Arab- and Muslim-American rights groups on Tuesday called on Walmart and other retailers to drop two Halloween costumes sold by third-party retailers on their websites, saying the outfits are offensive and could lead to hate crimes against Arab-Americans.
The costumes — an “Israeli Soldier Kids Costume” and “Sheik Fagin Nose” — drew significant backlash on social media, prompting the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee (ADC) to respond.
The civil rights group, in coordination with the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR) and the U.S. Palestinian Community Network (USPCN), directed its call at Walmart, but also made the same request of Amazon.com Inc., eBay Inc. and Sears Holding Corp.
Walmart did not respond to Al Jazeera's request for comment at time of publication although the “Sheik Fagin Nose” appeared to have been removed from the retailer's website. The Israeli soldier costume remained on the site as a "sponsored product."
The Israeli soldier costume, as advertised on Walmart.com, shows a young boy wearing green military fatigues and red beret, and carrying a toy gun. Wholesale Halloween Costume & Party Supplies, the seller, says in the product description on its website that Israeli soldiers are defenders of Jewish heritage.
“Defend your Jewish heritage proudly by wearing the Israeli Soldier Boy's Costume!” says Wholesale Halloween Costume. “The Israeli Defense Forces have a mission to protect the land and the people of Israel from outside threats with low casualties, and to avoid waging war if at all possible.” The costume costs $27.44, "shoes and toy weapon not included."
Pointing to the recent unrest in Israel and the Palestinian territories, as well as Israel’s decades-long military occupation there, ADC called the retailers' decisions to allow the sale of an Israeli soldier costume on their websites “highly offensive.”
"A symbol of fear, violence and a long history of dispossession should not be used for entertainment purposes," ADC said in a statement. "An Israeli soldier costume is highly offensive to Arab-Americans, particularly those who have had family members, including children, killed by Israeli soldiers."
Since Oct. 1, Israeli forces have killed at least 63 Palestinians and injured thousands of others following protests, clashes and back-and-forth knife attacks. In that time, 11 Israelis have been killed.
“We are disappointed given what the IDF represents and is guilty of," Abed Ayoub, legal and policy director at ADC, told Al Jazeera using the acronym for the Israel Defense Forces. "Just go back a few weeks and look at the viral videos of what they’ve been doing.”
One of those videos, reposted by Israeli human rights group B'Tselem, shows Israeli soldiers violently beating and wrongfully arresting a Palestinian youth in the West Bank. Other videos show Israeli forces standing idle as Jewish settlers attack Palestinian villagers.
ADC also called on the retail giants to stop selling costumes depicting Arab stereotypes, particularly a “Sheik Fagin Nose.”
Fagin, a character in Charles Dickens’ novel “Oliver Twist,” which plays on anti-Semitic stereotypes, is one of the most controversial figures in English literature. The product listing on Walmart’s website said the nose is “perfect for an Arab Sheik.”
In its statement, ADC described the prosthetic rubber nose as “a stereotypically long Semitic nose” and said that the product is “perpetuating racist tropes that have long been used to demonize, otherize and alienate Arab communities throughout history.” Semites are a group of people originally of southwestern Asia that includes Jews and Arabs.
“We are not a costume. We are not a stereotype. Those costumes are offensive to the [Arab-American] community,” Ayoub said.
Together, the two costumes reinforce racism against Arab-Americans and place community members in danger, the ADC said.
“The glorification of Israeli soldiers juxtaposed with the mockery of Arab people promotes an anti-Arab racism that is all too common in America,” the statement said.
Rights groups have noted an increase in hate crimes targeting Arab- and Muslim-Americans since Sept. 11, 2001, when members of Al-Qaeda attacked the United States. A July 2014 study on U.S. attitudes toward Arabs and Muslims (PDF), conducted by the Arab American Institute, a non-profit advocacy group, found that Americans increasingly look unfavorably on the communities.
Walmart’s selection of Halloween costumes has caused controversy in the past. Last year, the retail giant apologized for having a “Fat Girls” section of costumes on its website. Days later, Walmart apologized for selling a “Pashtun Papa” costume with the description: “Nothing is sacred this Halloween. Shock your friends with this Islamic costume.”