Progressive pints: The politicization of ice cream

Ben and Jerry’s change in Israel policy won’t be the last word on the subject (HBR.org).

Ice cream companies aren’t usually known for their foreign policy. Then again, Ben & Jerry’s isn’t typical, and they clearly have strong opinions about Israel.

The Vermont ice cream maker has always been synonymous with progressivism. They’re so committed to those views, in fact, that they remained one of only four corporate partners for the Women’s March in January 2019. Most companies balked at March leaders’ flagrant antisemitism, but not Ben & Jerry’s. When Iasked their spokesperson about that back then, there was talk about women’s rights and human rights, but nothing about Jews’ right not to face discrimination.

Not so surprisingly then, Ben & Jerry’s issued a statement on Monday announcing “Although Ben & Jerry’s will no longer be sold in the OPT [Occupied Palestinian Territory], we will stay in Israel through a different arrangement.”

This statement merits unpacking. First, Ben & Jerry’s will halt ice cream sales beyond Israel’s Green Line, impacting Israelis and Palestinians. Unlike most companies, Ben & Jerry’s is voluntarily reducing their customer base. In this public message, they don’t embrace the standard American emphasis on Israeli-Palestinian negotiations. Rather, they employ the United Nations’ favored terminology while redrawing Israel’s borders, almost like some colonial power of yesteryear.

Second, Avi Zinger, Ben & Jerry’s long-time licensee in Israel will not have his license renewed, after he refused to limit his sales to Israel’s pre-1967 borders. Heeding a corporate directive to enforce geographic discrimination would reportedly violate Israeli law, making the contours of Ben & Jerry’s forthcoming “different arrangement” unclear.

Finally, this statement has stirred a storm. Many Zionists saw a double standard. Ben & Jerry’s hasn’t exited other countries, like the Philippines or Malaysia, whose human rights violations the US State Department has documented. Ben & Jerry’s “parent company @Unilever [also] recently invested $112 million in an ice cream factory in Communist China, where the regime forces Uighur Muslims into concentration camps.” For their part, anti-Zionists still want the ice cream maker to leave Israel altogether. It’s been a messy week for the public relations team, and yet, it’s only the first of several problems.

Eugene Kontorovich, director of the Center for the Middle East and International Law at George Mason University Scalia Law School, told me that Monday’s announcement had been brewing for some time, but that corporate interest “peaked” during May, when Israel dared to defend itself from Hamas’ rocket fire. “That suggests it’s not about the so-called Occupation,” Kontorovich commented. Indeed, this looks more like the ice cream maker is sidling toward the movement to boycott Israel. And that impression is only reinforced by public comments from Ben and Jerry’s leftist board chair.

Board chair Anuradha Mittal, told NBC News that “Unilever released the statement against the wishes of the board.” Ben & Jerry’s board apparently “wanted to release a different statement . . . that made no reference to continued sales in Israel.” Meanwhile, Ben and Jerry’s Israel tweeted, “This is an unprecedented move by Unilever, the owner of Ben & Jerry’s Global. Ice cream is not part of politics.” Fierce corporate infighting could follow.

Publicly traded conglomerate Unilever could also suffer financially — and theyalready are. Organizations like the Coalition for Jewish Values and theEndowment for Middle East Truth, along with elected officials like New York’sRep. Nicole Malliotakis are encouraging consumer boycotts. Supermarkets along the East Coast are dropping Ben and Jerry’s products. “An Australian kosher certification board . . . [is] removing Ben & Jerry’s ice cream from its list of approved products.” However, a spokesperson for The Lawfare Project observed the biggest squeeze could come from “mutual funds and institutional investors, like public pension funds.”

Brooke Goldstein, Executive Director of The Lawfare Project and co-founder of the End Jew Hatred movement, added, “By virtue of its wayward subsidiary, Unilever—a massive international conglomerate—risks potentially crushing financial consequences in terms of its ability to receive investments from, or do business with, the majority of US states.”

More than 30 states have banned government business with companies that support Israel boycotts. Aware of that, Israel’s ambassador to the United States and United Nations has already written to those governors about Ben and Jerry’s.

In some ways, this whole episode is a throwback. Ben & Jerry’s is playing the role of Pepsi, but in a Middle East that’s moved beyond the Arab League’s boycott of Israel. With Ben & Jerry’s now set to boycott part, or possibly all, of Israel, Israel’s friends should feel free to return the favor.

Is it ridiculous that something as apolitical as ice cream has become so politicized? Sure, but Ben & Jerry’s pioneered this path. And when radical politics become the hallmark of your brand, it repels those who disagree.

When corporations take foreign policy positions and aggressively engage in culture war battles, consumer neutrality is effectively negated. The real question becomes, are you Team Boycott or Team Ice Cream for All?

This article appeared in The Post Millennial.

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