Category Archives: Personalities

Just Desserts

Indigenousness is in the eye of the beholder

In an irony as rich as premium full-fat ice cream, Ben & Jerry’s, the frozen confection company that objected last year to its product being sold in indigenously Jewish land, found itself melting under consumer heat for asserting the rights of Indigenous Americans.

On the Fourth of July, the company posted a video on social media to celebrate “National Ice Cream Month.” (Now, that one’s definitely going on my calendar, though I’ll opt for a cholov Yisrael brand.)

But Ben and Jerry’s seized the opportunity, in line with its declared exquisite social conscience, to inform ice cream aficionados that “it’s high time we recognize that the US exists on stolen Indigenous land, and commit to returning it.”

The campaign was elaborated upon on Ben & Jerry’s website, which explained that its “land back” stance was about “ensuring that Indigenous people can again govern the land their communities called home for thousands of years.” It focused mainly on the taking of land, including Mt. Rushmore, from the Lakota tribe in South Dakota.

Oddly, though, Messrs. Cohen and Greenfield – the Ben and Jerry who founded the company in the 1970s – seemed less enamored of indigenous rights last year when they blasted the brand’s parent company Unilever for selling the franchise’s operations in Israel to a local licensee, which allowed the stuff to be sold in Yehudah and Shomron, in the ice cream kings’ view, “occupied territories.” 

Those territories are “occupied,” in their view, by the evil colonizer Israel. But, whatever one’s thoughts about the future political status of those areas, from the standpoint of actual history – which seems important to Ben and Jerry – it is myopic to see them as indigenously Arab. 

On the contrary, the only readily identifiable people today who have true historic claim of descent from the land’s most ancient inhabitants are Jews. 

There are no Cna’anim left today. They were vanquished in Yehoshua’s time. With all due respect (what little is due) to P.A. President Mahmoud Abbas, who told the U.N. Security Council in 2018 that “we are the descendants of the Canaanites that lived in the land 5,000 years ago,” not only is his claim nonsense, but it’s also one that, tellingly, no Palestinian Arab (himself included) ever made over centuries. Mr. Abbas was trying to invent an imaginary indigenousness. Nice try, Mahmoud.

When the Jews who lived in the land since Yehoshua’s time were forced to leave it, something that we Jews have lamented for all the centuries since and focus on in particular these days every Jewish year, those who subsequently took up residence in Eretz Yisrael were the occupiers.

That includes the “Palestinians,” many of whom are in reality descended from successive waves of people who came to the area only at the end of the 18th century from places like Egypt, where famine and persecution fueled emigration; and, in the 19th century, from Algeria, Transjordan and Bosnia. So much for Arab indigenousness in Eretz Yisrael.

In the end, Unilever sold its Ben & Jerry’s division to another company that has rights to sell products in Israel and the territories overseen by the Palestinian Authority. Ben and Jerry were not happy. “We continue to believe it is inconsistent with Ben & Jerry’s values,” they tweeted, “for our ice cream to be sold in the Occupied Palestinian Territory.” They got licked.

And aren’t likely very happy now, either. Because many American consumers were apparently less than enthusiastic about the boys’ recent proposal that the nation be transferred to descendants of Native American tribes and go from being the United States of America to the Disunited Tribes of America. Ben and Jerry’s parent company lost nearly $2 billion in market capitalization in the wake of their July 4 message. 

And adding sprinkles to the rich ice cream irony is an inconvenient fact of American history. 

Before the establishment of the Republic, the Abenaki – a confederacy of various Indigenous tribes that united against a rival tribal confederacy – controlled an area that stretched from the northern border of Massachusetts in the south to New Brunswick, Canada, in the north, and from the St. Lawrence River in the west to the East Coast.

Ben & Jerry’s headquarters are located in a business park in southern Burlington, Vermont. Well within the western portion of Abenaki territory.


