BDS: Ice cream and Irish literature collide

Bennett Cohen and Jerry Greenfield appearing in an interview on HBO and Sally Rooney attends the 2019 Costa Book Awards held at Quaglino's on January 29, 2019 in London, England. (Photo by Tristan Fewings/Getty Images)

Editor’s note: “What to think about. What to talk about. What to listen to right now.” I’m starting a new weekly column that focuses on journalism and Judaism. Some weeks the topic will be particularly Jewish, other weeks it’ll take something in the news cycle and break it down through a Jewish angle. The goal is to inform, not pontificate, and use Journalism (yes capital “J”) as a vehicle to navigate the noise that is out there on these topics. Hopefully you’ll be able to use these facts during the heated debates of Shabbos meals to form your own opinions and to challenge others.

This week a lot of people (Jews and non-Jews alike) were arguing over ice cream and Irish literature. The connection? Boycott, Divest, Sanction (also known as BDS). 

Israel was trending on Twitter as users debated BDS on Tuesday, October, 12, 2021.

BDS is back in the news because of two prominent stories. First, Ben and Jerry, of ice cream fame, sat down with Axios on HBO to clarify their position on pulling out of the West Bank. 

And second, prominent rising Irish author Sally Rooney announced that her latest novel would not be translated into Hebrew (she later clarified her position, but more on that later).

Being such a charged issue there is a lot of disinformation and misinformation out there on BDS so let’s first take a nuanced look at what this movement is and how it is interpreted differently by people.

What is BDS?

Protest against Israel’s Gaza blockade in Melbourne, Australia, June 5, 2010. (takver/flickr)

The main goal of BDS is to pressure and isolate Israel, nobody debates this. What is debated, however, is the end goals of this movement. Pressure Israel to do exactly what? 

The Anti-Defamation League describes the BDS movement as:

“BDS campaigns promote a biased and simplistic approach to the complex Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and present this dispute over territorial and nationalist claims as the fault of only one party – Israel. The BDS campaign does not support Israeli-Palestinian peace efforts, and rejects a two-state solution to the conflict.” describes BDS as:

“Israel is occupying and colonising Palestinian land, discriminating against Palestinian citizens of Israel and denying Palestinian refugees the right to return to their homes. It is maintaining a regime of occupation, settler-colonialism and apartheid over the Palestinian people.”

“World governments fail to hold Israel to account. Companies and institutions help Israel to oppress Palestinians. In response, Palestinians are calling for nonviolent grassroots boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) campaigning against Israel.”

So what does this all mean? 

Boiled down, critics of BDS say the movement is antisemitic (more on that here) and anti-Zionist citing the movement’s founding documents (2005) which outright reject Zionism (the belief in self-determination for the Jewish people in the biblical land of Israel):

“We reject Zionism, as it constitutes the racist and discriminatory ideological pillar of Israel’s regime of occupation, settler-colonialism and apartheid that has deprived the Palestinian people of its fundamental human rights since 1948.”

This belief is held by many in the movement, here’s what one of the founders told the New York Times in 2019:

“A Jewish state in Palestine in any shape or form cannot but contravene the basic rights of the indigenous Palestinian population and perpetuate a system of racial discrimination that ought to be opposed categorically,” said Omar Barghouti.

BDS proponents go on to argue: “the BDS movement is showing that it can become a hugely powerful tool in ending western support for Israeli apartheid and settler colonialism.“

This is where the debate heats up. If the end goal of BDS is to isolate Israel to the point of threatening its existence to its eventual dissolvement it’s obviously a no-go for many. Eight-in-ten U.S. Jews say caring about Israel is an essential or important part of what being Jewish means to them. Only one in 10 American Jews say they either “strongly support” or “somewhat support” the BDS movement.

Further complicating things, there are Jewish supporters that are Zionist who support BDS (see below under Sally Rooney).

What are the takeaways?

  • The BDS movement’s funding documents reject Zionism, a.k.a a Jewish state, saying it is a an occupying, colonial, apartheid government.
  • BDS attempts to put pressure on Israel in order to isolate it from the international community with the end goal of the country’s dissolution and Palestinian control of the region.
  • Not all supporters of BDS are in favor of Israel’s dissolution, however this is complicated as the overall movement is in support of this. 
  • The ADL says: “Many of the founding goals of the BDS movement, including denying the Jewish people the universal right of self-determination – along with many of the strategies employed in BDS campaigns are anti-Semitic.”
  • 80% of American Jews say carrying about Israel is important to what being Jewish means to them. 10% of American Jews support BDS in some fashion.

Ben and Jerry

Ben and Jerry, they hate Israel, right? This is why the ice cream debate appears to be so heated. If Ben and Jerry, two Jewish men, say they support Israel’s right to exist, why are they participating in the BDS movement which calls for the dissolution of the Jewish state?

Well, if you ask them, they would say they are not taking part in the BDS movement but are voicing their right to political activism, specifically their right to protest Israel’s involvement in the West Bank.

