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Outlawing Ben & Jerry’s boycott is a distraction that makes antisemitism harder to fight

Ben & Jerry’s principled decision is an objection to occupation, not to the existence of Israel.

An Israeli works at the Ben & Jerry’s ice cream factory in the Be’er Tuvia Industrial area, July 20, 2021. (AP Photo/Tsafrir Abayov)

(RNS) — Last month, New York state announced that all its governmental departments and agencies will divest their holdings in Unilever, Ben & Jerry’s parent company, due to the ice cream company’s decision to stop selling its products in Israeli settlements, while continuing sales inside of the internationally recognized borders of Israel. 

The state’s plan is not only half-baked. It’s a threat to the constitutional right to free speech. 

New York’s decision is precipitated by an executive order signed by former Gov. Andrew Cuomo in 2016 banning state investment in companies that boycott Israel. Thirty-five other states have similar measures in place, some of them requiring individual contractors — including educators, performers and others — to sign a declaration that they do not support a boycott. 

As rabbis who are deeply committed to the state of Israel, we do not participate in the boycott movement, nor does T’ruah, the organization we co-chair. But we also know that the right to free speech includes speech one doesn’t agree with. We are therefore gravely concerned that these anti-boycott laws threaten our constitutional right to free speech while masquerading as protection against antisemitism.


RELATED: Ben & Jerry’s threatened ban in West Bank creates ripples beyond ice cream stores


Boycott is an essential tool of our democracy, and Ben & Jerry’s attempt to hold Israel to the same human rights obligations as other countries should be protected as an exercise of free speech. Falsely painting its boycott as antisemitic only makes it harder to counter actual acts of antisemitism when they happen. 

It’s for these reasons that T’ruah has filed amicus briefs in several states, most recently in Arkansas, in support of recent challenges to anti-boycott laws, and has spoken out against previous attempts to invoke anti-boycott laws.

As supporters of a two-state solution in Israel and the Palestinian territories, we know that the ongoing military occupation of the West Bank, Gaza and East Jerusalem violates the human rights of Palestinians and threatens the possibility of a peaceful future. Ben & Jerry’s principled decision to stop sales in the occupied territories is an objection to occupation, not to the existence of the state of Israel. And it is certainly not a decision to stop selling ice cream to Jews.

An Israeli Jew can still buy Chunky Monkey in a supermarket in Tel Aviv or Jerusalem. Indeed, a person living in the Israeli settlements can easily drive across the Green Line, often along a road available only to Israeli citizens, to pick up Phish Food to go. Labeling Ben & Jerry’s decision as antisemitic is merely a distraction from the significant human rights violations faced by Palestinians living under occupation every day, including restrictions on freedom of movement and the right to citizenship in a country.

In this case, the irony is that Ben & Jerry’s isn’t even boycotting Israel. Rather, the company is making a principled distinction that every supporter of two states should celebrate. 


RELATED: Why the Ben & Jerry’s meltdown?


The distinction between Israel and the settlements is consistent with decades of American law, and it’s one that the settler movement, the government of Israel and some elements of the international far left have tried to erase. We must continue to emphasize this distinction — as Ben & Jerry’s has — and both affirm Israel’s existence within its internationally recognized borders and fight against creeping de facto annexation of the West Bank if we ever hope to move toward two states. 

Divesting from Unilever will not help Israel or Jews. Standing up against real threats to the Jewish people and the state of Israel while calling out human rights injustices against Palestinians is the best path forward, and that starts with challenging anti-boycott laws. 

(Rabbi Nancy H. Wiener and Rabbi Lester Bronstein are the co-chairs of T’ruah: The Rabbinic Call for Human Rights. The views expressed in this commentary do not necessarily reflect those of Religion News Service.)

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