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Ben & Jerry’s boycott is not antisemitic, nor a rejection of Israel | Trudy Rubin

Ben & Jerry's refusal to sell ice cream to Israeli settlements points out difficult truths.

A man buys Ben & Jerry's ice cream in Jerusalem on July 20, 2021. - American ice cream-maker Ben & Jerry's announced on July 19, 2021 they would stop selling their ice cream in the occupied Palestinian territories, saying its sale "is inconsistent with our values."
A man buys Ben & Jerry's ice cream in Jerusalem on July 20, 2021. - American ice cream-maker Ben & Jerry's announced on July 19, 2021 they would stop selling their ice cream in the occupied Palestinian territories, saying its sale "is inconsistent with our values."Read moreAhmad Gharabli/AFP / MCT

The most stunning thing about the Great Ice Cream War between Ben & Jerry’s and Israel is the explosive Israeli reaction.

The ice cream maker, famous for social consciousness and iconic flavors like Chubby Hubby, announced Monday it was ending sales in “Occupied Palestinian Territory,” meaning Jewish settlements in the West Bank and East Jerusalem. But the announcement stipulated it would still sell ice cream inside Israel (meaning within the pre-1967 borders before Israel captured the West Bank and Gaza in the Six Days War).

Yet the level of outrage from Israel’s leaders, across the political spectrum – and from many U.S. politicians and Jewish organizations — seemed more appropriate for Iran’s ayatollahs than the maker of frozen treats. “A new form of terrorism,” charged Israel’s president, Isaac Herzog, a former chairman of the left-leaning Labor Party. A “shameful surrender to antisemitism,” tweeted centrist Foreign Minister Yair Lapid. An “anti-Israel ice cream,” stated Prime Minister Naftali Bennett.

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But Ben & Jerry’s wasn’t calling for a boycott of Israel proper. It was focused on Jewish settlements in the mostly Palestinian West Bank, which the U.S. State Department regards as “occupied” territory. U.S. policy for decades, before the Trump administration, sought to curb growth of settlements lest they rule out any future political accord between Israel and the Palestinians.

So why is the Ben & Jerry boycott inspiring such rage?

Critics have linked it to the Palestinian-led Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement, which calls for countries, businesses, and universities to sever all ties with Israel, unless it withdraws from all land captured in 1967. The movement is based on the boycott of South Africa under apartheid. But its demands, if fulfilled, would rule out a Jewish homeland.

However, the controversial ice cream freeze is not currently tied to BDS or to sales within Israel (although there is some discord between Ben & Jerry’s independent board and its parent company, Unilever, over future developments).

The furious reaction to the current boycott only gives free publicity to the BDS movement, and allows it to claim an unearned victory.

So, again, why all the sound and fury over denying Cherry Garcia to settlers, coming even from Israeli politicians who have decried the expansion of settlements? In part, the answer is emotional, the memory of past boycotts of Jews, in Europe and by Arabs, that led to wars and death. But those days are long gone, as Israel’s economic stature grows exponentially and key Arab states make peace.

In part the angst stems from fear that the Ben & Jerry move marks the beginning of a slippery slope, a prelude to adoption by major international companies of the BDS call to boycott Israel entirely because it maintains an apartheid system over Palestinians.

Yet, by insisting that a boycott of West Bank settlements is the same as one of Israel – in other words that settlements are an official part of Israel -- Israeli officials only strengthen the BDS line.

West Bank settlements have not yet been formally annexed to Israel (although former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was willing). However, the continued expansion of Jewish settlements and special settler roads on the West Bank leaves the Palestinians divided into unconnected chunks of territory that make any future Palestinian statelet unviable.

Meantime, the settlers enjoy economic, civic, and legal rights denied to Palestinians.

By equating West Bank settlers with citizens in Tel Aviv, the Israeli attack on Ben & Jerry’s effectively concedes there is only one Israeli state between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean. This brings international attention back to BDS demands for rights for disenfranchised West Bank Palestinians in such a binational state.

In effect, the Ben & Jerry boycott is a reminder that the Palestinian issue won’t disappear, despite the fact it is mostly off the global agenda. Israel can’t ignore the political status of the Palestinian population in the West Bank, East Jerusalem, Gaza, and inside Israel proper, whose numbers now equal the population of Jews.

True, it is almost impossible to envision any peace negotiations in the foreseeable future. For one thing, the Palestinian leadership in the West Bank is near collapse, and Gaza is controlled by Hamas, which doesn’t recognize Israel. For another, while many Sunni Arab countries have recognized Israel, Iran and its proxies in Lebanon and Syria still present a serious threat.

However, those facts do not disguise the reality that Ben & Jerry’s ice cream war lays bare.

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If Israel treats West Bank settlers as part of the Jewish state, then it must confront the question of Palestinian rights within a “one-state reality.” Unless it distinguishes between the West Bank and Israel proper, and regenerates some kind of Israel-Palestinian negotiations, it will encourage the claim it is an apartheid state.

This is fact, whether fair or unfair.

As Alon Pinkas writes in Ha’aretz: “Ironically, it may be the decision by Ben & Jerry’s that ultimately proves to Israel that, as the cliché goes, ‘denial is not just a river in Egypt,’ and the Palestinian situation needs to be dealt with one way or another.”

That’s something for U.S. supporters of Israel to consider before they rule out buying another Chunky Monkey cone.