Israel’s Lunatic Response to Ben and Jerry’s

I share a lot in common with Sasha Polakow-Suransky, who will be our guest on this Friday’s Zoom call, at 11:30 ET (a little earlier than usual). He’s the child of South African Jewish immigrants to the United States, he’s a journalist, and he’s deeply interested in American foreign policy. (He’s actually deputy editor of the publication, Foreign Policy.) One difference between us is that Sasha is a serious student of South African history. In 2011 he published an explosive, fascinating, and disturbing book called The Unspoken Alliance: Israel’s Secret Relationship with Apartheid South Africa. We’re going to talk about that alliance, about the use of the word “apartheid” to describe Israel today, about South Africa’s current traumas, and about what it’s post-apartheid trajectory might tell us about potential futures for Israel-Palestine. Sasha’s a brilliant guy. I’m excited to talk to him. 

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It’s fitting that we’ll be talking in the wake of Ben and Jerry’s decision to stop allowing its ice cream to be sold in West Bank settlements. The part of this story that hasn’t gotten enough attention is the grassroots pressure that emerged, over many years, within Vermont. It reminds of me of watching the anti-apartheid movement grow in my own corner of the lefty Northeast during the 1980s. In Cambridge, Massachusetts back then, there was a group of middle-aged people who had protested for civil rights and against Vietnam in their youth. There were also young people who were frustrated that that they hadn’t been alive to do so. (Barack Obama, who spent the late 1980s at Harvard Law School, was in the latter category.) Both generations loathed Ronald Reagan and yearned to rekindle the activism of the 1960s. In the 1980s, these folks powered the local branches of the movement for a nuclear freeze and against US intervention in Central America. Then, as mounting rebellion put South Africa on America’s front pages, many turned their attention to apartheid. 

I think back to those days when I hear hawkish American and Israeli Jews claim that Israel’s American critics don’t have a sophisticated grasp of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Maybe some don’t. But neither did many of the lefty Americans who protested apartheid, a term they often struggled to pronounce. (It’s “apart-ate.”) It didn’t matter. They knew enough to know that their government was complicit in a deep injustice. Which was why Black South African activists generally welcomed their efforts, as most Palestinian activists do now.

To be sure, the Palestinian solidarity movement remains far weaker than the anti-apartheid movement was in the 1980s. The anti-apartheid movement in the US was powered in large part by Black Americans. The Congressional Black Caucus and activists like Randall Robinson were key to pressuring Congress in 1986 to pass sanctions against South Africa, over Reagan’s veto. Today, by contrast, many of America’s most prominent Black politicians—Kamala Harris, Cory Booker, Hakeem Jeffries—oppose any pressure on Israel. (Those Black politicians who do criticize Israel, like Raphael Warnock, face enormous blowback.) Meanwhile, Palestinian, Arab, and Muslim Americans—who often have a disproportionate interest in Palestinian rights—lack anywhere near the influence in the Democratic Party that Black Americans enjoyed in the 1980s. That’s partly because, especially since 9/11, anti-Muslim, anti-Arab and anti-Palestinian racism has made it difficult for people from those communities to gain a foothold in American politics, especially when they advocate for Palestinian rights. Just look at the hell Rashida Tlaib and Ilhan Omar endure anytime they support Palestinians in any way.

The anti-apartheid movement also had the African National Congress (ANC). On the ground in South Africa in the 1980s, the ANC’s local ally—the United Democratic Front (UDF)—waged a campaign of massive resistance. Around the world, the ANC championed a vision of multi-racial democracy and elevated the imprisoned Nelson Mandela into a global icon. The Palestinian solidarity movement has no equivalent. Instead of the ANC, which enjoyed deep legitimacy among Black South Africans, Palestinians have the largely moribund PLO. Instead of the UDF leading an uprising on the ground, Palestinians have Mahmoud Abbas’ collaborationist Palestinian Authority working with Israel to prevent one in the West Bank. Abbas has less in common with Mandela than with Mandela’s accommodationist rival, Chief Mangosuthu Buthelezi, who ran the South African Bantustan of KwaZulu. From Gaza, Hamas is resisting Israel, but its Islamist ideology and attacks on civilians taints the moral character of that resistance. None of this means Palestinians are any less brave or talented than Black South Africans. But it means they have been served less well by their political leaders. 

Palestinians are also up against a tougher foe. Israel is far harder to isolate internationally than apartheid South Africa because it is so much more economically dynamic. Israel also has much stronger ideological allies. The South African government enjoyed support from some overseas anti-communists but as the cold war faded even that support waned. Israel, by contrast, has an enduring network of global Christian and Jewish supporters who endorse Jewish statehood for religious reasons and because they consider it a guarantee against a second Holocaust. In the Democratic Party, this Christian-Jewish Zionist alliance remains hegemonic, though it’s being challenged. In the Republican Party, it’s not even being challenged. The contrast with 1980s South Africa is especially dramatic in the GOP. In 1986, a majority of Republican Senators voted to overturn Reagan’s veto and impose sanctions. Today, by contrast, many Republicans see Israel as a model for the ethno-state they want in the US. They don’t merely oppose boycotting Israel. They want to boycott the boycotters.

