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.

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”

D’var Torah – Shelach Lecha & the Gaza Flotilla Crisis of 2010

This is a talk I gave at Temple Beth Israel in Eugene, Oregon in 2010. Though it is now almost a decade later, and we continue to lurch from Gaza-Israel crisis to crisis, as I just re-read it, it seems very applicable to this time.

In this week’s Torah portion, called Shelach Lecha, we find the Israelites at a critical crossroads in their early history as a free people.  A little over a year has passed since they escaped slavery in Egypt, and they’ve arrived close to the border of their destination – the Promised Land.  God commands Moses to select a team of 12 leaders – one from each of the tribes – and assign them the mission of scouting out the Promised Land. They are to take a full tour of the land, and then return and make a report to Moses and the Israelites.  

carmel
Logo from an Israeli winery featuring the Israelite scouts carrying the ginormous grape cluster as told in the Torah story of this week’s parashah.

After spending 40 days scouting out the land, the team returned to the Israelite encampment in the wilderness of Paran.  They brought samples of the land’s produce, including a cluster of grapes so large it had to be attached to a large wooden pole and carried by two men.  

Continue reading “D’var Torah – Shelach Lecha & the Gaza Flotilla Crisis of 2010”

Coming Soon: Israstine

nablus-outpost
From today’s headlines…

With news of a brand new settler outpost emerging in the Nablus area, we start 2017, the likely year that will be remembered as the year the State of Israestine was born.

With the blessings of the increasingly vocal Israeli and American-Jewish right wing, and the upcoming carte blanche support of the Trump Administration, Israel and Palestine are now rapidly heading towards one state. A few more outposts, a few more announcements of plans for new neighborhoods, a few more openly public statements by top ministers in this Israeli gov’t saying they don’t want two states ever and they want to annex parts of the WB starting now. Not sure when the last straw will come, but when push comes to shove and the two-state option is completely and utterly gone, regardless of whether it was more because of aggressive settlement policies or more because of PA incitement and rejectionism, many lifelong Zionists will feel morally compelled to advocate for the single state between the Jordan river and the sea to be a democracy, with one person, one vote, complete freedom of movement, and new elections for a Knesset that reflects the wishes and identities of the 10 to 12 million people who live there. We’re witnessing the birthpangs of Israstine. Bibi is one of the founding fathers. Abbas too. Trump may just help deliver the baby.

If this is the will of most Israelis and Palestinians, then I wish them well and wish them success, and hope that the birth of the signle state is not a violent one. I think a two-state agreement along the lines Kerry outlined is a better option, a political resolution to an intractable conflict that is more likely to succeed, and more likely to meet some of the security needs and national/cultural expression needs of Jews and Arabs in this part of the world. But if Israstine is where the leaders of Israel and the PA want to head, and if their respective constituents are unwilling to demand otherwise, then it is what it is.

What I don’t think I can do, in the years ahead, is support de facto indefinite Israeli rule, direct and indirect, over millions of Palestinians because “it’s a temporary situation” or because “it’s mainly their fault.” I know my own heart, I know what I can and can’t support. I don’t want to be left with only the option of a democratic bi-national Israstine to support, but I also don’t know that I’ll feel able to support any other program. I have no control over what Israelis or Palestinians want or choose to do with their political and security calculations, and I’m not judging anybody. But by the same token, nobody has the right to judge me when I’m asked, as an American citizen, what do I support and what do I want our country to support with its resources? I know the answer to that. I can only see myself supporting a US policy that supports two democracies or one democracy – two states or one – but democracies as a bottom line, not this frozen endless status quo that denies the essence of the values of Israel’s own Declaration of Independence, the values of liberal Judaism (and I would argue of the essence of Judaism), and the best values of the United States.

Enough with the genes stuff. You’d think we’d have learned our lesson by now.

So, I’m on FB and I see this post:

ashkenaz

Despite the worried look on the Orthodox Jewish man in the photo accompanying the post, I don’t think it’s particularly surprising to find out that after Jews lived in Europe for many, many centuries, their genetic heritage includes significant European components. Even in Ancient Israel, Jews were never a racial group or a hermetically sealed ethnic group. Israel is at the geographical meeting place of three continents, and empires based in all three of those continents conquered and intermingled with the ancient Judeans over a long period of time. The reason I presume that Jews who’ve lived in very different parts of the world over time have come to physically resemble the people in the dominant cultures in which they’ve lived is that there has always been a certain degree of intermarriage and of conversion. Also, as this article points out – as far back as 2600 years ago, with the Babylonian exile of a large part of the Israelite population, there’s been a sizable Jewish diaspora throughout different parts of the Middle East. Greek and Roman domination of ancient Israel also facilitated movement of some Jews to the big cities and ports of the Mediterranean.

What worries me about these genetic studies is how quickly they tend to get used, in the form of ideologically motivated pseudo-science, to make absolutist “racial” claims about whether or not the Jews have a national connection to the land of Israel, or whether or not the Jews are “really Jews.” But who says that blood and genes are what defines the Jewish people?

I think it’s fair to say that ethnic/religious communities get to decide for themselves how they define themselves. In the case of the Jews, there have been several ways that people have become part of “the tribe.” For 1000 years or so, the children of Israelite fathers, not mothers, were considered Jews-by-birth. Roughly around the time of the Romans, the early rabbinic community facilitated a shift to defining Jewish identity by birth to the mothers. But people could always convert, and at different times during the very long sweep of Jewish history, significant numbers of people did.

And no, I’m not referring to the whole meme about the entire Kingdom of the Khazars converting en masse in the Middle Ages, which has become a trope in an anti-Semitic conspiracy theory that basically argues that Ashkenazi Jews aren’t “real Jews” because they almost all descend from the (utterly unproven) “Khazar conversion,” and therefore the Ashkenazi Jews of the world maintain a public lie about their very identity, and then – the conspiracy theory tends to go – use that lie in order to justify their support for the state of Israel.

The conversions into Judaism by meaningful numbers of people that I’m referring to took place in many different lands where Jews lived in Diaspora communities. In Rome, in what is now Turkey, in Persia, in Egypt, in Greece, etc. Jews aren’t and have never been a racial group. People have not needed to be born into the group to join the group, and the transmission of Jewish identity from generation to generation has been more about community, shared beliefs, shared ritual and cultural practices, and a shared sense of history and destiny than the “purity” of bloodlines. As Rabbi Jack Cohen, z’l, once wrote:

“Throughout the long age from the destruction of the 2nd Temple in 70 C.E. [until the modern era, the Jews were] a unique, spiritually motivated and united trans-territorial society.”

So the genetic stuff is interesting, but it doesn’t tell us all that much, nor does it qualify or disqualify real people from their understandings of their own identities.