Beyond Chutzpah: Chase, Israel, Palestine, and OFAC

Here’s an actual conversation I had about two hours ago at my local Chase branch office.

Chase Banker: Hi, can I help you?

Irfan: Yes, I’m going abroad for two months, so I wanted to alert you to the fact that my debit and credit card transactions will be taking place in foreign countries starting June 1.

Chase: OK, where are you going, and for how long?

Irfan: Well, first to Italy, then to Israel, along with the West Bank and possibly Gaza. For the months of June and July.

Chase (sharply): Those are all the same country. [I take it she meant Israel, the West Bank and Gaza are the same country, not that Italy is part of Israel or vice versa.]

Irfan: OK.

Chase (checking computer screen): Well, Italy is fine, but unfortunately, Israel is on the US government’s OFAC list, and we can’t guarantee the security of your transactions there. [“OFAC” stands for the Office of Foreign Assets Control of the U.S. Department of Treasury. The OFAC list is the list of countries sanctioned by the US Government. Israel is not specifically on it.]

Irfan: So my debit card won’t work in Israel?

Chase: It may or may not work. We just can’t guarantee it. Being on the OFAC list means that it’s been determined that financial transactions in that country are at high risk for fraud.

Irfan: Does it matter whether I use the card in Israel or in the West Bank?

Chase (sharply): Those are the same country. [No they fucking aren’t, but let it go.]

Irfan: Can I use my credit card there?

Chase: Yes. But there are transaction fees. Are you aware of the fees?

[Awkward puzzled WTF pause. Traffic roars by on Bloomfield Avenue. Grand Funk Railroad plays in the background on someone’s stereo, proclaiming the prima facie obvious fact that they’re an American band.]

Chase (brightly): Do you have a Traveler’s Reward credit card with us?

Irfan: No.

Chase: Well, if you get one, you can avoid all those fees. [All what fees? The ones that accrue to the transactions you supposedly can’t guarantee because Israel is supposedly on the OFAC list that it isn’t actually on?]

Irfan: Well, OK.

Chase: There’s no annual fee in the first year.

Irfan: Great!

Chase: And the annual fee is $90 in the second year.

Irfan (remembering that the same exact banker made the same same exact offer the last time I came in to inform Chase that I was traveling abroad, and that I had the presence of mind to decline it last time):

Chase: I’ve just run your information through the system and you’re approved! All you need to do is sign here.

Irfan (opening my mouth as if to engage in a speech act, but flummoxed at the unexpected silence that ensues):

Chase: Just sign here.

Irfan (sullenly): OK.

Chase: And here.

Irfan (yet more sullenly): OK.

Chase: And here.

Irfan (making lemonade out of self-made lemons): So I can use this card without any problems in Israel? [Of course, I’m not really going to Israel, but let it go.]

Chase: Yes, of course. [Apparently, Israel suddenly got off the OFAC list because I’ve decided to use the Chase Sapphire Traveler’s Reward Card with a 15.99% APR and a $90 annual fee, which I inexplicably agreed to use in order to avoid foreign ATM transaction fees that would probably be less than $90.]

Irfan (forgetting to ask: “So how the hell is the security situation of this card any different from the other ones?”): OK, thanks.

Chase: Have a safe trip!

Well, I guess it’ll be safe from transaction fees, if nothing else.

This is the first time I’ve encountered this “Israel is on the OFAC list” bullshit, despite having been to Israel/Palestine in 2013, having gone to Pakistan in 2012, and having gone to Nicaragua in 2014. But I’m not the only one who’s been fed this party line, and not the only to have complained about it. Here’s an online discussion at Trip Advisor. And here’s an article about the issue from the Times of Israel. An excerpt:

John Sullivan, a spokesman from the US Treasury Department, told the Times of Israel that “Israel is not on any OFAC lists whatsoever.”

‘We’re in the business of enforcing sanctions on rogue regimes – Iran, North Korea, and the like – and I can assure you that OFAC has nothing to do with Israel, an important US ally’

And yet: my Chase banker just told me, unequivocally, that Israel was on the OFAC list–and apparently, Chase has been telling its customers this for years.

What to make of this? If you go to the OFAC site, and put “Israel” into the search engine, you get nothing: Israel is not on the OFAC sanctions list per se. But if you look at the small print on the Sanctions List Search page, you’ll find this:

This Sanctions List Search application (“Sanctions List Search”) is designed to facilitate the use of the Specially Designated Nationals and Blocked Persons list (“SDN List”) and all other non-SDN lists, including the Foreign Sanctions Evaders List, the Non-SDN Iran Sanctions Act List, the Part 561 list, the Sectoral Sanctions Identifications List and the Non-SDN Palestinian Legislative Council List.

My hypothesis is that the Non-SDN Palestinian Legislative Council List consists of Palestinian entities that are blocked by OFAC. Taking advantage of the fact that the Palestinian entities or persons are blocked, and conveniently equating Palestinian entities with Israeli ones (on the grounds that the West Bank and Gaza just are Israel), Chase has taken to claiming that Israel is on the OFAC list, and used that as its basis for making whatever other claims it wants to make and adopting whatever other policies it wants to adopt. That, I take it, is the explanation for the otherwise puzzling (and pedantic) mantra I got from my Chase banker to the effect that Israel, the West Bank, and Gaza are “the same country,” when they obviously are not the same country by anyone’s reckoning–whether Israeli, Palestinian, American, European,  non-Palestinian Arab, or otherwise.

