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Ben & Jerry’s chair denies antisemitism amidst froth over boycott

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One week after Ben & Jerry’s announced that it would stop selling ice cream in the “Occupied Palestinian Territory”, the company’s board chairperson for the first time publicly rejected the suggestion that the move was antisemitic.

And the brand’s parent company, Unilever, disavowed the movement to boycott Israel. The disavowal comes as Unilever faces the prospect of being penalised financially in states that have anti-boycott laws.

Those are two of the developments to emerge in the continuing fallout from the Ben & Jerry’s boycott of Israeli settlements. Here’s a rundown of what has happened over the past day or two:

On Tuesday, 27 July, Anuradha Mittal, the chairperson of Ben & Jerry’s board of directors, tweeted her first comments on the boycott since it was announced last week. She stood by the decision, and denied being antisemitic following Israeli Foreign Minister Yair Lapid’s statement that the boycott was a “shameful surrender to antisemitism”.

“I’m proud of @benandjerrys for taking a stance to end sale of its ice cream in the Occupied Palestinian Territory,” she tweeted, using the same term for the West Bank that the announcement used. “This action isn’t antisemitic. I’m not antisemitic. The vile hate that has been thrown at me does [not] intimidate me. Pls work for peace – not hatred!” (Mittal didn’t detail the “vile hate” she has received, though critics of the decision have attacked her on social media.)

Mittal’s post came days after a report by NBC News that her board was unhappy with the text of the statement put out by Unilever announcing the boycott. Ben & Jerry’s would “stay in Israel through a different arrangement”, it said. That clause didn’t appear in the announcement drafted by the board.

Mittal hasn’t said that Ben & Jerry’s should withdraw from Israel entirely, and the board hasn’t voiced that position publicly. But on Twitter, Mittal has previously endorsed the Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions movement against Israel known as BDS.

“The catastrophe continues #Nakba70 years later #palestine bleeds Boycott Divest Sanctions #israel,” she wrote in 2018.

On Tuesday, she also tweeted a statement of support from liberal Jewish groups and quoted a passage from the Unilever statement emphasising “a clear distinction between the state of Israel and the Palestinian territories it militarily occupies”.

Unilever is also stressing that the settlement boycott isn’t the same as BDS. The company’s statement, made in nearly identical letters sent to Jewish organisations on Tuesday, comes as a handful of states are considering divesting funds from Unilever under laws that ban the states from doing business with companies that boycott Israel.

The letters say Unilever is committed to doing business with Israel, where it employs 2 000 people and has invested nearly $296 million (R4.3 billion) in the country’s market.

“We look forward to investing in our business in Israel long into the future,” say the letters, which were sent to the Anti-Defamation League (ADL) and the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organisations, both of which had criticised Ben & Jerry’s West Bank pull out. “We have never expressed any support for the BDS movement, and have no intention of changing that position.”

Both the ADL and Presidents Conference said they appreciated the letter, but reiterated their previous criticism. The latter said Unilever’s “response does not go nearly far enough” and encouraged the company to try to override the Ben & Jerry’s board decision, though an internal agreement between Unilever and the Ben & Jerry’s board appears to make that impossible. The umbrella group also praised the states that are looking into whether the boycott violates anti-BDS laws.

The Presidents Conference said it opposed the Ben & Jerry’s decision, “as boycotts of Israel are discriminatory”. While the announcement and letter make clear that the boycott applies only to the West Bank, which Israel controls but hasn’t annexed, Presidents Conference Chief Executive William Daroff told JTA that the boycott would force the closure of Ben & Jerry’s plant in Israel, and that the group feels an “obligation to speak out when Jewish-owned businesses are singled out”. Daroff said that Ben & Jerry’s had made a political decision that singled out Israelis and one “disputed” territory.”

The ADL also thanked Unilever for its statement against BDS, but said, “While ADL is a strong supporter of the two-state solution, we believe that it’s wrong for any company to single out Israel by refusing to sell its products to Israelis and Palestinians living in the West Bank.”

Ben & Jerry’s store in New York City opposed the boycott and plans to donate 10% of its profit to Israel.

