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Shopping for social justice?

In my online preparation for Passover, I came across a site called “japshopper.” How is this connected with Passover, you might ask? It’s actually the site of an artist named Melissa Shiff, and JAP stands for “Jewish art projects, products, politics.” Redefining the term, Shiff is selling her Jewish-themed, activist art creations (e.g. the Crush oppression matzo pillow and Matzo Ball Activist Kit) and donating a percentage of the profits to feed hungry people and to support progressive art projects. As she writes, “JAP appropriates a common Jewish epithet and gives it a positive spin by turning shopaholics into art funders and mitzvah doers. JAP encourages shopping and consumerism but not as an end in itself.”

I’m a huge fan of art that makes sharp social commentary and provokes people to take action for social change, and I think Shiff’s work is cool (check out her website). I feel less positive about reclaiming JAP and consumerism. I get Shiff’s goal: to challenge us to think about how we spend our money and to choose purchases that both benefit others and stimulate us to further action. And I believe consumers wield great power. But I think we sometimes overestimate how much change we’re making when we buy even the best do-gooder products. After all, the real change-making decisions – what percentage to donate and to what cause – isn’t in our hands but in the hands of the person/company we’re buying from. And we walk away feeling good about ourselves when all we’ve done is pull out our credit cards. I’d like to encourage a broader, more powerful identity for Jewish women than consumer.

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Perhaps the right thing must be the choices of the consumer's buying habits and some other traditional choice of selections the consumers were smart but the marketer's were even smarter and it tends to create a healthy relationship between them and customers that justifies the social justice better.

What an interesting way of fusing art and activisim! I might even introduce this to my seder next year. However, I take real objection to the use of the term JAP. It is offensive and contrary to what I've heard author Isabel Rose ("The JAP Chronicles") say, I don't really think that we should try and reclaim it. There is NOTHING positive about this anti-Jewish stereptype.

Didn't Clara Lemlich Shavelson organize working-class house wives during the Depression to insist on their rights as consumers? They protested and changed meat prices that they thought were oppressive, and sent a delegation to Washington that helped establish concern for consumers as a part of public policy. I saw this in JWA's This Week in History for May 23, 1935.

I wouldn't sell short the social justice impact of our choices as consumers. Unfortunately, perhaps, consuming and buying is a big part of the way we interact with the larger world. Generally, we use a lot more money in buying then in giving to charity.

Too often, in our acquisition of clothes, food, etc., we participate in oppressive labor structures around the world. One of the most important things we can do, probably, is to support those companies whose business practices we have reason to respect ... we shouldn't assume that every business is about making the world worse ... why not seek out those that are trying to make the world better?

I, too, have been caught up in the consumer/giver position. How often now do I go into a clothing store and at the cash is a display of attractive pink bracelets/rings/necklaces for sale, where a fraction of the proceeds go to breast cancer research? I bought one of those bracelets once and as I walked away, I remember wondering, Did I purchase this for the charity or for the pretty jewels?

But what's the flip side of that? If we are going to be out shopping, why not take a moment of that time to put some of our money and efforts to tzedaka? It's just one way that tzedaka becomes a part of our daily life. My local kosher grocery store has a programme where you can purchase 5, 10 or 20 dollar cards when you are buying your groceries. This money goes to a local food bank. Maybe all I'm doing is taking out my credit card, but when giving becomes a part of our daily routine, many benefit.

As for your last point, I agree. But how do we get away from that label when in the Western world we are all consuming all the time?

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How to cite this page

Rosenbaum, Judith. "Shopping for social justice?." 17 April 2006. Jewish Women's Archive. (Viewed on January 16, 2018) <>.


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