There is something about the joys of ice cream in the heat of summer. And until last week, very few of us thought that ice cream would be a major topic of our international political discussion, or the focus of state efforts to enforce the much ballyhooed anti-Boycott Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) laws.
Yet here we are. And it’s Ben & Jerry’s ice cream that is the focus of those concerns. That’s because the company announced last week that come 2022, it will stop selling its popular products in the “Occupied Palestinian Territory.”
Reaction to the announcement was immediate and intense, focused upon three issues: First, what company actually made the decision? Was it Ben & Jerry’s itself, or its Unilever conglomerate parent? Second, does the announcement implicate anti-BDS laws? And, third, who is actually going to be “punished” by the planned action?
Ben & Jerry’s isn’t the first company to explore ways to stop doing business in the Jewish settlements while continuing to operate in Israel. Airbnb tried it a couple of years ago, and then reversed the decision. Experts and pundits are split over whether Ben & Jerry’s plan violates anti-BDS laws. If it does, authorities should move swiftly to enforce the law. A reported five states are already taking steps along those lines. Enforcement could subject the company’s Unilever parent to divestment from state pension funds and disqualification from other state contracts.
But why was reaction to the announcement so strong, so immediate and so emotional? We suspect that reactions were driven, at least in part, by several areas of frustration we have all been feeling, including the rapid and disturbing rise of anti-Israel sentiment driven by the recent fighting between Israel and Hamas, and the disturbing poll results showing U.S. Jews’ concern about Israel’s treatment of Palestinians in the territories. And then, of course, there is our growing frustration over the rise of antisemitism generally, and its spillover into anti-Zionism. And finally, the very practical question of who the boycott decision will actually hurt.
Ben & Jerry’s plans to stop selling product in the territories but to continue sales in Israel. As a result, in its announced effort to oppose the “occupation” by pulling out of the settlements, the ice cream maker proposes to help the Palestinians in the West Bank by refusing to sell them ice cream.
We have long opposed boycotts as a means to address political and policy differences. Instead, we urge engagement and reasoned debate designed to challenge a contested policy. Similarly, we don’t see the utility of Ben & Jerry’s boycott efforts by supermarkets and pro-Israel consumers. Instead, engagement with the decision makers on the merits of their decision, and efforts to educate the company and its board regarding the ineffectiveness of its symbolic effort stand a far greater chance of success.
Ultimately, Ben & Jerry’s decision will likely result in fewer sales and may incur liability under anti-BDS laws. But it will have absolutely no effect on the resolution of issues between Israel and Palestinians in the territories.
Ben & Jerry’s made a principled decision. No doubt it will inspire other big companies to do the same.