Ice Cream Politics and the Experiment of Jewish Sovereignty

In recent days, Jewish news outlets have been buzzing!

In recent days, Jewish news outlets have been buzzing! Last week, they reported on a survey of U.S. Jewish voters taken after the Israel-Gaza conflict, which indicated that a quarter of American Jews agreed with the statement that "Israel is an apartheid state" (click here for one report on that story, courtesy of Haaretz). This past weekend, on Erev Tisha B'Av, a Conservative movement-sponsored reading of Eicha at the egalitarian prayer space on the south edge of the Kotel plaza was overrun by hundreds of Orthodox youth from the group Liba, who cursed and screamed at the worshippers and tried to erect a mechitza (divider) to separate genders (click here to learn more about that story from a Times of Israel report). And finally, two days ago, Ben & Jerry's issued a statement that they "will end sales of our ice cream in the Occupied Palestinian Territory." This ice cream announcement generated a flurry of responses from public officials and media outlets (not to mention a bevy of terrible ice cream puns): some applauded the company's decision to draw a distinction between Israel proper and Israeli settlements in the West Bank, illegal under international law; others denounced this decision -- together with all other instances of BDS (boycott, divestment, sanctions) -- as antisemitic; still others insisted that Ben & Jerry's didn't go far enough in that the company plans to continue a business relationship with Israel at all. (I received emails from Jewish organizations from every part of that spectrum… ranging from one calling on me to “urge Ben & Jerry’s to reject hate and oppose BDS,” to another inviting “Get a pint with us!”)

Each of these three Jewish news stories of the week, in a different way, sheds light on the fact that Jewish sovereignty is inherently complicated. The State of Israel – the great miracle of 20th century Jewish life – has become the single greatest source of the controversy and challenge for 21st century Jews around the world.

I don’t think the author of Deuteronomy would be the least bit surprised by this claim. In this week’s Torah portion, Vaetchanan, we hear the ancient version of warning on precisely this topic:

“When the Lord your God brings you into the land that God swore to your fathers, Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, to assign to you – great and flourishing cities that you did not build, houses full of all good things that you did not fill, hewn cisterns that you did not hew, vineyards and olive groves that you did not plant – and you eat your fill, take heed that you do not forget the Lord who freed you from the land of Egypt, the house of bondage… Do not try the Lord your God as you did at Massah. Be sure to keep the commandments, decrees and laws that the Lord your God has enjoined upon you. Do what is right and good in the sight of the Lord, that it may go well with you and that you may be able to possess the good land that the Lord your God promised on oath to your fathers…” (Click here to read Deut. 6:10-19 in full… this is but an excerpt.)

In this short passage (nestled between Shema/V’ahavta and the telling of the Exodus that the Haggadah takes up), the text of Parashat Vaetchanan  acknowledges the privilege and complexity of residing on land that someone else previously inhabited; it calls on the Israelites to remember who they are and where they’ve come from; it insists that they follow God’s instruction and maintain strong alignment of values and ethics; it hints that failure to do so will result in an end to sovereignty in the land.

Today, these exhortations of Deuteronomy feel as relevant as ever. Even as Jews living in the U.S., we are part of the “people of Israel” and thus have a stake in the experiment that is Jewish statehood. From our place here in the diaspora, we must continue to insist that Jews of all stripes in the land of Israel learn to treat one another with decency and respect. (From my vantage point, what happened at the Kotel looks an awful lot like sinat chinam, baseless hatred, which is the classical rabbinic explanation for why the second Temple was destroyed!) And, moving even beyond that internal Jewish community work – itself no small task – we must also insist that the State of Israel strive to build a shared society that offers dignity and justice for all, Jew and Palestinian alike, on both sides of the Green Line.

Challenging as it is not to get swept into shouting matches about ice cream and politics, I believe we have an obligation to stick with these hard conversations about what the sovereign State of Israel can be and should be.  

This Sunday morning at 9am, we at Kavana will have a unique opportunity to hear directly from Yael Lotan, Co-Director of Breaking the Silence, an Israeli organization comprised of veteran soldiers who have served in the Israeli military and are now working to end the Occupation. I sincerely urge you to attend (see below for event details). Hearing about the realities of everyday life in the Occupied Territories may be difficult for us as American Jews, but nothing is more important for those of us who care about the future of the State of Israel and the integrity of the Jewish people.

Plans are also in the works for Kavana to co-sponsor a briefing next month by Elisheva Goldberg, the New Israel Fund’s Director of Media and Policy -- about the violent events of May and June, the new governing coalition, and what this all means for the ongoing struggle for equality and justice in Israel. We’ll have more details on this event by next week, but for now, if this topic sounds up your alley, please save the date for Tuesday evening, August 24th.

In addition, it was so disappointing last year when we had to cancel the incredible Israel-Palestine trip we had planned for the summer of 2020 due to Covid. I’m very excited to report that Kavana and a couple of our fellow JEN communities (The Kitchen, Mishkan) are picking up the planning where we left off last year, and hoping to make this deep-dive into Israel-Palestine happen in late June / early July 2022. Again, there will be more certainty and more details soon, but if you already know that you’re potentially interested in traveling there with me next summer, feel free to drop me an email and we’ll start building a list.

Finally, I want to end by sharing some words that my friend Yona Shem-Tov, Executive Director of Encounter, wrote today. Her sentiments resonate deeply for me:

“Beyond the sensationalism of the ‘news,’ which on the one hand is bluster and on the other is data about shifting trends in American discourse, what ultimately matters more: the lived realities of people on the ground. We are alive to witness the historical experiment of Jewish sovereignty in real-time: in all its blessings and its failures and its messiness. The challenge that *we* face, whatever brand of ice cream you favor, is how that sovereignty is manifesting and its implications for the humans affected by it.”

May we – who are alive to witness this extraordinary moment in Jewish history and have the power to exert influence – strive (in the words of the Deuteronomist) to “do what is right and good in the sight of the Lord”… that all “may go well” in our generation.

In prayers that someday we will achieve peace and harmony, justice, dignity, and even sovereignty for all,

Rabbi Rachel Nussbaum