Tel Aviv is a secular and self-confident metropolis. So the news last week that ice-cream maker Ben & Jerry’s was boycotting sales in East Jerusalem and the West Bank — territories it says should not be occupied by Israel — was a source of mild amusement. Jokes circulated mocking Ben & Jerry’s sanctimony and the over-the-top reaction of the Israeli government.
Many patriotic Israelis agree that the occupation, now in its 54th year, should end. But few want to take moral instruction from Ben & Jerry’s. In terms of impact, the main meltdown seems to be the backlash against its owner, Unilever PLC, which just announced a drop in first half net profits amid rising costs (its stock fell more than 7% last week and is down over 4% in the past month.)
While Unilever is the parent, its purchase agreement gave Ben & Jerry’s an unusual degree of autonomy. Now its ice cream subsidiary seems to have handed an unexpected bonanza to both Israeli and pro-Israel U.S. politicians, while delivering a major commercial and legal headache to its owner.
Prime Minister Naftali Bennett delivered a stern warning to Unilever Chief Executive Officer Alan Jope. Bennett has vowed to take “aggressive action” against what he is now labeling “the anti-Semitic ice cream.” He’s got some leverage, too. Under Israeli law, it’s illegal for businesses to discriminate where they choose to sell goods, giving Bennett a lever for banning sales in Israel as a whole, though he’s unlikely to want to use it.
The bigger problem for Unilever, however, comes from over 30 U.S. states that have anti-boycott laws on their books. Last week a spokesman for Texas’s Republican governor, Greg Abbott, told CNBC that the decision is “an insult to America’s closest ally in the Middle East.” The state comptroller has already instructed his office to determine whether Ben & Jerry’s decision breaches a 2017 law that would trigger the state pension fund disinvestment.
To be clear, there will be no shortage of ice cream in Israel. Ben & Jerry’s share of the market is less than 10%, and it is more expensive than local brands. In any case, the West Bank is five minutes away from pre-1967 Israel. Jews and Arab residents of the territory can still score a pint of Chunky Monkey on their daily commute.
Israeli Foreign Minister Yair Lapid has seized command of the U.S. front in the Ice Cream War. First, he accused Ben & Jerry’s of being useful idiots for Boycott, Disinvest and Sanction (BDS), the controversial Palestinian movement whose decades-long efforts to economically and culturally isolate Israel have achieved little. It was Lapid who directed the Israeli embassy in Washington to send letters to the governors of states with laws or executive orders against “hate-driven boycotts.” The governors have been invited by Israel to speak out against the boycott and take action against Ben & Jerry’s in their states.
Pretty much every stakeholder here has expressed moral indignation. The Conference of Presidents of Major Jewish Organizations, which represents the mainstream community in the U.S. declared the boycott guided by “any excuse to demonize the State of Israel.” Interior Minister Ayelet Shaked said she is personally organizing a counter-boycott in the U.S. This echoed a tweet by opposition leader and former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (Shaked’s arch enemy): “I know what ice cream I will NOT be buying.”
President Joe Biden may be famously a lover of ice cream and perhaps a fan of Ben & Jerry’s. But he is also a politician. Congressional elections are just around the corner and while the Ben & Jerry’s move may play to the progressive left, he knows a two-to-one majority of Americans favor Israel over the Palestinians.
One day after the boycott was announced, State Department spokesman Ned Price made it clear where the administration stands. “White House officials firmly reject the BDS movement, which unfairly singles out Israel,” he said. He promised that the U.S. will be, “a strong partner in fighting efforts around the world that potentially seek to delegitimize Israel.”
Not everyone will welcome this statement. Code Pink, Jews for Justice, Vermonters for Justice in Palestine and Congresswoman Cori Bush have voiced strong support for the boycott. Given the current flux in the Democratic Party, it might even turn into a Democratic primary issue.
But for Israel, this has been a satisfactory little controversy. Politicians have been handed airtime and a free opportunity to defend the nation’s honor. It has been a chance for rare national unity. The U.S. has stepped up in defense. The politicians have had their finest hour. Local ice cream companies will flourish. And so will the satirists and sidewalk scoffers of Tel Aviv.