Ben & Jerry’s, the beloved ice cream brand founded in 1978 by Jewish entrepreneurs Ben Cohen and Jerry Greenfield, has announced it will no longer allow its ice cream to be sold in “the occupied Palestinian territories”. This high-profile criticism of the Jewish state has caught Jewish consumers off guard.

Ben & Jerry’s has a history of being tuned into current causes and trends. In 1985 it established Ben & Jerry’s Foundation, awarding grants to grassroots progressive and environmental causes. It's fun, pun-filled flavor names (Cherry Garcia, Chubby Hubby) have captured the zeitgeist through the years. Ben & Jerry’s was “woke” before woke was a word.

The brand also endeared itself to Jewish customers with flavors and puns that displayed a Jewish-themed flair. Who can forget the flavors “Festivus (a Holiday for the Rest of Us)” in 2000, and Charoset-flavored ice cream (introduced in 2015 and available only in Israel), and Matzah Crunch? For years, Ben & Jerry’s seemed to “get” us Jews, reflecting many of our values and sensibilities – and we reciprocated by embracing the brand wholeheartedly.

It’s a cheap shot at the Jewish state that does nothing to help Israelis or Palestinians or bring peace.

That makes its recent announcement that “We believe it is inconsistent with our values for Ben & Jerry’s ice cream to be sold in the Occupied Palestinian Territory (OPT)” so hurtful. It’s a cheap shot at the Jewish state that does nothing to help Israelis or Palestinians or bring peace.

What values does Ben & Jerry’s actually represent?

Today Ben & Jerry’s is a global corporate behemoth. In 2000, Ben & Jerry’s founders sold the brand to Unilever, a massive multinational consumer goods company, for $326 million. Ben & Jerry’s is one of over 400 brands owned by the British-Dutch company.

It’s folksy, do-gooding image exists largely as a marketing ploy: Ben & Jerry’s is promoted as the “progressive” brand of ice cream in Unilever’s stable. A Harvard Business School case study about its sale to Unilever laid bare the cynicism of this branding: “Ben & Jerry’s...faces challenges and opportunities (including) whether to include synthetic ingredients to meet consumer preferences; how to preserve the company’s tradition of speaking out on public issues; and how to maintain the company’s distinctive brand image…” Ben & Jerry’s outspoken progressivism morphed into just one more marketing feature to be manipulated as the ice cream jostles for market share.

Unilever owns plenty of other brands of ice cream. Its biggest seller is actually Magnum and the corporation has no plans to pull other brands from the Jewish state. This isn’t about using boycotts of Israel to affect real political or social change. It’s about Ben & Jerry’s signaling its virtue by hopping on the bandwagon of criticizing and boycotting Israel.

Ben & Jerry’s wanted to boycott all of Israel

Soon after the announcement that it was boycotting the “Occupied Palestinian Territories”, Anuradha Mittal, a member of its Board of Directors, flipped out on Twitter. The board wanted to boycott Israel in its entirety, but Unilever refused to countenance such a move. “It is stunning that they (Unilever) can say that…” Mittal fumed.

Mittal also serves as the Executive Director of the Oakland Institute, a California-based organization that has published reports calling all of present-day Israel, including within its pre-1967 borders, “occupied Palestine”. According to Ms. Mittal, it seems that none of Israel has a right to exist.

The board wanted to boycott Israel in its entirety. According to one member, none of Israel has a right to exist.

Far from taking a nuanced stand on current affairs, Ben & Jerry’s board supports the Boycott, Divest and Sanction (BDS) movement, whose goal is to isolate Israel from the international community of nations, singling out the Jewish state as somehow uniquely evil and bad. It doesn’t spell out what it defines as the “occupied Palestinian territories”; according to Anuradha Mittal, this would seem to encompass all of Israel. It also ignores years of complex history, seeming to place the blame for the current impasse between Israel and the Palestinian Authority solely at the feet of Israel, while failing to hold the Palestinian Authority (which controls much of the West Bank) and Hamas (which controls Gaza) to any sort of responsibility.

Like the BDS movement as a whole, Ben & Jerry’s actions ignore years of diplomatic initiatives, political dialogue, and historical context to convey a simplistic view of the region.

Will Ben & Jerry’s boycott have a real economic effect?

Not right away, and maybe not ever. Ben & Jerry’s in Israel is manufactured by a local Israel ice cream factory that’s franchised to produce the ice cream. As part of the Ben & Jerry’s boycott, Unilever notified the Israeli company’s CEO, Avi Zinger, that they won’t renew his contract when it expires at the end of 2022.

“They did this because we would not agree to stop selling ice cream in all parts of Israel,” Zinger explained. “The reason they did that is because of BDS pressure… We are not surrendering and it’s important that (consumers around the world) support us. I ask you all to stand by us, help us fight because our fight is everyone’s fight.”

Unilever says it will find a different Israeli company to franchise with after Mr. Zinger’s contract ends, but a year and a half is a long time for this sort of gesture politics to stay in the collective memory. It’s unclear what Unilever will actually do. It’s estimated that Ben & Jerry’s account for about 12%-13% of Israel’s ice cream market, a distant third behind Israeli ice cream brands Strauss and Osem. It’s possible that Unilever’s loss in Israel will result in an uptick in sales for those locally-owned companies. Maybe not. That’s why the brand’s gesture politics is so maddening: they aren’t achieving anything concrete, just virtue signaling that they oppose the Jewish state.

The negative impact on Israel’s image is significant.

Ben & Jerry’s gesture politics does impact global perceptions of Israel. By singling out Israel for censure, Ben & Jerry’s is sending the not so subtle message that the sole Jewish country is uniquely wrong and deserving of hate and opprobrium.

Where is Ben & Jerry’s statement that it’s pulling its brand from disputed territories in Taiwan (claimed by China), or Kashmir (disputed by India and Pakistan), or Cyprus (Greece and Turkey), or Gibraltar (Spain and Britain) – or myriad other areas of political disagreements?

Where are their public statements about horrific human rights abuses that go on daily in many places where their ice cream is sold, including in the areas governed by the Palestinian Authority and Hamas? (Human rights are entirely absent from the brand’s “issues we care about” as listed on their website.)

Where do we go from here?

Some Jewish consumers and kosher grocery stores have indicated that they will no longer be buying Ben & Jerry’s ice cream. A more productive response would be to not stop there, and to educate ourselves and others about the Jewish state. (You could also try calling Ben & Jerry’s to voice your opinion about their decision. Their contact information can be found at https://www.benjerry.com/about-us/contact-us.)

Hatred flourishes where ignorance exists. Start fighting misinformation and demonization of Israel by engaging more with Israel and Israelis. Read Israeli newspapers and magazines. Blog and tweet about your pride in the Jewish state.

The worst aspect of gesture politics is its emptiness. Let’s move beyond arguments over ice cream and start using the controversy over Ben & Jerry’s wrong-headed Israel policy to re-ignite our connection with Israel instead.