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Icy response to Ben & Jerry’s decision to exit settlements

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Kosher supermarkets are rethinking their inventory. Politicians are emptying their freezers. And the foreign minister of Israel is vowing to get involved in local American politics.

The reactions were all part of the firestorm that quirky ice cream manufacturer Ben & Jerry’s set off on Monday morning, 19 July, with its announcement that it would no longer sell ice cream in “occupied Palestinian territory”.

The Vermont-based company, founded by two Jews and long known for its left-leaning politics, had gone dark on social media for two months since the recent outbreak of violence in Israel and Gaza. The announcement broke that silence, simultaneously infuriating Israel advocates who said the decision was an unfair attack on Israel, and disappointing pro-Palestinian advocates who said the company should have gone further.

Israeli politicians, supermarkets in the United States, various pundits, and even Ben & Jerry’s current Israeli licensee went after the ice cream maker and its corporate parent, British multinational Unilever, for its statement. (The company’s Jewish founders, Ben Cohen and Jerry Greenfield, no longer manage the brand, but have often used their frozen treats to push social-justice causes.)

Reactions from Israel’s leaders were harsh. In spite of the distinctions Ben & Jerry’s made in its statement between Israel and the “occupied Palestinian territory”, Prime Minister Naftali Bennett, a long-time supporter of the settlements, called the decision a “boycott of Israel” and said Ben & Jerry’s “decided to brand itself as an anti-Israel ice cream”. His predecessor, Benjamin Netanyahu, tweeted, “Now we Israelis know which ice cream NOT to buy.”

Israeli Foreign Minister Yair Lapid, the architect of the current ruling coalition, who is generally to Bennett’s left regarding the Palestinians, went even further, calling the decision a “shameful surrender to antisemitism, to BDS [the Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions movement], and to all that is wrong with the anti-Israel and anti-Jewish discourse”. He called on US states to take domestic action against Ben & Jerry’s based on state laws that prohibit the government from contracting with entities that boycott Israel.

Israeli cabinet minister Orna Barbivay posted a TikTok video of her throwing a pint in the trash; the flavour she tossed couldn’t be determined at press time.

Other Israeli public figures appeared to compare the ice cream company’s settlement boycott to terrorism. Eran Cicurel, an editor at Israel’s public broadcaster, tweeted that the colour scheme on Ben & Jerry’s statement was similar to that of the flag of the terror group Hamas.

Amichai Chikli, a right-wing legislator in Israel’s Knesset, tweeted, “Ben & Jerry’s you picked the wrong side”, and posted an infamous photo from 2000 of a Palestinian who had just killed two Israeli soldiers displaying his hands through a window, covered in the soldiers’ blood.

American Jewish groups offered varied responses to the company’s scoop that mapped to their political orientation.

Jeremy Ben-Ami, the president of the left-leaning Israel advocacy group J Street, said that Ben & Jerry’s was drawing “a principled and rational distinction between commercial transactions in the state of Israel and those in the territory it occupies”, and said the term “antisemitism” didn’t apply to the company’s actions.

Daniel Sokatch, chief executive of the left-wing New Israel Fund, said that Ben & Jerry’s wasn’t being antisemitic in exiting “occupied Palestinian territory” because “these lands aren’t sovereign Israel”.

“Attacking people who try and distinguish between sovereign and non-sovereign Israel by calling them antisemitic is to evade a matter of fact, abuse the meaning of ‘antisemitism’, and ultimately gaslight those who would try and work towards a future of equality and justice for Israelis and Palestinians alike,” Sokatch said in a statement.

The Anti-Defamation League, a centrist group, said it was “disappointed” by the move. “You can disagree with policies without feeding into dangerous campaigns that seek to undermine Israel,” it said, but refrained from calling for specific action.

And the right-wing Zionist Organization of America called for a boycott of the ice cream, proclaiming that Ben & Jerry’s is “bad for your moral and physical health”. The call was echoed by others such as Jewish conservative commentator Ben Shapiro, who said he would stop eating the brand.

Vermonters for Justice in Palestine, an activist group based in Ben & Jerry’s home state that has been leading a years-long campaign against the ice cream maker for doing business in Israel at all, said the move didn’t go far enough.

