On Ice Cream and Anti-Semitism
(Or: הפעם השלישית, אנתישמיות)
I didn’t want to talk about ice cream tonight. I was actively avoiding the news articles that talked about it. Another anti-Israel boycott. We’ve been here before. My one lone voice isn’t going to change anything. I have more important things, more immediately-important things, that I need to be focusing on right now.
But I couldn’t help it. I saw a headline that read “Ben and Jerry’s board in dispute with parent company Unilever,” or something to that effect. And that was the plot twist that pulled me in. What was the dispute about? Was there a chance the decision would be reversed? Well, I couldn’t learn that without getting into the weeds of everything else.
So here I am. Talking about ice cream. Precisely in the manner that I did not want to.
I’m not going to get all of the details straight on this one, I’m going off the cuff without any research. I apologize in advance. If you’re quoting me for facts, don’t quote this piece. But if you’re quoting me for ideas, go ahead.
Because my first introduction to Ben and Jerry’s, from a philosophical perspective, came in the 12th grade. My high school economics textbook was not an actual textbook, but rather the book that Ben and Jerry wrote (with a ghostwriter, if I recall correctly), about the founding and early years of their company.
Reading this book was when I learned that Ben and Jerry were actual, real people. Ben Cohen and Jerry Greenfield. They were about my mom’s age. They were hippies. And they were Jews. And with this background, they came up with this crazy idea that it was more important to start a company that did good things, than to start a company that made a profit.
Judaism founded Ben and Jerry’s. I’m certain of it. Sure, the hippy philosophy of that era was peace and love and maybe a little revolution, but you didn’t see John Lennon saying “hey, let’s source our brownies from a bakery that only hires ex-cons who are trying to rebuild their lives.” You didn’t have Jane Fonda preaching “let’s create a demand for nuts that only grow in the rainforest so that there is an economic incentive to not clear-cut the entire rainforest.”
The motivation to take the practical tools that one had at their disposal, and to use them as leverage, as much as possible, to improve the world, to my mind, could not have come from anywhere but Bennet Cohen and Jerry Greenfield’s Jewish upbringings. That is what built the social consciousness that everyone so identifies with Ben and Jerry’s ice cream.
At the time, I was working in an ice cream store after school. I adored the owners: the wife clearly had a passion for business, and the husband clearly had a passion for ice cream. One shift, I guess I started talking about Ben and Jerry to the boss, and he told me “well, that used to be true, but things really changed once they sold the company.”
I believe Cohen and Greenfield stepped down from their official capacities in the mid-90’s. The company was bought by Unilever around 2000. I’d have been having this conversation with my boss in 2003 or 2004. And I didn’t really want to believe what my boss had told me, but, well, it’s true.
Sure, Ben and Jerry’s will still support progressive causes symbolically. They’ll change a flavor name to support the LGBT community. They’ll put “RESIST” art on their pint tubs.
But they don’t integrate that ethos into their business model anymore. Maybe they just can’t with how big they’ve grown. Maybe there are only so many ways to change the system before you’re a part of the system. But where the book I read described a guiding philosophy of how business should be done, modern Ben and Jerry’s seems to treat that idea more as a brand, as an image to impress upon people, rather than a goal to be accomplished, and integral element of how the business is run.
And, honestly? I think that’s more anti-semitic than the whole “boycotting Israel” thing. Stripping the Jewishness away from a Jewish company, reaping the financial rewards of the reputation that Judaism built, without respecting the way that Judaism built it. It’s something that’s happened a lot on the left in recent decades.
But that’s a much deeper discussion. So let’s talk about the whole “boycotting Israel” thing.
It does nothing! What’s the end-result? Israelis are just going to eat Haagen Dazs instead. Or a local brand will fill in the gaps. It’s not that hard to make ice cream. Nobody sees any actual consequences. Just a lot of people are suddenly a lot more entrenched in their polarized political views.
“See? They hate us. It doesn’t matter what we do, they will always hate us. We may as well disregard them and do what we want.”
Israel has been around for over seventy years. Every single one of her neighbors has tried to invade. Some several times. Israel contains the only spaceport in the world that launches west, even though it requires a lot more fuel that way, because launching east means it will definitely be shot down. Israel was given a desert, and she made it bloom.
Do you really think Israelis are going to be punished by this boycott?
No. Palestinians are. Ben and Jerry’s actions are going to prolong this conflict. They are going to make it easier for Netanyahu to win the next election. They are going to make it harder for people like me to argue for Palestinian autonomy.
“They’ll hate us no matter what we do. Why should we give an inch?”
I don’t personally believe in that particular philosophy. But sometimes the American left makes it so hard to ignore its merits.
And it all goes back to a simple truth: the American left, as a whole, doesn’t actually care about this conflict. Don’t worry, the American right doesn’t, either, but we’re not talking about them right now. The left doesn’t have stakes. They don’t feel the consequences of their actions, so they never have to acknowledge them.
All they have to do is keep pushing the button that says “this makes me feel righteous,” while the person they’re trying to save gets zapped in another room with every single press, not knowing who is at the trigger.
At a time when countries like Morocco and the UAE are building political and economic ties to Israel, are laying foundations for a possible future peace with the Palestinians… Ben and goddamn Jerry’s decides that they know better and need to put the kibosh on all of this?
You want to know what the Jewish solution to this problem is? You want to know the Ben Cohen and Jerry Greenfield solution? Make the Israeli distributor work with Palestinian companies.
That’s it. How it’s done is a question for the businesspeople, but there are any number of ways. Maybe there’s a second distributor based in Nablus, entirely Palestinian-owned, with a profit-sharing scheme that prevents either company from undercutting the other. Maybe manufacture the cardboard pints in Ramallah, to be shipped to the Israeli creamery where they are filled. I don’t know how the distribution is structured, but there are ways to make this happen.
And it would immediately lift the situations of several dozen Palestinians, with ripple effects throughout their communities. It creates leaders within those communities (a thing that is currently both necessary and lacking). It builds relationships across the two populations that may be leaned upon when the hard work of developing a compromise must happen. It maybe doesn’t earn Ben and Jerry’s as much money as the status quo, or even as much as boycotting.
But it shouldn’t be about earning money. It should be about using the resources you have to create a better world. That’s the Jewish approach. That was Cohen and Greenfield’s approach.
The real reason it doesn’t happen, though, is that it wouldn’t generate a headline. It wouldn’t trend on Twitter. It wouldn’t provide that self-righteous dopamine that zapping Palestinians in the name of saving them delivers.
Because Ben and Jerry’s isn’t a philosophy anymore. It’s just a brand. And a brand doesn’t care about the well-being of the world it’s in. It just cares about its image.