Dear Yair Lapid, Ben & Jerry’s Is Right

Orit Kamir
Orit Kamir
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Yair Lapid at a Yesh Atid party meeting, earlier this month.
Yair Lapid at a Yesh Atid party meeting, earlier this month.Credit: Ohad Zwigenberg
Orit Kamir
Orit Kamir

I was pleased with the address by Foreign Minister and Alternate Prime Minister Yair Lapid, that positioned antisemitism as a form of racism. Conceptually this isn’t new, but the willingness of the top Israeli echelons to recognize the universalism of group segregation, oppression and hatred is a big step in the right direction. Lapid signaled a healthy Israeli willingness to give up egocentric particularism, which extends from the self-image as the “chosen people,” as opposed to all the other “goyim,” to the refusal to recognize any genocide other than the Jewish Holocaust (like the Armenian genocide by Turkey). 

This particularism has led, at its worst, to a culture of self-victimization that sanctifies victimhood and turned it into a strategic asset. It saps the national energy in a struggle of primacy of victimhood and undercuts recognition of the victims who aren’t us. I was pleased that Lapid signaled a readiness to convert all this into a broad humanistic perspective, which doesn’t focus on who oppresses and who is oppressed, who hates and who is hated, but simply recognizes the horror of oppression and hatred.

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An antisemite does not see the Jew in front of him as a person of absolute human value, nor does he see his unique value as a particular subject. He sees him only as a member of an inferior, dangerous, despicable, hated group that must be suppressed. He thus dehumanizes him twice. This is sometimes expressed in derogatory words, sometimes in social exclusion, sometimes in discrimination and sometimes in murder or genocide. It is the same with the way a homophobe looks at a gay man or woman, or a white supremacist looks at a Black person. 

Every type of group hatred is conditioned by a unique history, but for those who wish, it is easy to identify the common denominators. It is the belief in a distinction between castes, that treats the members of the “unclean sect” as intellectually, spiritually, racially, religiously and culturally inferior, and demands that they be separated, removed from centers of power and decision-making, and limited to certain roles (generally water carriers and woodcutters).  It is a belief in the distinction between “believers” and “infidels” and attributes to the infidels what the caste follower attributes to the unclean. 

It also demands that infidels be distinguished (for example, through dress, or a ban on carrying weapons), removed from power centers and decision-making, and restricted. Those who believe in patriarchy think women are frivolous, seductive, or physically “impure,” based on religious metaphysics or other prejudices. It requires their group identification to dictate the attitude towards all of them: that they be segregated, removed from positions of influence, and that they be educated and groomed to fulfill defined and limited social roles.

Lapid did well by recognizing the destructive pattern of group hatred, and inserting antisemitism into the violent family of racism, homophobia and other types of differentiation and oppression. That’s why I was disappointed by his sharp response to the decision by Ben & Jerry’s ice cream to stop selling its products to residents of the occupation

After all, it is impossible for him not to see that the Israeli occupation is no different from the other types of racism mentioned in his speech. Here, too, those who define themselves as members of one group, in this case Israeli Jews, catalog another people into a different group, hate them and oppress them. Here too, as in all other types of racism, there is a story, a rationale and a real fear. There is a divine promise, an ancestral right, and “cultural savagery” attributed to the enemy. There is a history of bloodshed, loss and bereavement. And in the end, there is group oppression and hatred.

Some of the repression is carried out by individuals: Israeli Jews living on Palestinian territory cut down trees, seize land and water sources, prevent children from reaching school, burn pastures, beat and shoot. Some of the repression is carried out by the state: by backing Jewish rioters, denying the occupied Palestinians the right to self-determination, denying them freedom of expression, movement and education, jailing them (with or without reason), evicting them from their tents and settlements, nighttime military raids, demolishing the homes of helpless families and even killing.

Ben & Jerry’s decided to publicly condemn the racism that Israel and Israeli Jews demonstrate and enforce in the occupied Palestinian territories. The response that would be consistent with Lapid’s antisemitism speech is not a war against the ice cream company, but against the occupation. Someone who really opposes racism of any kind should not silence Israel’s critics, but use the position of power he received from the Israeli public to fight it and try to eradicate it, even when the Jews are not the victims, but the oppressors.

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