“By maintaining a presence in Israel, Ben & Jerry’s continues to be complicit in the killing, imprisonment, and dispossession of Palestinian people and the flaunting of international law,” the group’s president, Kathy Shapiro, said in a statement. A related group, Occupy Burlington, had been a driving force behind the most recent social-media push against Ben & Jerry’s.

Meanwhile, CodePink, an international left-wing women’s group, praised the decision for showing that pressure works. But the group also said the company should do more.

“Ben & Jerry’s included in the statement that they will be remaining in Israel,” said Danaka Katovich, a Middle East campaign coordinator for CodePink. “I hope Ben & Jerry’s continues to listen to Palestinians and their demands moving forward, and will recognise that Israel’s system of apartheid exists not only in the occupied territories but from the Jordan River to the Mediterranean sea.”

The Israeli licensee of Ben & Jerry’s, which operates a factory in the town of Be’er Tuvia, took to social media hours after the announcement to denounce the American corporation and its parent company. It called on Israeli consumers to continue purchasing the ice cream brand because hundreds of local workers needed their support.

In a recorded video, Chief Executive Avi Zinger said he had been notified earlier on Monday morning that the company wouldn’t renew his license when it expires at the end of 2022.

“They did this because we wouldn’t agree to stop selling ice cream in all parts of Israel,” Zinger said. “The reason they did that is because of BDS pressure. We aren’t surrendering, and it’s important that you support us.”

In happier times for Ben & Jerry’s Israel relations, the company made a concentrated outreach to its customer base with original, Israel-exclusive flavours, including charoset and matzah crunch – both certified kosher for Passover.

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Stories from hell: SA Jews remember 9/11

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September 11 2001 was 20 years ago and seemingly a million miles away, but for some South African Jews who were eye witness to the events, it remains close to home.

“I still have nightmares,” says Jonathan “Jonty” Kantor, who was meant to meet a friend at the World Trade Center (WTC) that day. He slept late, and woke to news of the attack, which profoundly changed his life.

“We didn’t know what was going on, and we honestly thought the world was coming to an end,” he says, a sentiment echoed by other South African Jews who were there. With all communication cut off, those who witnessed the chaos and horror had reason to believe it.

Kantor now lives in Johannesburg, but he was a student at Yeshiva Somayach Monsey at the time. He remembers that when he woke up, “everything was so quiet. Then I saw other students in a panic. They believed we were all about to die. They told me that planes had hit the WTC. I had always wanted to go there, and had arranged to meet a friend there that morning, but we both thankfully survived.”

He was also teaching a class whose students all had parents working at the WTC. By some miracle, all the parents survived. He also remembers that there were two brisses that day, which delayed people from going to work.

In the weeks that followed, “it was the same heaviness in the whole city that you see in a dead body. The only light was seeing Hatzolah rushing in to help. And you couldn’t walk more than a block without people hugging you.” This was in complete contrast to the city he had arrived in at the end of 2000, where he found people to be incredibly unfriendly.

Soon afterwards, he decided to return to South Africa. “I realised that nothing was more important than being with the people I love. 9/11 taught me that we shouldn’t take for granted the life we have. We complain about the small things, but they’re actually not important. Here in South Africa, we have a really good life, even with the difficulties. If we focused more on the positives, we could be happier.”

Port Elizabeth-born Grant Gochin, who now lives in Los Angeles, was supposed to be on United Airlines Flight 175, which crashed into Tower Two. “Our friends Dan, Ron, and their three-year-old son David had been on vacation in Rhode Island. We were in Manhattan. We were supposed to meet up and fly home together. My son, Bryce, was only about five months old. He was as cranky as hell. I was so frustrated that I said to [my husband], Russell, ‘Let’s just go home.’”

“We came home on the Monday. On the Tuesday morning we had the television on. The first plane hit, and I thought it had been an accident. Then United 175 hit, and I asked Russell, ‘Wasn’t that the flight we were supposed to be on?’ We realised that Dan, Ron, and David were dead.”

American born and bred Stacie Hasson now lives in Cape Town, and has some unsettling links to 9/11. Her close friend lived next door to lead hijacker Mohamed Atta, who lived and trained in South Florida in the months before the attack. “We would spend so much time at my friend’s house, and Atta would be around. He was always wearing a baseball cap and dark glasses,” she says.

