Ben & Jerry’s is not being antisemitic – it’s being principled

It’s not just wrong to accuse the ice-cream makers of antisemitism, it’s counter-productive — it implies there is no difference between loathing Israel and loathing the occupation


DC755C Ben & Jerry's ice cream packaging.

August 05, 2021 11:31

Can you guess who made Matzah Crunch ice cream, consisting of vanilla studded with bits of chocolate-coated matzah, using only kosher for Passover ingredients? You’re forgiven if you can’t quite recall the product, because it was made exclusively for the company’s Israeli customers.

You want a clue? Well, it wasn’t Haagen-Dazs, whose founder, Reuben Mattus, was a financial backer of the Israeli fascist Meir Kahane back when the latter was running the Jewish Defense League. (“If they [the JDL] needed money, I gave it,” Mattus told Kahane’s biographer in 1985.) No, the correct answer is…Ben & Jerry’s.

If that surprises you, it might be because you’ve absorbed some of the reaction to Ben & Jerry’s decision last month to change where exactly its products are sold. You may be under the impression that the company has bowed to the BDS campaign that demands a boycott of, divestment from and sanctions on Israel or, worse still – and despite its Jewish founders, Bennett Cohen and Jerry Greenfield – that it has decided to turn against Jews. After all, Israel’s Prime Minister, Naftali Bennett, called the decision a “boycott of Israel”, adding that the inventor of Chunky Monkey and Phish Food had “decided to brand itself as an anti-Israel ice cream”, while the country’s foreign minister, and the architect of Israel’s new government, Yair Lapid, said Ben & Jerry’s move represented a “shameful surrender to antisemitism”. Not to be outdone, Israel’s new president, Isaac Herzog, accused them of “a new kind of terrorism”. Where once the enemy deployed rockets and bus bombs, apparently its new weapons are waffle cones and extra sprinkles.

Those who had hoped that the departure of Binyamin Netanyahu from the prime minister’s office might lead to an outbreak of sanity and calmness in Israel’s ruling circles had better lower their expectations. For this was a reaction as hyperbolic and unmoored to the facts as anything Bibi could come up with.

Because Ben & Jerry’s announced no boycott of Israel. On the contrary, it stressed that it wants to keep selling in the country. What it will no longer do is market its products in the territories Israel has occupied since the war of 1967. You’ll be able to buy a tub of Cookie Dough in Israel proper; you just won’t be able to buy it in the settlements of the West Bank.

Now, you may not like that idea. You may think it unfair or selective or unwise. But it is loopy to call it antisemitic. Worse, it debases the word and insults all those who are victims of genuine anti-Jewish racism. A company founded by two men who describe themselves as “proud Jews”, with a proven record of commitment to their Jewish and Israeli customers, cannot be described as anti-Jewish without robbing that charge of all meaning. Nor can the company’s move be described as anti-Israel. As it happens, Ben & Jerry’s had come under long and sustained pressure from the BDS movement to join a wholesale boycott of Israel itself, and yet it resisted that pressure. That’s why assorted anti-Israel groups have condemned the ice-cream company’s July announcement, for not going far enough.

In a New York Times op-ed defending the decision, Cohen and Greenfield were at pains to describe themselves, twice, as “supporters of the state of Israel” – and that is more than lip service. Mark the words of Jeremy Ben-Ami, the leader of America’s J Street organisation, who declared that “when Ben & Jerry’s says it wants to sell ice cream in Israel but not in the settlements, that seems – to me – a rational and principled, even pro-Israel, position.”

He’s right. Far from being anti-Israel, Ben & Jerry’s have reasserted the distinction between Israel-proper and the occupied territories. They have signalled to progressive-minded customers that you can be opposed to settlements without being opposed to Israel itself.

Bennett, Lapid and Herzog have sent the opposite message. With their denunciations of the company as anti-Israel, antisemitic and guilty of terrorism, they have said that if you object to Ma’ale Adumim then you object to Tel Aviv, that if you loathe a 54-year military occupation then you must loathe Israel. The risk is that too many will hear that message and respond: so be it.

The result is that while Ben & Jerry’s has disappointed the BDS movement, Israel’s leaders have given that cause a boost, implicitly insisting that Israel’s existence and the settlements it has built on conquered land are indivisible. Those who know that Israel’s only future is alongside an independent Palestinian state understand the importance of maintaining that distinction between pre-1967 Israel and the occupied territories, even as the hardliners among both peoples seek to erase it. Ben & Jerry’s have done their bit to keep the distinction alive.

I understand why Israel’s leaders went in so hard against the company. They fear the slippery slope –come to think of it, not a bad name for a new Ben & Jerry’s lolly – one that starts with the settlements and moves to a boycott of Israel itself. They want other companies to look at the flak thrown at the ice-cream company and conclude that taking a stand is not worth the bother.

But that does not make the critics right. There’s no justification for the social media talk of denying Ben & Jerry’s kosher certification on account of its position: its policy does not make its food treif, just as it does not make the company anti-Israel or anti-Jewish. Even if you serve up two scoops of hysteria and humbug to say otherwise.

Jonathan Freedland is a columnist for the Guardian

August 05, 2021 11:31

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