The countercultural ice cream company, famous for “punny” flavor names, took a dip into Middle Eastern politics on Monday in a tweet announcing its boycott of Israel. “We believe it is inconsistent with our values for Ben & Jerry’s ice cream to be sold in the Occupied Palestinian Territory (OPT). We also hear and recognize the concerns shared with us by our fans and trusted partners.”
The announcement followed a social media campaign by activists in Vermont who argued that a company supportive of Black Lives Matter, LGBT advocacy, and other liberal causes, should also fall in line on boycotting Israel.
The company’s founders, Ben Cohen and Jerry Greenfield, have a long history of backing progressive causes and, unsurprisingly, some of the activists pushing for the boycott of Israel also have Jewish roots. “By maintaining a presence in Israel, Ben & Jerry’s continues to be complicit in the killing, imprisonment and dispossession of Palestinian people and the flaunting of international law. Israel destroys lives and property in the lands it occupies by force,” said Kathy Shapiro of Vermonters for Justice in Palestine.
The company produced its first ice cream in Israel in 1987, at a facility in the south of the country run by a local licensee. “They did this because we would not agree to stop selling ice cream in all parts of Israel,” licensee CEO Avi Zinger said in a video. “The reason they did that is because of BDS pressure. We are not surrendering, and it’s important that you support us. I ask you all to stand by us, help us fight, because our fight is everyone’s fight.”
Prime Minister Naftali Bennett argued that the boycott will not work. “There are many ice cream brands, but only one Jewish state,” he wrote. “Ben & Jerry’s has decided to brand itself as the anti-Israel ice cream. This decision is morally wrong and I believe that it will become clear that it is commercially wrong.”
On the local scene, Aron’s Kissena Farms, the largest kosher supermarket in Queens, was first to announce a counter-boycott of the Vermont-based brand. “The product has been removed from our shelves effective immediately,” said owner Aron Hirtz. “Aron’s Kissena Farms stands with the State of Israel.”
At Season’s supermarket on Main Street, the shelf between Haagen-Dazs and Chloe’s ice pops was conspicuously empty following the Ben & Jerry’s announcement. A formal statement soon followed: “Seasons has removed all Ben & Jerry’s products from all its stores as a result of the ice cream maker’s decision to cease sales in parts of Israel. We stand with Israel. Always.”
For its part, as the foremost kashrus authority in the area, the Vaad Harabonim of Queens went even further with its condemnation of the manufacturer. “The Vaad Harabonim of Queens is appalled by the recent decision of Ben & Jerry’s Ice Cream to terminate its licensing agreement with its licensee in Israel if it continues to sell in what Ben & Jerry’s outrageously calls ‘Occupied Palestinian Territory.’ For Ben & Jerry’s to make a decision based on political expediency is to be complicit with BDS, which is today’s new form of anti-Semitism, thinly veiled as an issue of ‘Human Rights.’” The Vaad, under the leadership of its prestigious rabbanim, offered its constituents direct guidance. “Until Ben & Jerry’s rescinds this ill-advised policy, we urge the community to not purchase any Ben & Jerry’s product.” The short but straightforward statement concluded with the acknowledgement of the vast array of eateries and supermarkets under its certification and beyond: “We salute those stores who make the courageous decision to not stock any Ben & Jerry’s product at this time.”
Wasserman’s Supermarket also stocked Ben & Jerry’s in their freezers. On Monday afternoon, just three pints remained on their shelves. Management related, “Ben & Jerry’s sells slowly.” When pressed for a more direct response to the community, the store administration offered that they “probably won’t be reordering.”
Eddie Yakubov of Kew Gardens Hills, manager of Shop Delight Glatt Kosher Market in Great Neck, also under the VHQ, stated the following to the Queens Jewish Link: “Due to the recent statement published by Ben & Jerry’s, we will no longer be carrying their brand, effective immediately.” EverFresh Supermarket in Great Neck, also under the VHQ, announced it has stopped selling Ben & Jerry's. It should be noted that A To Z Glatt Kosher Supermarket on Union Turnpike has never sold the brand.
Morton-Williams, the upscale supermarket that has 16 locations across the city, also announced that it relocated Ben & Jerry’s to a less visible shelf and will no longer appear in the print circulars. “We are having a board meeting this afternoon to discuss ending sales of your ice cream in our supermarket chain,” co-owner Avi Kaner wrote. “This action is taken in response to Ben & Jerry’s boycott of Jewish communities that are at the center of a territorial dispute in Israel, including the Jewish Quarter of Jerusalem – inhabited by Jews for over 3,000 years.”
The consortium of Glatt Gourmet stores, along with Glatt Express and Cedar Market of Teaneck, Moisha’s Discount Supermarket in Brooklyn, Market Maven in Baltimore, Shalom Kosher of Silver Spring, and Grove Kosher in Boca Raton also pulled the brand from their shelves within 24 hours of the boycott announcement.
Walking along Main Street in Kew Gardens Hills, reaction was quite mixed amongst Orthodox passersby. “I came here today to share my allegiance with a local ice cream shop that is a proud supporter of Israel,” said Rivka N. as she was leaving Max & Mina’s Ice Cream with her toddler. “I am considering only eating chalav Yisrael after this ordeal.”
Jason L., who lives in Hillcrest and was shopping in the area, was not enthusiastic about boycotting the ice cream company. “I happen to love the brand’s assorted flavors and will not be throwing out my stock.” He was offered $20 to dispose of the ice cream but refused. “I won’t go looking for a retailer that sells the brand; I enjoy shopping in frum-owned supermarkets.”
