1. The meltdown
The week that has passed since Ben & Jerry’s announced their decision to stop selling their frozen goods in the Palestinian areas occupied by Israel in 1967 provided ample time to come up with puns and memes about this rare intersection of ice cream, Israel and antisemitism. Twitter is full of them, for anyone who still has the ability to crack a smile, at “AntiSeMint” flavored Ben & Jerry’s, or the company’s “Rocky Road” relationship with Israel, or—my personal favorite—“Divest Mint” (from the one and only Ron Kampeas, the Washington, D.C. bureau chief of the Jewish Telegraphic Agency).
As all sides to this summertime debate have proven, the ice cream metaphor “meltdown” seems to best describe the complete and utter overreaction on all sides to the decision of the Vermont ice cream maker to stop selling its products in the West Bank.
If it were only possible to shut out for a second the endless rancor on both sides—be it from pro-Palestinian groups celebrating the decision as some kind of a turning point marking the ultimate shift in global public opinion toward their plight, or be it pro-Israel activists and Israeli government officials, mourning the announcement as if it were another disaster fallen on the Jewish people during the tragedy-laced Hebrew month of Av, then the event could be discussed for what it is: a symbolically significant, though financially inconsequential, move that can potentially energize the otherwise dormant Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement, known as BDS, and at the same time put to a test the wall of legislation built by U.S. states in order to counter the movement.
2. Did Ben & Jerry’s open the floodgates?
The real fear in the pro-Israel camp (and for the sake of this column, we can ignore the claim of antisemitism, which is at best a stretch and at worst a gross mischaracterization of the biggest threat facing the Jewish people) is not that West Bank settlers will be deprived of their right to enjoy a variety of ice cream products. The concern is that the decision of a globally recognized brand to implement a targeted boycott could open the door to many other companies, some of them seeking a limited boycott on the territories, others wishing to pull out of all business in all parts of Israel, and some, perhaps, becoming active supporters of a movement denying Israel’s right to exist.
But here’s the thing. The BDS movement has been around for two decades. Calls from activists, shareholders and public figures to stop doing business with the Israeli settlements are nothing new to most major American corporations, from Caterpillar to Motorola, to Coca-Cola. All have simply ignored the pressure. Success of the BDS movement in America has been limited to minor academic boycotts and to several performing artists canceling planned concerts in Israel. The business world refused to follow.
Now, 20 years later, one business—arguably the most politically progressive business in America—has declared a limited targeted boycott. There is no evidence that other U.S. businesses are lining up behind Ben & Jerry’s with similar boycott resolutions, or that they were just waiting for one company to go first, and are now somehow ready to jump on the boycott bandwagon. These companies simply do not exist. There is no appetite within corporate America to take on the explosive issue known as the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
3. A real-world test to anti-BDS legislation
Anti-BDS laws are in the books in at least 33 states. There’s a fascinating story behind them: A story of a drive launched in southern states by Christian supporters of Israel, inspired by the Benjamin Netanyahu government’s full-out war against the boycott, but not taken up by mainstream pro-Israel lobbies. Sensing that chances of passing anti-BDS legislation on the federal level are slim, especially without the backing of pro-Israel powerhouses, anti-BDS activists turned to the states, where conservative legislators were more than happy to push forward these laws, ignoring First Amendment questions regarding the right to boycott. (These questions later came back to haunt some of those states when courts moved to limit the laws.) This unlikely drive quickly picked up steam and became the largest state-level pro-Israel initiative ever.
Now, it’s time for these laws—which vary in language from state to state—to face their first real-world test. A handful of states have already taken on the issue and are actively pursuing measures against Ben & Jerry’s and its owner Unilever, based on their decision to limit sales to Israel.
Here’s what to watch for in the coming months:
- How many states will actually determine that Ben & Jerry’s decision regarding the West Bank settlement constitutes a boycott on Israel? (Different states have different definitions.)
- If such a determination is made, will it lead to the cancellation of future state contracts with Ben & Jerry’s? (Most laws kick in only on state contracts above $100,000. That’s a lot of ice cream.)
- Will moves to divest state pension funds from Unilever—Ben & Jerry’s parent company—materialize, and will the board of this international behemoth feel the sting?
If it turns out that states really find Ben & Jerry’s in breach of their anti-BDS laws, and if they can actually find big enough contracts to cancel or are able to divest significantly from the parent company, then anti-BDS laws may prove to be an effective tool in blocking future wave of anti-Israel boycotts. But if they fail to make a real change, the legislation will turn out to be exactly what critics warned it would: a provocative measure aimed at silencing critics, without any real-world consequences.
4. Monitoring the monitor
Joe Biden has now officially crossed the six-month marker in his presidency, and still, there has been no announcement on filling two key positions the Jewish community is waiting for: the Special Envoy to Monitor and Counter Antisemitism, and the White House liaison to the Jewish community.
But there are some new promises:
Last week, a White House official told a Jewish gathering that the nomination for special envoy on antisemitism will be announced “within weeks.” In a separate call with Jewish leaders, the White House repeated this promise, adding that an announcement on a liaison to the Jewish community is also coming soon.
5. A special monitor for Islamophobia?
In a letter to Secretary of State Antony Blinken, a group of 25 Democratic lawmakers, led by Ilhan Omar, call for appointing a special envoy to monitor and combat Islamophobia. The idea behind this initiative is to pretty much emulate the position of special envoy on antisemitism, who would spearhead America’s response to anti-Muslim hate worldwide.
As of now, there has been no response from the administration, or from major players in the organized Jewish world, to this initiative.
Top photo credit: Ben & Jerry’s