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Ben & Jerry's Aren't Nazis and Their Settlement Boycott Isn't Antisemitic

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A customer buys Ben & Jerry's ice cream in Jerusalem this week
A customer buys Ben & Jerry's ice cream in Jerusalem this weekCredit: AHMAD GHARABLI - AFP
Joshua Shanes
Joshua Shanes

Much of the Jewish world is once again enraged about the allegedly unfair treatment of Israel.

Monday morning, the parent company of Ben and Jerry’s ice cream announced that they would no longer sell their products in the "Occupied Palestinian territories," i.e. Jewish settlements in the West Bank, though they clarified that they will continue to sell ice cream in Israel.

In order to accomplish this goal, they will be ending their relationship with the Israeli firm licensed to produce the ice cream, as that firm refused to comply with their demand, in the firm’s words, to stop selling "throughout Israel," meaning the West Bank. (They rightly noted that this would be illegal according to Israeli law, which bans the boycott of Israeli settlements.)

Jewish reaction, in Israel and the U.S., came swiftly and furiously. Prime Minister Bennett called it  "morally wrong" and labeled their product an "anti-Israel ice cream." He expressed grave concern at their decision to "boycott Israel," despite the fact that the company clearly stated that it was not doing so.

The foreign ministry stated that the company was engaged in "economic terrorism," while Yair Lapid called it a "shameful surrender to antisemitism, to BDS and to all that is wrong with the anti-Israel and anti-Jewish discourse."

Here in America, Israeli Ambassador Erdan went even farther, asking the 35 U.S. states that have passed "anti-BDS" laws to punish Unilever, the parent company. Erdan wrote that Israel views Ben & Jerry’s decision "very severely, as it is the de facto adoption of antisemitic practices and advancement of the de-legitimization of the Jewish state and the de-humanization of the Jewish people."

By this logic, refusing to sell your products to settlements that the entire world considers illegal is not only an attack on Israel but actually constitutes an antisemitic attack on the entire Jewish people.

The reaction of most mainstream American groups and pundits reflected the same sentiment.

AIPAC dubbed it a discriminatory act and blamed the settlements’ existence – celebrated and expanded by every Israeli government for the past half century – on Palestinians themselves. The American Jewish Committee called it a "shameful surrender to the...bigoted BDS Movement, which 80% of American Jews see as infected with antisemitism." And the Anti-defamation League (ADL) stated that they were disappointed at this "dangerous campaign that seeks to undermine Israel."

In other words, any economic pressure at all to stop the settlements is "seeking to undermine Israel," a position that in effect supports the settlements themselves.

Some pundits were even more explicit, or unhinged. For example, writing in Jerusalem, Caroline Glick called the company "Nazi collaborators," retweeting a Yemina MK who accused the ice cream firm of "picking the wrong side," illustrating his tweet with a famous, incendiary picture of a Palestinian involved in the lynch of two Israelis in Ramallah waving his bloody hands.

Here in America, conservative columnist Jeff Jacoby – who just last week wrote an impassioned demand that we "Curb our Holocaust analogies, already" – tweeted that "economic warfare against Jews didn’t start with Ben and Jerry’s ice cream" above a picture of Nazis boycotting a Jewish-owned store.

"I have always cringed at gratuitous Nazi analogies, and at the use of Holocaust comparisons to score political points," he wrote last week. "To my mind, rhetoric that evokes one of the ghastliest genocides in human history should be used only in reference to monstrous crimes committed on a shattering scale."

Apparently forcing Jews living in settlements to drive a few minutes into Israel to purchase Ben and Jerry’s meets the "monstrous crimes" and "shattering scale" threshold.

This reaction is remarkable and even more pronounced than the proposed (but never implemented) decision by Airbnb not to list illegally built Jewish homes in the West Bank. (That decision too brought an accusation of antisemitism by the ADL.) What is happening here and what can we learn?

First and foremost, all of these individuals and organizations are equating a boycott of the West Bank with a boycott of Israel itself. It thus demonstrates the widespread consensus in Israel and among their establishment backers in America that the West Bank does actually constitutes a part of Israel.

At the same time, when arguing against the label of apartheid, they insist that the West Bank – where only Jews are citizens – is not part of Israel. Somehow, inexplicably, Israel thereby remains democratic. It is Israel, and it is not Israel, depending on the moment and the purpose.  

