Once upon an Ice Cream Truck
How Ice Cream can change the Middle East
When the dust settled, I could finally see myself. Sitting on a sidewalk downtown Jenin, not quite sure what had just happened. Armed forces in Hummers and Tanks dotted a landscape of half-ruined buildings like a child’s plaything, left scattered around the room at the promise of a more exciting venture.
A muffled silence picture framed the moment — a well-known phenomenon among Merkava Tank drivers who sit with their right ear against a 1600 horsepower motor. Muffled gunshots, inaudible voices of the soldiers around me slowly come into hearing range. A child is sitting next to me, a boy, maybe eight years old. He studies me curiously, and I give him a friendly nod. He doesn’t seem a bit scared, his boyish fascination of everything military outweighing the knowledge that, in many ways — I am the enemy. There are other children around us. In later operations, I would get used to it. The lack of fear Palestinian children demonstrated, who at a battle’s end (and at times, during the action itself) would wander out nonchalantly, in between the bullets to play, tend to their families cattle or run an errand for one of the elders in their family.
The battle lasted for days. There were a couple of near-death experiences that I brushed off the way one would pat down their pants before walking into the house from the garden. There was a birthday too. I turned 21 during the battle. I celebrated by clearing away bodies of a Nahal reserve unit caught in an ambush not far from the Qasava. There was no excessive drinking on my 21st, but my crew did sing happy birthday, and my Gunner gave me a crumpled up magazine cutting of Bar Refaeli that had kept him company during the long hours of guard duty at the checkpoints.
The child eyed my rifle, an Israeli version of an AK47. I pulled it aside so that it no longer sat between us and tried to make conversation with the boy. But, unfortunately, he did not speak any Hebrew or English, and my Arabic was abysmal despite my many years studying it. So we sat in silence and watched the trucks, jeeps, and armoured vehicles drive around chaotically while the IDF secured the city’s downtown.
In the distance, I noticed the dust of a convoy making its way towards us. Who would it be this time? The child also noticed the dust on the horizon, perking his head to the side as he listened and then watched the convoy come into view. — Yaser Arafat, attempting to gain a few political points at the end of the battle, stepped out of the first convoy. The people wouldn’t have it. They had lost enough and had no patience for him. He left as fast as he came so as not to be swallowed by the angry crowds.
The second convoy was of a very different nature. Following the lead Jeep were two Ben&Jerry’s ice cream trucks.
They were so out of place that at first, I assumed they were special forces camouflaged as ice cream trucks. But moments later, the two trucks opened their side windows and began giving out Ice Cream. In a matter of moments, Israeli soldiers and Palestinian children lined up in front of the trucks as they would anywhere else in the world. Only, this had just been a war zone. We lost thirteen of our men. The Palestinians lost close to fifty, some of which were still lying in between the ruins of buildings. The boy looked at me unsure but then followed the signal of my hand, motioning him to come with me. I let him step in front of me, and before long, we both returned to the sidewalk with ice cream. We didn’t get to choose flavours; one just took what they handed out. I got cookies and cream, the boy — Dulce de leche, lucky him.
We sit and watch others line up for ice cream as we enjoy our own. It was one of the most surrealistic moments of my life — Israeli Soldiers, Palestinian children and two ice cream trucks that would bring them together for a brief moment.
Years later, staffing Kids4Peace, it seemed obvious that our events would always feature Ben&Jerry’s Ice Cream. Someone once mentioned that Jerry was connected somehow to the Brattleboro graduates of our Peacebuilding program. Others said he was on the board, while some in the office said it was a local connection — and that their choice to support peace communities had nothing to do with Jerry’s activism. Whatever it was — Ben&Jerry’s became a staple of every peacebuilding event we had in the city. Food has the incredible power of bringing people together, ice cream — even more so. It may seem trivial, but B&J’s played an essential role in bringing our children together.
Food also has the power to separate. Our religious practices generally include food items that we are not allowed to eat. It is rarely your daily pees, carrots or some random vegetable on the no-no list. Alcohol, coffee and meat — staples of a meal that symbolise encounter and bring people together are far more common. I thank God that Ice Cream did not exist at the time our religions took shape. Food that we share can end conflicts.
When Abraham came to Jerusalem, King Malki Tzedek greeted him with wine, bread and meat. They ate, and an alliance was born. Many years later, B&J did the same for our Jerusalem interfaith community.
