So Long Sabon: Perfume and Israeli-Palestinian Conflict

ZOHAR

The best Musk fragrance ever

I discovered Sabon about five years ago while aimlessly wandering the streets of NY. I was coaxed in by the beautiful smells and the floor to ceiling wood paneling filled with artisan soaps, body butters, and fragrances. I was invited to stay by the store clerks who guided me to the trademark stone sink in the middle of the store where they exfoliate, wash, and moisturize customer’s hands with a variety of sumptuous products. My first time in Sabon I tried a daily perfume called Zohar, a musk fragrance. If you know anything about musk, you know that the fragrance can be hit or miss. But the store clerk encouraged me to try it out for the day and see how I liked it. After an entire day with it just spritzed on my wrists, I loved it. It was fresh and persisted through the heat of a NY summer without ever faltering. A few days later I returned to the store and bought a bottle of Zohar. Since then I have regularly ordered Zohar online or visited the store in NY if I’m in the area, but for the last six months or so, Zohar has been out of stock online. I was in NY a few weeks ago so I figured I’d visit the store and buy a bottle as I had in times past, but such was not the case.

“We haven’t had any shipments come to the store in about six months,” the store clerk said. “Six months?!” I responded in exasperation. A first world dilemma was upon me for I was about to be without my favorite fragrance for an indefinite period of time. She told me to put my name on the waiting list and she would let me know when it came back in stock. That store was at 70th & Broadway and I walked down to the 57th and 6th Avenue location to see if I would be met by the same fragrance-less fate. I was.

“We haven’t had it for a long time, matter of fact, we haven’t had any perfumes for a long time.” At this point I had to ask, “Why?” The store clerk told me that the fragrance ships directly from Israel and sometimes the shipment gets held up in barrels at customs. My mind flashed back to the boxes the perfume comes in and the writing that indicates the manufacturer location in both English and Hebrew characters. Of course. Why didn’t I think about that? Who has time to deal with your exports when you are in the midst of a crisis such as is occurring now? Then the reality set in. It’s made in Israel. What then is my ethical responsibility? Do I continue to patronize Sabon assuming it means nothing in the grand scheme of things? Or do I stop patronizing Sabon until there is a lasting end of the violence and a return of the land to Palestinians–or an agreement to the two-state solution? Some might think these are big questions to pose over a little bottle of perfume but, to me, they are important to how I place my stake in the sand on this issue and they stem from a longer personal connection with the region.

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West Bank Barrier watchtower

In the summer of 2012 I traveled to the Middle East as part of a travel seminar for seminary students and lay leaders. We traveled to Jordan, the Sinai-region of Egypt, Israel, and Greece. During that trip we went to the West Bank along the barrier that separates Israelis from Palestinians. As our guide told us, Palestinians are shuffled through the barrier like cattle, sometimes people are arrested, and all the time Palestinian people are made to feel less than human so that the Israelis can maintain their sense of peace and security during the occupation. Hearing the stories about how people’s houses are demolished on a moment’s notice–and within moments of that destruction they are given bills to pay for a destruction they didn’t order, seeing the barriers and the water towers that are controlled by Israelis, and the graffiti painted on the walls with outcries for return, redemption, and a sense of freedom, it was hard for me not to choose a side. After all, I’m a black person in America who isn’t too far removed from the enslavement of my ancestors and the daily systematic oppression of darker people. I say this not to compare the struggles but to make an empathic connection. I know it’s not a black and white issue–in terms of simply marking one side good and the other bad–but I can’t ignore the overwhelming power one side has over the other and the ways in which that power usurps one very important dynamic, love.

 

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West Bank barrier in Bethlehem

This picture has been my Facebook cover photo for the last two years because it represents the one thing the IP conflict and the world needs, love. I don’t care how cliche it sounds, it’s true. You can’t say that the Israel, a nation of people who live under the belief that they are God’s chosen people, are acting out of love. How does love order the destruction of people’s homes, kill women and children and hundreds of civilians, and cling to selfish desires? How does love see violent retaliation as a reasonable response without recalling that an eye for an eye leaves everyone blind? Love is missing. Love of the land which would require gracious stewardship and sharing. Love of humanity which would demand an interest in the preservation of lives in general but especially those of children, our future. I see love missing on both sides even though I am also clear about the position that I am taking. I have a heart for Palestine–DO NOT READ THIS AS “I HAVE A HEART FOR HAMAS.” I take seriously what it means to speak of this conflict as a “humanitarian crisis” and watch the bodies–largely Palestinian and children–pile up. As a Christian I can’t idly stand by and say I believe in what or how Israel is fighting to not share land. I won’t be scared into the silence that many have taken up on this matter. I’ve seen too many Christians and people of color stay silent when they have more in common with Palestinians than not. I know no one wants to take sides because people are scared or they feel they don’t now enough about the conflict but I implore everyone to arm themselves with wisdom, knowledge, and most importantly, love. Maybe the loving way is not to choose a side–or to stop buying perfume–but it is to do more than sit idly while lives are being taken and communities are being destroyed on the daily. And this brings me to my concluding point, the point that started all of this.