A Jewish owner of a Ben & Jerry’s franchise on Manhattan’s Upper West Side has joined a group of local store owners protesting the West Bank boycott. On Monday, Joel Gasman posted on Facebook that, “We feel the recent actions by [Ben & Jerry’s] corporate office don’t reflect our personal views.”

Gasman, whose store is in a heavily Jewish neighbourhood, promised to donate 10% of its profit to “state of Israel educational causes”. He did not specify which ones.

“We’re saddened by the impact that this has had on our business and the Jewish community,” he wrote. “We are proud Jews, Americans, and active supporters of the New York Jewish community and state of Israel.”

Gasman told JTA in an email, “We have lost catering jobs for corporate offices, schools, and synagogues over the past week due to Ben & Jerry’s statement.”

Multiple supermarket owners in New York City have pledged to limit or stop the sale of Ben & Jerry’s in the wake of the announcement. The organisation that certifies Ben & Jerry’s as kosher, Kof-K, also said it was in communication with Israel and an umbrella group for the settlements “to determine the most effective way to respond”, but won’t be removing its certification from the ice cream – a move that some Israel advocates have sought – according to Yeshiva World News, an Orthodox publication.

Israel’s leaders, as well as the leaders of legacy American Jewish organisations, have come out fiercely against the boycott. On Tuesday, Axios reported that Israel has set up a task force to counter the Ben & Jerry’s boycott, and encouraged its diplomats to start a pressure campaign against the decision by fomenting protests in front of Ben & Jerry’s and Unilever offices.

At the same time, a growing chorus of progressive Jews in Israel and America is praising the boycott.

On Tuesday, a coalition of Israeli progressives took out a full-page ad in Ha’aretz, a left-leaning newspaper, to thank Ben Cohen and Jerry Greenfield, the Jewish founders of the eponymous ice cream company. The pair haven’t been involved in the company’s operations since 2000, and haven’t commented on the West Bank decision.

A range of Jewish and Arab public figures signed the advert. Some of the Jewish signatories are Zehava Galon, the former head of the left-wing Meretz party; Naomi Chazan, a former Meretz legislator and deputy Knesset speaker; Dana Olmert, the daughter of former centrist Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert; Michael Sfard, a prominent Israeli human rights attorney; and Ohad Naharin, the famed Israeli choreographer.

“We are writing to let you know that in Israel there are also other opinions,” the advert says. “Thank you for your commitment to Palestinian human rights.”

The advert comes on the heels of a letter signed by seven left-wing American Jewish groups, including J Street, the New Israel Fund, and the liberal rabbinic organisation T’ruah urging governors not to penalise Ben & Jerry’s or Unilever for the settlement boycott.

“Using the full force and power of government to penalise those who exercise their rights in opposition to Israeli policy does nothing but generate further attention and sympathy for boycotts, and frames backing Israel as being in opposition to fundamental freedoms in the minds of many Americans,” the letter says. “That is a strategic disaster for those, like us, who are trying to maintain and grow a healthy US-Israel relationship.”

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Hostage crisis hits close to home for Cape Town rabbi

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It was the middle of the night when Cape Town Progressive Jewish Congregation’s (Temple Israel’s) Rabbi Greg Alexander (Rabbi Greg) heard that a fellow faith leader was being held hostage in a Texas shul on Saturday, 15 January.

Although the shocking event was unfolding across the oceans, it hit hard as he realised he knew the rabbi being held hostage.

“Suddenly the world felt small again. It took a moment to register that this was happening,” says Rabbi Greg. Rabbi Charlie Cytron-Walker and his congregants escaped around the same time that an elite FBI (Federal Bureau of Investigation) hostage rescue team breached the Beth Israel Synagogue in Colleyville, Texas, after an 11-hour standoff. The hostage-taker, Malik Faisal Akram, was killed.

“My wife, student rabbi Andi, and I met Rabbi Charlie in 2001 when we lived in Jerusalem,” recalls Rabbi Greg. “Andi and Rabbi Charlie’s wife, Adena, studied together at the liberal Bet Midrash on King David Street. Rabbi Charlie was a rabbinical student. We spent some Shabbatot together, and stayed in touch when they went back to the United States and we moved to London.

