Note: this articlewas published for Evolve, a project of Reconstructing Judaism. This blog post only contains the beginning of the article, and then provides a link to the full article on Evolve.
So much has been written about the decision by Ben & Jerry’s corporate board last spring to stop selling ice cream in the West Bank that one might think there’s nothing more worth saying about it. As the dust settles, I think there are some important things that the controversy has revealed about the way Americans talk about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and the way the thorny topic of boycotts is discussed in the progressive Jewish community.
Supporters and opponents of boycotting Israel see their position as an urgent moral calling, and as a result, the public debate about Israel/Palestine often takes on the hardest lines of opinion that both activist bases promote. Here’s how I understand the way in which both camps narrate and morally frame their positions.
Pro-boycotters often argue that boycotting is a time-honored non-violent form of activism, and that people should boycott Israel until several goals are achieved: ending the occupation of the West Bank, removing the blockade of Gaza, and granting all Palestinian refugees and their descendants the right to return to their homes and lands. The status quo on each of these issues is, for the boycott movement, an intolerable injustice that must be resisted with non-violent, worldwide non-cooperation with the responsible regime. The BDS (Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions) movement wants to end the daily human rights abuses and indignities that Israel imposes on Palestinians and draws inspiration from the boycott of apartheid South Africa. The movement is agnostic on the question of whether, once its desired goals are achieved, there should be a final political arrangement that includes a Jewish state alongside a Palestinian state, and many BDS supporters regard even the minimalist aims of Zionism—the secure existence of a Jewish and democratic state in some part of the Jewish people’s ancient homeland—as an inherently unjust project that must be replaced.
I have the privilege of getting to work with Rabbi Deborah Waxman, Ph.D., as part of my job at Reconstructing Judaism, the central organization of the Reconstructionist movement of Judaism. The current landscape of antisemitism is toxic in ways that demand clear thinking and a willingness to make our struggle – the Jewish people’s struggle – interconnected with the struggle for justice and equity for all.
Note: you can listen to an audio version of this post at this link.
Just finished reading Red Line, by the Washington Post’s Pulitzer Prize winning journalist, Joby Warrick. It was published in February 2021.
Warrick tells the story of how, since the 1980s, the Assad regime in Syria built a massive chemical weapons production industry and a stockpile of weapons capable of killing tens of millions. Thanks to a highly placed CIA informant within the program, US intelligence services were able to keep relatively informed about it. After the Syrian civil war began in 2011, Assad began dropping chemical weapons on rebel-held villages, in civilian centers, and a number of brave Syrian civilians risked their lives to gather evidence and smuggle it out of the country so that the rest of the world would know.
Soon after the civil war began, when Assad’s regime looked ready to collapse, many world leaders, especially in the West, hoped Assad would be forced to flee. On the other hand, while some of the rebel groups seeking to oust Assad were pro-democracy and pro-pluralism, others, like ISIS, were intent on seizing power and imposing their own form of tyranny and brutality. Obama and other world leaders became alarmed at the possibility that Assad’s chemical weapons stockpile and production facilities might fall into the hands of ISIS or one of the other Islamist rebel groups, and the US defense department began working on a massive effort to prepare for the possibility of needing to act to secure and destroy those weapons if they were about to fall into jihadists’ hands.
Before that scenario had a chance to play out, intelligence reports started arriving in the US and elsewhere indicating that Assad had begun using poison gas against rebel held populations. Then came a press conference, actually about health care, during which Obama was asked a question by a reporter about the possibility that Assad was using chemical weapons in battle. In his response, Obama used the phrase “red line” for the first time to warn Assad that use of chemical weapons would lead to the US taking action against him. He would go on to use the phrase two more times in prepared remarks, including during a speech he gave to university students in Israel.
The story that Warrick goes on to tell is as depressing as any deep-dive piece of reporting on war crimes and atrocities, and it shines a light on many heroic individuals who tried to save lives and stand firm against inhumanity. Warrick describes a UN team of inspectors who were allowed into the country with a mandate to collect evidence to determine whether or not chemical weapons had been used, though they had to accept Assad’s condition that any report they made would not be allowed to make claims about who was responsible for using the weapons. In this manner, Assad and his Russian backers would be able to maintain their disinformation campaign claiming that if anyone had used chemical weapons it must have been one of the rebel groups.