My decision to stop buying Sabon products is what I feel I can do at the moment–aside from prayer and staying abreast, it’s my version of divestment. As Americans we know how to pour into our leisurely and luxury goods without much thought as to where they come from, who it supports, and who that money can help–and chances are most of us can only afford to buy our luxury/leisurely goods or donate to charity, not both. It’s true that I don’t know if Sabon has a vested interest in the conflict in Gaza but as long as it remains an Israeli-based business–with more stores in Israel than anywhere–I can no longer be a patron. We vote with our money even when we remain silent and on this day I choose not to remain silent and personally divest from Sabon. Instead I will look toward donating money to causes supporting Palestinians and Gaza because however this conflict ends, Gaza will need to be rebuilt; Palestinian women, children, and family will need resources to start over again; and some semblance of peace will need to be restored. (Shout outs to a friend who compiled this list, it’s not exhaustive and as she suggested, everyone should do their own research, but it’s a start to putting our dollars in the places that need them most over putting them toward the things we want the most.)

Palestinian Children’s Relief Fund

ANERA-American Near East Refugee Aid

United National Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East

Muslim Aid: Gaza appeal 

Medical Aid for Palestinians UK

On Basic Needs: A Brooklyn-Based Reflection

This past Friday evening I was walking with a friend in Brooklyn and our walk took us deep into a Hasidic Jewish community in Williamsburg. It was about 10PM and the Jewish men were taking their post- Shabbat dinner walk around the neighborhood. The men walked in pairs and triplets talking amongst themselves and paying no attention to the two black women walking in their midst. My friend and I observed them, the occasional women and children, and the general peacefulness of the neighborhood. There were no cars whizzing by, no police officers on the street, and of all of the closed stores and shops we saw within a 15+ block stretch they were filled with necessities. It was a community seemingly focused on basic needs and each other.

Before long we crossed over a block and landed in the Bedford Stuyvesant area of Brooklyn, a predominantly black area that was once known as the largest ghetto in the US. No more peace, parked cars, closed stores, and simply clothed families. Instead we were met my police, whizzing car and sirens, extraneous stores, complicated clothing, the works. It was like day and night and the startling contrast hit me and my friend like a ton of bricks. We began to talk about the differences between the community we exited and the one we entered, not to generalize it or set up a binary, but to grasp the profundity of the shift we experienced in the span of a few blocks. My friend pointed out that nothing was sold in that Jewish community that wasn’t needed, I noticed that too. There were no random clothing stores, no junk and processed-food laden bodegas, nothing in that neighborhood that wasn’t of necessity to the people. Capitalism wasn’t king in that swatch of Williamsburg, community and G-d were. It’s a self-sustaining community that usually doesn’t permit the interference of external businesses. It is a community that thrives on basic needs. This got me thinking about the work a friend of mine is currently doing to raise the basic need averages of 1 billion people–a lofty but a worthy goal to strive toward. When he or anyone else talks about wanting to raise the basic need averages of people in under-served communities do the people even understand what basic needs are? This is a serious question.

When a community is flush with extraneous businesses pushing wants as needs are the people truly aware of what the needs are? Or are they thinking that basic needs are actually the extraneous? This question is driven by the move of capitalism that exists even in the poorest of communities. Consumer goods are sold to people in these communities under the guise of need when in reality they are wants or a subpar quality of needs at best. Given the proliferation of this system, people in the community build up an appetite for consumption based on everything they don’t need. Thus my concern is that when we talk about increasing basic need averages we have to gain understanding of what inhabitants of under-served communities believe those basic needs are through on-the-ground observations and direct engagement with inhabitants of said communities. Then we must educate them about what basic needs are and how & what they should be fighting for not only for themselves but for future generations.

I don’t say any of this to imply that black communities need to be more like Jewish communities–although I do think they can learn some things about their structure. I say this because I believe there is a disparity that exists in knowledge of what basic needs are that is endemic to under-served communities such as those inhabited by black people. This is all based on observation of not only the communities I walked through on Friday night but communities I’ve seen over the years. And the bit of community development knowledge I have tells me that working toward the increase of basic needs averages is important but so is education that increases communal awareness about what those basic needs are in the first place.

Nevertheless, I am willing to be corrected on this matter and certainly would love to discuss this further with interested parties.