Not only that, but she also lost a friend in the attack. “I remember exactly where I was at just 21 years old, learning that my childhood neighbour, Michelle Goldstein, lost her life in Tower Two shortly after calling her mother to say she was okay after Tower One was hit. She got married six months to the day before it happened. Finding Michelle’s name at the memorial was unlike anything I could have prepared myself for.”

“I saw people jumping out of the towers,” says Elise Barron Jankelowitz, who was visiting New York with her brother after attending her other brother’s wedding in Chicago. They were going to stay at a friend, but landed up staying at the Marriott Hotel that linked the Twin Towers.

“We arrived the night before, and woke up to a blast. The hotel’s alarm was going off. Our windows were starting to crack, and we saw smoke and debris.” At first they were told to stay in their rooms. If they had, they wouldn’t be here to tell the tale.

“Eventually, they told us to get out. We got dressed, grabbed passports and travellers cheques, and started walking down the stairs from the 15th floor,” she says. “The lifts weren’t working. We heard people shout, ‘A body hit my [hotel] window!’ Lots of people were in pyjamas. As we were ushered out, policemen said, ‘Cover your head and run.’ As we were crossing the road, we heard this insane noise of a jet engine, and then the second plane hit.”

That was when they saw people jump. It was also when her brother told her “these buildings are coming down – we need to get away”. He also said they should stay near water in case they needed to jump in.

That was when the first building fell. “I couldn’t see my hand in front of my face. A man appeared and it looked like his eyes were bleeding. He was covered in ash. I gave him a bottle of water, and as he washed his face, he said, ‘I’ve just come from hell.’”

They were waiting by the Staten Island Ferry when the second tower fell. “We hid under a truck. Everyone thought bombs might fall, or another plane might hit.” Eventually, they made their way to Staten Island where they bought essentials and got hold of family. They lost everything they left in the hotel, but were grateful to be alive. “As we flew out of New York six days later, there were fighter jets on either side of us. I’m so grateful my brother thought so smartly. We went back a year later to retrace our steps.”

Rabbi Levi Avtzon, now rabbi of Linksfield Shul, was a 17-year-old yeshiva student when he saw the second plane hit. “In the corner of the large study hall, which was on the fourth floor of a large building in Brooklyn, there was a fire escape. If you stood there, you had a perfect view of the Manhattan skyline.” He heard that smoke was coming out of the towers, so he and others went to look. Some drifted away, but he stayed. “A plane suddenly showed up. I was sure it was from the fire department coming to spray water. A split second later, the top half of the south tower blew up. It looked like a 50-story fire – like a bubble of fire.”

Later, visiting Ground Zero, “I remember the stench. It was all-encompassing. The whole experience made me feel unsafe. I would stand at the same fire escape and check that the Empire State Building was still there. Twenty years later, I still struggle to make sense of the events of the day.”

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Abraham Accords, one year on

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This week a year ago, Ebrahim Dahood Nonoo switched on his television set and like the rest of the world, heard the surprise announcement that Bahrain, a tiny country of 33 islands situated between the Qatari peninsula and the north eastern coast of Saudi Arabia, was making peace with Israel.

Nonoo was stunned. As head of the Bahraini Jewish community that comprises only 36 Jews, he had no idea what had been happening behind closed doors.

“For me it came out of the blue,” he says while we walk through the local souk (marketplace) where his grandfather sold spices after arriving from Iraq in the early 1900s. The tiny shops on the cobbled streets all advertise the same clothing, spices, and antiques, regardless of what the pushy merchants claim as we walk past.

“We knew the United Arab Emirates (UAE) was signing peace with Israel and that was a huge step forward,” smiles Nonoo.

“We were thinking, ‘Oh G-d, is it going to be us next?’ But we didn’t know. And then, of course, after it was announced, all the newspapers wanted to know more details and I went to the foreign minister and said to him, ‘Listen, they’re all asking us to give information. So what do you want us to do?’ He said, ‘Well, just tell them whatever you want.’”

Just two days after the announcement, a signing ceremony was held at the White House.

