The Bearable Heaviness of Being (Alone)

Ben and Jerry's, and the loneliness that often lies at the heart of Israeliness ...

Photo by the author, July 2021. Sign simply says that Ben and Jerry’s is on sale, three pints for NIS 39. Non-dairy flavors not included. (No idea why, but those are never discounted here.)

When I was growing up Baltimore in the 1970’s, my parents boycotted the Bolshoi Ballet. Just to be clear, we actually didn’t go to any ballet at all. Most ballets we didn’t attend because my parents didn’t like ballet. But the Bolshoi Ballet we boycotted because of Soviet anti-Semitism.

Slightly more sensible was our family’s boycott of Pepsi because, back in those days, Pepsi would not sell to Israel. So, we boycotted Pepsi, and unlike the ballet, did support its competitors. We drank Coke as an expression of my parents’ Zionist passions.

Which is to say that I don’t think that economic boycotts are an illegitimate weapon. They’re entirely legit. What makes a specific boycott moral or immoral, admirable or reprehensible, is (a) the desired policies that the boycott seeks to bring about, and (b) the fairness with which boycotts are applied.

The Ben and Jerry’s boycott fails both of those tests, but we’ll come back to that below. First, another look at Israel’s Declaration of Independence, and its indication that David Ben-Gurion knew that the Ben and Jerry’s boycott was coming.

Well, not really, but still, sort of.

About mid-way through the Declaration, at the conclusion of the “History” section, the recitation of Zionist history gets to the famous General Assembly vote on Resolution 181, in which the UN decided to create two states, one Jewish and one Arab. But there’s a strange sentence in this paragraph:

On the 29th November, 1947, the United Nations General Assembly passed a resolution calling for the establishment of a Jewish State in Eretz-Israel [the land of Israel]; the General Assembly required the inhabitants of Eretz-Israel to take such steps as were necessary on their part for the implementation of that resolution. This recognition by the United Nations of the right of the Jewish people to establish their State is irrevocable. [emphasis added]

Why would the authors of the Declaration (there were many authors, in a process we’ll discuss down the road in a separate Declaration of Independence Series) note that the vote was irrevocable? It almost sounds childish, like “finders keepers losers weepers,” no?

To those women and men who had been involved in the minutiae of getting a new state aloft, though, there was nothing strange at all about the reminder that the UN recognition was “irrevocable.” What they knew, but which many of us today no longer do, is that by May 1948, work was already underway to bring the Jewish state issue back to the General Assembly for a revote. On April 3, Sir Alan Cunningham, then serving as the British High Commissioner to Palestine, wrote in his weekly intelligence briefing, “It is becoming generally realized ... that the United States aim is to secure reconsideration of the Palestine problem by the General Assembly de novo.”1

The State Department was alarmed by the increasing violence between Arabs and Jews in Palestine; it was becoming ever more convinced that the UN decision had been foolish. Obviously, had the US been successful in bringing the vote back to the General Assembly, the goal of creating a Jewish state might well have failed.

Obviously, today, if the idea of a Jewish state put to a vote at the UN, the motion would fail miserably. Consider the 1975 “Zionism is Racism” vote, which passed 72 to 35 (with 32 abstaining). If anything, hostility to Israel has only intensified since then.

Israelis are a people fully aware that most of the world thinks their country should not exist. That creates what one might call, with apologies to Milan Kundera, a “bearable heaviness of being (alone).” And that heaviness, which is always present in some way, has profound implications for our politics, our morality, our willingness to take risks.

That was why the line from the Declaration was anything but silly. It was the young Israel’s way of declaring to the international community that it was no longer interested in what the world had to say about its right to exist. Ben-Gurion understood that our role as the “nation that dwells alone” (see Numbers 23:9) was not over. Dwelling alone, feeling alone—that is simply part of what living here can entail. Perhaps not every day. But on weeks like this? Definitely.

That fundamental distrust of the world’s rapidly shifting loyalties away from the Jewish people also explains, by the way, why Israel was declaring independence in May 1948. Even though UN Resolution 181 specifically called for the creation of two states, one Jewish and one Arab, it also called for a laborious process by which these states would come into being. The resolution called for the establishment of a five-member "Commission," which, would administer the territories that the British would gradually depart. The fact that the Resolution specifically called on the British not to “prevent, obstruct or delay” the Commission’s work was indication that not everyone was convinced the process would go smoothly.

The Commission was also charged with finalizing the borders of the two states, meaning that the already terrible boundaries assigned to the Jewish state would likely get even worse.

