From the “Things that Make You Go Hmmm” Department…

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Wendy’s caught up in bizarre anti-semitic meme scandal…

T’ruah (The Rabbinic Call for Human Rights) calls on burger giant to publicly “reject designation as official burger of Neo Nazis”…

An exceedingly strange bit of news came across the Campaign for Fair Food’s radar screen last week when word of Wendy’s use of a well-known racist hate symbol (known as “Pepe the Frog” and associated with the newly-ascendant white supremacist movement known as the alt-right) hit the headlines.  The story ran in newspapers and television reports across the country, and caused a firestorm on social media.  Here, for example, is a video report on the uproar from the New York Daily News (“Wendy’s twitter account posts Pepe the Frog meme, a designated hate symbol,” 1/14/17).

Wendy’s, of course, quickly deleted the tweet from its official account, but the damage had already been done.  The horrific white supremacist website “Daily Stormer” ran a story entitled “After Pepe Post, Daily Stormer Endorses Wendy’s as the Official Fast Food Chain of the Alt-Right,” noting that, though Wendy’s deleted the post, the company issued no apology, and concluding that, with a twist on the term “dog whistle” (a term used to describe a politician’s intentional use of coded language to convey solidarity with offensive ideological positions), the use of the meme was not unintentional:

This was a frog whistle, straight up. And we need to embrace them for it.

Now, for the record, no one at the Campaign for Fair Food is implying that Wendy’s use of the racist symbol was anything other than what Wendy’s has claimed, an “unfortunate” mistake by an unthinking “community manager”.  But as is the case with many scandals, it is not so much the issue itself that gets the subject of the scandal in trouble, but rather the response to the brouhaha that follows.  And that is indeed what happened in the case of Wendy’s and the anti-semitic internet meme.

Proving that even a totally dysfunctional clock is right twice a day, the Daily Stormer correctly (albeit vilely) wrote of the company’s official mea culpa, “Note that this is not an apology.”  And that fact was not lost on other decidedly more progressive actors in the blogosphere.  

T’ruah, the Rabbinic Call for Human Rights, is a leading voice for human rights in Jewish communities in the United States and Canada, as well as a longtime ally of the CIW and the Campaign for Fair Food.  In response to the news of Wendy’s “Pepe” tweet, T’ruah published a hard-hitting open letter to the Chairman of Wendy’s Board of Directors, Mr. Nelson Peltz, and tied the company’s failure to publicly condemn hate speech to Wendy’s refusal to join the Fair Food Program.  Here below is an extended excerpt from that open letter:

Dear Mr. Peltz,

I write you today with a simple question: As the chairman of the board of Wendy’s, are you willing to lead the company to take a stand for human rights, at a moment when it seems poised to choose hatred?

Earlier this week, I was appalled to see Wendy’s tweet out a meme that’s been embraced by racists and neo-Nazis, a shocking slip given Wendy’s social media savvy. Wendy’s quickly deleted the tweet, but the damage had been done: one of the leading websites of the Neo-Nazi “alt-right” proudly declared Wendy’s the official hamburger of bigots everywhere, using vile anti-Semitic language that shocks people of conscience. This endorsement is surely not one that Wendy’s wants, but is not one that it has outright rejected. That alone is appalling.

To not publicly condemn hate speech is cowardice–a choice of profits over righteousness. Your inaction is in the same weak spirit that you continue to deny the human rights of the farmworkers who pick the tomatoes in Wendy’s supply chain, remaining a cowardly outlier among your competitors in the fast food industry that have committed to the Fair Food Program of the Coalition of Immokalee Workers… (read the open letter in its entirety here)

The letter concluded:

But Wendy’s has been silent, both to the promise of the Fair Food Program and now in the face of hatemongers who embrace your brand.

Mr. Peltz, as Chairman of the Board of Governors of the Simon Wiesenthal Center, which describes itself as “a global human rights organization researching the Holocaust and hate in a historic and contemporary context,” you must surely be frightened by the tremendous rise in anti-Semitic incidents throughout the country. The same neo-Nazis who declared Wendy’s their new official hamburger have desecrated synagogues with swastikas, engaged in vicious online attacks on vulnerable populations, and harassed Jewish journalists in their homes.

Today, I ask you to be a leader, not a bystander. When Wendy’s has been declared the official burger of hatred, you must take a stand to make Wendy’s the burger of human rights. Now is the time for Wendy’s to commit to justice for farmworkers and to solidarity with those targeted by bigotry.

Not surprisingly, the letter has yet to result in any further response from Wendy’s or Mr. Peltz on the company’s use of the Pepe meme, prompting T’ruah Executive Director Jill Jacobs to tweet:

We expect that Wendy’s will remain mum unless and until the focus on its faux pas shifts to its faux apology.  That is surely the Public Relations 101 approach to a situation such as this.  But the internet is a tricky place, where the line between what’s real and what’s not, what’s intended and what’s not, blurs quite quickly.  It is, in fact, difficult to fathom why Wendy’s — finding itself with the opportunity to take a stand on an issue as loathsome as white supremacy — has so far refused to denounce the hate speech its actions have aroused.  But silence has been Wendy’s only response to T’ruah’s letter, and we are left to wonder why.

In some cases, doing the right thing is hard and requires real, substantive change, as Wendy’s may view the task of cleaning up its supply chain as it competitors have by joining the Fair Food Program.  But this is not one of those cases.  Unequivocally denouncing hate, and designation as the official hamburger of those who sow hatred, should be easy.  We only wish Wendy’s saw things the same way.

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