© 2023 Ami Magazine

Spleen Supersedes Sanity

In the wake of Israel’s recent raid on Jenin, various Arab and Islamic countries, playing as they must to their “streets,” registered their condemnation of the operation; the US State Dept. defended Israel’s right to proactively defend herself from terrorism.  And members of Congress either joined that judgment or didn’t comment at all.

With one exception. No less repugnant than it was predictable.

You can read about the lone stand-out here.

Devarim – The Rock’s Lost Lesson

In Moshe Rabbeinu’s parting rebuke of Klal Yisrael for “not believing in Hashem” (Devarim 1:32), for all its complaining in the wake of the report of the meraglim and beyond, he refers to Hashem’s decree that the “generation of the desert” will not get to see the promised land. 

And then he says, “Hashem was also angry with me because of you, saying, ‘Neither will you go there’” (1:37).

“Also?” “Because of you?” What are those words saying? 

Moshe, though, is more than the leader of the nation; he reflects it, embodies it. He is called a melech, a king. And Chazal tell us that ein melech b’lo am, there is no king without a nation. That means something beyond the obvious. It means that, in a way, the king isthe nation. Which is why a king has no right to forgo his honor (Kiddushin 32b); it is the nation’s honor.

And so, in a way, the “sin” that prevented Moshe from entering Cna’an, the striking of the rock to provide water, was a reflection, even embodiment, of the nation’s sin. How?

Moshe’s mistake was not hitting the rock but rather not speaking to it (as he was commanded).

And thereby not advancing kiddush shem Shomayim by conveying to the people (as per the Midrash Rashi brings in Bamidbar 20:12) the lesson that if an inanimate object fulfills Hashem’s mere words, His mere declaration of will, so much more so should human beings.

Instead, the idea unintentionally conveyed was that only punishment spurs heeding Hashem. 

The people, apparently, weren’t ripe for the intended lesson. And so, Moshe’s act necessarily reflected that fact. Had Moshe spoken to the rock as ordered, Chazal say, he would have been able to enter Cna’an and there would never have been any exile of the Jews from their land. 

Like the rock, we have been smitten – with the rod of galus and all its tribulations. May the lesson that the rock was meant to teach be internalized, quickly and in our day.

© 2023 Rabbi Avi Shafran

The Eternal Jew (-Baiting)

The evolution of “traditional” lies used over the centuries to persecute, exile and murder Jews into new and, so to speak, improved forms would be amusing were it not so dangerous.

During the years of the Black Death in the late Middle Ages, when death tolls in some towns were as high as 50%, the famously favored scapegoat was “the Jews,” thousands of whom were murdered, many of them burned alive, in the 1300s. 

The conspiracy theory back then was that Jews had been poisoning wells in order to kill non-Jews. The theme of Jews as diabolical poisoners was updated in the 20th century by Joseph Stalin in his “Doctors Plot,” in which most of the medical professionals whom he falsely accused of plotting to poison government officials were Jewish. More recent years have seen sundry neo-Nazis accuse Jews of spreading new diseases; and even, more recently, genteel suggestions that polio outbreaks were caused by Jewish anti-vaxers.

Guess what’s back now… Poisoned wells!

“I’m very concerned about my water,” lamented Ms. Grace Clark, of Upper Saddle River, N.J., fearful of what a Jewish cemetery uphill from her home might do to her children. “My kids play” in a nearby brook, she explained, “all the time.”

“We are observing an environmental train wreck in slow motion,” was how Heather Federico of nearby Mahwah chose to characterize that planned final resting place for Orthodox Jews.

I don’t know if either lady was inspired by – or even aware of – the sordid history of blaming Jews for well-tampering. 

What I do know, though, thanks to the alacrity of Yeshiva University’s Dr. Moshe Krakowski, is that Ms. Federico and two other concerned citizens quoted in a May 11 story in The New York Times about the Har Shalom Cemetery in Rockland County, N.Y., are regulars on the website of Rise Up Ocean County, the infamous New Jersey group that has been repeatedly called out, even banned for “hate speech” by Facebook, for antisemitic postings. New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy denounced the group for “racist and antisemitic statements” and “an explicit goal of preventing Orthodox Jews from moving to Ocean County.”

