Ben & Jerry’s: Has criticism of Israel reached a tipping point?

Singling out, condemning, boycotting, sanctioning and shaming Israel will only make Israelis more obstinate and feel more misunderstood.
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(Photo by Kevin Dietsch/Getty Images)

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We’re curious…

Last week, Ben & Jerry’s announced that it was ending sales of ice cream in the “Occupied Palestinian Territory,” apparently referring to West Bank settlements and East Jerusalem. The company said in a statement that it was halting sales in these areas because “it is inconsistent with our values.” (If you missed this story, here’s what happened.)

Haaretz reported that “the ice cream maker’s announcement followed a decade of pressure by pro-Palestinian groups supporting the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement against Israel…Lately the pro-boycott pressure mounted, mainly after the fighting between Israel and the Gaza Strip in May.”

This isn’t the first time that companies have refused to do business in Israeli settlements or the West Bank. In 2018, Airbnb announced that it was removing listings in West Bank settlements (a few months later, following several lawsuits that accused Airbnb of discriminating against Jews, the company reversed the decision). McDonalds also has a policy against opening franchises in the West Bank.

With Ben & Jerry’s recent announcement, we wanted to unpack: Is Ben & Jerry’s just the latest company to boycott Israeli settlements — a continuation of the longstanding BDS campaign which started in 2005 — or is this boycott somehow different? How are Israelis and Palestinians reacting to the boycott?

History of boycotts against Israel and Jews

According to Seth Frantzman, senior Middle East correspondent at The Jerusalem Post, “The desire to boycott Israel has existed since the country was created in 1948.” Frantzman wrote that these boycotts have taken various forms: countries have refused to recognize the Jewish state, attempted to criminalize trade with Israel, and used their oil resources as a way to threaten the US and other countries over their support of Israel.

One example was the UN resolution passed in 1975 (and repealed in 1991) that equated Zionism with racism. Only 35 out of 107 nations voted against the proposal and in support of Israel. Immediately following the vote, Daniel Patrick Moynihan (then U.S. ambassador to the U.N.) and Chaim Herzog (then Israel’s ambassador to the U.N. who would later become president of Israel) delivered powerful speeches rejecting the resolution.

BDS groups have influenced many high-profile campaigns to boycott Israel and Israeli settlements in recent years. According to Frantzman, their efforts have had some impact: “The UN released a list in 2020 of 112 companies with ‘ties’ to Israeli settlements, and the European Union…has sought to label goods produced over the Green Line as ostensibly goods produced in Israeli settlements.”

Anti-Jewish boycotts — directed against the Jewish people or their businesses — predate the State of Israel and have been a dangerous manifestation of antisemitism. The most infamous of these was the Nazi boycott against Jewish-owned businesses and the offices of Jewish professionals on April 1, 1933, less than three months after the Nazis came to power in Germany.

According to the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum, “The boycott was presented to the German people as both a reprisal and an act of revenge for the bad international press against Germany since the appointment of Hitler’s government in January 1933. The Nazis claimed that German and foreign Jews were spreading ‘atrocity stories’ to damage Germany’s reputation.

“Although the national boycott campaign lasted only one day and was ignored by many individual Germans who continued to shop in Jewish-owned stores and seek the services of Jewish professionals, the boycott marked the beginning of a nationwide campaign by the Nazi Party against Jews in Germany that would culminate in the Holocaust.”

Is Ben & Jerry’s decision anti-Jewish, anti-Israel or neither?

Ben & Jerry’s announcement prompted outrage from many Israelis who condemned the decision as antisemitic and anti-Israel. Prime Minister Naftali Bennett said in a statement, “Ben & Jerry’s decided to brand itself as anti-Israel ice cream. This is a moral mistake,” adding that Israel “will fight it with all our might.”

Meanwhile, Gilad Erdan, Israel’s ambassador to the US and UN, sent letters to the governors of 35 U.S. states that have passed anti-BDS laws, urging them to “speak out” and activate those laws against Ben & Jerry’s. Erdan wrote in the letter that Israel views “this decision very severely as it is the de-facto adoption of anti-Semitic practices and advancement of the de-legitimization of the Jewish state and the de-humanization of the Jewish people.”

Israeli writer and activist Hen Mazzig agreed that the move was anti-Jewish, arguing in an interview on i24 News that this “is not really about ice cream, it’s about antisemitism.” Mazzig said that Ben & Jerry’s was applying double standards to Israel if it was not also boycotting China — whose government’s treatment of Uyghur Muslims was declared a genocide by both the Biden and Trump administrations.

Mazzig further argued on Twitter that boycotting Israel won’t lead to constructive change because “you can’t boycott, sanction, or shame Israel into changing. Instead of degradation and divestment, Israelis need the world to INVEST in our progressive movements and leaders.”

However, not all Israelis agreed that Ben & Jerry’s decision was antisemitic or anti-Israeli.

The Haaretz editorial board expressed this view: “In contrast to [Bennett and Lapid’s] cries of dismay, Ben & Jerry’s is not boycotting Israel… Ben & Jerry’s is boycotting the occupation. Not Israel, only the settlements… Ben & Jerry’s decision is a legitimate one. It is even a desirable move for anyone wishing to see an end to the occupation. It does not constitute antisemitism.”

Michael Koplow, policy director at the Israel Policy Forum, wrote in a blog post that the “accusations of antisemitism are unfounded and over the top. Something can be objectionable without being antisemitic…Ben and Jerry’s explicitly did not pull out of Israel, but limited its decision to selling its ice cream inside Israel’s internationally recognized territory.” Instead of being driven by antisemitism, Koplow argued, Ben & Jerry’s was “a company with a track record of interest in social causes that was under immense pressure from activists and responded with corporate virtue signaling.”

