columnBoycott, Divestment & Sanctions (BDS)

The BDS ice-cream war has created a political taste test

Israel faces far more daunting challenges, but the Ben & Jerry’s controversy is turning into an advocacy proxy war that neither the Jewish state’s friends nor its foes will want to lose.

A Ben & Jerry's ice-cream shop in Australia. Credit: Enchanted_Fairy/Shutterstock.
A Ben & Jerry's ice-cream shop in Australia. Credit: Enchanted_Fairy/Shutterstock.
Jonathan S. Tobin. Photo by Tzipora Lifchitz.
Jonathan S. Tobin
Jonathan S. Tobin is editor-in-chief of JNS (Jewish News Syndicate). Follow him @jonathans_tobin.

It’s the kind of controversy that leaves a lot of Israelis cold. Citizens of the Jewish state may not have been pleased about the news that the Ben & Jerry’s ice-cream company had bowed to leftist pressure and would “end sales of our ice cream in occupied Palestinian territories.” It doesn’t really compare to missiles being fired into their country by Hezbollah from Lebanon, the ongoing danger to their security from the Hamas state in all but name in Gaza or the existential threat from Iran that may be about to be appeased by the Biden administration.

So it is understandable that many Israeli commentators have been puzzled by the way the debate about Ben & Jerry’s has riveted the attention of American Jews on both sides of the issue. The fact that the kerfuffle has continued to generate a steady stream of news stories and opinion columns strike them as bizarre, and an example of the fact that many American Jews prefer to get riled up about issues that seem to be more about them than about what matters to Israelis.

There’s some truth to those observations.

Ben & Jerry’s is both an iconic brand and a singular story that personifies the way a generation melded the values and politics of their hippie youth with a traditional Jewish business success story. For many of us, especially those who were tickled by the way Ben Cohen and Jerry Greenfield’s flavors allowed them to enjoy their favorite dessert while virtue signaling their support for liberal causes like environmentalism, the actions of their Burlington, Vt.-based ice-cream company are taken personally.

Ben & Jerry’s longtime presence in Israel was a liberal kosher seal of approval for Zionism. Now, however, the company’s decision to embrace the Palestinian narrative about the conflict has turned that positive position on its head. Their announcement on July 19 to keep dessert away from several hundred thousand Jews living in both Jerusalem and in communities that were illegally occupied by Jordan from 1949 to 1967 is being taken as a triumph for the BDS movement, which seeks the extinction of the Jewish state.

So while it is an understatement to say that Israel will thrive without Jews (or Palestinian Arabs) being allowed to buy a serving of Cherry Garcia or Chunky Monkey in the Old City of Jerusalem, it would be a mistake to dismiss this entire discussion as unimportant. One doesn’t always get to choose where or when battles that affect the outcome of conflicts—both military and political—are fought. But once they begin, the obligation to pursue a successful conclusion cannot be ignored. Like it or not, the battle over Ben & Jerry’s is fast becoming a crucial test of the strength of the growing BDS movement and its fellow travelers, as well as that of the pro-Israel community.

That has been made clear by the way pro-Israel activists have taken up the effort to pressure the company with a fervor that has rarely been matched by similar controversies.

It’s even more obvious that BDS advocates understand that making the boycott stick—or, as the anti-Zionist group that pressured the company to take this position advocates, to extend it to an open boycott of all of Israel—would be one of their movement’s biggest public-relations victories.

So it is in that context that the efforts by some Ben & Jerry’s franchise holders to have the boycott decision rescinded and the concurrent push by the company’s board to get them to support it are more or less a proxy war in which those otherwise concerned with broader policy questions are not expending effort.

The involvement of author Peter Beinart in this struggle is therefore instructive.

Beinart was once a leading light of “liberal Zionism.” Though the former editor of The New Republic was notorious for his shocking ignorance and naiveté about the realities of the Middle East, he claimed to be an ardent believer in the Jewish state. Disillusioned by his failure to persuade the sensible majority of the Israeli people to make concessions to foes they believe to be both irrational and dangerous, he abandoned support for Zionism. In the pages of both The New York Times and the leftist magazine Jewish Currents (to which he had decamped from a perch in The Forward, which, astonishingly, was not leftist enough for him), he became an advocate for Israel’s dissolution. He now seeks its replacement with a binational state where Jews would be deprived of both sovereignty and the ability to defend themselves against both Islamists and Palestinian nationalists who don’t recognize their right to live in their ancient homeland.

Though something of an intellectual lightweight, Beinart embodies the drift of some Jewish liberals from traditional, if often lukewarm, backing for the Jewish state to the sort of universalism that allows no room for Zionism. The rise of advocacy for critical race theory teachings in which Jews and Israel are viewed as possessors of “white privilege” has helped bring hatred for Israel and intolerance for Jewish self-determination into mainstream public discourse from the fever swamps of the far-left. Similarly, Beinart’s journey shows how elements of American Jewry who regard keeping in tune with whatever is in fashion in academic circles as more important than Jewish security have been co-opted by forces determined to wipe Israel off the map, regardless of the enormity of the suggestion or the human cost for 7 million Jewish souls.

So when the Ben & Jerry’s board—an independent entity that governs the ice-cream company despite its being owned by Unilever, a large international corporation—brought in Beinart to try to convince franchise holders to go along with their Israel boycott scheme, it was telling. The veil was lifted from their effort to depict their decision as merely constituting criticism of specific Israeli policies, rather than an endorsement of a movement that is, at its heart, fundamentally intolerant of Jewish rights and equally unconcerned about the welfare of Palestinian Arabs who stand to lose jobs and are far more oppressed by their own tyrants who govern them in both Ramallah and Gaza than by Israel.

That not only clarifies what is at issue in the ice-cream company’s decision. It also demonstrates the importance of activism to support anti-BDS laws that, contrary to their liberal critics, ban illegal and discriminatory commercial conduct not advocacy for the Palestinians or criticism of Israel.

Indeed, it must be made clear to both Ben & Jerry’s and their corporate partners at Unilever that Americans who not only care about Israel but who oppose the anti-Semitic goal of the boycotters, will punish them for their participation in any sort of boycott that impacts the Jewish state.

There’s no way of knowing what the outcome of this struggle will be, especially as it concerns a business that has traditionally appealed to the left rather than to centrist opinion. But by putting Ben & Jerry’s on notice that their new policy is both unacceptable and something that will cost them sales and public support, pro-Israel activists will be sending a message to other CEOs that the price of participation in this war on the Jews will not come without a cost.

Jonathan S. Tobin is editor in chief of JNS—Jewish News Syndicate. Follow him on Twitter at: @jonathans_tobin.

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