A selection of Ben & Jerry's ice cream in Israel. (Photo/JTA-Linda Gradstein)
A selection of Ben & Jerry's ice cream in Israel. (Photo/JTA-Linda Gradstein)

Ben & Jerry’s should have thought harder before starting their new ‘cold’ war

You’re deep in the frozen-food aisle, standing in front of a gleaming, 6-foot-tall freezer stocked with pints of Ben & Jerry’s ice cream in devilishly enticing flavors. Next to them is an equal number of Häagen-Dazs pints.

Which do you choose? And does it depend on how you feel about Israeli policy in the West Bank?

The fervor surrounding the Vermont-based ice cream company’s decision to “end sales of our ice cream in the Occupied Palestinian Territory” starting in 2023 speaks to just how personal, and visceral, our food choices are.

What we buy says something about who we are and the values we support. This is particularly true for American Jews, whose food choices have been inseparable from our cultural and religious identities since the first appetizing store opened on the Lower East Side.

Food choices do get politicized. Look at last year’s hubbub over Goya, a billion-dollar producer of Latino food products. After the company’s CEO praised Donald Trump in the White House Rose Garden, a battlefront opened up in the culture war, with Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez insisting she would be making her own Adobo from scratch, while Ivanka Trump posed holding a can of frijoles negros and tweeted, “If it’s Goya, it has to be good.”

Calls to boycott Sabra hummus pop up all the time, mainly on college campuses, where anti-Israel activists point out that it is co-owned by the Strauss Group, one of Israel’s largest food and beverage companies. Pro-Israel activists respond by asking supporters to consciously buy Israeli food products.

While one half of the country boycotts, the other half buycotts.

The Ben & Jerry’s decision has left Jews divided. Some tossed their pints in the trash, and several U.S. kosher grocery stores announced they would no longer sell the product. Meanwhile, Jeremy Ben-Ami, the president of the liberal pro-Israel group J Street, defended the move, calling it in part “principled and rational.”

So, where does this leave us? In many ways, confused. Ben & Jerry’s brief statement, posted to its website on July 19, leaves more questions than it answers.

It does not make any demand, nor does it specify where the ice cream will disappear from, only “Occupied Palestinian Territory.” (Does that include Palestinian cities?)

It does not say how Ben & Jerry’s will continue to be sold within the Green Line after ending its decades-old relationship with its Israeli factory (“We will share an update on this as soon as we’re ready”). It doesn’t even say why it made the decision, only that selling its ice cream in the West Bank and East Jerusalem is “inconsistent with our values.”

And yet with those six sentences, Ben & Jerry’s planted a flag, a very uncertain flag, in one of the most knotty and, for many Jews, existential political debates of the last century. We wish they had thought a little harder before doing so.

J. Editorial Board

The J. Editorial Board pens editorials as the voice of J.