But although Israel is deeply formidable, it may be unwittingly assisting the Palestinian freedom movement through its arrogance. The Ben and Jerry’s episode is a good example. Ben and Jerry’s isn’t boycotting Israel as a whole. It’s only boycotting Israeli settlements. (Something I proposed, with little success, nine years ago.) That means Ben and Jerry’s is making a distinction between Israel proper—which has been recognized by both the United Nations and the PLO—and Israel’s occupation of the West Bank, which lacks any international legal legitimacy whatsoever. If the Israeli government wanted to counter the growth of the BDS movement—which supports boycotting all of Israel—it would celebrate that distinction. It would congratulate Ben and Jerry’s, one of America’s leftiest companies in one of America’s leftiest states, for having spurned BDS and legitimized Israel within the green line.

That’s what Israel’s friends on the Zionist left have urged. J Street called Ben and Jerry’s move “a rational and principled, even pro-Israel, position.” Americans for Peace Now (APN) congratulated the company “for making a principled distinction between sovereign Israel and Israeli settlements in the occupied West Bank, which are illegal and illegitimate.” The Palestinian Authority said something similar: “The Israeli president should thank Ben & Jerry’s. They’re an alarm bell. Either Israel wakes up from its occupation and works to end it, or it will face a total boycott.” 

But Israel’s leaders haven’t taken the advice. Instead, they’ve slammed Ben and Jerry’s as anti-Israel, if not anti-Semitic. President Isaac Herzog said Ben and Jerry’s has joined “The BDS campaign” which “seeks to undermine the very existence of the State of Israel” and was practicing “a new type of terrorism.” Foreign Minister Yair Lapid called its boycott “anti-Israel” and a “shameful surrender to anti-Semitism, to BDS.” These responses are not merely intellectually and morally bankrupt; they’re strategically stupid. What J Street, APN, and the Palestinian Authority understand is that Palestinian statehood is Israel’s only way to arrest its plummeting reputation on the American and global left. If forced to choose between one Jewish state that holds millions of Palestinians as stateless non-citizens, and one equal state, progressives will choose the latter. It’s only a matter of time. Yet Herzog and Lapid, who are centrists by Israeli standards, the kind of people who are supposed to restore Israel’s credibility within the Democratic Party after the Netanyahu years, are doing exactly the opposite. They’re saying to American progressives: If you’re against settlements you’re against Israel’s existence as a Jewish state. To which most American progressives will eventually say, as I have: OK, we are.

Despite new polling suggesting that one-third of young American Jews think Israel’s already an apartheid state, the establishment American Jewish organizations—AIPACthe Anti-Defamation League and the American Jewish Committee—are cheering Herzog and Lapid on. It reminds me of a comment BDS leader Omar Barghouti made in a speech at Columbia University in 2014: “I don’t know what’s happening with Zionism. But when I went to school here, Zionists used to be very smart… Either smarter people have abandoned Zionism or the average IQ of Zionists has gone down, but they’re really not thinking straight.” 

They’re not thinking straight because they’re arrogant. After essentially calling Ben Cohen and Jerry Greenfield anti-Semites and terrorists, Israeli leaders demanded that American state legislatures punish the company they created. If there are precedents for a foreign government—let alone one that receives more than $3 billion per year in US military aid—instructing American politicians to punish an American business, I can’t think of any. In so doing, Israel is urging America’s legislatures to enforce laws that courts have repeatedly declared an affront to free speech

If the Israeli government wants to effectively argue its case to American progressives, these efforts are deeply counterproductive. But they aren’t about persuasion. They’re about intimidation. The message to other companies isn’t: Don’t copy Ben and Jerry’s because Israel will, of its own accord, end its occupation of the West Bank. The message is: Don’t support Ben and Jerry’s or else we’ll call you an anti-Semite and a terrorist and try to hurt your business. 

Where could the Israeli government have picked up these bullying habits? Perhaps from decades upon decades of bullying Palestinians who lack basic human rights. Last week, in a twitter thread about NSO, the Israeli technology firm whose Pegasus software has been used to spy on journalists, politicians and activists around the world, Yousef Munayyer astutely observed that such surveillance practices began within Israel itself. Israel “treats Palestinians as a laboratory where its technology can be tested and perfected.” Palestinians are the laboratory for how to treat Ben and Jerry’s as well. The mentality that underlies Israel’s response to defiance in Hebron also underlies its response to defiance in Vermont. That response can succeed for a long time, until, sooner or later, people lose their fear.

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Other stuff:

In a kind of perfect ideological symmetry, it turns out the founders of Haagen-Dazs supported Meir Kahane.

An excellent column by the super-smart Dahlia Scheindlin about why Israel is more worried about Ben and Jerry’s than Pegasus.  

A valuable Jewish Currents (subscribe!) interview about the legal backlash against Ben and Jerry’s with my talented Foundation for Middle East Peace colleague, Lara Friedman.

I’m a huge Tom Segev fan. But I never knew until I watched this interview that Ariel Sharon proposed what would have amounted to a military coup in the run-up to the 1967 War.

Around 39 minutes into this discussion, Professor Patrick Porter offers one of the smartest takes I’ve heard on the Biden administration’s foreign policy 

Check out this upcoming panel on anti-Palestinian racism by the British Jewish anti-occupation group, Na’amod. 

Last week I did a debate for the New Zionist Congress. I also spoke on a panel about Israel-Palestine for American Friends of SOAS. And I was interviewed by Andrew Sullivan for his podcast. All very different conversations.

This Jewish-Palestinian rap battle has been getting a lot of attention. 

This video of the family of Tunisian swimmer Ahmed El Hefnawy watching him win the gold medal is pretty heartwarming, in any language.

See you Friday,
Peter