by the current executive branch.
posted by Slothrup at 2:48 PM on August 12, 2003


Aside from the disturbing notion that it's apparently illegal for a US business to inform a customer where their products are produced or parts arrive from, from the way I read the second link it's also illegal for a US person to decide for themselves not to purchase Israeli products?

Basically what the US Government is telling me is that I have no choice whether or not to buy Israeli-associated items (and certainly have no right to be informed of such a linkage if I ask) even if I have moral and ethical objections to financially supporting the ongoing Israeli military occupation and demographic conversion of the West Bank and Gaza Strip? Does anyone know if similar regulations were enacted that forced companies to camouflage their business dealings with apartheid South Africa? Are similar regulations also in place for goods made in countries that engage in gross violations of human rights (for example)? Imagine if the "Made In Country X" label was stricken from the tags of clothing you buy, so multinational corporations could freely manufacture their wares in countries where children are exploited in sweatshops without fear of being 'found out'! This seems to be fundamentally the same action being enforced by the Commerce Department.

I should be allowed the choice to decide whether I wish to boycott Israeli (or for that matter, Chinese or Burmese or whomever's) products, and not have such origin information denied me by my own government in apparently complicit support for what I believe are immoral and unethical activities by US corporations... whether its profiting from sweatshop-sewn clothing or propping up the ongoing occupation of Palestine.
posted by SenshiNeko at 2:59 PM on August 12, 2003


Basically what the US Government is telling me is that I have no choice whether or not to buy Israeli-associated items (and certainly have no right to be informed of such a linkage if I ask) even if I have moral and ethical objections to financially supporting the ongoing Israeli military occupation and demographic conversion of the West Bank and Gaza Strip?
Thought the same, no, they did not answer the request correctly. Look at the article from back to front.


In Cook's case, the Bureau of Industry and Security charged that Cook failed to report a letter of credit it received on Dec. 1, 1997, from ABN AMRO Bank in Manama, Bahrain. The letter asked it to confirm that the goods being shipped "are not of Israeli origin nor do they contain any Israeli"material.

Since 1990, Cook has had a joint venture relationship with the chemicals division of TotalFinaElf, a multibillion-dollar petrochemicals giant based in Paris.


This article was confusing; let me get this straight. The seller said the articles were not from Israel or made there, but were. This was a request from backers of Israeli boycott. The company finded is also a partnership with a large based Paris company. Sounds like this has to do with France's issues over Jewish racism.

In a statement released at the time by the department, Commerce Undersecretary for Industry and Security Kenneth Juster reminded American companies that the "U.S. government is strongly opposed to restrictive trade practices or boycotts targeted against Israel."
posted by thomcatspike at 3:03 PM on August 12, 2003


have such origin information denied me by my own government in apparently complicit support for what I believe are immoral and unethical activities by US corporations...

SenshiNeko you do have a choice, you don't buy them easy as that. But the company requesting what you so describe is the asshat, yet that is their choice, boycott. But Cook lied to the one's financing the sell of product overseas, ABN AMRO Bank in Manama, Bahrain. Would you allow that?
posted by thomcatspike at 3:12 PM on August 12, 2003


thomcatspike: setting the record straight.
posted by zpousman at 3:13 PM on August 12, 2003


I don't believe they would have been fined for just "telling" someone where their products would have been made. Where the problem was that they were certifying that they were not made in Israel.

The request from Bahrain on the letter of credit asked them to certify this. The US government does not recognize this boycott, and wants to prevent others from aiding unrecognized boycotts (restraint of free trade.)

The government believed that the intent of Cook was to aid the illegal boycott; therefore, the fine.

Read the regulations here on page 12 (PDF).
posted by mtstover at 3:25 PM on August 12, 2003


Like you said, Thomcat... this whole situation seems somewhat confusing in the way it was reported. Surprisingly, skimming through the text of the regulations provided by mstover (760.2 f on letters of credit) actually made it much clearer.

The understanding I initially received from reading the original article and accompanying Commerce Department link was that if I went to a store or a manufacturer or importer and asked whether such-and-such a product I was considering purchasing was from Israel or made with Israeli parts, the business is required by these regulations to not answer my question. I was not comfortable with the concept of making it illegal for American businesses to provide information about the origin of their products or for US persons to even ask the question - a very bad precedent that could be applied to a host of other cases as well (as I alluded to above).

Perhaps Cook should have sought credit from a bank based in a non-Arab League country. (Or better yet, financing from an Israeli bank - how's that for turning the tables?) As for the Arab League boycott of Israel, it's just as 'valid' as the US boycott/embargo of Cuba that (as far as I know) no other country in the world recognizes. Are US banks barred by law from doing financial transactions with companies that have a 'business relationship' with Fidel?
posted by SenshiNeko at 4:21 PM on August 12, 2003


Here's the part that bothers me. (Excerpted from this page at the government agency responsible for enforcing this law.)

The antiboycott provisions of the Export Administration Regulations (EAR) apply to all "U.S. persons," defined to include individuals and companies located in the United States and their foreign affiliates. Conduct that may be penalized under the TRA and/or prohibited under the EAR includes:
  • Agreements to refuse or actual refusal to do business with or in Israel or with blacklisted companies.
  • Agreements to furnish or actual furnishing of information about business relationships with or in Israel or with blacklisted companies.