Since a bank is not the place–or is typically not thought to be the place–for a discussion about Final Status Negotiations and the fate of Oslo II, this set of bankerly mantras gets sloughed over by customers who want to get things over with and move on. But the technique in question is known as “deceiving one’s customers with double talk,” and there is some irony in the fact that Chase has the chutzpah to use the technique on its customers while claiming to keep those customers safe from fraud.

Extraordinary contexts aside, I don’t think that deception benefits anyone, and don’t think it should be tolerated in anyone, even if it’s supposedly well-intentioned, and even if no identifiable entity or person is harmed by it in some egregious or obvious way. If Chase has good reasons for singling out ATM transactions in Israel, it should be able to state what those reasons actually are without having to resort to deception. If the reasons have something to do with Palestinian entities, let’s hear that, and hear why. But there really can’t be a justification for claiming that Israel is on the OFAC list when it obviously is not, or claiming that the West Bank and Gaza (!) are “the same country” as Israel, a preposterous view that, perversely enough, puts Chase in the company of Hamas, Hezbollah, and Gush Emunim. Even the Likud Party recognizes the need to annex the West Bank. It doesn’t (yet) have the nerve to claim that the West Bank is Israel. I guess it reserves that sort of thing for American bankers.

Libertarians have long argued that commercial transactions should be regarded as essentially amoral and apolitical transactions, narrowly pecuniary in scope, subject only to the requirements of mutual consent, mutual monetary gain, and nearly unlimited toleration for ignorance and vice. Socrates knew better: honesty, justice, and self-respect demand more of us, and more of those with whom we deal in any kind of transaction, be it for money, sex, power, fame, or anything else. If Zionists and anti-Zionists can agree on anything, we should be able agree not to be bullshitted by a bunch of bankers about the political issues that divide us.

I regret my own pusillanimity on this score, and hereby opt for a different soundtrack for next time:

Nothing in the street–any street, from Cleveland to Al Quds–is going to look any different than it does right now if we put up with everything that’s served up by slick BS artists who exploit the amoral sanctuary they get from commerce as conventionally conceived. As Gandhi came close to saying, we have to become the change we want to see in the world–one transaction at a time, until the change comes. It may not suit everyone’s conception of “civility,” but as Barry Goldwater came close to saying, incivility in the pursuit of justice is no vice.

Postscript, June 15, 2015: In a monumental irony, a week after I posted this, someone somehow managed to use one of my Chase cards to run up eleven unauthorized purchases totaling $1700. No, not in Tel Aviv, Jerusalem, or Ramallah, but in Brooklyn, NY, a godforsaken place that should obviously be put on the OFAC list.

Incidentally, re my Chase Sapphire Traveler’s Reward Card? No one around here accepts credit cards.

3 thoughts on “Beyond Chutzpah: Chase, Israel, Palestine, and OFAC

  1. Hell, I just would have said, “I’m sorry, if you think Italy and Israel are the same country, I can’t do business with you.” I imagine their strategy works because most of their customers, like me, have no idea what the OFAC is and will just believe them.

    Just remember to cancel that card before those $90 fees kick in.


    • Yes, the strategy works because most of their customers have no idea what OFAC is. But intuition tells me that that’s the kind of strategy that can backfire, and I’m surprised it hasn’t backfired already.

      Suppose that the hypothesis I offered in the post is right. If a large enough number of pro-Israeli Americans were aware of the fact that Chase bank is deceiving its customers about Israel’s being on a sanctions list–alongside North Korea and Iran–because of risks generated by Palestinians, I have a feeling that Chase would have a PR problem on its hands. (Not to mention the inconvenience of going to Israel and discovering that your Chase debit card doesn’t work in such “high risk” locations as Tel Aviv, Jerusalem, and Haifa.) This seems to me one of those rare cases where you can get a genuinely efficacious overlapping consensus between ideologically opposed parties. From a pro-Israeli perspective, Chase’s policy insults Israel. From a pro-Palestinian perspective, it treats the Israeli annexation of the West Bank and Gaza as a done deal. The two parties should get together: #OccupyChase.

      Frankly, I must be missing something, because I find it hard to believe that the US Dept of the Treasury would tolerate such a blatant misuse of its sanctions list. Imagine a proponent of divestment from Israel saying, “Let’s divest from Israel because it’s on the OFAC list.” That wouldn’t get off the ground. How did this?

      Incidentally, a more philosophical point: I think you’d find the Alexei Marcoux paper that I link to interesting/useful (at “Libertarians have long argued…”). I don’t know whether or not it’s deliberate, but his argument almost reads like an explicit response to, and rejection of, Nicomachean Ethics IX.6 on homonoia. The idea is that the moral dispositions required for commercial society are incompatible with the Aristotelian conception of* homonoia.

      *I slightly reworded this phrase after posting.


  2. Pingback: Thinking about BDS (2): The Rhetoric of the Race Card | Policy of Truth

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