As you can imagine, I was disappointed by the recent B&J statement that they will no longer sell ice cream in the West Bank. The company claimed they adopted this decision to help the peace movement -but I can’t imagine how not serving ice cream helps anyone. Rather than make statements and decisions on where and who they WON’T be selling their ice cream to, B&J could have focused on who they ARE selling their ice cream to — interfaith and peacebuilding communities like Kids4Peace, Seeds of Peace, the YMCA etc. If they wanted to send a clear message supporting peace, wouldn’t focusing on their positive action make for a more vital message? Instead, they decided to punish rather than build.
In his book Community, Peter Block shares two kinds of communities; A Community of Problems and a Community of Possibilities. The first is far more common. We often focus on our problems and define our reality through the speculum of everything that is not working. Unfortunately, this mindset doesn’t leave many possibilities for a better future. If we only see the ‘IS’ that is negative and focus on the faults of our community, we will never create anything better. This neo-realist approach that saw ‘conflict’ as default has led us to believe that we must focus on war reduction to see peace. It may have had its place in the 20th century, but it is doing a disservice today. Instead, imagine a community-building approach to conflict. One that recognises struggle as an integral part of the growth process that all communities go through. If we can Change The We (#Changethewe) and reimagine our conflict, not as one happening between TWO peoples but one taking place in ONE community — we may suddenly find that we have a wealth of tools and strategies to overcome adversity. Community building and overcoming the struggles of conflict in our communities are not new phenomena. But before we can lean on our knowledge in this area, we must do the work in shifting the way we think — so that we may realise that we are indeed one community.
A community of possibilities is one that, rather than focus on what is not working, chooses to explore what they can create together. It’s a community that encourages creativity and supports the dreams and aspirations of its individuals. The defining question of this community is
— What can we build together?
At Kids4Peace, rather than only meet the other (contact theory), we worked on creating our community using six steps I will expand upon in a future piece. Community events that included food were central to our process and often highlighted by our members as something they would never forget.
Rabbi Soloveitchik’s “Kol Dodi Dofek” is a Jewish reflection of the mindset above. In this book, Soloveitchik shares that how we see ourselves and others — as subjects or objects, will be central in defining our behaviours.
“Against your will, you are born, and against your will, you die” (M. Avot 4:22), but by your free will, you live. Man is born as an object, dies as an object, but can live as a “subject” — a creator and innovator who impresses his imprimatur on his life and breaks out of a life of instinctive, automatic behaviour into one of creative activity. Jewish texts tell us that a man’s mission in this world is to turn fate into destiny — an existence that is passive and influenced into an existence that is active and influential; an existence of compulsion, perplexity, and speechlessness into an existence full of will, vision, and initiative.”
While Conflict Resolution is preoccupied with understanding peace through the empirical study of war, that is to say in ‘negative’ terms by which peace is only achieved through prevention of war. Peacebuilding, on the contrary, attempts to look for a new understanding of human interaction, encouraging a proactive approach of ‘peace creation’ rather than the reactive ‘war reduction’.
Rabbi Soloveitchik goes on to talk about people of fate and people of destiny.
People of Fate are defined by their problems, by the challenges that they involuntary react to. They ask — Why does this always happen to me!?
People of Destiny endure the same challenges and tragedies, but rather than be victims, they survive. They ask — how can I grow from this. How can I build something new?
This is our challenge as individuals and communities — to be people of destiny and communities of possibilities. This is where B&J failed in their recent new policy.
There is an alternative ice cream that focuses on the positive. It’s called Buza (Ice Cream in Arabic). A few years ago, an Israeli and a Palestinian began to dream — what can we create together?
What has the power to build communities?
Alcohol was a no — it is a dietary restriction for more than half the population, and children can not consume coffee.
Then it dawned on them — Ice Cream!!
Today they are ranked by many as the best Ice Cream in the Middle East. But, don’t take my word for it — check them out.
If, like me, you want to support an Ice cream that aspires to dreaming a better middle east rather than boycotting those who don’t think like them — then Buza is your new favourite place.
I pray that Ben&Jerry’s once again aspire to be the ice cream that makes all children happy and not only those who fit the company’s political agenda, but if not — We have no shortage of good ice cream brands to take their place.