Now, IANAL, but it seems to me that the law could be interpreted to read that if I decided that I would never buy oranges from the fields that have been confiscated by the current Israeli administration, and I then requested info from the local grocer about where the produce originated, that I could be charged under this statute...and the grocer, were he to tell me that the oranges were Israeli, would also be subject to prosecution.

Perhaps I'm reading it incorrectly, but this seems like the government way overstepping it's boundaries. If I could protest apartheid in South Africa, then I can protest the governments of other countries...and I shouldn't be subject to prosecution for wanting to know where the products I buy are grown, manufactured, produced, etc. Nor should suppliers be subject to prosecution for providing information to their consumers.
posted by dejah420 at 4:47 PM on August 12, 2003


This seems unconstitutional.
posted by delmoi at 5:39 PM on August 12, 2003


When I lived in Kuwait, there were all kinds of bans on foreign goods, on a brand-by-brand basis. If a company operated a plant in Israel, they would ban the entire brand from being sold in Kuwait.

Some movies were not available at the rental place because some studios were deemed too Israel-friendly. We had Pepsi but no Coke. My mom's passion for Lay's potato chips went unquenched for 6 long years.

This ban was intended to call attention to the Palestinian occupation. I have no idea how it's changed following the Iraq invasion at the end of the 80s. It's a cause I wholly support, fyi, and a method which is pretty much at their discretion to use, imo.

Anyway, since banning products is not the best thing for your economy, they tried to limit it as much as possible. Kuwait was simultaneously encouraging foregin investement and commerce at the time. Without precise information about various products produced by multinationals, they couldn't effectively boycott Israel and its partner companies without making really broad strokes.

I'm sure sometimes, with some products, it came down to nitty-grittys. The American policy seems to keep that precise information out of anyone's hands, so they can't decide. Pretty damn draconian.

But then, I think it's because the giant cock up our national ass was manufactured in Israel.
posted by scarabic at 6:43 PM on August 12, 2003


Now, IANAL, but it seems to me that the law could be interpreted to read that if I decided that I would never buy oranges from the fields that have been confiscated by the current Israeli administration, and I then requested info from the local grocer about where the produce originated, that I could be charged under this statute...and the grocer, were he to tell me that the oranges were Israeli, would also be subject to prosecution.

Yup. The most glaring example, though, is not Israel, but Cuba. That's to say, a non-American citizen whose business involves American subsidiaries, but who deals with Cuba through non-American subsidiaries, can be in the invidious position of facing a dual charge: within the US, of breaching the sanctions, and outside the US, of breaking an anti-boycott law.

There was a case last year of a Canadian in just this position, when many of the alleged breaches of the US blockade in Cuba had taken place while living in Canada and working for the Canadian subsidiary. Had he been found not guilty in the US, he was likely to be extradited home to face charges of actively complying with the US boycott -- charges for which, thanks to his acquittal, he would have essentially incriminated himself. In fact, he was convicted, but has now been given a retrial, but has spent months under house arrest.

What's perhaps hypocritical here is that the US maintains its own antiboycott statute while sustaining a boycott against Cuba that it has attempted to enforce on foreigners through the Helms-Burton regulations. And there's also a difference between 'don't even think about asking' antiboycott laws such as that in the US, and 'don't not trade' laws such as the Canadian one.

Are US banks barred by law from doing financial transactions with companies that have a 'business relationship' with Fidel?

Yep. Doesn't stop them doing it, though. I'm guessing that they can pay off the fines with the profits they make. And the biggest irony, perhaps, is that the firm slapped down with the biggest fine for dealing with Cuba is half-owned by the Israeli government.
posted by riviera at 6:50 PM on August 12, 2003


Doesn't this have prior restraint stamped all over it?

I'm surprised the ACLU isn't beating down Cook Composite's door to offer them lawyers.
posted by bshort1974 at 8:54 PM on August 12, 2003


Double standard indeed.

Also, the bizarre world of some of Israel's business practices have gotten them in hot water with the EU and USA.
posted by magullo at 3:20 AM on August 13, 2003


Indirect boycotts have always been looked at askance; i.e. a union demanding a boycott of not only a store, but everyone that serves the store (or for that matter, a government punishing not only a criminal, but the criminal's family).

--Dan
posted by effugas at 4:10 AM on August 13, 2003


But then, I think it's because the giant cock up our national ass was manufactured in Israel.

Or at least has a neocon tattoo on it.
posted by nofundy at 5:27 AM on August 13, 2003


Does anyone know where a guy can get a good Cuban cigar?
posted by LowDog at 8:47 AM on August 13, 2003


Ummmm.... Cuba.
posted by XQUZYPHYR at 9:47 AM on August 13, 2003


Say Israel banned Arab goods (and for anyone in the know, have they?), would this same situation be applied if that customer asked if the materials were made in Saudi Arabia?
posted by matrix77 at 9:17 PM on August 13, 2003


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