“We met them at the height of the Second Intifada when there were bombings in Jerusalem,” he says. “It was a time of fear and uncertainty then, and I can’t imagine what it must have felt like now to be in that synagogue, or for her watching and waiting…”

“We haven’t seen Charlie or Adena for nearly 20 years even though we have followed each other online, and have gone in similar directions in our rabbinic work,” he says. “They are such amazing people, and are working every day for a better world. It’s so important to know in talking about this attack that of the many social-justice causes he initiated, his synagogue has specifically reached out to local Muslim communities and hosted them for Ramadan.” Temple Israel has done the same.

As the hostage crisis unfolded during an online Shabbat service, Rabbi Greg was alerted to the news a million miles away in time and place, late on Saturday night (South African time).

“We found out while Rabbi Charlie was still being held with the other hostages in the synagogue. The network of progressive rabbis around the world were all sharing what little information they could find, and we watched with horror to see what would unfold. Many people davened for their safe release. Of course, you immediately think of your own shul, wondering if it could happen to you. We are blessed in South Africa not to have experienced the levels of antisemitic violence we have seen in Europe or America, but that doesn’t mean it can’t happen here. Please G-d it won’t, ever.”

At times like this, “his synagogue could be any synagogue”, he says. “When something happens to one of us, it happens to all of us.” In fact, when Rabbi Greg posted on Facebook that he was praying for the safety of Cytron-Walker, a local Chabad rabbi commented on his post, “We are all praying for their safe release. Please G-d we will hear good news soon.”

Rabbi Greg says Cytron-Walker is “the definition of a good guy – a mensch of the first order. He’s kind, generous, and quick with a smile. As a rabbi, he has always emphasised peace work, social justice, and interfaith work. Everyone has commented on how calm and unflappable he was throughout the crisis.”

He says this isn’t the time to lose hope in connecting with other communities. “We will continue to reach out to our interfaith partners to build bridges of understanding in our local community.”

Asked if he ever imagined something like this happening in the shul of a fellow rabbi, Rabbi Greg says, “I’m well aware of how incidents of unapologetic Jew-hatred have increased in the world in the past decade. Ten years ago, nobody thought we would be living through this kind of violence and verbal attacks, but it’s now sadly commonplace.”

In fact, after the deadly Pittsburgh attack in which 11 Jews were murdered in the Tree of Life Synagogue on 27 October 2018, Cytron-Walker wrote to people from other communities who had supported his congregation by expressing their grief.

“When I heard about the deadly attack in the middle of our Sabbath service, the feeling was all too familiar,” he wrote at the time. “The emptiness and the pain, the anger and the helplessness. Too many times in Jewish history we faced tragedy without love or support. Too many times to count, we were left to pick up the pieces of tragedy and destruction. Believe me, the love and support matters. It’s something we all should be able to expect of each other. Thank you for helping us through these dark times. Thank you for standing together. When it comes to hatred and violence, we must all stand together.”

In the aftermath of his own ordeal, he once again thanked others for their support. “I’m thankful and filled with appreciation for all the vigils, prayers, love, and support, all the law enforcement and first responders who cared for us, all the security training that helped save us. I’m grateful for my family. I’m grateful for the CBI [Congregation Beth Israel] community, the Jewish community, the human community. I’m grateful that we made it out. I’m grateful to be alive.”

His words echo that of a psalm which Rabbi Greg says is one to remember at this time. “Psalm 116: 7-11 from the full Hallel in Rabbi Edward Feld’s beautiful translation in Siddur Lev Shalem reads: “‘Be at ease,’ I said to myself, ‘for Hashem has done this for you.’ You have saved me from death, my eyes from tears, my feet from stumbling; I shall walk in G-d’s presence in the land of the living.”

“I hope Rabbi Charlie and the congregants taken hostage can ease their hearts with Hallel psalms,” Rabbi Greg says. “There’s nothing like tehillim for articulating how it feels to be freed from terrible danger.”