The Rockland County property at issue, the Times helpfully explains, is, at some 20 acres, “expected to become the largest cemetery in the country reserved solely for ultra-Orthodox Jews.”

Also upsetting some local residents is a mikvah under construction across the street from the cemetery.

Both developments were approved by zoning and planning boards. What they have in common is that they will make life (and death) easier for Orthodox Jews. And help attract them to settle in the area.

That’s not, of course, what the fearful New York and nearby New Jersey residents say is the source of their concern. Their health and wellbeing, they insist, is motivating  them.

And indeed, it’s true that cemeteries contribute to ground and groundwater contamination. 

Formaldehyde, menthol, phenol, and glycerin are just a few of the toxins that seep into cemetery grounds. Some 800,000 gallons of formaldehyde are placed in the ground each year due to “conventional” burials.

What the word “conventional” refers to, though, are burials that take place after embalming. And that often use caskets made of metals like copper and bronze, which can also leach into the ground. Jewish burials, of course, involve no embalming chemicals and only a simple, safely degradable pine casket. That is what is referred to as “natural” burial, and is entirely kind to the environment.

In 1940, the Nazi Ministry of Propaganda released the film Der Ewige Jude, “The Eternal Jew,” which became wildly popular in Germany and throughout occupied Europe. In one famously notorious sequence, it showed hordes of rats, which, the narrator explains, spread disease. “Just,” he continues, “as the Jews do to mankind.”

Popular broadcaster Tucker Carlson, fired in April by Fox News, recently appeared on a social media platform to rail against U.S. support for Ukraine and, in particular, against its Jewish president, Volodymyr Zelenskyy, whom he called “a persecutor of Christians.” A weird charge, one not even Russian President Putin has made.

Mr. Carlson added his assertion that Mr. Zelenskyy is “rat-like.”

Well poisoning. Jews as rats. 

Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose – “The more things change, the more they stay the same.”

© 2023 Ami Magazine

Korach – Monkeys in the Crowd

The model for all subsequent demagogues in history, Korach told the people that his grievance was really their grievance, that he was standing up not for himself but for them. And he used snideness as a tool to ingratiate himself with his audience.

As Rashi, quoting the Midrash Tanchuma on the words “And Korah assembled the entire congregation” (Bamidbar 16:19), elaborates:

[Korach assembled them] with words of mockery. All that night, he went to the tribes and enticed them [saying,] “Do you think I care only for myself? I care for all of you. These [people] come and take all the high positions: the kingship for himself and the kehunah for his brother,” until they were all enticed.

“The entire congregation,” Rav Yaakov Moshe Charlop, the Mei Marom, points out, certainly did not succumb to the blandishments and deceptions of Korach. Most of the crowd surely perceived, at least logically, the essential self-centeredness of the rally speaker, and recognized the cynicism of his characterization of the Mitzrayim from which they fled as a “land flowing with milk and honey” (16:13).

Which, Rav Charlop explains, is why, when Moshe and Aharon pleaded with Hashem to not destroy the nation (16:22), they invoked Hashem’s knowledge of “the thoughts of every man” – the fact that there were true followers of Korach but also others who may have attended his rally and enjoyed his mockery but knew in their hearts that the populist inciter was evil (see Rashi).

Yet, in the moment of the rally itself, they nevertheless “were all enticed” by the agitator’s words. Why?

Explains the Mei Marom, because “it is one of human beings’ weaknesses” that they are pulled to conform to the behavior of those around them, to “act like monkeys” in imitation of the crowd. The Rambam (Hilchos Deios 6:1) calls such conformity part of “the way humans are formed.”

And so the warning here, as timely today as ever, is to beware not only of dangerous demagogues but also of falling prey to the pull of others’ embrace of them.