Cheryl D., also of Queens, posed a thought-provoking query: “Should I dispose of all my Unilever products? Are we banning Breyer’s ice cream, Skippy, Hellmann’s, Lipton, and the tens of thousands of personal care and food products under Unilever? Because I am not.”
Other locals were unfazed by the fuss. “We only eat mehadrin and Klein’s ice cream in my home,” chimed in Jennifer L. When asked if they would take a stand on social media, family chats, or amongst friends, one man said that he would share a popular change.org petition on the subject. Others seemed confused why they should be taking a stand at all.
Both Rabbi Yoel Schonfeld of the Young Israel of Kew Gardens Hills and Rabbi Shmuel Marcus of the Young Israel of Queens Valley urged their mispallelim to react. Rabbi Schonfeld chose to advise his followers to counter “the outrageous act of raw anti-Semitism and support of terror” by submitting a digital correspondence to Unilever/Ben & Jerry’s at p2a.co/zxvy5ak. This action is backed by the StandWithUs, an organization that strives to support Israel by combating worldwide anti-Semitism. Rabbi Marcus wrote in an email, “The Board of Directors at Ben & Jerry’s has decided to support the Palestinian demand that Israel be forced to withdraw from the Old City, Efrat, the Gush, Kiryat Arba, Chevron, Kever Rachel, Maalei Adumim, Beitar, and so many other yishuvim – home to approximately 700,000 Jews.” To offset this notion, Rabbi Marcus chose to share the initiative of Rabbi Yaakov Menken, Managing Director of the Coalition for Jewish Values: a Change.org petition that had garnered over 5,000 signatures by midday Tuesday.
Rabbi Mendy Mirocznik, executive vice president of the Rabbinical Alliance of America (RAA), expressed the RAA’s emphatic condemnation of this decision. “Ben & Jerry’s did not explain how sales in Judea and Samaria are inconsistent with their values. However, this decision is consistent with bias against Israel and Jews. In 1967, Israel liberated Judea, Samaria, and East Jerusalem from Jordan, which refused Jews the right to live in those areas. This contrasts greatly with Israel, which affords full rights to all its citizens regardless of religion or race.”
Some of the alternatives to Ben & Jerry’s include Haagen-Dazs, which was created by immigrant couple Rose and Reuben Mattus. Throughout their lives, they contributed greatly to Jewish and pro-Israel causes, living up to the teaching of “If I am not for myself, who will be for me?” Another inspiring brand is Klein’s, founded by Holocaust survivor Rabbi Efraim Klein in 1955 as the first kosher, chalav Yisroel company in the country. Carvel has been active in the Israeli consumer market since 1984, and is best-known for its unusually shaped cakes. Of course, everyone in Queens knows about Max & Mina’s on Main Street, whose countercultural store appearance and unique flavors can give those anti-Zionist Vermont hippies a run for their money.
Ben & Jerry’s was acquired by the European consumer products giant Unilever in 2000, but the agreement granted considerable autonomy to the brand’s board on social justice messaging. “As part of the acquisition agreement, we have always recognized the right of the brand and its independent Board to take decisions about its social mission. We also welcome the fact that Ben & Jerry’s will stay in Israel,” Unilever wrote in a statement.
Israeli Foreign Minister Yair Lapid argued that legal retaliation is an option in countering the BDS movement. “Over 30 states in the United States have passed anti-BDS legislation in recent years. I plan on asking each of them to enforce these laws against Ben & Jerry’s,” he wrote. “They will not treat the State of Israel like this without a response.”
At his daily press conference Tuesday, Mayor Bill de Blasio responded to a Hamodia reporter on the topic. The mayor is well known for his progressive views but is pro-Israel and anti-BDS. “I can say I will not be eating anymore Cherry Garcia for a while,” de Blasio reacted. The Mayor restated his anti-BDS policies. “BDS is a movement that will undermine peace in the Middle East. It’s as simple as that. You cannot have peace if you undermine the economic reality and create division. I just believe that’s absolutely the wrong approach and I don’t think Ben and Jerry’s should be doing that. I think they’ve been involved and they’ve done a lot of good in the world, but they should stand back from this, because really what we need, and for the first time, as interesting as the Israeli government is, it at least is a different government, and the potential for a different path forward exists now – but not if the economy doesn’t work. Because the path to peace is going to have to involve economic justice for Israelis and Palestinians alike. And that won’t work if the economy doesn’t function. So, I think BDS is just absolutely mistaken, and I’m sorry to hear that news.”
Unbeknownst to many, the independent board of Ben & Jerry’s intended to completely boycott the Israel market, but changed direction following rebuke from the company’s CEO and its parent company, Unilever. The plan going forward is to abandon efforts to renew a contract in 2023 and bring in new methods of distributing its products, ending 35 years of operation with their Israeli counterparts. This decision follows a year and a half of pushback from the independent Board and Unilever to boycott the Yehuda and Shomron markets.
“I did not give into their demands, and I’ll continue not to give in,” Avi Zinger, CEO of Ben & Jerry’s Israel, emphasized. Zinger explained that he found out about the decision like the rest of the world. “Since I am not willing to cooperate on this issue, they will not extend my agreement.”
This outcome is also not in toe with Unilever Israel, which was unaware of its parent company’s decision. Unilever continues to manufacture and sell an array of products in the Yehuda and Shomron region. This boycott will devastate both Israelis and Palestinians who are gainfully employed in the Ben & Jerry’s factory in Be’er Tuvia, Israel.
By Sergey Kadinsky,
with additional reporting by Shabsie Saphirstein