While the UN team was in Syria, one of Assad’s generals ordered a large scale chemical attack, using sarin gas, on a rebel held Damascus suburb called Ghouta, killing about 1,400 people and injuring thousands. Many children were among the victims. (Here is a link to a Human Rights Watch report on what happened at Ghouta. But before you go there, a warning – the very first thing you see is a photograph of dozens of dead children killed in the attack. I wasn’t prepared for that when I visited the site, and it hit me very hard.)
The UN team decided to do all it could to gather evidence from the Ghouta attack, but meanwhile various intelligence agencies had concluded firmly that Assad had indeed used chemical weapons in the war. Assad had crossed Obama’s red line, and Obama had to decide how to respond. Initially, he wanted to launch airstrikes in Syria, but he didn’t want to imperil the UN inspection team. He tried to get the UN Secretary General, Ban Ki-moon, to pull the inspection team out ASAP, but Ban wouldn’t do it, arguing that it was against his mandate to remove a diplomatic team seeking to gather evidence about chemical weapons use in order to help another country carry out a military strike.
A few weeks of this stalemate elapsed, and in the meantime different domestic and international leaders sought to influence Obama’s thinking regarding what consequences he might impose on Assad’s regime for crossing this line. There were leaders who were worried that airstrikes might backfire in any number of ways. There were progressives who did not want any president taking military action against a new foe without getting authorization from Congress – something that candidate Obama had stressed was the Constitution’s requirement for waging war. Ultimately, Obama announced that he would seek Congressional authorization of military action – something he thought he would easily get. But he and his advisers misread the political moment in Congress. Republicans were against anything Obama wanted to do and signaled their unwillingness to support him in this effort if for no other reason than simply to hurt him politically. But most Democrats were also opposed, saying they wanted no part of risking the opening up of a new potentially endless war in the Middle East.
Then came a diplomatic breakthrough. Samantha Power, US Ambassador to the UN, had been meeting with her Russian counterpart, Sergey Lavrov, intensively to look for ways to neutralize Assad’s chemical weapons. Thus began the intensive Obama administration diplomacy that led to “the deal,” the September 2013 agreement signed by the US and Russia to oversee the removal of Syria’s entire chemical weapons stockpile and destroy its production facilities. Russia, Syria’s main ally, was able to push Assad to accept the deal, which meant there would definitely be no US-led military attacks against his forces in the coming months and that Russia would be able to continue to grow its influence in the region. For the US and the rest of the world concerned both about Assad’s use of the weapons and the potential for jihadist rebel groups to steal some of the weapons, the deal meant achieving two important goals: 1) imposing a major consequence on the Assad regime for crossing Obama’s “red line,” and 2) removing (hopefully) all of the weapons and Assad’s factories for making more.
Tonight, for the first time, I watched the 2002 Morgan Freeman / Ben Affleck spy thriller movie, The Sum of All Fears, based on Tom Clancy’s 1991 novel of the same name. Not knowing anything about the plot, I was hoping to be swept up into a smart, twisty espionage movie with plausible crises, fast-paced action, suspense, and some strong characters with good chemistry between them.
But the movie blew up my suspension of disbelief in its opening scene, because the series of events it presented were, just frankly, impossible. It opens on an Israeli military air base on October 9, 1973, during the Yom Kippur War (or October War or Ramadan War depending on which side you supported). The Egyptian and Syrian forces have made strong gains after their surprise coordinated attack, and Israel decides to launch a fighter jet with a single tactical nuke on board. The pilot’s mission is to stay airborne and wait for orders. If the Israeli ground troops were to start to be completely overrun, the order will be given to him to nuke some enemy target.