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From pandemic to “twindemic” as global cases soar

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As South Africans heave a sigh of relief at the improving COVID-19 situation, other nations are recording record infection levels, reporting new variants, and even worrying about the rise of a “twindemic”.

Although Israel has been mustering record morbidity levels amid the Omicron-driven wave, new coronavirus guidelines for Israeli schools came into force on the weekend with vaccination rates no longer a factor in whether classes can meet in person.

The country had been adopting a “traffic light” plan, in which the vaccination rate of each class determined if students attended school in-person or remotely.

A bigger stir has been caused by a woman in Israel being diagnosed with “flurona” at the start of January. However, this condition has been around for at least two years. Flurona is just the term for having COVID-19 and flu at the same time.

Strict measures to control the spread of coronavirus were expected to prevent flu transmission, which appears to have largely held true for 2020. Efforts to track flu cases face challenges, as flu tests are scarce and the illness can be confused with others, including COVID-19.

Israel is noticing flu spikes this winter after historically low case levels last year. After hitting record lows as coronavirus surged, flu cases in the United States (US) are rising this year. Europe’s flu season, meanwhile, is just starting.

Although Australia successfully contained outbreaks of coronavirus, about 86 000 of the 1.1 million cases it has amassed since the beginning of the pandemic have occurred in the past two weeks. It’s now getting close to attaining record levels of COVID-19 infections following the rapid spread of the Omicron variant.

Several countries in Europe have already achieved that feat. On Wednesday, 12 December, daily cases in Germany (80 000) and Bulgaria (7 062) hit record levels, while Turkey logged a record level of more than 74 000 COVID-19 cases on Tuesday.

In contrast, on 12 January, the United Kingdom (UK) reported that COVID-19 cases fell nearly 45% from the previous week in what was the biggest drop since the arrival of Omicron. Professor David Heymann, an epidemiologist from the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, claimed that the UK would be the first country in the northern hemisphere to tame the pandemic.

The picture isn’t so rosy in the US, where COVID-19 hospitalisations reached a record high on Monday, as a surge in infections strained health systems in several states. On Tuesday, the Indiana health department reported that more people were hospitalised with COVID-19 in its state than at any other point in the pandemic, and Oklahoma reported record-high numbers of new COVID-19 cases on the weekend.

Faring north, the Canadian province of Quebec, facing a new wave of infections, has announced plans to impose a “health tax” on residents who refuse to get the COVID-19 vaccination for non-medical reasons.

In terms of new variants, a Cyprus researcher recently discovered Deltacron, a reported new variant of COVID-19. It apparently combines the Delta and Omicron variants.

And, according to scientists in France, the new B.1.640.2 variant, named IHU, could be stronger than the Omicron variant. IHU has been detected in a vaccinated man who travelled to Cameroon, the host of this year’s Africa Cup of Nations. Researchers say this doesn’t mean IHU originated in the central African country.

Confirmed cases of COVID-19 have passed 310.5 million globally, according to Johns Hopkins University. The number of confirmed deaths has now passed 5.49 million. More than 9.46 billion vaccination doses have been administered globally, according to Our World in Data.

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2022 – the year of the fanatics and the fed-up

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2022 is going to be an interesting year. It should be the year when interest rates in the United States (US) start to rise, and, of course, COVID-19 is still with us. The following are the key flash points to watch out for:

Russia and Ukraine

According to most sources, Russia has about 170 000 troops near or on the border with Ukraine. With a lot of heavy equipment close to the border as well, invasion could happen at any time. US President Joe Biden has had two conversations with Russian President Vladimir Putin on this issue, and issued stern warnings on the economic consequences for Russia if it invades, such is the nervousness in the West.

Why is Putin, the master chess player and strategist, ramping up tensions like this? There are many reasons. First, he likes to keep major Western countries off-balance. Escalating tensions on the Ukraine border and then de-escalating them when he gets the concessions he wants, achieves exactly this. No one in the West can afford to ignore Russia. More importantly, by forcing Biden to meet him and treat him like an equal, Putin ensures he’s seen as a world statesman and Russia as a world power. That plays very well to his audience back home and gets him much-needed support at a time when economic conditions aren’t good. Second, Putin generally wants some concession from the West on Ukraine. Any student of history knows that when Russia was invaded by Hitler, one of the main routes of invasion was through the Ukraine. Putin isn’t going to allow any repeat of that, unlikely as it might be. Russia sees this as an existential issue. He wants a neutral Ukraine, not part of the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO), something the West won’t agree to. He therefore raises the temperature every so often to pressurise the West into making some concession in this regard. At the very least, Ukraine won’t be joining NATO in the foreseeable future.