Israel, the United States (US), the UAE, and Bahrain signed the historic Abraham Accords in which the latter two recognised, for the first time, the state of Israel and set about normalising diplomatic relations with her.

Later, two other Arab nations, Sudan and Morocco, followed suit and joined the Accords, raising the number of Arab states with formal diplomatic ties to Israel from two to six.

The Abraham Accords weren’t just a diplomatic victory. They opened up  collaboration on tourism, trade, technology, and more. But because they were a foreign policy win for former American president, Donald Trump, his successor, Joe Biden, didn’t exactly call attention to this year’s anniversary. In fact, the current US administration’s spokesperson has never used the term “Abraham Accords”.

Trump predicted at this time last year that about five more Gulf countries would sign similar normalisation agreements with Israel in the ensuing months. Although this hasn’t happened – nor is it expected to any time soon – the good news is that experts agree the inked deals, at least, are here to stay.

“For more than 70 years we have been in a state of no war, no peace, stagnation,” says Dr Shaikh Khalid bin Khalifa Al Khalifa, the chairperson of the King Hamad Global Centre for Peaceful Coexistence in Bahrain. We meet in his air-conditioned office where he regales me with stories about his first visit to Israel at the end of last year.

“This is a historic moment for us. My generation has wasted time with hatred, wars, and violence, as everyone knows. People in Bahrain have changed in recent years. If you mentioned Israelis 20 years ago, it would evoke war, violence, and hatred. Today it’s different.”

Al Khalifa insists most Bahrainis support the deal in spite of the Palestinians claiming to feel betrayed.

“We really have to end it. There’s no way that we can continue living in a state where we aren’t really in a war with Israel and we aren’t at peace. It should have been done years ago, especially as we in Bahrain have no enmity with Judaism as a religion. For us, the Christians, Jews, and Muslims are one,” says Al Khalifa.

Bahrain’s Jewish community is one of the smallest in the world although its origins date back more than a century. Arabic sources record Jews living in the area at the time of the Islamic conquest in 630 CE.

Nonoo, sporting a black yarmulke, meets me at the souk at midday. It’s the worst time to visit as the temperature has climbed to 45 degrees Celsius and most prospective shoppers have gone home to return later in the evening. But as soon as they notice Nonoo, there’s a lot of “Salaam alaikum” and back-slapping.

“This is where commerce started in Bahrain,” he tells me, pausing to sip some dark Arabic coffee. “All these little shops sold mostly materials and Jews were very good at that. Many of the first Jews who came here, came from Iraq looking for opportunities. They had an edge because they were able to transact with suppliers from across Europe. They would take container loads of goods and sell them and pay the suppliers back later. There was so much Jewish participation in the market that on Saturdays, everything closed here for Shabbat. Even the local Bahrainis, the Muslims and Christians, used to close.”

Since the 2000s, Bahrain has had quiet relations with Israel and especially the local pro-Israel community didn’t need a lot of convincing to buy into the Accords. But several Bahrainis I talk to, off record, and who ask not to be named, say they are still suspicious of Israel and any peace agreement.

“You can’t expect us to change our views overnight,” one university student proclaims. “There’s still the occupation and Israel continues to build settlements on Palestinian land!”

But while there might be anti-Israel sentiment in some quarters, albeit the minority, Nonoo insists that antisemitism has never been a problem in the country. It’s a view echoed by everyone I meet. And Nonoo’s grandfather?

“If he was alive today, he wouldn’t believe that something like the Abraham Accords could happen. It’s absolutely amazing,” his grandson declares!

  • Paula Slier is the Middle East bureau chief of RT, the founder and chief executive of Newshound Media International, and the inaugural winner of the Europcar Women in Leadership Award of the Absa Jewish Achiever Awards.

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Mangoes and the Queen Mum: new book documents Jews of Kampala

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Janice Masur is keeping alive the memory of one of many Jewish communities that disappeared in the past century – the Jews of Uganda.

The history of Eastern European Jewry in Kampala had all but died out when Masur recently brought out a book believed to be the only one devoted to the Jewish community in the capital city of Uganda.

Titled Shalom Uganda: A Jewish Community on the Equator, the well-researched book begins with a historical overview of Jews in Africa, and goes on to tell Masur’s story of living in a little-known Ashkenazi Jewish community in Kampala from 1949 to 1961.