As these kinds of movies go, so far so good. I’m pretty sure that in real life no Israeli plane actually took off with a nuke on board. It’s possible Clancy was using artistic license to expand on news reports that then Israeli Prime Minister Golda Meir did elevate the nuclear alert level, but I’ve yet to read any news stories of an Israeli fighter jet zipping around in Syrian or Egyptian airspace with a nuke in its belly. But for a fictional story, I can work with an alternative possible history imagining what might have happened if something important had gone differently than it did in reality.
But the opening scene went off the rails in the first few minutes. You see, the brave Israeli fighter jet pilot – presumably the best pilot in one of the world’s most highly regarded air forces – is flying low over desert terrain that looks a lot like the Sinai, and he does something no pilot would never do. He has a photo of his wife and child perched on the instrument panel. He hits a bit of turbulence, and the photo falls from where he can see it into a hard to reach space near the floor of the cockpit. So what does this world class fighter pilot, who is flying low to the ground to avoid radar and is carrying a live nuke, decide to do? He starts reaching down with one hand and stretching uncomfortably to try to grab the fallen photo, and when he frustratingly can’t get a grip on it, he stops looking out the front windshield, and leans down awkwardly to try to find the photo. When he sits back up straight again, he screams because – forehead slap – he’s about to crash into a hill. Which he does. The plane, the bomb, and the pilot all get hurled into the sand. The pilot is dead and the plane smashed to bits. The nuke is dented here and there but remains intact, unexploded, and half-buried in the desert sand.
Next the screen tells us it’s 29 years later., and we see two Arab men who apparently make some money by looking for discarded military equipment and ordinance from previous wars, collecting a bunch of it, and then selling it to different black market buyers who find some of it useful. They stumble upon the buried Israeli nuke. They don’t know it’s a nuke – but it’s clearly a bomb of some sort. They dig it up, get it on their truck, and end up selling it to some European creep who turns out to be part of a neo-Nazi plot that seeks to acquire a nuke and other WMDs.
So that’s the opening premise. The Israelis secretly put a pilot in the air with a tactical nuke as a last ditch deterrent in case the war on the ground looked like it was about to turn into a total collapse for Israel. Is that much a plausible premise? I mean, okay, why not, you gotta be willing to suspend some disbelief and not get hung up on questions like whether sending up a plane that could crash, be shot down, or even be captured with a single nuke in its hold would be the way that an Israeli head of state would go about making the threat of a nuclear strike known to their enemies.
And then what happens? The Israeli army has now lost a nuke, somewhere in the desert, possibly still in Israeli controlled territory, or possibly Egyptian or Syrian territory. So what do the Israelis do? They leave it, lost somewhere in the sand. They don’t go get it. They just shrug and go, “welp, heh heh, sorry to all of our allies – especially you, America – but we kind of lost one of our nukes in the desert and we can’t think of any way to organize a mission to retrieve it. Oh, and just to clarify, we aren’t saying we have nuclear weapons. But if we do have them, well, we have them minus one that we are supposed to have. Which we’re not going to bother to try to find and get back. Shalom.”
This is the Israelis, mind you. Not exactly the Keystone Cops of military action. The army that busted into Entebbe airport in Uganda in order to rescue Israeli hostages. They are supposed to be, like, “Yeah, we can’t go looking in a stretch of barely populated desert nearby for a missing nuke.”
Next comes some Hollywood laziness. Because we are told that the two Arab scavengers who found the nuke live in the Golan. Take a look at the landscape of where the Israeli fighter pilot crashes his jet, and where the wreckage of the plane has come to rest:
This is the Golan Heights? It looks like the Sinai desert. Seriously, I’m waiting for some modern day cinematic Moses to walk into the scene of the wreckage and take a close up look at the burning mush that is this shark-jumping movie premise. I’m half-expecting Mark Watney to amble along in his EVA suit. Just in case you’re not familiar with what the Golan looks like, here’s a pic from the Lonely Planet guide to visiting the Golan:
Also, and pay close attention here, if the Israelis lost one of their nukes in 1973 in the Golan, then that means they lost it in territory they controlled and then annexed a few years later. They wouldn’t even need to do a Mission Impossible style nuke retrieval in hostile enemy territory commando op. They would just need to look around for it while they were actively building new Israeli neighborhoods and communities in the Golan.
