Ben & Jerry’s and antisemitism

July 22, 2021 by Andre Oboler
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Twitter exploded with the news of Ben & Jerry’s new position on Israel.

Andre Oboler

I saw the tweet 45 minutes after it was posted and in that time it has already been retweeted (with or without a comment) a total of 2,400 times. By the next day, it was the second item on the news in Israel after the pandemic and rapidly spreading across news sources in the United States. While there are some in-depth articles detailing what happened, much of the commentary jumped to the wrong conclusion or missed the real story.

What happened?

Ben and Jerry’s announced they would not renew the license of the supplier who makes Ben & Jerry’s ice cream in Israel when it expires next year. It has been made in Israel for 35 years and exported from there to Europe since 1995. Almost half the employees are Palestinian.
The decision not to renew the Israeli license follows the licensee’s refusal to implement a directive from the Board of Directors of Ben & Jerry’s a few years ago to stop selling their ice cream to stores in Israeli settlements. The directive was part of the company’s efforts at engaging in social activism. For more than a decade the company had been targeted by BDS activists due to its Israel operations.
There is controversy around the announcement made by Ben & Jerry’s. Unilever bought the brand in 2000, but under the arrangement, it left in place an independent Board of Directors who have responsibility for brand integrity, policies and Ben & Jerry’s social mission. It is that independent Board of Directors that wants to terminate the license. In fact, the announcement they wanted to release was altered by Unilever who added, “we will stay in Israel through a different arrangement”. The Ben & Jerry’s Board appears to oppose this saying the promise to remain in Israel was a matter for them, and was not something their Board approved.

Is it antisemitic?

The position taken by Unilever, in line with the wishes of the Ben & Jerry’s Board, to stop sales of their goods in the Occupied Territories is a political one which people may or may not agree with. In my view, this position is not itself antisemitic. They can if they wish define the territory of the license so it stays within the 1967 armistice lines, or indeed within any other non-racist geographic boundaries they happen to define.
If they explicitly excluded areas with Jewish homes in the Occupied Territories, while including areas with Palestinian homes, to me that would be antisemitic. So long as both are excluded from the license, the limitation would be about the geographic location and not the identity of the people. If they did exclude both, they could always give a license for the Occupied Territories to another licensee, perhaps a Palestinian. A move like that could be sold as promoting peace.
The apparent push by the Board of Ben & Jerry’s to boycott Israel entirely is antisemitic. The company claims to have a progressive social agenda, in fact, the Board’s Chair attacked Unilever saying “I can’t stop thinking that this is what happens when you have a board with all women and people of colour who have been pushing to do the right thing.” To me, it looks far more like the sort of troubling far-left progressive activism that seeks to define Jews as “white” and “privileged” totally ignoring antisemitism, and indeed antisemitic violent extremism. It also deliberately ignores the long positive history of Jewish-Black solidarity, particularly in the United States through the fight for civil rights, dignity and safety for both communities.
I respect Ben & Jerry’s support for Black Lives Matter but note they did not plan to stop selling their products across the United States as part of that support. As others have pointed out on Twitter, they also continue to sell to China despite the treatment of Uyghurs. The idea of banning all sales to Israel is a clear double standard. It seeks to strike at the legitimacy of the State of Israel and the right of the Jewish people to self-determination. That’s what makes it narrow-sighted and antisemitic. For a company that prides itself on its social action, this is an unacceptable failure that results from a very large blind spot which is at odds with the company’s stated values.

Where to from here?

Those calling for an immediate boycott of Ben & Jerry’s in Israel are making a mistake. That will only further hurt the Israeli licensee whose license doesn’t expire until next year. Unilever can be criticized by those who oppose a boycott in the Occupied Territories, but their actions walked this back from what the Ben & Jerry’s Board wanted, which would have been clear antisemitism by virtue of applying a double standard on Israel. The Ben & Jerry’s Board should be thankful their mistake was caught and should learn more about antisemitism and how they can avoid it.
If the upshot of this is that Ben & Jerry’s is available in Israel, but kosher Ben & Jerry’s ceases to be available, that too would be a harmful outcome resulting in discrimination. The boycott movement harms people on the basis of their faith just as much as the Islamophobic Boycott Halal movement. Less virtue signalling and more thought are needed to promote social justice while avoiding discrimination.
Dr Andre Oboler is an expert in antisemitism. He is CEO of the Online Hate Prevention Institute and member of the Australian delegation to the Internationa


3 Responses to “Ben & Jerry’s and antisemitism”
  1. Michael Lewis says:

    Andre Oboler, you have too many ifs and buts in your statement. The correct reaction has been to shout – in Israel and elsewhere. Softly, softly does not work – “Never has and never will”.

  2. Jack Chrapot says:

    I agree with you that that political action to end the occupation is of itself not antisemitic, but there are additional layers to this story that have come to light since the boycott was announced that make this decision highly problematic. It appears that Unilever tried to cover up B & J’s real intention here which was not to attack settlers or the occupation but to support a selective boycott by BDS which questions Israel’s legitimacy as a functioning state of the Jewish people. You need look no further than the words of B & J’s chairperson Anuradha Mittal to determine the animus towards Israel behind this decision. In other words, it has nothing to do with criticism of Israel, or with helping the Palestinians, or with the occupation, or with ending the conflict or with peace. Whether or not they like it, Unilever and B & J’s now stand accused of antisemitism.

    • Andre Oboler says:

      Jack, agreed. I wouldn’t call Unilever’s move a coverup though. The policy set by the Ben & Jerry’s Board to pull out from the territories, set years earlier, was I believe known. Unilever stepped in to add to the press release to clarify that there was not a decision to pull out of Israel altogether (which was true). The objections to that by the Ben & Jerry’s Board Chairperson Anuradha Mittal indicates an intention which was not the formal policy of the Board and which Unilever would not have known about.

      Additionally, I would argue that the Ben & Jerry’s Board would be breaking its fiduciary duties by implementing such a restriction of sales. They must act in the interest of their shareholders, and the single shareholder is Unilever. Denying sales revenue to the shareholder for political reasons is a breach (unless Unilever gives its ok). Making new flavours, statements etc. as Ben & Jerry’s usually does on other issues is not a breach. For this breach, Unilever has grounds to remove the Ben & Jerry’s Board or at least the Chairperson.

      The Ben & Jerry’s Board went way too far and there is clear antisemitism occurring. Unilever allowed Ben & Jerry’s to withdraw from the territories and can be punished or praised for that by consumers depending on their political views. Accusation of antisemitism against Unilever are essential vicarious liability – they are responsible for the antisemitism of their subsidiary. That’s a fair argument if they take no action now that the revelations about the Ben & Jerry’s board’s views and itnentions have surfaced.

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