Ben & Jerry’s boycott isn’t antisemitic

Ben & Jerry's boycott of Israel is not antisemitic, nor does it represent a rejection of Israel.



July 23, 2021 - 2:09 PM

A man buys Ben & Jerry's ice cream in Jerusalem on July 20, 2021. (Ahmad Gharabli/AFP via Getty Images/TNS)

The most stunning thing about the Great Ice Cream War between Ben & Jerry’s and Israel is the explosive Israeli reaction.

Trudy Rubin is an op-ed columnist for the Philadelphia Inquirer. (Philadelphia Inquirer/TNS)

The ice cream maker, famous for social consciousness and iconic flavors like Chubby Hubby, announced Monday it was ending sales in “Occupied Palestinian Territory,” meaning Jewish settlements in the West Bank and East Jerusalem. But the announcement stipulated it would still sell ice cream inside Israel (meaning within the pre-1967 borders before Israel captured the West Bank and Gaza in the Six-Day War).

Yet the level of outrage from Israel’s leaders, across the political spectrum — and from many U.S. politicians and Jewish organizations — seemed more appropriate for Iran’s ayatollahs than the maker of frozen treats. “A new form of terrorism,” charged Israel’s president, Isaac Herzog, a former chairman of the left-leaning Labor Party. A “shameful surrender to antisemitism,” tweeted centrist Foreign Minister Yair Lapid. An “anti-Israel ice cream,” stated Prime Minister Naftali Bennett.

But Ben & Jerry’s wasn’t calling for a boycott of Israel proper. It was focused on Jewish settlements in the mostly Palestinian West Bank, which the U.S. State Department regards as “occupied” territory. U.S. policy for decades, before the Trump administration, sought to curb growth of settlements lest they rule out any future political accord between Israel and the Palestinians.

So why is the Ben & Jerry boycott inspiring such rage?

Critics have linked it to the Palestinian-led Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement, which calls for countries, businesses and universities to sever all ties with Israel, unless it withdraws from all land captured in 1967. The movement is based on the boycott of South Africa under apartheid. But its demands, if fulfilled, would rule out a Jewish homeland.

However, the controversial ice cream freeze is not currently tied to BDS or to sales within Israel (although there is some discord between Ben & Jerry’s independent board and its parent company, Unilever, over future developments).

The furious reaction to the current boycott only gives free publicity to the BDS movement, and allows it to claim an unearned victory.

So, again, why all the sound and fury over denying Cherry Garcia to settlers, coming even from Israeli politicians who have decried the expansion of settlements? In part, the answer is emotional, the memory of past boycotts of Jews, in Europe and by Arabs, that led to wars and death. But those days are long gone, as Israel’s economic stature grows exponentially and key Arab states make peace.

In part the angst stems from fear that the Ben & Jerry move marks the beginning of a slippery slope, a prelude to adoption by major international companies of the BDS call to boycott Israel entirely because it maintains an apartheid system over Palestinians.

Yet, by insisting that a boycott of West Bank settlements is the same as one of Israel — in other words that settlements are an official part of Israel — Israeli officials only strengthen the BDS line.

West Bank settlements have not yet been formally annexed to Israel (although former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was willing). However, the continued expansion of Jewish settlements and special settler roads on the West Bank leaves the Palestinians divided into unconnected chunks of territory that make any future Palestinian statelet unviable.

Meantime, the settlers enjoy economic, civic and legal rights denied to Palestinians.

By equating West Bank settlers with citizens in Tel Aviv, the Israeli attack on Ben & Jerry’s effectively concedes there is only one Israeli state between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean. This brings international attention back to BDS demands for rights for disenfranchised West Bank Palestinians in such a binational state.

In effect, the Ben & Jerry boycott is a reminder that the Palestinian issue won’t disappear, despite the fact it is mostly off the global agenda. Israel can’t ignore the political status of the Palestinian population in the West Bank, East Jerusalem, Gaza and inside Israel proper, whose numbers now equal the population of Jews.