In a stunning development that has world leaders scrambling, Ben & Jerry’s Corporation and the Government of Israel are now officially in a state of war. The outbreak of hostilities is the latest strange expansion of the ever-growing War on Christmas begun by Starbucks back in 2011, and which has come to involve dozens of popular snack and beverage vendors in an epic struggle to destroy once and for all the holiday of Christmas and other central icons of Western Civilization such as Columbus Day, the Confederate battle flag, and – apparently – the Israeli settlements in the West Bank.
Until last week, it seemed July 2021 would end much as July 2020 had – with stalemates in the War on Christmas remaining entrenched, literally and figuratively, across multiple fronts in North America and Europe. But then at dawn on Monday, July 19, thousands of teenage ice-cream store workers converged upon several West Bank settlements and outposts wielding metal scoopers and taste spoons, and demanding that the residents of the settlements surrender unconditionally. Within hours, the settlements of Beitar Illit and Ariel had fallen to Ben & Jerry’s unstoppable phalanxes of cheerful dessert-dishers.
Elite units of the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) initially responded by surrounding the conquered settlements with tanks and infantry, but each of these situations turned into a stand-off after Israeli troops discovered that the ice cream workers had surrounded the captured settlements with moats of hot fudge and caramel sauce and used a drone force to dump tons of Sprinkles on the approaching rescue teams.
As thousands of Israelis vowed to throw away any pints of Ben & Jerry’s they had in their freezers (after eating most of the remains because it would not be right to waste food), newly sworn in Prime Minister Naftali Bennett convened his cabinet to address the first major military crisis of his administration. By midweek, Israeli war planes had laid waste to much of northern Vermont.
Blogger’s note: I’m using this space to place a number of quotes from the late international relations professor, Fred Halliday, on a bulletin board of sorts. My plan is to add my own thoughts and comments, as well as other quotes from him and those in dialogue with his ideas, as I continue to process these ideas. By placing this content here I am not implying agreement or endorsement of these views – only a strong interest in learning more.
Selected Quotes I am studying:
One should not accept at face value what people who are struggling say: they may well be committing atrocities of their own. At the extreme end you have the PKK, the Shining Path, the Khmer Rouge and so forth. They may often be involved in inter-ethnic conflicts where they use a progressivist language to conceal what is in fact chauvinism towards another community. It goes for both Israelis and Palestinians. It goes for the IRA in Northern Ireland. It goes for the Armenians and the Azeris in Nagorno-Karabakh, and other cases. So solidarity should not be taken at face value. Solidarity should be critical of what people say and do, while also being guided by the longer-term evaluation of people’s interests and rights and material social progress.
One should not accept at face value what people who are struggling say: they may well be committing atrocities of their own.
On the Israeli-Palestinian conflict:
You got away from the stuff about which one was there first, or who was massacred most, or what their holy books say, or who were collaborators with imperialism—all such questions were secondary. The key question is, you have two communities which meet minimal criteria of self-determining peoples. And on that basis, you accord them equal rights. And secondly, you critique the chauvinism and the fake justifications and the violations of the rules of war of both sides.
The level and tone of polemic in the U.S. and in Europe on the Palestine question has degenerated enormously since the collapse of Camp David and the rise of the second Intifada. I find that much of the stuff put out in the name of Palestine is so irresponsible and sometimes racist. I also find the degree of anger and the one-sidedness of Israelis, and from pro-Israel people in the West, very disturbing.
What the Soviet invasions of Hungary in 1956 and of Czechoslovakia in 1968 were to the cause of international communism, the US enterprise in Iraq in 2003 was to the ideals and legality of humanitarian intervention.
