In the documentary “Maradona in Naples” by Mohamed Kenawi, there is a segment which focuses on a Palestinian restaurateur in Italy’s third largest city. Not only is it interesting what he has to say, but also what he is wearing: a white T-shirt depicting the image of a Google Search homepage and in the search box is typed in the word “Israel,” while underneath can be read the error message “Did you mean: Palestine?”
I have been meaning to purchase this satirical shirt design for a long time, and in my home country of Germany it is sold—albeit in a modified, copyright-abiding form that substitutes the Google logo with the word “Search” stylised in the manner of the former—by e-commerce giant Amazon through its Merch on Demand platform. This tool allows creators to submit their merchandise designs to Amazon while the latter handles production, sales, shipping, and creates a product page, at no cost to the content creator who is paid in (excruciatingly meagre) royalties for each sold item.
So when I recently stumbled upon the documentary on what in journalistic circles is cynically known as a “slow news day”, I took this as a metaphysical sign to put off procrastinating and finally purchase the coveted shirt. So I accessed the shopping cart of my Amazon account where I had saved the item for later purchase, but the shirt was no longer there.
I then typed in various keywords into the website’s search engine, from “Google Palestine T-Shirt” to “Search Palestine Israel shirt”, but the item in question had simply vanished. This fuelled my suspicion that something more sinister was afoot, so I searched for another T-shirt that I have been meaning to buy for some time now, one that has the slogan “Boycott Israel” emblazoned across it.
Where once it was the first item that popped up when typing in “Boycott Israel T-shirt” into the search box, now it didn’t show up at all. Just to make sure that this was not another freak coincidence, I checked if two Merch on Demand shirts featuring pro-Palestine designs I had previously bought were still online, a green T-shirt with “Free Palestine” printed across the front in white, and a white one depicting the geographical outline of pre-1948 Palestine with the word “Occupied” underneath it in the style of the iconic logo of streetwear clothing brand Supreme, a red box containing the brand name in white Futura Heavy Oblique typeface.
Going through my order history, I found the T-shirts in question and clicked on each of them to conjure their respective web pages. And lo and behold, each of these attempts resulted in the error message “The web address you have entered is not a functioning page on our website”.
As it is highly unlikely that the content creators in question removed their own listings (why would they, as there are no up-front costs involved in selling their merchandise on Amazon), there seems to be no two ways about the fact that the world’s largest online retailer is cracking down on the sale of pro-Palestinian merchandise produced by its Merch on Demand platform, and in the course is joining other sites, such as Meta-owned Facebook and Instagram and the social media service formerly known as Twitter, in policing Palestine-related content and ultimately deplatforming it.
While it comes as no surprise that Amazon, a corporation that alongside Google, is in cahoots with the Israeli apartheid regime through Project Nimbus (the cloud computing technology project that critics, among them Amazon’s and Google’s own employees, have lamented will exacerbate the surveillance of Palestinians, the illegal collection of their personal data and the expansion of illegal Israeli settlements), would unfairly target Palestinians, how does Amazon legally justify doing so?
According to Amazon Merch on Demand’s content policies, “Merch reserves the right to determine the appropriateness of listings on its site, and may remove any listing at any time”, going on to say that “content in violation of these content policies” will result in “corrective actions, such as immediately suspending or terminating Content Creator privileges, removing listings, terminating the business relationship, or permanently withholding payments”.
Specifically, these content policies include “offensive or controversial content”, defined as “content that promotes, incites or glorifies hatred, violence, racial, sexual or religious intolerance or promotes organizations with such views,” and the utterly unspecified “inflammatory content”. Unfortunately, we all know just how much the just call for a liberated Palestine inflames the cold hearts and numb minds of Western people and entities who’d rather side with a murderous Israeli occupation than show solidarity with its victims.
As is often the case with the crude calligraphy that is corporate legalese, wording is painted with the broadest brushstrokes possible so as to leave ample room for ambiguity, arbitrariness and plausible deniability. In the case of banning the sale of the aforementioned shirts imitating the Google and Supreme logos, Amazon wouldn’t even have to go so far as to cite “inflammatory content”, but could point to simple copyright infringement as a reason for the removal of those T-shirt listings.
