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.
A piece I wrote in 2011 – wondering if it still holds up to the scrutiny of hindsight given the last decade’s events.
Recently I saw Romney on TV warning that Obama is on a mission to change America into a country that we hardly recognize, and that this election represents our last chance to stop him before we lose “the America we know.” Echoing this message of cultural paranoia, last week’s Conservative Political Action Conference in Washington, DC provided a platform for the most extreme versions of this thought, including panelists associated with white nationalist and anti-immigrant groups. The GOP’s core campaign message so far appears to be “Obama is dangerous because he isn’t really one of us.”
In the first couple years of Obama’s presidency, the right promoted this message in the form of “birtherism” and the “he’s a Muslim” claim. Now they’re pushing it in the form of the “he’s a European socialist” canard. In the space of three years, right wing paranoia has moved the geographic location of Obama’s Otherness from Kenya, where he wasn’t born, to Mecca, towards which he doesn’t pray, to Western Europe, whose fully socialized medicine he didn’t promote. Republicans are going to need a GPS navigation system to keep the American people up to date on the geography of their fictional portrayals of Obama.
The truth, however, is not that Obama is trying to change America into a country we won’t recognize, but rather that the GOP’s leaders don’t recognize the country that America has already become. America has already changed into, and will continue to become, an ever-more-diverse nation of many cultures, religions, and ideas. Before anybody knew who Barack Obama was, this change had already taken root. Obama is an American with mixed racial heritage and family ties to Kansas, Hawaii, Kenya, and Indonesia. He also has Muslim, Christian, and even Jewish relatives. He is a walking American melting pot who could only have become president long after the death of Jim Crow America. What the fearful right doesn’t see is that Obama is an awful lot like most people in this country – mixed heritage, ties to different strands of the weave of this nation, and a values system that has tolerance and respect for all these different cultural elements.
Rosh Hashanah Sermon 2021 / 5782 for String of Pearls – Princeton Reconstructionist Congregation (Princeton, NJ)
By Rabbi Maurice Harris
Shana Tovah to everyone.
One of the most wondrous names of God in the Torah is Ehyeh-Asher-Ehyeh. This is the divine name that means, “I Am Who I Am.” You may remember the scene when God introduces Godself by this name. It’s from Moses’s encounter at the Burning Bush, that scraggly thornbush on the slopes of Mount Sinai that Moses approached because it strangely appeared to be on fire, but not burning up. That’s where God first spoke to Moses. And where God told Moses to go to Egypt and tell the Hebrews that the God of their ancestors has sent him to be the instrument of their liberation. Here’s how the scene plays out from there in the text:
Moses said to God, “Suppose I go to the Israelites and say to them, ‘The God of your ancestors has sent me to you,’ and they ask me, ‘What is this God’s name?’ Then what shall I tell them?”
God said to Moses, “Ehyeh-asher-ehyeh – I am who I am.’ This is what you are to say to the Israelites: ‘I am’ has sent me to you.’”
Can you imagine being Moses in that moment? First off, you might be thinking “this is a profound, mind-blowing experience. This must really be the Living God and Creator because It just told me that Its name is all-encompassing, inscrutable, fluid, beautiful, immense, abstract, and intimate all at the same time.” But if you were Moses you might also be thinking, “Hang on a moment. How am I not going to be run out of town on a rail by the Hebrews if I show up – a runaway fugitive from justice in Egypt and a former member of the royal family now claiming to be Jewish – and I tell them their God has sent me back to Egypt to liberate them, and then – when they ask for God’s name – I tell them it’s something like the riddle of existence, and that they should trust me?”
Moses’s predicament is even worse than that, because grammatically it’s not clear whether what God tells Moses is that God’s name is “I am who I am” or “I will be who I will be.” In Biblical Hebrew, the verb tense is unclear – it could be present or future. (If you want to get really nerdy about it, it can also be causative – “I will cause to be what I will cause to be.” If you open up a typical English translation of the Bible – Jewish or Christian – there’s a good chance you’ll see a little footnote tagged to this phrase, which will take you to an editor’s note that states some of the other possible translations.
I think there’s a lesson here about both God’s nature and ours, one that’s connected to this time of year in the Jewish calendar – this time of self-reflection, of personal moral accounting, of seeking forgiveness and of working to try to become better versions of ourselves in the coming year. God reveals a crucial aspect of Godself to Moses with this famous declaration – and it’s a really intimate thing God shares. God says “I am who I am” and “I will be who I will be” in the same breath. Both are simultaneously true. And both leave us with a lot of questions. When God says “I am who I am,” does God mean to say that God also doesn’t fully understand Godself, but on some level simply accepts who God is? When God says “I will be who I will be,” does that mean God doesn’t know what God’s future being will be like – is God becoming at all times and developing in ways that the God of the moment can’t predict?
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.
First, I learned an important use of the term “common sense” and about the term “pillars of support” as it is used in non-violence studies. Here’s the paragraph that lit these terms up for me:
“…it’s helpful to understand an essential concept of nonviolent struggle known as “the pillars of support.”
Basically, the idea is that the structure of any social injustice can be imagined as something like an ancient Greek temple, with large columns supporting its roof. The roof represents the injustice — in this case, white supremacy — and the columns represent the social institutions that uphold it. Organized religion, media and the educational system are useful institutions to legitimate a regime by shaping the public’s common sense. White Christianity, more specifically, has always been an essential pillar of support to American white supremacy.”
Henry also writes about racial caste in American society in this essay, and offers a 1967 quote from MLK that absolutely speaks to this moment 53 years later:
“The enterprise of racial caste has in this sense always been at war with democracy. The Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. knew this when he wrote in 1967 that some white Americans seem to have ‘declared that democracy is not worth having if it involves equality. The segregationist goal is the total reversal of all reforms, with the reestablishment of naked oppression and if need be a native form of fascism.'”
In the aftermath of the Jan 6 2021 attempted insurrection, I am appreciating Henry’s clarity, and appreciating the chance to learn concepts and language that I wish I had learned years ago.