The war over Lebanon of July-August 2006 offers an example. The crimes of the Israelis (in wantonly attacking the infrastructure of Lebanon, and denying Palestinians their national rights) and those of Hizbollah and Hamas (in killing civilians, placing the lives and security of their peoples recklessly at risk, hurling thousands of missiles at civilian targets in Israel and fomenting religious and ethnic hatred) do not require particularist denunciation: that the one killed Arabs or Muslims, and that the other spilt Jewish blood. They are crimes on the basis of universal principles – of law, decency, and humanity; and should be identified as such. Particularism undermines the very basis of the denunciation, which presupposes universal principles.
Note: I wrote almost all of this piece before the outbreak of war between Israel and Hamas in Gaza and the accompanying violent clashes between Israelis and Palestinians that erupted in mid-May 2021. This post does not address those events.
Recently the Israeli human rights group, B’Tselem, released a new report making the argument that the State of Israel is guilty of apartheid. B’Tselem’s claim is different than one made some months ago by a different Israeli human rights group, Yesh Din. Last September, Yesh Din released a report making the argument that apartheid as a legal term should be applied to Israeli rule in the West Bank, but they declined to address the question of whether apartheid should be used to describe “Israel proper,” ie. Israel within the Green Line, where Arabs and Jews both have citizenship and voting rights.
B’Tselem’s report says that Israel is guilty of apartheid throughout all the lands over which it is the ultimate ruling power. Here’s how they explain their view:
My friend Rabbi Amita Jarmon posted this message to some of her colleagues a few days ago, and she gave me permission to re-post it here…
It’s 2 AM here. Lots of sirens and booms in Jerusalem until about 1 AM. It’s quieter now but still an occasional siren. I was at an Omdim B’Yachaddemonstration tonight. There were similar demonstrations in Tel Aviv and Haifa. The J’lem one was small — I estimate about 250 of us. We chant, accompanied and punctuated by a circle of drummers — the same as at the Sheikh Jarrah demos:
“Jews and Arabs refuse to be enemies.”
“In Gaza and Sderot, boys and girls want to live.”
“The rule of the right doesn’t want security.”
“Stop the Escalation, we don’t want war.”
We marched from the Old Mashbir down King George and Yafo to Kikar Tzion (Zion Square). There, a large number of right wing youth gathered around and started shouting with bull horns and ripping our posters out of our hands and shredding them. The police intervened. They brought dogs and horses and we were forced to disperse. One friend told me that the police have a legal obligation to protect peaceful demonstrators, and should have made the youth who were disturbing us back off.
We know now who the parties will be that will contest the do-over election that’s set for mid-September. In April, Netanyahu’s ruling Likud party won 35 of the 120 Knesset seats, and tied the newly formed centrist party, Blue and White, co-led by Benny Gantz and Yair Lapid. But because the right wing parties tallied 65 seats total in the last election, Likud was given the opportunity to try to form a government. To do that, you need a coalition of parties with a minimum of 61 seats, and you have 42 days to get it done, or else the (largely ceremonial) President of Israel can choose another party to try to form a government.
If you remember, Bibi was able to get a coalition of 60 seats, but one of the right-wing parties, Yisrael Beiteinu, headed by Avigdor Lieberman, refused to join the Netanyahu led government. They won 5 seats. The stated reason Lieberman gave for holding out was his ideological determination to insist on several laws that would discontinue military service exemptions for ultra-orthodox yeshiva students. Lieberman’s party is an avowedly secular, xenophobic, Jewish nationalist, pro-settler party. Few people thought he would actually hold out for the full 42 day coalition-building period – everyone thought he was taking a severe bargaining position. But he did.
Before the Israeli President could pivot and offer Blue and White a chance to have 42 days to form a government, Likud called the Knesset into session and called for a vote to form and then immediately dissolve the legislature. This was unprecedented, and it was weird. The reason Likud did this was that they preferred a second election in a few months’ time to giving Gantz and Lapid a chance to form a coalition.
So here we are.
One of the things that has happened since then is that there’s been a lot of small parties combining into blocs. So only 9 parties will be on the ballot in the upcoming election, the smallest number in Israel’s history. The Arab parties, which ran three different slates in the last election, have formed a Joint List (when they’ve done this in years past, they’ve tended to get more seats). Blue and White, which came closer than most expected to toppling Likud in April, has been laying low, and now, as they launch their new heavy PR push, they’re having in-fighting problems that are generating bad press for them. Lovely.
