Thursday, July 22, 2021

Ben & Jerry's: Boycotts, BDS and me.

The Ice Cream Kerfuffle

Should I eat Ben & Jerry's, or not?

This week Unilever's ice cream brand, Ben & Jerry's, announced that it will not renew its current franchise license in Israel because the local franchisee will not stop selling their ice cream across the "Green Line," in what the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement calls Occupied Palestine. 

Ben & Jerry's also clearly stated that they will remain committed to Israel, where they have a production factory and a strong market share, with a new franchise owner who will play by their rules.  

In response, the Prime Minister of Israel, a slew of other top Israeli officials and pro-Israel people in Israel and America began publicly declaring a counter boycott of Ben & Jerry's ice cream everywhere.  Viral videos showed people of all ages throwing out their Ben & Jerry's, with accusations of anti-Semitism and bias.

As a fact based and reasonable person who loves ice cream and Israel, I need to look at this closely and make a fact based and reasonable approach to my next diet-breaking choice of which chocolate chunk fudge brand I am going to eat.

Question #1:  Do I believe in consumer boycotts?  

In a word, 'no.'

They really don't work, and they are annoying.  I believe in engagement and influence rather than boycotts.  Sure, multinational corporations don't like bad press, so you can definitely hurt them and get in the papers. And that makes protesters feel good.  And then you can go after colleges and investors to remove those corporations from their portfolios with the same outcome.  But the facts on the ground are not changed when people are denied Nestle, Coca-Cola or Ben & Jerry's. They are a distraction, not a solution.  I believe this to be true whether I am asked to boycott Ben & Jerry's for selling in the West Bank, or to boycott Ben & Jerry's for not selling in the West Bank. There is no impact either way and the boycott calls only serve to amplify the extreme voices around the topic.  Can you hurt companies and their stock values?  Absolutely.  But that doesn't bring better health care, civil rights or prosperity to the people of the region.

Question #2:  Where is Ben & Jerry's refusing to sell?   

"Across the Green Line" is everything Israel conquered in 1967, and includes most of the Old City of Jerusalem, East Jerusalem, and the entire "West Bank."  All of that includes Jewish neighborhoods, towns and cities very roughly totaling nearly 1,000,000 Israelis and about 3,000,000 Palestinians.  The complex network of roads, public transport, and checkpoints has been a sticking point for decades.  This area is comprised by autonomous areas under the Palestinian Authority, areas under Israeli military control, Israeli towns and cities, and open areas of undeveloped land.  The final status of this region remains in dispute and is the subject of internal debate on every level:  in the Israeli population; between Israelis and Palestinians; and internationally.  Israel has formally annexed some parts, such as East Jerusalem and some of the surrounding Israeli towns.  

Question #3:  Is anti-Zionism a form of anti-Semitism?  

In a word, 'yes.' 

This is subtle, so hang on for a moment.  Denying the Jewish people their right to national statehood as a people is a form of bias and prejudice.  However, rejecting particular political or military policies of a government is not.  One must not confuse any contempt for political or military actions of Israel with denial of the legitimacy of Israel to exist.  Atrocities against slaves, indigenous peoples, or in Vietnam did not mean that America was illegitimate.  It meant America was doing atrocious things which demanded change.  Those involved in calls for Justice need to be aware that much of the Palestinian political voice is not calling for justice, but naming Israel itself as an injustice.  That is a form of Anti-Semitism.  Let's focus on political policy, civil rights, conflict resolution, economic equity and military de-escalation.  If those topics are not sufficient to create peace, then we really are talking about the obliteration of an enemy - prejudice and bias.

Question #4:  Is opposing settlements across the Green Line the same as opposing Israel itself?  

In a word, 'no.' 

There is a strong and persistent internal voice in Israeli politics that has been opposed to the expanded Israeli settlement of territory in the West Bank.  The Likud party has been a strong advocate for settlements since the days of Menachem Begin in the 1970's and beyond.  PM Netanyahu, a Likud leader, continued and accelerated that policy under his historically long tenure as Prime Minister.  But parties like Labor, Meretz and others strongly disagree and would offer back huge portions, and perhaps even all of the "occupied territories" for genuine peace, if a realistic agreement could be forged.  Oslo demonstrated that willingness, but has fallen off the table since.  The dispassionate fact is that there is a legitimate pro-Israel voice in Israeli politics that does not equate the West Bank or even East Jerusalem with the rest of the country.  Only the supporters of the vast expansion in the last few decades equate the two, and would want us to believe that they are one and the same.  They are not, as a simple matter of facts on the ground.  Therefore, it is legitimate to divide the issue.

Question #5:  Is Ben & Jerry's "Anti-Israel?"  

In a word, 'no.'  

I am opposed to the Ben & Jerry's boycott.  I believe it reflects a simplistic look at the map of the West Bank - an "all or nothing, win/lose" view of the post-1967 territories and their history occupation and settlement.  Those who say that all Israeli settlements are the same as "Israel" are projecting their own political point of view on the rest of the Israeli population.  They are just as wrong as those who say that all of Israel is "Occupied Palestine."  I believe that consumer boycotts are ultimately ineffective, unnecessarily divisive and a lot of noise with little substance.  But they have asserted their presence in Israel, and their commitment to being a participant on the ground in the Israeli economy.  They have the right, as a business, to stay out of a conflict if they chose to try.  They have probably learned that there is no "win" here, so it would have been better to let people eat their product everywhere.  But opposing the Israeli presence in the West Bank and East Jerusalem is not anti-Semitism.  It is politics.  

The most important question:  Am I going to continue to eat Ben & Jerry's?  

In a word, 'yes.' 

I will eat Ben & Jerry's because it is delicious, and more importantly they have great parve flavors to serve with my meat meals.  Show me a better product and I will buy it.  In the meantime, this too will fade back as more important topics demand our attention.  So enjoy the kerfuffle if you like.  In the meantime, I'm going to have that chocolate chunk fudge I was telling you about.  

Oh yeah, and then there is all of that less newsworthy real work to be done to defend Israel's right to exist in a relationship of peace and equity internally and externally with her Palestinian neighbors.  But hey, let's talk more about ice cream, right?