It’s increasingly difficult to escape
the Israel debate here. When buying hummus becomes a political act.
Back in May, when my 7-year-old daughter suggested we host an Israel-themed birthday party, my immediate reaction was, “Fabulous!”
We were walking home from ballet class, where she’d received an invitation to a friend’s Greek Gods and Goddesses party, and she was eager to top that with her own theme. Since I’d been teaching her a little Hebrew and taking her on occasional shopping trips to Kew Gardens Hills’ “Little Jerusalem,” Israel seemed like a natural and easy choice. Having lived in Israel for a year and a half and having recently refreshed my Hebrew in an ulpan, I actually know quite a bit about the state. And Ellie, who is usually the only Jewish kid in her class at public school, feels an affinity for this mythical faraway land (she’s not yet visited) in which Jews are the majority.
My second reaction, sparked no doubt by our passing a Palestinian-American neighbor (with whom I carefully avoid discussing politics) and her children on the sidewalk, was: uh oh.
And sure enough, despite our upbeat invitation promising to teach both the Arabic and Hebrew words for “peace,” despite my carefully worded note to parents explaining that the party would not be political or a propaganda stunt (all crafted amid great feelings of ambivalence in which I indignantly wondered if it was really necessary to apologize for having an Israel party), our August event was boycotted.
OK, boycott is way too strong a word. There were no demonstrations outside our home, no flyers distributed, no effort to publicly shame us for celebrating the Jewish state.
Nonetheless, after some e-mail back-and-forth on the topic (knowing his politics, I’d sent him a heads up before the invitation went out), one neighbor, a professor of Arabic, concluded he could not send his daughter “to a party that implicitly celebrates the Israel that I know.”
Another couple in the nabe (their daughter is one of a handful of Jewish kids in Ellie’s public school, but they display a borderless Arabic map of “Palestine” in their apartment hallway) also avoided the party; although they gave no explanation, I suspected it had to do with the Israel theme.
While Israel has long been a hot-button issue, at least since the first Lebanon war, lately, it seems like it has gotten worse. Outside the boundaries of suburban shtetls, most synagogues and pro-Israel advocacy groups, it’s becoming increasingly difficult even to mention Israel in mixed company without alienating somebody or setting off a heated debate.
I’m not talking about the hotbed of college campuses, where Israel’s ambassador to the U.S. is shouted down, Israel Apartheid Week is becoming an annual fixture and faculty members attempt to block exchanges with Israel’s (infamously left-leaning) academics. Even in my college days, at early ‘90s Oberlin, anti-Zionist speakers were a frequent event and Yom Ha’Atzmaut parties routinely protested.
No, I’m talking about the streets of New York City, where, as efforts to boycott the products of Israel (and the settlements) intensify, a simple trip to a dance performance in Chelsea (Batsheva Dance Troupe), a café in Soho (Aroma), a Ricky’s cosmetics shop in Brooklyn (Ahava skin products) — or, in my case, to a 7-year-old’s birthday party in Queens — can quickly turn into a political act.
There seem to be an endless variety of competing Israel-related boycotts and counter-boycotts (known as “buycotts,” they’ve actually helped boost sales of boycott targets like Ahava) out there. Some, like the international Boycott Divestment Sanctions (BDS) movement target everything in any way connected to the Israel Defense Forces (in short, almost everything Israeli), while others focus on the settlements (www.gushshalom.org). Not to mention the ever-growing array of efforts to promote purchases, investments or loans (www.lendforpeace.org) that benefit everything from the entire Israeli economy (buycottisrael.ca) to Fair Trade Palestinian-made olive oil (www.canaanfairtrade.com) to organic, sustainably-raised honey, fruits and spices produced by Jews and Bedouins in the Negev (www.negevnectars.com).
With the panoply of choices, being a “responsible” consumer starts to feel almost as stressful as being an IDF soldier manning a roadblock. Or, depending on your perspective, as harrowing as being a Palestinian waiting in line all day to go through that same roadblock.
The recent movement by Israeli performers to boycott the new arts complex in the settlement of Ariel (one many American performers signed on to), an act that is different from, yet reminiscent of, decisions by international performers like Elvis Costello and Meg Ryan to avoid gigs even within pre-‘67 Israel borders, adds to the dizzying tapestry of boycotts. Even right-wingers have gotten in on the boycott act, with Im Tirtzu, a group that has lashed out at the New Israel Fund, pressing for a boycott of Ben Gurion University over alleged “anti-Zionist bias” among some faculty.
Of course with so many different campaigns out there and only so many people who care deeply about these issues, let alone have any disposable income, it’s questionable whether the power of the purse, diffuse as it is, is even worth considering.
