Sweets, Cars and Honor

      Far be it from me to offer business advice to anyone so I have been an agnostic on whether the Kof-K should decline to renew its supervision contract with the Israel-hating Ben & Jerry’s ice cream company. I know and respect the leaders of the Kof-K, even as I never developed a taste or an interest in Ben & Jerry’s until I came to Israel. (In the US, I was partial to Haagen-Dazs or Carvel, the latter also a Kof-K supervised company.) B&J’s politics were always distasteful and the only times I recall eating their product is when I found myself in some remote corner of America and bought a small cup at a convenience store.

     There are compelling arguments on both sides, and some unconvincing ones as well. On one hand, it would be odd for Jews to supervise the kashrut of a company that other Jews are told to boycott, a boycott that is successful to the extent that it helps us maintain our self-respect even if it has a negligible impact on the B&J bottom line. The boycott also strengthens the hands of Attorneys General across America whose state pension funds are divesting their interests in parent company Unilever.

     On the other hand, the kashrut of the product remains what it was before. An ongoing debate in the kashrut industry (even in Israel) is to what extent non-kashrut related activities of a company should play a role in supervision. The “just the food, baby” element would ignore violations of Shabbat, tzniut and the like, which can so constrict the Torah’s reach as to render kashrut less a reminder of our sanctity and uniqueness as a people and more a technical act of eating or shunning specific items – and nothing more.

      Whether or not politics should play a role is an open question but distinctions between different causes or policies – and the level of offense they cause – can easily be made. One would think that a kosher caterer who is asked to service a convention of white supremacists (farfetched, but bear with me) who on a lark want kosher food provided could readily decline on the grounds of the offensive nature of the gathering. So, too, the kosher caterer asked to service an interfaith wedding, although I can hear the claim of people that “it is bad enough they are intermarrying, must they also eat non-kosher food?”

     The possibility must be entertained that some nefarious, Jew-hating companies will use a cancellation of the B&J hashgacha to cancel their own hashgachot to protest Israel’s existence or something. As if to say, “we hate Israel so much that we don’t care if no Jew buys our product.” It sounds strange, but no stranger than the irrational hatred of Jews since the time of Avraham. Consider what would happen to kashrut if a major corporation – even Unilever – arbitrarily halted the kosher supervision of all their products. Such a scenario is plausible but unlikely, as most corporations just want to make money, not statements.

     Certainly, if the Kof-K dropped the supervision, some other of the 1400 kashrut agencies in the world would take it before a spoonful of ice cream even melted. And if B&J, disgusted with Jews, dropped the hashgacha or any hashgacha? That would be fine with me, although too many Jews would eat it anyway.

     So I was torn – until I came across a fascinating vignette in a book entitled “Sleeper Agent: The Atomic Spy in America Who Got Away” (by Ann Hagedorn), about George Koval, the American-born son of two Russian Jewish Communists who brought their family back to Russia during the Depression. In the Soviet Union, Koval was recruited by the GRU (forerunner of the KGB), returned to America in 1940. He enrolled in City College, drew high marks for his brilliance as an engineer, and when drafted by the US Army, was sent to work on the Manhattan Project at Oak Ridge, Tennessee and Dayton, Ohio. Koval was probably more important to the development of the Soviet bomb than were the Rosenberg’s. But Koval successfully escaped back to Russia in 1948 when he felt the noose tightening around him.

     His story is not directly related to the vignette that the author records. George Koval grew up in Iowa in the 1920’s and experienced the systemic Jew hatred that then pervaded America. Those pockets of hatred were fueled by people such as Henry Ford, the legendary automaker and notorious Jew hater who was also the publisher of the “Dearborn Independent,” a periodical so rabidly anti-Jewish that it ran a ninety-one part series – that’s almost two years for a weekly – on the subject of the “Jewish Menace.” (I’m still puzzled where they got the material for a ninety-one part series…)

      At a certain point, and in order to increase circulation, Ford directed all his dealerships to distribute the Dearborn Independent in their showrooms. Anyone who didn’t would lose their dealership as, Ford asserted, the Jew-hating rag was as much a Ford product as was the Model T. Most dealers succumbed to the pressure, and circulation soared. But not everywhere,

      The Barish brothers – three Jews – of Sioux City, Iowa (where Koval was born and raised) published an article in the local paper in 1921saying that if Ford requires them to distribute the paper, they would take their money and invest in a different business. They wrote: “We are Jewish and we are successful. And money is less important than loyalty, dignity and truth. Stop the lies and we’ll return. But until you do, we will find another way to make an honest living.” They then closed their dealership.

     And perhaps therein lies the key. Sometimes our visceral reaction to an event or a challenge is more reasonable and correct than if we stop to analyze and debate and explore and investigate and hear all sides. We can fall victim to the “paralysis by analysis” syndrome. We think too much and in so doing allow whatever biases or predispositions we have to play a greater role than they should. Thinking too much actually impairs our ability to make a rational and moral decision. It is a point noted by Rav Chaim Shmulevitz in his explanation of why Chushim ben Dan killed Esav on the day of Yaakov’s delayed funeral. Chushim, who was deaf, did not comprehend why Yaakov’s body was lying unburied and when he learned that Esav was responsible, he acted instinctively. The fine points of negotiations, the two sides with all their claims, were irrelevant to him. All he saw was his grandfather being disgraced, and he reacted.

     Sometimes, certainly not always or even often, the answer is not in our head but in our gut. It just feels right or wrong. Recall the classic self-hating Jewish moment when one of the B&J clowns in an Axios interview could not explain why only Israel is singled out for a boycott (Judea and Samaria) but not any other country in the world which occupies territory claimed by others or otherwise brutally mistreats its citizens. That is Jewish self-hatred, plain and simple, and indulging Jew haters, whether they are Jews or Gentiles, is not a good look, and not a sign of Jewish pride and self-respect.

      Ironically, Henry Ford himself had once reached out to the Barish brothers when he ran low on some raw materials. They helped him acquire it and Ford was grateful – but that did not stop him from publishing how the Jews were the cause of “nearly all the troubles in American society.”

     The Barish brothers ceased selling Ford products and instead opened up several Plymouth dealerships, eventually in Los Angeles as well, and were so successful that in the 1930’s, Max Barish bought land in Afula to help settle the land of Israel and where a granddaughter now lives. That is a story of Jewish pride, with an eye on the past, present and future.

      The situations may not be completely analogous and there is certainly no one correct answer. And we can argue both sides intelligently and there are any number of valid considerations. But in our gut, it is not difficult to ascertain the way forward. As the Barish brothers wrote to Henry Ford in the Sioux City newspaper, quoting the Midrash, “none of your honey and none of your sting.” Or your fancy flavors.

     That seems about right. But I leave the ultimate decision in the hands of the decision-makers.


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