In Spring 2013, the student government at UC Berkeley stood to vote on a BDS-resolution. At the time, I was a visiting postdoctoral fellow at The Berkeley Institute for Jewish Law and Israel Studies, and one of my students asked me, as an Israeli visiting faculty member, to come to the “town hall” gathering in advance of the vote and speak against it. I didn’t hesitate. After I left the polarized auditorium, however, I wondered whether I would do it again. Not because I was any less passionate in my opposition to BDS, but because I felt traumatized by the contours of the debate there. “For” or “against,” “good” or “evil,” “victim” or “perpetrator.” The choice was between loyalty and moral nuance.
Back in Israel, or Israel-Palestine, everyday life prevents the delusion of such dichotomies. In order to show just how murky things get, I am listing briefly some of the moral distinctions I’ve tried to draw over the years. I hope that they confuse you and seem scattershot:
- I made aliyah under the Law of Return in 1992 and served in the IDF.
- When, shortly after marrying in 1994, my wife and I looked to buy a home, I refused to buy an “Arab home” in Jerusalem because I didn’t want to inhabit the home of someone displaced.
- When, in 2000, we looked to leave Jerusalem and live in a rural community, I refused to consider anything beyond the Green Line because I didn’t want to live in an area that Israel had not annexed.
- As part of my army service in the Southern Command, I served, among other places, in the Gaza Strip, despite the fact that I adamantly opposed the Jewish presence there.
- From 2000-2005, when Israeli disengaged from Gaza, I stopped buying agricultural products from the Jewish settlements in Gaza, as I did not want to support their presence there as a civilian.
- I buy goods from the annexed Golan Heights.
- In 2006, when directing the Israeli program for a North American rabbinical seminary, one of the students refused to travel on the 443 Road because it runs through confiscated Palestinian lands. I told her I would agree to that condition with no further discussion if she also refused to travel on US roads built on lands confiscated Native American lands.
- In 2017-2018, and in 2020-2021, I paid for two of my children to attend mechinot (pre-army academies) beyond the Green Line.
- Since 2019, I have served as director of the Beit Midrash at Kolot, which works closely with Heads of Regional Councils of all religions and ethnicities, both in Israel and beyond the Green Line, including in places such as Hebron, where there is Jewish settlement that I consider to be problematic.
- In 2020, when Kolot’s office was closed during the coronavirus lockdown, I asked for us not to gather for work purposes in the garden of a colleague who lives beyond the Green Line.
- Later in 2020, when that same colleague decided to leave Kolot and asked if I would come to a going-away party in her garden, I said yes.
- In 2020 and 2021, I refused to consider voting for Meretz, despite my support of many of the party’s policies, because it had removed the word “Zionist” from the party description, and the wording of the platform obfuscated their commitment to Israel as a Jewish state.
In sharing a skeletal form of these decisions here, I am not trying to explain them, either individually or as a coherent whole (which I think they are). I’m merely making explicit two points that I consider to be obvious, inseparable, but often-overlooked: (a) that the situation in Israel-Palestine is exceedingly complicated from a moral perspective; and (b) that it is crucial to draw ethical distinctions and live them out, even as the myriad factors at play often create tension between those decisions.
Living a committed, moral life does not merely require a clarity of values and internal resolve. It demands a willingness to live with the inability to realize those values fully, given the constant impingement of competing values. In the cases I described above, I have irresolvable commitments to: friends, colleagues, family members, citizens of my collective, members of my ethnic group, political considerations, moral values, historical imperatives, and “others” with whom I share physical proximity, and, not infrequently, a struggle over the same space.
Which brings us to ice cream. There is a legitimate culinary argument to be made that Ben & Jerry’s ice cream overwhelms the palate with so many swirls, cores, and chunks, that there are, quite simply, too many flavors in one small carton. But there is no such argument to be made regarding too many moral shades of gray in one small land. Living ethically consists of nuance and more nuance. Ben & Jerry’s deciding not to sell their products beyond the Green Line is taking a moral stance. You may or may not agree with it, but it is not tantamount to a boycott of Israel. Nor is it antisemitic. Conflating those is either an act of manipulation or a failure of one’s moral sensibilities.
To be sure, there are times when being distant from a problem or situation grants clarity of vision. For this reason, I listen closely, though not uncritically, to what people “over there” have to say about Israel-Palestine. But it sometimes happens that, paradoxically, the distance causes a kind of myopia, along the lines of what I experienced at that town hall meeting at UC Berkeley.
From my vantage point on the ground in Israel, it is abundantly clear that I can critique Israel out of love for, and commitment to, the country, without having to choose between loyalties: either to the moral fabric of the country or to its continued existence. I thought then, as I do now, that they are inseparable.