The e-commerce behemoth further ensures plausible deniability that it is not engaging in anti- Palestinian discrimination by seemingly not banning Palestine-related merchandise per se, but by specifically targeting those products that propagate Palestinian resistance, which might be deemed too anti-Zionist for Amazon’s pro-Zionist sensibilities and could be construed as a threat to “Israel’s” ill- begotten right to exist.
Meaning: a shirt depicting the iconic Visit Palestine poster designed by Austrian-Jewish immigrant Franz Krausz in1936 for the Tourist Development Association of Palestine does not violate Merch on Demand’s content policies, but a T-shirt that shows the geographical outline of pre-1948 Palestine and the factually correct word “Occupied” accompanying it does.
Furthermore, the process of determining which designs should be deplatformed and which ones not seems wildly inconsistent: while certain Free Palestine shirts have been removed, one can still buy a shirt depicting Handala, the cartoon character created in 1969 by political cartoonist Naji al-Ali and which is part of the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement’s logo, as well as other Free Palestine shirts.
It is my assumption that policing the vast supply of Merch on Demand designs and pro-Palestine products offered by third-party sellers on Amazon’s Marketplace platform requires much time and resources, something that the grossly underpaid and overworked employees at one of the world’s largest professional exploiters most probably don’t have.
Worth mentioning is the fact that the same site which is removing pro-Palestine apparel deemed contentious, continues to sell racist Merch on Demand shirts featuring the slogan “Deport Ilhan Omar” or an image depicting a roll of toilet paper with the name Kamala Harris printed on it. But Palestinian liberation is where Amazon draws the line?
As if this weren’t bad enough, Amazon’s increasing crackdown on Palestinian resistance by either removing products or limiting their visibility is not limited to merchandise, but also extends to books, once Amazon’s core commodity.
When I typed in “boycott Israel book” into the search box on Amazon’s website, the pro-Zionist search engine algorithms yielded results that attack the Boycott “Israel” movement first: reactionary and pseudo-academic titles such as “The Case Against Academic Boycotts of Israel” (Wayne University Press) and Alan Dershowitz’s “The Case Against BDS: Why Singling Out Israel for Boycott Is Anti-Semitic and Anti-Peace”, a book celebrated by “Israel’s” ultra-right-wing leader, Benjamin Netanyahu.
Only much further down will you find what you are actually looking for, scholarly titles beyond reproach such as Omar Barghouti’s “Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions: The Global Struggle for Palestinian Rights” and “Apartheid Israel: The Politics of an Analogy”, a collection of writings by African and Black diasporic scholars.
Today it is political T-shirts that are being banned, tomorrow it is political books. And from there, it is a slippery slope to the banning of products that celebrate cultural identity in general. How long is it before Golbarg Bashi’s critically acclaimed “P is for Palestine” children’s book and Sami Tamimi’s “Falastin; A Cookbook” are deplatformed? Before a keffiyeh qualifies as contraband and a Palestinian thobe is considered tunica non grata?
Before you know it, Palestinian knowledge, experiences and cultural expressions will have been expunged from the hegemonic historical record that continues to be a colonial, Euro-Western one.
To ward off this existential threat of erasure, I believe it is the duty of any human rights ally worth their salt to preserve and promote all things Palestinian, before they are irretrievably lost to the fascistic gluttony of racist Western censorship, which is why I myself have started a collection of books, DVDs, merchandise and assorted paraphernalia such as brochures and flyers from cultural events, all related to Palestine.
In this regard, I have already placed an order for another Merch on Demand T-shirt, before it too faces the fate of forced removal, most probably under the flimsy pretext of copyright infringement: one that has “Palestine” printed on the front in the distinctive lettered style of the logo of the 1990’s hit sitcom “Friends”.
Timo Al-Farooq is a freelance journalist and political commentator based in Berlin, Germany