Meretz, traditionally the party of the peace camp, has merged with a newly formed party announced by former Prime Minister Ehud Barak, calling itself the Democratic Union. On the right, some of the smaller parties have formed Hayamin Hachadash – “The New Right.” There’s some super creepy folks in that cohort, let me tell you.
Below is a graphic I pulled off of a webinar that shows, in the center column, the names of the 9 parties (or slates) that will be on the ballot. The column on the right shows how many seats each of these slates won in April – only because some of these slates were divided into smaller, separate slates last time, what the makers of this chart have done is combined the totals that smaller parties got last time when appropriate.
From Americans for Peace Now’s regular feature, “Hard Questions, Tough Answers,” a Q and A column featuring Yossi Alpher, a former senior Mossad and IDF intelligence official.
I think this says it all.
(The rest of this post is a direct quote from the interview – a link to the full interview follows.)
Q. This coming Saturday, July 20, Binyamin Netanyahu will have served as prime minister of Israel longer than David Ben Gurion: 13 years and 128 days, to be exact. Can you compare the two?
A. Frankly, no comparison really works here. Ben Gurion renewed Jewish sovereignty for the first time in nearly 2000 years. He made incredibly daring and difficult decisions in order to bring this about: the very declaration of Israeli independence against all the odds; Altalena and the determined creation of a single sovereign armed force; prioritizing mass Aliyah over the military’s budget; accepting German reparations; creating a nuclear project. Nothing that came after can compare.
Netanyahu’s longevity in office contrasts particularly with Ben Gurion precisely because Netanyahu has consciously avoided making hard decisions while seemingly letting time and circumstances take care of the challenges involved. Ben Gurion would have acted–confronted the settlers, for example, whatever the cost–to prevent Israel from becoming a binational entity. By the same token, Ben Gurion might have adopted a far more aggressive military pose vis-à-vis Iran in Syria–not necessarily the wisest move.
At the socio-economic level Ben Gurion, who successfully imposed upon beleaguered and bankrupt Israel the absorption of hundreds of thousands of Eastern Jews and Holocaust survivors by a state-run, centralized economy, would never have acquiesced in the huge income gaps and social fragmentation that have emerged in Israel’s otherwise successful market economy under Netanyahu.
Netanyahu is as distant from Ben Gurion as any Israeli prime minister. Only his impressive political skills place him in the Ben Gurion class. Yet Netanyahu uses those skills basically to stay in office–
Netanyahu is essentially a status quo politician, more like Yitzhak Shamir than any other predecessor. Menachem Begin pro-actively sought peace with Egypt, Yitzhak Rabin with the Palestinians and Jordan. Ariel Sharon withdrew from the Gaza Strip. In all cases, these leaders consciously challenged a skeptical public and a hostile political reality. They behaved in the Ben Gurion mode. Bibi meets secretly with Arab leaders and openly with Putin and Xi, but only with the goal of maintaining Israel’s physical security while doing nothing about the existential Palestinian demographic threat closer to home. Bibi also has Trump–a problematic asset but nonetheless a luxury Ben Gurion never dreamed of enjoying as he navigated the fortunes of a truly isolated country.
Incidentally, Ben Gurion also confronted corruption allegations–spending government and Histadrut money for his book collection and even his Tel Aviv home. He ignored or rebuffed the charges easily. One thing that has changed for the better since then is the rule of law, though that too is now being challenged by Netanyahu.
Netanyahu is as distant from Ben Gurion as any Israeli prime minister. Only his impressive political skills place him in the Ben Gurion class. Yet Netanyahu uses those skills basically to stay in office–currently, as a means of avoiding prosecution on corruption charges. Ben Gurion applied his political skills toward realizing his daring vision for Israel. When necessary, he left office precisely to advance his goals. Can anyone imagine Netanyahu doing this?