Here’s where nuance is important:

“We are the founders of Ben & Jerry’s. We are also proud Jews. It’s part of who we are and how we’ve identified ourselves for our whole lives. As our company began to expand internationally, Israel was one of our first overseas markets. We were then, and remain today, supporters of the State of Israel.”

Writing in a New York Times op-ed, Ben Cohen and Jerry Greenfield explicitly state that they are not partaking in the BDS movement:

“The decision to halt sales outside Israel’s democratic borders is not a boycott of Israel. The Ben & Jerry’s statement did not endorse the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement.”

Now to that interview. Many are pointing out this moment, saying that Ben and Jerry are applying an unfair double standard to Israel.

“You guys are big proponents of voting rights, why are you still selling ice cream in Georgia?” Axios’ Alexi McCammond asked.

“I don’t know it’s an interesting question,” was the answer after a very large pregnant pause. “I think you ask a really good question. And I think I’d have to sit down and think about it for a bit,” Ben Cohen said, stumbling through his words.

And this is the moment Israel activists and Zionists seized upon. The double standard treatment Israel faces, they argue, is not only unfair but dangerous and can also dabble into antisemitism.

The International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance Definition of antisemitism specifically calls out this double standard as a problem. The IHRA definition, which was produced in 2016, has been adopted by dozens of countries. It has also been endorsed by the United Nations Secretary General, the European Parliament and the Council of the European Union.

Ben and Jerry say their decision was motivated by creating peace in the region: “We believe business is among the most powerful entities in society. We believe that companies have a responsibility to use their power and influence to advance the wider common good.”

What are the takeaways?

  • Ben and Jerry, two Jewish men, say they “hugely support Israel’s right to exist” but are against “a particular policy,” that policy being Israel’s involvement in the West Bank.
  • Ben and Jerry in a New York Times op-ed say the decision to pull out of the West Bank was not an endorsement of the BDS movement.
  • As an activist brand taking stances on many controversial issues, to date the West Bank is the only location Ben and Jerry’s has pulled out from which has many people asking why Israel?
  • When challenged by a reporter in an interview released this week, Ben and Jerry could not explain their apparent double standard towards other issues. Activists say that this is not only unfair but dangerous for the Jewish state.

Sally Rooney 

LONDON, ENGLAND – JANUARY 29: Sally Rooney attends the 2019 Costa Book Awards held at Quaglino’s on January 29, 2019 in London, England. (Photo by Tristan Fewings/Getty Images)

Irish author Sally Rooney is a rising literary star. At the age of 30 she has been hailed as the first “great Millennial novelist,” as a “literary ringer” and “voice of a generation.” And this week news came out that she refused to have her latest novel translated into Hebrew.

The decision caused an uproar and forced the author to issue a new statement clarifying why she chose not to publish in Hebrew. The clarified statement said that she would be willing to have her novel translated into Hebrew if the publisher was not based in Israel.

“If I can find a way to sell these rights that is compliant with the BDS movement’s institutional boycott guidelines, I will be very pleased and proud to do so,” her statement read.

The first reporting that came out focused on Rooney’s apparent flat out refusal to translate her work into Hebrew. It is not known if the author actually first refused to translate her work into Hebrew no matter what or if the refusal was based on following “BDS protocols.” 

This is an important distinction as Hebrew is a language, much like Arabic, Chinese, Czech, Spanish, etc… and not a nation-state. Also confusing to many was the fact that Rooney’s first two books were translated by the Israeli publisher Modan and her second novel was translated into 46 different languages (including languages used by countries that have documented human rights abuses). Was Rooney boycotting Hebrew, the Jewish people, Israel, or all of the above?

When the clarification was issued, Rooney stated that she would be willing to work with a BDS compliant Hebrew publisher.

An argument is being made that singling out one group of people for the actions of their government, specifically a group of people that are Jewish, is a dangerous double standard.

However, Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist Michael Chabon, said to The Associated Press that “as a proudly Jewish writer who wants Israel to survive and thrive, and (and therefore) supports the Palestinian people in their struggle for equality, justice and human rights, I say yasher koach (Hebrew for ‘good job’ or ‘more power to you’) to Rooney.”

Coincidentally, the Rooney news came out the same week investigative journalist David Collier released his findings on rampant antisemitism in Irish society.

Rooney is not the first author to refuse translation into Hebrew.  Pulitzer prize-winning author Alice Walker refused to authorize a Hebrew translation of “The Color Purple” in 2012, calling Israel an “apartheid state.”

The takeaways:

  • Rising literary star Sally Rooney said she will not allow her new novel to be published in Hebrew, she later clarified that she is against a non-compliant BDS publisher publishing a Hebrew translation.
  • Critics argue that a cultural boycott focused only on the Jewish people is antisemitic as her book is published in dozens of other languages and she is only boycotting Hebrew/Israel.
  • Rooney is a supporter of the BDS movement and expressed her solidarity with the Palestinian people. Jewish author Michael Chabon expressed support for Rooney saying that it will help “Israel survive and thrive.”