The euphoria at the conclusion of the tally notwithstanding, the UN’s vote on November 29, 1947, by no means fully paved the way to a Jewish state. Ben-Gurion knew that, so he acted quickly. He declared independence before that commission could get underway, and he informed the international community that the UN’s vote could not be reversed.

Because he knew, even before he’d announced the creation of a sovereign Jewish state, that the world had had more than enough of it.

Were Ben-Gurion still around to hear that Navi Pillay, the former head of the UN Human Rights Council, will take the lead in the UN’s “unprecedented open-ended inquiry into ‘systematic’ abuses in Israel and the Palestinian territories,” he would yawn. The only thing that would perplex him is the fact that people were surprised. Pillay has said that her investigation will look into alleged Israeli human rights abuses, and their “root causes” in the now-century-long Middle East conflict. Does one really need to wonder what she will come up with as the “root cause” of the conflict?

When considering Pillay’s background and her preparation for this role at the UNHRC, it’s worth remembering that only one country was a standing agenda item on the UN Human Right Council agenda: Israel. Yup, you read that correctly. Agenda Item 7 “mandates that the UNHRC debate Israeli human rights abuses against the Palestinians during each of its sessions.”

Only one country.

Which brings us to Ben and Jerry’s.

Ben and Jerry’s wants Israel out of the Palestinian Occupied Territories (which, by the way, were formerly part of Jordan, which did not want them back when it signed a peace treaty with Israel in 1994—they were not Palestinian). In many ways, I sympathize with that. In an ideal world, I would love to see two states living side by side. But when I occasionally ask young Jewish progressives on campus or living a post-campus-life— busy protesting against American support for Israel—how exactly they would guarantee Israel’s safety if the occupation ended, or how they would prevent Hamas from taking over the West Bank (recall that Mahmoud Abbas cancelled Palestinian elections in May precisely because he knew that the chances of Hamas winning were high), I often hear something like, “We’re not policy people.”

Now, imagine that any of these young people, who are the graduates of America’s finest universities, wrote a term paper advocating that taxes be abolished. And imagine that the professor then called them in for office hours, and said, “It’s nicely written, and you make a compelling case about all that’s wrong with the tax system. But in abolishing taxes, how are you anticipating that the government can pay for things?” And then imagine that this student at Harvard, Cornell, Michigan, or any of the other places these students attend, replied, “well, I’m not a policy person.”

We can guess the grade the student would get.

They would fail the assignment because these young people are (or at least were) expected to learn to think. But when it comes to “End the Occupation,” they feel no responsibility to think. They actually have no idea how to do it without Israelis being put directly in harm’s way, without any idea how to guarantee that Israel’s pulling out of certain territories would actually end the conflict. As we noted, Hamas would likely have won the elections on the West Bank. And Hamas is committed to Israel’s destruction (see Article Eleven of the Hamas Charter).

So, “End the Occupation” how exactly? That’s the question millions of Israelis wish they could answer.

That’s the first test that the ice cream folks failed. They jumped on the progressive bandwagon about “occupation” without a clue as to what they were advocating, without a moment’s thought as to what the sloganeering might mean for our children and grandchildren, who when we tuck them in at night, trust us to keep them safe.

And that, of course, leads us to the second test, the fairness with which the boycott is being applied. Jewish supporters of the boycott (including some Israelis) are approvingly pointing to the fact that the boycott is not a boycott of Israel, but “only” the “settlements” over the Green Line. Fair enough.

So why are most Israelis not comforted by that distinction? Or to put matters differently, what would make most Israelis a bit more sanguine about the fact that it’s “only” the West Bank that is being targeted? Maybe seeing even one other country, anywhere on the planet, that Ben and Jerry’s saw fit to boycott.

But Ben and Jerry’s doesn’t boycott any other country.  Ever. When Australia refused to recognize same-sex marriage, did Ben and Jerry’s boycott them? Nope – they just refused to serve two scoops of the same flavor (seriously, you can’t make this stuff up). B&J aroused British ire by supporting the right of migrants to cross the English Channel from France, but no boycott. In January 2021, B&J called for the resignation and impeachment of Donald Trump, but they didn’t boycott red states.

Search the internet time and again and look for B&J and boycott, and guess what you’ll find….

Only one country.

Ice cream boycotts themselves aren’t very high stakes. We can live without Chubby Hubby. Yet ice cream boycotts are a potential harbinger of much worse, still to come. If boycotting Israel gets to be in vogue, this could spread. What if it comes to include airlines? Tech companies? Those Israelis and others applauding the boycott because it applies “only” to the “Occupied Palestinian Territories” ought to ask themselves—given that there’s no obvious policy alternative at the moment (though there is much that Israel can and should do to make Palestinian life easier and better)—whether that’s fire they really want to play with.

