Who, If Anyone, Should be Boycotted? The Ben and Jerry’s Controversy

Note: this article was 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.

Ben & Jerry's Pistachio Pistachio Ice Cream Non-GMO 16 oz - Walmart.com

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. 

To read the rest of this essay, click here.

You can also listen to the entire essay at the following link: https://anchor.fm/maurice-d-harris/episodes/Who–If-Anyone–Should-be-Boycotted–The-Ben-and-Jerrys-Controversy-e1ca55p

President of Reconstructing Judaism speaks with clarity and boldness on combating antisemitism today

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.

I highly recommend that people take a few minutes to read her October 27, 2021 piece featured in eJewish Philanthropy. It is one of the best concise pieces on this subject that I’ve seen in quite a while.

The Sum of All Fears shows how a movie with a ton of dumb stuff happening in it can also have profound moments

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.

Story premise: Israel misplaces a nuke in its own backyard but decides to do nothing to find it for 30 years. Whoops.

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.

But we’re supposed to believe the plane crashes because the pilot pulled an Albert Brooks move from Defending Your Life? No way.

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.

Continue reading “The Sum of All Fears shows how a movie with a ton of dumb stuff happening in it can also have profound moments”

Ben & Jerry’s attacks West Bank settlements: new front breaks out in Starbucks’ War on Christmas

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.

According to several sources, the Ben & Jerry’s commandos were able to get past Israel’s vaunted security measures by offering free ice cream and presenting themselves as innocuous and harmless teenagers working their summer jobs.

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.

Continue reading “Ben & Jerry’s attacks West Bank settlements: new front breaks out in Starbucks’ War on Christmas”

Top 10 ways that Bibi is (really really) different than Jesus

You may have heard news that one of the world’s foremost Christian Zionist leaders, Rev. Mike Evans, published an anguished and angry op-ed excoriating Israeli Jews who are supporting the ouster of Netanyahu and the upcoming swearing in of a new coalition government to be headed by Naftali Bennett. Now I’m a rabbi, not a New Testament scholar, so I might be showing my ignorance here. But given that Evans specifically describes the anti-Bibi Jews as forming a chorus shouting “crucify him!” in their satanically-inspired desire to end Bibi’s time as Prime Minister, I felt I should do a little fact checking to see whether Evans has a point? Is Benjamin Netanyahu Christlike?

After what can only be described as minutes of painstaking research, I regret to share my perhaps surprising conclusion: no, Netanyahu is actually really really not like Jesus. Like, those two are super different.

Top 10 Differences between Netanyahu and Jesus Christ

  1. Bibi: Quote most remembered for: “The Arabs are voting in droves!” / JC: Quote most remembered for: “Love your enemies…” (Matt 5:44)
  2. Bibi: Wields state power and wants to keep it / JC: Defied state power and was ultimately murdered by the state
  3. Bibi: Doesn’t keep kosher but engages in l’shon hara (harmful and cruel speech, which is forbidden in Jewish law) / JC: Kept kosher and warned about the moral consequences of l’shon hara – urging people to pay attention to the words that come out of their mouths
  4. Bibi: Doesn’t observe the Sabbath / JC: Observed the Sabbath and commented on special circumstances when other Jewish values should take priority over strict ritual observance of the Sabbath
  5. Bibi: Has lied to so many people, friends and foes alike, so many times that even those politically aligned with him want him out of power and no one can trust his word on anything / JC: the opposite
  6. Bibi: Put on trial for 3 different cases for corruption. Claims that the trials are a sham but they’re actually not. Faces possible fines or jail time. / JC: Put on trial for staying true to his spiritual and moral convictions. The trial was actually a sham. He was actually crucified by the imperial authorities.
  7. Bibi: followers of his party have been shrinking over time / JC: followers of his party have grown into the billions
  8. Bibi: alpha male narcissist / JC: charismatic altruist
  9. Bibi: demagogue / JC: demigod (not trying to cause a theological kerfuffle here… just going for the easy laugh. Also, no disrespect intended.)
  10. Bibi: has lived a life of privilege and luxury / JC: not

Discovering Fred Halliday

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.

Prof. Fred Halliday

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.

Source: https://www.opendemocracy.net/en/who-is-responsible-interview-with-fred-halliday/

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.

Continue reading “Discovering Fred Halliday”

B’Tselem, Apartheid, and questions on my mind

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:

Continue reading “B’Tselem, Apartheid, and questions on my mind”

Letter from Jerusalem

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’Yachad demonstration 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.  

Continue reading “Letter from Jerusalem”

Israel’s do over of its national election is in about 5 weeks

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.

vote tallies 2019

So what do we make of this chart?

Continue reading “Israel’s do over of its national election is in about 5 weeks”