By Dan Schnur
Sometimes an ice cream cone is just an ice cream cone. But sometimes a debate that may seem to be just about dairy-based desserts can have much broader ramifications.
Initially, I didn’t want to write about the Ben & Jerry’s controversy sweeping through the United States and Israel, because I worried that discussing the life-and-death issues that frame the Israeli-Palestinian debate within the context of an ice cream boycott could trivialize such a critically important conversation.
But this isn’t an argument about desserts. It’s about terrorism and bigotry and the worst type of double standard, that demonizes the Jewish homeland and the people who live there. It’s the latest front in the ongoing battle that uses the threat of economic boycott and sanctions to pressure Israel into agreeing to shrink its landmass, empower its enemies and expose its citizens to an even greater threat of danger and death.
This overlap between Middle Eastern geopolitics and an American cultural touchstone demonstrates the scope of the challenge that Israel and its supporters are now facing with a U.S. audience whose support for the Jewish state has become increasingly tenuous. The legislative fights are becoming more frequent and more intense, as anti-Israel voices in Congress continue to grow. But this Ben & Jerry’s dispute is an unpleasant reminder that Israel’s challenges are spreading beyond the political arena to the broader and less manageable cultural space.
Almost every week, we hear apologies by athletes and entertainers who “didn’t understand” the hateful overtones of the jokes or the song lyrics they retweeted. Our children and grandchildren study on college campuses where progressive organizations march with pro-Palestinian zealots and then stand aside when Jewish students are demonized. Our allies in school districts and state legislatures work overtime to detoxify ethnic studies curricula that perpetuate antisemitic stereotypes, and our feminist friends battle to disentangle the national Women’s March movement from Louis Farrakhan’s apologists. Meanwhile, mainstream news media devote a comparatively small amount of attention to hate crimes committed against the Jewish community.
This culminates in a societal challenge on a scale that we have not faced in this country since the founding of the Jewish state. Isolated pockets of prejudice and discrimination are one thing, but this broader attitudinal shift is much more unnerving and has the potential to be much more damaging. Even our victories — passing an anti-BDS bill or defanging an ethnic studies proposal — seem like intermittent rear-guard actions that merely delay inevitable and unceasing movement in the opposite direction. Polls show that antipathy toward Israel is significantly greater among young Americans, which means this trend will continue to worsen unless it is addressed.
An effective repair effort will require extensive work both inside and outside the Jewish community. We must both rebuild our weakened relationships with other underrepresented groups for whom the Jewish role in the civil rights movement is a fading memory, and re-instill an appreciation for Israel among our younger generations for whom the importance of the Jewish homeland is often more obligatory than existential. We need to better coordinate and prioritize the commendable work being done by individual synagogues and community groups throughout the region, but largely independent of each other.
The question is who will lead this multi-pronged project? The Anti-Defamation League has been heroic on this front for much of its existence, but the ADL is at its best when it is acting as a first responder rather than a general practitioner. The American Jewish Committee has recently begun to return to its historic emphasis on domestic matters after many years of prioritizing foreign policy: David Harris’ successor as the group’s CEO will hopefully accelerate efforts to return to a U.S. focus.
The raw material is here, but the strategy and coordination is not. It’s time for the convening agents to come forward. This multifront battle is bigger than ice cream or economic boycotts. It’s bigger than politics or legislation, bigger than City Hall or the state legislature of Congress. This is about the place of Jewish Americans in our society and whether we can still belong here in the way we deserve.
Dan Schnur teaches political communications at UC Berkeley, USC and Pepperdine. He hosts the weekly webinar “Politics in the Time of Coronavirus” for the Los Angeles World Affairs Council & Town Hall. This article first appeared in the Jewish Journal.