Arab citizens of Israel and Palestinians had a range of reactions to the news. Joint List leader Ayman Odeh appeared to celebrate the announcement by tweeting a photo of himself eating a tub of Ben & Jerry’s. Meanwhile, the Palestinian Authority applauded Ben & Jerry’s for “respecting human rights and principles and morality, which reject working with the illegal, immoral imperial system that Israel is perpetuating in occupied Palestinian land.”

Bassem Eid, a Palestinian peace advocate who lives in Israel, did not see this as cause for celebration. In a Times of Israel op-ed, Eid argued that Ben and Jerry’s decision “is nothing but performative activism, failing to help Palestinians in any meaningful way. In fact, it is actively harming us in the process.”

Eid wrote that this boycott will greatly harm Palestinian employees of Ben & Jerry’s who deliver the ice cream to the West Bank because they “will lose their jobs and be unable to support their families.” He argued that previous boycotts against Israel have also “actively harmed Palestinians,” concluding, “The goals of these boycotts are never to help us. Ben and Jerry’s only cares about appeasing its left-wing consumers and the BDS trolls who attack them on social media. As usual, it’s my Palestinian brothers and sisters who will pay the price while these activists celebrate a ‘win.’”

Will this boycott have a ripple effect?

In addition to prompting a debate about whether this decision was antisemitic or anti-Israeli, the news also raised concerns that Ben & Jerry’s could influence other companies to boycott the settlements or the Jewish state and the question of whether this boycott is a turning point for the BDS movement. An Israeli political source told Haaretz that “Ben & Jerry’s isn’t the only company in BDS’ sights.”

Biranit Goren, the editor of Zman Yisrael, said in an interview on The Times of Israel Daily Briefing that “Israelis have to look at this as a turning point. Ben & Jerry’s is probably the most famous brand to make this decision to date,” Goren said, adding that “there is no question” that the decision was made during the conflict between Israel and Hamas two months ago. “There is no question that the pressure, the BDS pressure, the criticism over Israel” is having an impact.

Goren continued, “We are starting to feel a pressure that we need to take seriously.” She warned that if BDS continues to gain traction, “the next boycott could be not for fun things like ice cream but for…pharmaceuticals for example… We need to stop thinking about BDS and [similar] pressures as a fringe thing.”

Tovah Lazaroff, deputy managing editor of The Jerusalem Post, agreed, arguing in an op-ed that although “Israel has long been the subject of boycotts…the Ben & Jerry’s boycott is not just one more routine showdown.” Lazaroff pointed out that while past boycotts “have focused on products produced in the West Bank,” the Ben & Jerry’s boycott sets a precedent for targeting products that are produced anywhere and distributed to the West Bank.

“The boycott criteria set by Ben & Jerry’s would make any Israeli or foreign company that helps stock a supermarket [in the settlements] with those products susceptible to boycotts,” Lazaroff wrote. “Could this happen with Heinz ketchup, Hellmann’s mayonnaise or even the newly important Starbucks coffee that has suddenly graced the supermarket shelves?”

Other Israeli commentators, however, downplayed the announcement and the potential damage it could cause the Jewish state. Frantzman of The Jerusalem Post predicted that Ben & Jerry’s policy would merely “join a long list of failed boycotts of Israel.” He noted that despite campaigns by BDS activists in recent years, “Israel’s GDP continues to grow… Israeli hi-tech companies are also receiving a mass influx of investment, raising some $10 billion in just the first five months of 2021” and “Israel is flying the latest F-35s. If one wants to ask whether the ‘boycott’ has accomplished anything, just look to those realities.”

How is the Jewish community responding?

Several kosher supermarkets in the U.S. and around the world — including Glatt Express Supermarket in Teaneck, New Jersey, Aron’s Kissena Farms in Queens and Kosher Kingdom in Melbourne, Australia — said they would end sales of Ben & Jerry’s in response to the new policy. There has also been a social media push to end kosher certification of Ben & Jerry’s products. While Australia’s kosher certifier said it was removing Ben & Jerry’s ice cream from its directory, Kof-K, a kosher certifier based in Teaneck, NJ, announced Monday afternoon it would continue to adhere to its contract with Ben & Jerry’s while “using its influence to make sure this anti-Israel policy never becomes implemented.” Many Jews have also chosen to respond by boycotting Ben & Jerry’s.

However, Interior Minister Ayelet Shaked clarified that “it is not the Israeli Ben & Jerry’s that should be boycotted…To the contrary, you need to buy Ben & Jerry’s in Israel.” During a visit to the Ben & Jerry’s Israel factory in Be’er Tuviya in Southern Israel, Shaked underscored that the Israeli franchise did not want to end sales to the West Bank and that purchasing the ice cream locally was how Israelis could show their support. “We have to fight against Ben & Jerry’s in America,” Shaked said.

The bottom line

Setting aside political differences, let’s ask the toughest question. Will this tactic work to end settlements in Israel? If history has anything to say about this, the answer is a resounding no. When the U.N. declared that Zionism was racism in 1975, this pronouncement, thousands of miles away, united Israelis and was an impetus for the growth of settlements. This happened under a left-wing government. If we are to learn from history, we should remember that singling out, condemning, boycotting, sanctioning and shaming Israel will only make Israelis more obstinate and feel more misunderstood.

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