Donate to RNS

Why the Ben & Jerry’s meltdown?

Yes, the boycott is problematic. And it could have been worse.

Photo by CHUTTERSNAP on Unsplash/Creative Commons

(RNS) — Funny thing about me and boycotts.

I used to love them.

I doubt that there was a year between 15 years old and 20 years old when I wasn’t boycotting something.

Take a walk with me down my moral memory lane.

I boycotted grapes because of the farmworkers.

I boycotted Pepsi products because Pepsi sold to the Soviet Union, thus betraying Soviet Jews, and because Pepsi boycotted Israel. The company’s headquarters was across the street from SUNY Purchase, where I attended college. The company chairman, Donald Kendall, was tight with Richard Nixon. That was how I got my college friends to join me on a protest march on Pepsi. I hated them because of the Jewish stuff; I got my friends to hate them because of the Nixon stuff. Good times. I hadn’t thought about this for almost a half-century.

My parents boycotted Ford because of Henry Ford’s antisemitism.

My parents boycotted all German products. That was why we never had a German shepherd.

I cannot be sure whether my self-assured economic stances did any good.

But they did make me feel good. They made me feel that I was doing something.

Which brings me to Ben & Jerry’s — no longer available in the occupied territories of the West Bank, as well as east Jerusalem.

My adolescent self stridently loved boycotts (“What are you rebelling against, Johnny?” “Whaddya got?” — “Rebel Without A Cause” with James Dean).

My adult self is allergic to boycotts of anything related to Israel.

You might say: Unilever is “only” refusing to sell its creamy product in the West Bank.

I would respond and say any boycott of something Israel-ish is a gateway drug, inviting a deeper and more pernicious boycott of the rest of Israel.

In fact, that is precisely what could have happened with the Ben & Jerry’s move.

Unilever said: We are only refusing to sell in the territories.

The independent board of directors of Ben & Jerry’s, however, wanted the boycott to drip into Israel itself. The board wanted to boycott Israel in its entirety.

My Jewish mind does not stop at the Israel boycott. It travels back, more than 80 years ago, to the signs in Germany urging citizens to boycott Jewish businesses. The most recent wave of anti-Israel activism so easily morphed into antisemitic attacks it is hard for me not to make that leap.

Reasonable people can disagree with the tactics of trying to end the occupation. Reasonable people can disagree on the entire matter of the settlements.

Here is what bugs me about this.

We are talking Ben and Jerry.

How can you not love those guys? They are from Brooklyn, which is a currently cool place. They moved to Vermont, which is a totally cool place. They were pioneers in linking social ethics to their corporate brand. They have long been involved in progressive issues like racial justice, global warming, refugee rights and LGBTQ+ rights. I featured them in my book “Being God’s Partner: How To Find the Hidden Link Between Spirituality and Your Work.”

In short, with every lick of ice cream, if you so chose, you had the opportunity to feel emboldened, righteous, a partner in tikkun olam.

Therein lies the danger. If Ben & Jerry’s says Israel is bad — which they wanted to do, had Unilever not stopped them — then it would mean a bunch of sincere, socially conscious types were saying Israel is bad. Which, by the way, has been the problem for years.

And, yes, it would mean even — and especially — Jews are saying Israel is bad. Which, by the way, has been the problem for years.

These days, to be a Zionist — to defend the essential necessity and decency of Israel; to even subscribe to the primacy of the Jewish nation or people in one’s self-description of Judaism — is to be woefully unfashionable. It is the ideological equivalent of white socks. It is a Nehru jacket.

The cool kids are saying Israel is bad.

And we so want to sit with the cool kids.

That is the larger issue. Groups with which Jews have had affinity — academics, labor unions, teachers’ unions, for cryin’ out loud — all are coming out against Israel.

Am I boycotting Ben & Jerry’s?

No. Somewhere along the line, I lost my taste for boycotts.

In fact, if I could, I would get in a plane, go to New York and actually visit this Ben & Jerry’s place on the Upper West Side.

It is located at Broadway and West 104th Street, and it is owned by Joel Gasman. The franchise owners have announced they will be donating 10% of profits to Israel education-related organizations.

Beautiful.

I just want to know one thing.

Do they still serve Jerichocoa?

Groan.

Sorry.