Moreover, since by their definition, any economic or political sanction against Israel is by extension an attack on all Jews, any boycott or sanction of the settlements becomes by extension an attack on all Jews – that is, it is antisemitism, and from there, it’s a short slide to Nazism. Thanks to Netanyahu, antisemitism has been redefined to mean any act that might weaken Jewish hegemony in Israel, very much including the settlement project.

Ben Cohen, left, and Jerry Greenfield, co-founders of Ben & Jerry's ice cream, attend a protest in WashingtonCredit: Patrick Semansky,AP

This undermines the entire effort to expose, condemn and defeat actual antisemitism, while raising concerns about how the ADL and others include even political efforts against the settlements in their statistics.

Why is this particular boycott – virtually meaningless though it is –drawing such outsized reaction?

Perhaps it is a response to the growing global awareness that Israel has chosen to establish an apartheid regime in the West Bank. This increasingly consensus view challenges the self-identity of many Jews that Israel is thriving on fundamentally moral foundations. Jews can support a state with flaws, but it is much harder to support one that is behaving in a fundamentally immoral way out of a mix of nationalist greed and popular fear that values only Jewish safety and security, even when built on the systemic oppression of others.  

Hence the need to charge antisemitism, which for years has come to be redefined as opposition to the settlement project rather than any traditional definition of the term. The Jews who wield it refuse to face the consequences of the choices made by successive Israeli governments – with tacit or explicit American support – to annex the West Bank without extending equality, let alone consider addressing the injustice of the Nakba or the mistreatment of Gazans.

It is hard to look at this in the mirror, so it is much better to attack those who are holding it up to them. 

Social media memes accusing ice-cream brand Ben & Jerry's of being Nazis, Palestinian terrorists and/or antisemites after the company decided to stop selling its products in West Bank settlementsCredit: Twitter

What about BDS? Interestingly both advocates and many opponents of BDS are framing this as a victory of that boycott movement. In this way, we see mainstream Zionists – along with those to their right – engaged in the same project as BDS advocates, namely erasing the Green Line, insisting that there is no difference between Tel Aviv and Kfar Tapuach.

Rather than getting on the performative "slam Ben & Jerry’s" wagon, pro-Israel opponents of the settlements should be celebrating any effort that emphasizes the distinction between the two regions, any effort that pressures Israel to end the settlement project while simultaneously legitimizing Israel within its internationally recognized borders.

Some groups, such as Americans for Peace Now and Partners for Progressive Israel, are saying precisely this. But too few are doing so. Mainstream coalitions like the Conference of Presidents refuses even to admit the relatively moderate J-Street.

The Green Line is not yet gone.

After all, there remain massive disparities between Palestinian rights in Israel and the West Bank, let alone Gaza. For Jews, though, it has mostly disappeared, and not only on maps used by the state and Jewish communities in Israel and the United States respectively that show Israel as a single country from the river to the sea. Jews cross the line and travel across the entire territory without worrying about checkpoints, barely noticing the former border.

The main difference is that in the West Bank, individual Jews can often just steal Palestinian land – or inflict violence on Palestinian bodies – without consequence. In Israel, only the state can do that.

Ultimately, these voices are ignoring an essential paradox. Setting aside the ongoing crimes against Palestinians, either the West Bank is Israel, or it is not Israel. If it is Israel, then Israel is not a democracy. If it is not Israel, then a targeted boycott of the West Bank is not anti-Israel, let alone antisemitic, let alone the Final Solution redux.

Perhaps people will finally wake up to the fact that if they consider any actual pressure to stop the settlement project to be illegitimate and antisemitic – even the most meaningless, token gestures – that they do not actually oppose this project. They support it.

Or perhaps this whole storm will trigger shame in some people, for having felt less outrage at the ongoing violent theft and oppression of millions of Palestinians as the settlement project continues unabated, than by the fact that Jews living illegally in those settlements now have to buy a different brand of ice cream or else drive 15 minutes, flying past a checkpoint that doesn't exist for them, to buy Ben & Jerry’s in Israel proper.

Joshua Shanes is Associate Professor of Jewish Studies at the College of Charleston and Director of its Arnold Center for Israel Studies

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