Although full invasion is unlikely, with two armies facing each other across a very informal border, things can get out of control quickly. This will probably remain the most tense area in 2022.

Taiwan

The Economist recently ran a headline edition describing Taiwan potentially as the most dangerous place on earth. China claims that Taiwan belongs to it and sees it as a breakaway province that must “come back home”. The people of Taiwan want it to remain a sovereign state, although it isn’t recognised by most of the rest of the world. There’s little room for compromise, apart from the current tense status quo in which Taiwan doesn’t declare independence and China still talks about “one China”. Things have been getting more unstable recently, with many academics and even US generals starting to talk openly about a potential invasion.

While, again, invasion is highly unlikely this year, the temperature will remain hot, with the Chinese Air Force testing Taiwanese defences regularly by ramping up flights into its air-defence zone.

Israel and Iran

One must know the world is unstable when Israel and Iran are only item three on the flashpoint list! Things have been very tense here for a long time, with the two sides in a low level, behind-the-scenes shadow war. However, matters are now coming to a head with Iran now openly amassing a stockpile of enriched uranium that’s many times larger than permitted, including at least 17.7kg of material enriched to 60% purity – just below the level needed for a nuclear bomb.

This means that the clock is ticking, and at some point, if Iran doesn’t rejoin the JCPOA (the nuclear deal with the US, United Kingdom, France, Russia, China, and Germany), Israel will have to make a decision on taking more drastic action. Although crossing the nuclear threshold doesn’t mean Iran can immediately attack Israel as it still needs to obtain the technology to send the bomb on a missile, Israel is unlikely to take the chance and wait. As soon as that nuclear threshold is close to being crossed, it will probably act. It would prefer to act together with the US and not alone as an attack on Iran would stretch it to the limits of its capacity. That’s why it has delayed to this point. However, don’t expect it to last forever. As soon as Iran approaches the nuclear threshold, the tension will ratchet up dramatically.

Elections

There are some interesting elections scheduled this year. The French presidential elections take place in April, in which incumbent President Emmanuel Macron faces the traditional threat from the right wing in Marine Le Pen, but also this time from the far right in the form of Éric Zemmour. Things might go calmly, and Macron might have to run off against centrist Valérie Pécresse, but if Zemmour does well in the polls, it will portray a swing to the right in the heart of Europe. The election has the potential to increase tension in France if Zemmour does better than expected.

Then there’s an election in Hungary in April/May. Populist incumbent Viktor Orbán faces a real threat from a united opposition this time. It will be a close election for the first time in years in Hungary, and is unlikely to be a quiet affair.

Finally, Brazil faces an election in October. Current President Jair Bolsonaro, known by many as “the Trump of the tropics”, is lagging his main rival in the polls. If he loses, he might not go quietly and there might well be a Trump-style challenge to the election results. American democracy was shaken by Trump’s actions last January in refusing to concede defeat, and Brazil might face the same. The only difference is that the US’s democratic institutions (the courts, local governors, and electoral institutions) are vastly experienced and have been developed over hundreds of years. They were able to stand firm. Brazil’s institutions are less experienced as it is a far younger democracy. Things might get really uncertain in Brazil come October.

Overall

2022 promises to be an interesting year geopolitically. Overlay this with the fact that COVID-19 will soon have run for more than two years, mass exhaustion with all the restrictions – even if they are necessary for public health – and we have the scene set for an unpredictable, combustible year. A combination of unstable international politics and an angry population worldwide will make for some interesting developments in international affairs. The riots which broke out in the previously stable country of Kazakhstan as this story went to press, and which threatened the stability of the government, are a perfect example of this.

  • Harry Joffe is a Johannesburg tax and trust attorney.

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