Ben & Jerry's Could Be the First in a Wave of BDS Victories

How ice cream joined Iran, coronavirus and climate change at the top of Israel's political agenda

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At Ben & Jerry's Ice Cream factory in Waterbury Vermont.
At Ben & Jerry's Ice Cream factory in Waterbury, Vermont.Credit: SNSAnchor
David Rosenberg
David Rosenberg

“We view this decision very seriously as it is the de facto adoption of antisemitic practices and advancement of the delegitimization of the Jewish state and dehumanization of the Jewish people.”

Gentlemen (and Ladies), Please remind yourselves that we are talking about ice cream. Even if you hold that Ben & Jerry’s tastes better or are inspired by the company’s political correctness, it is nothing more than colloidal emulsion made with water, ice, milk fat, milk protein, sugar and air stuffed into a container and (in B&J’s case) given a cute name.

There’s no excuse for the hysteria expressed (above) by Israel’s UN Ambassador Gilad Erdan. There was no reason why the prime minister had to take time off from dealing with the coronavirus, Iran and climate change to put in a call to the CEO of Unilever, Ben & Jerry’s parent company or threaten “serious consequences” as if he is running a protection racket.

The antisemitism canard that’s dragged out every time someone says or does something regarded as anti-Israel is so Netanyahu-esque. The new government, as evidenced by Foreign Minister Yair Lapid’s address to the Global Forum for Combating Antisemitism, was supposed to have heralded a new era of reason.

Reason says that if Ben & Jerry’s hates Jews so much then it shouldn’t have been making and selling ice cream in Israel for more than two decades and it shouldn’t be promising that they plan to continue to do so. Unilever, its parent company, continues to manufacture scores of products in Israel and sell them to everyone, including settlers. 

Mind you, the hysteria isn’t limited to the Israeli side. “How much longer will Ben & Jerry’s permit its Israeli-manufactured ice cream to be sold in Jewish-only settlements while Palestinian land is being confiscated, Palestinian homes are being destroyed, and Palestinian families in neighborhoods like Sheik (sic) Jarrah are facing eviction to make way for Jewish settlers?” Ian Stokes, of Vermonters for Justice (Ben & Jerry’s home state) asked last month.

On the surface of it, Stokes’ moral equation seems logical. Except that if you apply such a stern moral test in all places and at all times the world would grind to a halt in a web of boycotts and bans. There is a lot of injustice and oppression, but we can’t fight it all. The fact that many activists choose to single out Israel as a baddy that deserves special punishment almost makes the case that they are motivated by antisemitism.

No doubt some of them are, but the great majority are not – and that includes the bosses at Ben & Jerry’s. What they are responding to is a big change that has taken place in corporate America over the last five years.

Suddenly taking sides

Big business has long shunned politics except where it had a direct interest, such as regulations and taxes. Increasingly, however, big companies have begun to take sides on the big issues Americans are contending with such as racial equality, voting rights, climate change.

Ben & Jerry’s is something of a pioneer in this new world of corporate political correctness. It proclaims that “We believe that ice cream can change the world” and, inter alia, “advance human rights and dignity, support social and economic justice for historically marginalized communities.”

For the likes of Stokes and other progressives, this is music to their ears. It’s easy to see how settlements sound a sour note.

One reason that companies are so responsive to politics is social media empowers the public to broadcast its feelings quickly and in extreme terms. Boycott threats are tossed around. CEOs feel the pressure and act accordingly, as we saw when Georgia-headquartered companies felt compelled to publicly oppose the state legislature’s bill restricting voting. As a Harvard Business Review poll found, the pressure on business is slanted in favor of causes favored by progressives.

And that’s where Israel comes in. Thanks largely (though by no means exclusively) to Donald Trump and Benjamin Netanyahu, Israel became a partisan issue in America, a part of the conservative-progressive divide. Republicans fall over themselves to declare their love of Israel, which generates a knee-jerk reaction among many Democrats to keep Israel at arm’s length.  The Democratic left, which was traditionally hostile to Israel, feels freer than ever to raise its voice.

The Israeli-Palestinian dispute and the settlements are an obvious target for progressive angst. It pits a powerful Western country against a people who have been colonized, marginalized and oppressed. It fits the same template as whites versus Blacks and men versus women perfectly.

What is surprising is that to date Israel hasn’t reached the A list of progressive enemies. But it is rising. Israel-Palestine is now part of the domestic agenda, which is pretty remarkable for a conflict taking place 9,000 kilometers away involving no Americans. Supporters of China’s oppressed Uyghurs can only be jealous of all the attention.

The BDS movement has exerted almost zero economic pressure on Israel over the last two decades: The Israeli economy has kept on growing as exports and incoming foreign investment grow. BDS has been basically a huge publicity stunt, a way of mobilizing consumers around the world and enabling them to engage in moral grandstanding.

But in the evolving American political constellation, BDS has a shot of attaining real influence. We should be grateful that the Trump-Netanyahu team has been replaced by Biden, Bennett and Lapid. The latter understands Netanyahu’s big mistake; the question is whether they can undo the damage before corporate America comes under BDS' influence.

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