The opening scene of “Monty Python’s Life of Brian” depicts Jesus giving the Sermon on the Mount. “Blessed are the cheesemakers,” he declares to the people of Judea, prompting a man in the crowd to explain to his neighbor: “You see, it isn’t supposed to be taken literally – it refers to all manufacturers of dairy products.”
And lo! At long last, the prophecy is fulfilled.
On July 19, Ben & Jerry’s announced that it would cease sales of its products in the occupied Palestinian Territories. In a statement on its website, the iconic ice cream brand explained that: “We’re a values-led company with a long history of advocating for human rights, and economic and social justice. We believe it is inconsistent with our values for our product to be present within an internationally recognized illegal occupation.”
Ben & Jerry’s sales in the occupied Palestinian Territories will cease at the end of 2022, with the termination of the company’s contract with its local distributor, which has not agreed to the change in policy.
Israel petitioned 35 US governors to enforce state laws against the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions movement (BDS).
The move has been met with a predictable hysterical response by the supporters of the occupation. The Israeli government launched what is being described as a maximum pressure campaign against Ben & Jerry’s and its parent company Unilever. Israel petitioned 35 US governors to enforce state laws against the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions movement (BDS). In practice, these laws could be used to enforce legal penalties against Ben & Jerry’s to prevent the company from doing business in certain US states.
Anti-BDS laws are a peculiar phenomenon. What does it mean exactly to ban a boycott? A boycott is itself a ban, so prohibiting a boycott amounts to a legal requirement that citizens buy certain products. For instance, if people boycotted maple syrup, this could presumably be dubbed anti-Canadian and prompt legislation mandating that people buy and eat maple syrup or face prosecution. What could be more absurd than this? Should US citizens now be banned from eating Ben & Jerry’s? And should they be forced to buy products from companies based in Israel, such as SodaStream?
Incoherent ideas produce ridiculous outcomes – the tragic irony of this was displayed in Germany recently, when the very first application of new anti-BDS censorship laws targeted a group not of Nazis or Islamist extremists, but Israeli citizens critical of Zionism. Rules are rules.
The hypocrisy reaches new heights when one considers that those in the West (particularly the US) who support the use of anti-BDS laws tend to be Republican lawmakers and other fervent believers in the free-market. These are people who believe that taxing Google, Facebook, and Amazon would violate the economic freedom of those companies, while maintaining that private citizens should be compelled to buy products produced in Israel and supporting punishment for Ben & Jerry’s for exercising its right to do business where its executives please. As it happens, there are plenty of problems with the wider BDS movement, both tactically and ideologically, but the bottom line is that, in a free society, citizens have the right not to buy products that they do not want, regardless of why they do not want them.
If this hypocrisy had already flogged irony to within an inch of its life, the death blow came shortly afterwards, as many right-wing commentators called for Ben & Jerry’s to be punished for engaging in boycott tactics by subjecting the ice cream brand to, you’ve guessed it, a boycott.
Right-wing commentators called for Ben & Jerry’s to be punished for engaging in boycott tactics by subjecting the ice cream brand to, you’ve guessed it, a boycott.
As with much of the modern world, the problem with such things is that they are essentially a form of self-parody, which makes them at least partially impervious to satire. How does one parody a situation in which laws are enacted to combat the supposed injustice of occupying armies being denied ice cream? It reminds me of a story a friend once told me about overhearing a conversation between two British defense contractors in Afghanistan, one of whom described the fact that they were currently unable to source Bombay Sapphire for their gin and tonics as “the cost of war.” How to mock such things?
Picture the scene. You are an Israeli Defense Force officer working a typically long day. You were up at 6 a.m. evicting Palestinian families from their homes and, after only a short lunch break, you spend the afternoon trudging around demolishing the now empty houses to clear space for new settlements. The August sun is beating down and, to be honest, your heart’s not in it. For some reason, your work has always left you feeling a little empty at the end of the day.