© 2023 Rabbi Avi Shafran

Maledictorian – CUNY speaker spews some spleen

For a great example of sheer, rabid hatred of Israel, lightly disguised antisemitism and the sort of imbecility sometimes born of youth, you couldn’t do better than CUNY School of Law student Fatima Mohammed’s vomitus of venom, in the form of her May 12 commencement speech.

Or, for an example of a well-earned misstep, any better than Palestinian activists’ ill-fated demand that Ms. Mohammed’s diatribe, which had been livestreamed on the school’s YouTube account but then removed, be reposted. Which it was, on the 25th. 

The overheated orator praised CUNY Law’s faculty and students for endorsing the BDS movement (that endorsement an ugliness of its own), and accused Israel of “indiscriminately rain[ing] bullets and bombs on worshippers, murdering the old and young, attacking even funerals and graveyards, encouraging lynch mobs to target Palestinians, as it imprisons their children and continues the project of settler colonialism…” And so on. You know the litany of lies.

She also used the occasion of her graduation (as a future lawyer – the thought boggles) to lambaste the New York Police Department and the U.S. military as “fascists”; to allege that “daily, brown and black men are being murdered by the state”; and to defend five leaders of the now-defunct Holy Land Foundation who are serving time for providing material support to Hamas.

“May we rejoice,” she righteously declared, “in the corners of our New York City bedroom apartments and dining tables, may it be fuel for the fight against capitalism, racism, imperialism and Zionism around the world!”

On the 26th, a CUNY representative soberly explained that “Members of the Class of 2023 selected student speakers who offered congratulatory remarks and their own individual perspectives on advocating for social justice. As with all such commencement remarks, they reflect the voices of those individuals.” One had to wonder if the rep would have been as sanguine had the commencement speech attacked blacks or Arabs. 

Then came the richly deserved backlash. 

New York Congressman Ritchie Torres tweeted: “Imagine being so crazed by hatred for Israel as a Jewish State that you make it the subject of your commencement speech at a law school graduation. Anti-Israel derangement syndrome at work.”

Former New York Republican congressman Lee Zeldin called for CUNY’s taxpayer funding – its 2023 budget amounted to about $ 4.3 billion, most from the state, some from the city – to be revoked “until the administration is overhauled and all Jewish students and faculty are welcome again.”

World Jewish Congress head Ronald Lauder called for the law school’s dean, Sudha Setty, who applauded the ungracious graduate’s speech, to be fired.

New York City Mayor Eric Adams condemned the diatribe, as did New York governor Kathy Hochul and a host of other elected officials.

Eventually, CUNY Chancellor Felix V. Matos Rodriguez and the Board of Trustees issued a statement asserting that, while “free speech is precious…. but hate speech… should not be confused with free speech and has no place on our campuses or in our city, our state or our nation. The remarks by a student-selected speaker at the CUNY Law School graduation, unfortunately, fall into the category of hate speech, as they were a public expression of hate toward people and communities based on their religion, race or political affiliation.”

To be sure, rushing predictably to Ms. Mohammed’s defense were anti-Israel groups, including, sadly, Jewish ones. CUNY Law’s Jewish Law Student Association called the reactions to the hater “pander[ing] to the most cynical reactionaries (ie. @NYCMayor).” 

“Jews for Racial & Economic Justice” tweeted that its heroine was being thrown to “the wolves. Utterly shameful.” Well, something was, anyway.

As it happens, with her commencement address, Ms. Mohammed was following in her own muddy footsteps. In a May, 2021 tweet, she expressed her wish that “every Zionist burn in the hottest pit of hell.” And the next day, she referenced the fact that she “pray[s] upon the death of the USA.”

In the wake of the uproar over her repulsive remarks, Ms. Mohammed was reached by a reporter at a relative’s home. She told the journalist, “I do not want to speak to anybody.”

It was a little late for reticence. She had already spoken more than enough, and revealed a thickly sullied soul.

© 2023 Ami Magazine