Ben and Jerry for Kiddush!
Like many Diaspora Jews of my generation, I have been taught to hate “the settlers”. You know: those Israeli Jews who live beyond the Green Line, in Judea and Samaria, also known as “Occupied Territories”, where a Palestinian State was supposed to be born after the Oslo Accords.
I was told that those Jews who live there were an obstacle to peace. They were not people, Jews like me and you, but they were “a problem”. I was taught that peace would come if only those Jews moved elsewhere. It does not matter where; no one ever asked where several thousands of Jewish families, entire villages, were supposed to move. They just had to move away. Period.
The central concept was: that when Jews left, peace would come. After that massive Jewish exodus, a peaceful Palestinian State will be established on land and finally cleansed of its Jewish inhabitants (or “invaders”. Jews are always invaders). And it will be the only Arab State in the world with no grievances against Israel.
Then the Jews (sorry: “the settlers”) moved out of Gaza, and the rest is history. The much-anticipated peace did not materialise. Nor the peace between Israel and the Palestinians. Not even the much-talked peace between Islam and the Western world which -do you remember?- was supposed to follow after the healing of that Middle Eastern wound.
This is not the time to discuss why such an aspiration did not materialise. I just want to share with you the puzzlement I felt when, after having lived in Israel for some time, I finally met with some of “the settlers”.
They were not monsters. They were not fanatical. They were not racists. To my surprise, these much demonised “settlers” were regular Israelis who happened to live where they live, for the same reasons as some other Jews who live in other parts of Israel: mainly house pricing and only in some cases, ideological or religious motivations. And, strangely enough, the more religiously attached to the Land -which for the British media were supposed to be the more fanatical- were also the more motivated to find a way to coexist with the Arabs.
They were the students of an extraordinary Rabbi, Menachem Froman, z’’l, a man who devoted all his life to cultivating mutual understanding between Jews and Muslims. At his funeral, even the sheikhs of Hamas came to pay honour.
But apart from getting to know the followers of Rabbi Froman (who, by the way, are not such a small group), I realised I had much in common with “the settlers”. And I would say you also have, like everyone in this room. We share the same culture, values, and the same (call it this way if you like it) obsession for Jewish continuity.
We share the same history, the same hope and the same fears. We share the same religious language. Even when we disagree, we do not disagree about what we want (call it messianic hope, call it Tikkun Olam, call it a better world); we disagree about the how, the methods, the ways to get there.
I wish I could say the same for the Palestinians. Unfortunately, too many Palestinians just want to get rid of the Jews. They believe that to make the Middle East a better place, Jews must go. And that we Jews (the “settlers”, but also you and me) must not be allowed to live in that part of the world. Because we are Jews.
Like it or not, if you are Jewish, you have more things in common with the much-defamed settlers than you have with the much-loved Palestinians.
All of this came to my mind last week when I learned that Ben & Jerry’s -the ice cream brand favoured by the “peace and love” folks- will be back on the shelves in the supermarkets owned by Jews in the West Bank (Judaea and Samaria, Occupied Territories … called them as you like).
Some months ago the company had decided to stop selling in that part of the world. At that time, the decision was hailed as a Palestinians’ triumph. Someone spoke of a giant step forward for human rights. Others envisioned the imminent defeat of Zionism. As if Ben & Jerry produced not ice cream but, who knows, machine guns; and has stopped selling them to the Jews (sorry: to the “settlers”); and instead was now giving these weapons for free to the Palestinians.
Someone even pompously enounced on Twitter that he was buying an extra stock of the Ben & Jerry ice cream to support the company’s brave choice to deprive of ice cream the customers of supermarkets in the West Bank: Jews, Arabs, and foreign workers.
I’ll admit it, reading all that outpouring of revolutionary enthusiasm, I had to pinch myself to remind that all the fuss was for a brand of ice cream.
Last week the company reverted the decision, and it caused great consternation among you-know-whom, the same persons. Those same people are now profoundly angered at the new marketing strategy. Offended, their feelings are-obviously- hurt. They unleash torrents of apocalyptic messages on social media, with the usual accusations of genocidal intents, apartheid, racism, murder of Palestinian babies and the like.
Again, I had to pinch myself to remind myself that it was not the end of the world but just the return on supermarket shelves of a brand of ice cream.
I am glad that Ben & Jerry will return to be available to the customers who live in that part of the world, Arabs, Jews, and foreign workers. I support their decision. I see the antisemitic motivation of boycotts that target Jews wherever they live, so I am glad this is over. Go Ben & Jerry’s! Today we’ll have a scope of your delicious kosher ice cream at the Kiddush (stay here, please! don’t rush out now! it’s not served yet!).
Yet, the virulence of the pro-Palestinian camp took me by surprise. I read messages of Jews according which depriving of a brand of ice cream people who live in the West Bank (Jews and Arabs) was nonetheless part of Tikkun Olam, improving the world. They are so obsessed with how evil “the settlers” are: that they would like to deprive them not only of ice cream but, if possible, of every kind of food so they will die of starvation!
While this psychodrama was taking place, I thought about this week’s Torah portion. Chukkat. The quarrels and arguments I saw on social media remind me of the aggressive challenge against Moses, which we read in the Torah portion of this week. Even Moses lost his patience. They want water. He angrily asks God for water, and he angrily hits a rock (twice) with his stick. Water gushes out, but God takes notice of Moses’s short temper.
Let us remember the larger picture, the time frame of these quarrels. The Israelites are about to enter the Promised Land. Scouts have visited it (in the Torah portion we read two weeks ago).
In other words, the Israelites are in transition. They have been wandering for forty years. During these years, their life was more or less safe. They woke up every day knowing what the day had in store. Now they do no know. They don’t know how life will be in the Promised Land, where they are about to settle. They fear the local populations, and -had they been living today- they would fear “the public opinion.”
Transitions are never easy, and this transition is not easy even for Moses. He is nervous; hence he loses his patience.
Let’s say things as they are. We are on the verge of a similar transition. I do not believe that the Diaspora is over, but Israel is clearly the centre of the Jewish world today. There, the Jewish population is younger and more numerous than in the Diaspora. This is a clear indication of where things are heading.
And so, we can understand the nervousness of those who believe that the Diaspora is still the centre of the Jewish world and that an identity can be grounded on very lofty “Jewish values” rather than Jewish law. They see the writing on the wall. They know they do not speak anymore for most of the Jewish world, let alone for its younger component. We understand how frustrated they feel and why they make such a big fuss… about a brand of ice cream!.
By the way: they look at the Israelis as riotous children, ignorant of Jewish values, and always in need of being educated. And they want to educate these children: by depriving them of ice creams.
Let me derive another teaching from this week’s Torah portion. Don’t lose your temper. Avoid this kind of argument. I know how upsetting these people are, those who show off their superiority complex stuffed with so-called values (for a portion of ice cream!). But mind that, Moses could not enter the Land of Israel precisely because he lost his temper and fell into this kind of trap.
We are about to enter a time of Jewish history when most Jews will be living in the Land. Let’s ignore those who want to keep us backwards, and let us celebrate With ice cream. עם ישראל חי
Brighton & Hove Reform Synagogue, 2 July 2022 / 3 Tammuz 5782