Sometimes it seems like 5 o’clock will never come. When it does, you sidle home in a daze. It’s 97 degrees Fahrenheit outside and, if you didn’t have air-conditioning (or know what Fahrenheit was) boy would you know it! You meander to the freezer in search of the one thing that makes it all worth it – the sweet, cool nectar that drives the sound of crying women and bulldozers from your restless mind – a double scoop of Ben & Jerry’s Chunky Monkey ice cream, your favorite.
But wait, what’s this? It’s gone! It can’t be! You search frantically, strewing bags of peas and sliced bread and ice-cubes across the floor, but to no avail. It’s not there. “No!” You collapse into a chair, trembling with rage. Sure, you could make do with the supermarket’s own-brand chocolate-chip, but it’s not the same.
In a sudden flash of uncontrollable wrath, you lurch bolt upright and aim a kick at the fridge. It shatters into a thousand pieces and, with a violent jolt, you wake up in a cold sweat. “You were talking about Chunky Monkey again,” mumbles your wife, who is lying next to you, half asleep.
Thank goodness! It was only a dream. Still, an unpleasant experience. You need to cool off and you know just the thing. But as you open the freezer, your blood runs colder than a fresh scoop of Ben & Jerry’s Americone Dream. The Chunky Monkey is nowhere to be found! It was real after all! You fall to your knees in despair. All is lost.
Sure, one can do this, but perhaps the best way to deal with the situation is exemplified by the original statement on the Ben & Jerry’s website. The main trick deployed by supporters of the occupation is to drag their opponents into a marshland of detail and distraction, in order to be able to paint the situation in Palestine as “very complicated.” The antidote is to refuse to be drawn in and stick to short statements that express the simple, clear truth.
For instance, the usual suspects, who do not merit being named here, have predictably accused Ben & Jerry’s of antisemitism. The company addressed this accusation in a single paragraph, which reads:
We reject and repudiate all forms of hate and racism. Our decision to exit the OPT [occupied Palestinian Territories] was based on our belief that it is inconsistent with our values for Ben & Jerry’s to be present within an internationally recognized illegal occupation. Speaking and acting on our values is neither anti-Israel nor antisemitic.
Nothing else was said as nothing else needs to be said.
Ben and Jerry themselves even weighed in. Bennett Cohen and Jerry Greenfield founded Ben & Jerry’s in 1978. They say they came up with the idea in a dilapidated gas station in Burlington, Vermont, home to another famous Jewish opponent of the occupation – Bernie Sanders. Cohen and Greenfield, who no longer have any operational control of Ben & Jerry’s, penned an opinion piece in the New York Times on July 28 expressing support for the company’s actions.
In the piece, which is entitled “We are Ben and Jerry. Men of Ice Cream, Men of Principle,” Cohen and Greenfield describe themselves as proud Jews and defenders of the state of Israel. They are equally clear about their support for human rights, writing: “We unequivocally support the decision of the company to end business in the occupied territories, which a majority of the international community, including the United Nations, has deemed an illegal occupation.”
Cohen and Greenfield wrote also of the “spiritual aspect” of their business vision. “Ben & Jerry’s is a company that advocates peace,” the op-ed continues, citing the brand’s long-standing opposition to war and its promotion of Peace Pop – a call to redirect 1 percent of global defense spending to fund peace initiatives.
Whatever the political and spiritual views of its founders, the suspicion will remain that Ben & Jerry’s is primarily a company that advocates people buying its ice cream.
“As Jewish supporters of the State of Israel, we fundamentally reject the notion that it is anti-Semitic to question the policies of the State of Israel.”
As for accusations of antisemitism, Ben and Jerry are having none of it. “As Jewish supporters of the State of Israel, we fundamentally reject the notion that it is anti-Semitic to question the policies of the State of Israel,” they wrote. “In fact, we believe this act can and should be seen as advancing the concepts of justice and human rights, core tenets of Judaism.”
Whether justice or land-theft is the more important tenet of Judaism is difficult to ascertain, what with both principles being so readily advocated in the Old Testament. God himself is yet to comment on the controversy, or indeed on ice cream in general.