Although this tiny and remote community had no rabbi or synagogue, its 23 families formed a cohesive group that celebrated all Jewish festivals together and upheld their Jewish identity. Sadly, while Kampala Jewry made every effort to survive, the community eventually withered under the hot African sun, leaving few traces of its existence.

However, Masur’s desire to bear witness to the place where she spent her childhood has resulted in its history being preserved in this compelling memoir, supported by interviews, photographs, and in-depth research.

The idea for the book originated in a modern East African history class she attended at Simon Fraser University in Canada. She began writing in 2005, travelling to interview octogenarians and nonagenarians who had arrived in Kampala earlier in their lives.

Masur herself was born in Eritrea, where her parents chose to move from Palestine in 1942, presumably for better job and financial opportunities. They settled in Uganda in 1949 after Masur’s father, Helmut, was hired to manage the isolated Kampala Tile and Brickwork Company.

“I am a second-generation Jewish woman and have only one cousin who joined us in Kampala with his family,” Masur told the SA Jewish Report from her home in Vancouver, Canada. “We visited South Africa in 1961 when travelling by car from Uganda to Durban – and stayed in a Jewish hotel – to board a cargo ship which deposited us in New Zealand [where she attended university].”

Today, she is strongly rooted in her Jewish community in Vancouver, where she lives with her husband.

“I visited South Africa again in 2001, meeting a childhood friend in Cape Town,” Masur said. “I visited Namibia in 2010 – not really South Africa.”

In one of the anecdotes as a nine-year-old in Kampala, Masur writes in her book that “a rabbi was imported from South Africa for Yom Kippur” in 1953. He stayed with her family, and held the service in their house. Her parents told her to eat breakfast in the bathroom so that the rabbi would be unaware of her not fasting.

“Many years later, I learned that children under the age of 12 were permitted to eat on the fast day of Yom Kippur, so it seems that Jewish law wasn’t fully understood. Still, my parents did their best with whatever they remembered,” she writes.

Masur shares another experience in her book, the significance of which she discovered only later in life. While living in a single-level house that had an avocado tree and a badminton court, she often saw her family’s “houseboy”, Odera, dancing and singing around the house.

“My mother spent a lot of time screaming at the houseboy in frustration at his supposed inability to follow instructions, which I later learned was a passive tactic of rebellion against British rule,” she writes.

From 1957 to 1960, she attended the government (semi-private) Highlands School in Eldoret, Kenya, and noticed that post-war antisemitism was endemic. “Unkind girls in Eldoret would sometimes bully me by telling me that I was a misfit because my nationality was Jewish, not British, although I was naturalised British and my religion was Jewish!” she writes.

On several occasions, Masur stood with her mother in the driveway outside the gates of Government House in Entebbe with a crowd of other people to watch the arrival or departure of Princess Margaret, Queen Elizabeth II, and the Queen Mother.

In preparation for the visit of the latter in 1959, all the shops on the main street were scrubbed and painted, the road islands were dolled up, and flags and bunting feverishly bought. To meet the dress requirements, Masur’s mother and aunty had to borrow gloves and hats from friends. Soon, the duo laughed to see their picture shown on the front page of the Uganda Argus newspaper with the Queen Mum.

Masur hasn’t returned to Uganda since leaving Kampala for New Zealand as she thinks that “perhaps memories are best left to glitter in the distance”.

That said, her formative years in the country have left a lasting imprint. “To this day, I love mangoes, and growing up in Kampala has made me feel comfortable in the company of all ethnic groups,” Masur recently told the Canadian website Jewish Independent.

Today, Uganda has about 2 000 observant Jews known as the Abayudaya – the “people of Judah”. Having converted to Judaism in passive rebellion against British rule in 1921, the Abayudaya is a now-thriving, self-sufficient black Jewish community in Mbale, boasting synagogues, Jewish schools, a mikvah, and a cemetery.

However, there isn’t even a cemetery to mark the existence of Masur’s family and 22 others who managed to create an Eastern European Jewish community in Kampala. Masur hopes that her book will document and honour what she describes as “an imploded star vanished in the diasporic galaxy”.

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