Overshadowing all these boycotts are the ghosts of boycotts past — the Arab Boycott of Israel, the divestment campaign against apartheid South Africa, Nazi boycotts of Jewish businesses, the Montgomery bus boycott of the civil rights movement, and so on. While historians have roundly condemned some of these boycotts, like the Nazi one of course, and celebrated others, the very word “boycott” carries an El Al jumbo jet-sized cargo load of emotional baggage both for the boycotter and the boycotted.
For those of us caught in the middle, albeit closer to the Israel Right or Wrong side than the Throw All Jews to the Sea side, this boycott landscape is particularly messy and stomach-ache inducing.
If you’re convinced that Israel’s only shortcoming is its unsuccessful public relations, then you can demonize all boycotters and devote yourself to buying out Ricky’s inventory of Ahava products (which are manufactured on a kibbutz that is in the West Bank, yet near the Green Line and on previously uninhabited land).
And if you think the world would be a better place if Israel declared an end to the Jewish state project and handed over the keys to those advocating a “binational” state, then it’s fairly easy to avoid a problematic birthday party and keep your refrigerator free of Sabra hummus (owned by Strauss, which supports Friends of the IDF and, according to the pro-Palestinian Adalah-NY website, has the gall to produce “traditional Arab salads”).
But for those of us who love Israel yet also worry that right-wing intransigence, settlement building and problematic treatment of Palestinians are major (albeit hardly the only) obstacles to peace, it’s hard to know exactly where to stand.
Not to mention that it’s exhausting and frustrating to feel like one has to take a stand every time one sees a blue-and-white flag, let alone goes to the grocery store. It’s dispiriting and depressing to feel as if one can never just relax and celebrate the many positive aspects of Israeli culture, without being constantly reminded of the suffering Palestinians (or, for that matter, the suffering of Gilad Shalit or the embattled residents of Sderot).
After all, we don’t think about Abu Ghraib or My Lai or tortured terror suspects, or even the countless ethically questionable things the CIA has done over the decades every time we look at an American flag or hear the national anthem or celebrate the Fourth of July. Nor are we accosted by Free Tibet activists or reminders of Tiananmen Square every time we go to a Chinese restaurant or, more frequently, buy a Made in China product.
But turning the tables, would I feel comfortable sending my daughter to a Palestine-themed birthday party? I’m not sure.
The BDS movement (with which Adalah-NY is aligned), with its singling out Israel among all the nations of the world — not to mention a confrontational approach that demonizes Israelis and puts them on the defensive — deeply disturbs me.
On the other hand, the very real power and economic inequalities between Palestinians and Israelis are hard to ignore.
Plus, if Israel misses the window of opportunity for a two-state solution, its citizens risk not just the oft-repeated choice between a state that is Jewish and non-democratic versus democratic and not Jewish, but, if Hamas prevails, could one day find themselves living in a nightmarish, but hardly impossible, scenario: a state that is neither Jewish nor democratic.
So what’s a progressive Zionist to do? Should we, as Leonard Fein suggested recently in the Forward, support the Ariel boycott, while opposing BDS? Does the answer lie with the weakened and disgraced (thanks to recent revelations that it lied about receiving funds from George Soros) J Street, which opposes BDS tactics yet lobbies U.S. politicians to intensify pressure on Israel? Should we follow the lead of the New Israel Fund (full disclosure: I am a former employee and a longtime donor), whose executive director recently wrote in its newsletter: “In the end, we believe that ‘Israel Right or Wrong’ and ‘Israel Is Always Wrong’ are both wrong. There is a third way, and that is to work for an Israel that is right”?
And for those of us with young kids, how do we explain the situation in an age-appropriate way, so that they’ll bond with Israel but not see it through Magen David-shaped, blue-and-white-colored glasses?
Which is to say, let’s return to the subject of my daughter’s birthday party.
Despite the “boycott,” about eight children showed up (we would have had more had it not been summer vacation). Dafna Israel-Kotok, the Israeli musician I’d hired to teach songs and folk dances (“No pioneer-settling-the-land ones, no Hatikvah,” I’d clarified ahead of time. “Make sure they’re all nonpolitical and pro-peace!”), turned out to be a big hit. We ate hummus, borekas, Israeli puddings and chocolate spread. We decorated nameplates I’d made spelling out each child’s name in Hebrew letters. We assiduously avoided Musical Chairs, with its echoes of fights over land. I gave out goodie bags filled with mini-Israeli flags, Israeli candy, colorful children’s alef-bets and the Arabic abjad.
All in all, a great party. But next year, I think maybe we’ll hire a clown or a magician.