The boycott has gotten all the attention in Israel that it has because it’s a reminder of the fundamental loneliness that often lies at the heart of Israeliness. It’s a reminder that a thriving economy, insanely successful tech sector, world class health care, superb universities, Tel Aviv being one of the most LGBT-friendly cities in the world, Jewish cultural creativity exploding in ways that are hard to fathom, Jews in Israel being physically safer than ever before and much more all notwithstanding, it weighs on you, this knowledge that you live in the only country in the world about which there has been—even before it declared independence—a consensus that the world might be better off if you didn’t exist.

As was noted this week in Tokyo, it took 49 years for the Olympics to formally honor the dead Israeli athletes murdered at the 1972 Munich Olympics. Is there any other country that would have had to wait half a century?

Obviously not.

Only one country.

I felt that again this week at the brit of our grandson. There’s a point in the brit when the baby starts to cry. It has nothing to do with pain, for he starts crying long before the mohel actually does anything. Usually, it’s because the baby’s diaper is taken off, and he doesn’t like being cold. When we lived in the States, I noted time and again that people panic when the baby cries, and the mohel almost always makes some sort of joke to put people at ease.

On Thursday, the mohel kidded around a bit when he arrived and again after the ceremony, but not during. The baby just cried. Not loud, not long, but he cried. And then, when our son recited the blessing le-hachniso bivrito shel avraham avinu—“to enter him into the covenant of Abraham, our forefather,” you could feel in the room that here, people—religious and secular alike—understood that being part of this covenant is no minor undertaking.

The brit is primal, and so is the decision to be remain part of this people, especially here.

Here, being a part of this people makes you a target. It turns you into the “other.” Being part of this enterprise means that you have to constantly remind yourself that you’re here for a reason, that you’re here because you believe in something. The baby’s father (our son) didn’t serve eight years in a combat unit because he had nothing better to do. His sister, who flew in to celebrate with us, didn’t serve in the Intelligence Corps longer than required because she liked it (she didn’t). Her husband didn’t do seven years because he wanted a military career. They didn’t do what they did because they wanted to build a resume, or because it was fun.

They did what they did because growing up there, they learned that life isn’t about comfort. It’s about choosing meaning. And Thursday, in our home in Jerusalem, the place we’ve lived almost since we got here twenty-something years ago, the house in which we raised our kids, welcoming yet another generation into that covenant was the ultimate antidote to yet another boycott.

Boycotts will come, boycotts will go. But Israelis will keep having children, will continue raising them as part of a covenant, will keep teaching them that meaningful lives are not easy lives. We’ll raise them to live lives of principle, lives that matter, and will convey our most fundamental belief, that

after thousands of years, the Jews have finally come home; and this time, we pray, we’ve come home to stay.

In 2019, when my book We Stand Divided: The Rift between American Jews and Israel came out, my thesis about the root causes of the widening divide between American Jews and Israel proved a bit controversial. A couple of years later, it’s getting another round of attention. Mosaic Magazine, with which I recorded a podcast (hosted by the very talented Jonathan Silver), recently rebroadcast the podcast about the book’s thesis, with the following introduction:

I’d love to hear your thoughts: here’s the link to the podcast.

In the middle of June, Natan Sharansky and Gil Troy published an article in Tablet Magazine entitled "The Un-Jews." They coined the term "un-Jews" to refer to Jews who are relentless critics of Israel, "because they believe the only way to fulfill the Jewish mission of saving the world with Jewish values is to undo the ways most actual Jews do Jewishness. They are not ex-Jews or non-Jews, because many of them are and remain deeply involved Jewishly, despite their harsh dissent. Many un-Jews are active in forms of Jewish leadership, running Jewish studies departments, speaking from rabbinic pulpits, hosting Shabbat dinners. For many of these un-Jews, the public and communal staging of their anti-Israeli and anti-Zionist beliefs appears to be the badge of a superior form of Judaism, stripped of its unsavory and unethical ‘ethnocentric’ and ‘colonialist’ baggage.”

The column evoked passionate responses from all sides, so we invited Gil Troy to explain in great depth what he and Sharansky were saying about the Jewish world. Here is an excerpt of our conversation--in which Troy discusses the “de-Zionization”of non-Orthodox rabbinical schools such as the Jewish Theological Seminary and Hebrew Union College.

The full conversation will be posted this week and will be available to subscribers to “Israel from the Inside.”

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Benny Morris. 1948: A History of the First Arab-Israeli War (Kindle Locations 1679-1682).