Last week, the American ice-cream manufacturer Ben & Jerry’s announced that they will stop selling their products in the occupied Palestinian territories. This is not the first time the company has been forthright about its politics. Only last year, they were open in their support for Black Lives Matter.

It is easy to be cynical about such corporate activism. And it must be pointed out that Ben and Jerry’s themselves have a questionable record on human rights, with migrant workers having fought the cooperation in 2017 for the right to better working conditions.

Nothing but hypocrisy?

There is a debate to be had more generally as to how effective boycotts and sanctions are. However, boycotts, such as the one Ben and Jerry’s are now pursuing against Israel, are not without precedent. Many big businesses, as well as educational and cultural institutions, formerly boycotted Apartheid South Africa.

It has been pointed out that Ben & Jerry’s continue to sell their ice cream in China, despite its unethical treatment of the Uyghur people and clampdown on pro-democracy protesters in Hong Kong. This is a fair point. It does seem rather odd to attack Israel for its treatment of Palestinians while turning a blind eye to the behaviour of the Chinese Government. A cynic might conclude that this is because China is too big and important a market for Ben & Jerry’s to lose.

But this does not detract from the fact that there is a very good case for boycotting the occupied Palestinian territories. Both Human Rights Watch and Israel’s leading human rights organisation B’ Tselem have gone as far as to describe Israel as an Apartheid state. Back in May, we once again saw the Israeli Government committing human rights abuses in Gaza and in East Jerusalem. Those who use Ben & Jerry’s undeniable double standards in continuing to do business with China to discredit their stance on Israel, are engaging in ‘whataboutery’.

Moreover, the British Government’s position (along with other European countries) is that Gaza, East Jerusalem and the West Bank are illegally occupied. The United Nations also considers these territories illegal occupations. So when countries such as the UK fail to ban the importation of goods from the West Bank, they are buying from territories that they themselves have said are ‘illegally’ occupied. Western governments are therefore just as guilty of hypocrisy in this regard. If Britain and other countries took their position on the occupied Palestinian territories to its rational conclusion, they would be doing the same as Ben & Jerry’s.

Vested interests and anti-Semitism

Undeniably, Ben & Jerry’s took their stance on Palestine because they believed it would do their business more good than harm. However, if the company’s detractors are really concerned about human rights abuses in China, then they should put pressure on Ben & Jerry’s to boycott China as well. This way, if the company thought their relationship with China was damaging their reputation as much as their dealings with Israel, they may feel compelled to take action.

A further, more potent, criticism waged against America’s beloved ice-cream makers, is that the boycott displays their anti-Semitism. There is no doubt that some of Israel’s critics are openly anti-Semitic. The state of Iran has engaged with and encouraged Holocaust denial in the past, for instance. It is also especially puzzling that some, particularly those on the hard-Left, lambast Israel but make excuses for Russia and Iran. Take Labour’s former leader Jeremy Corbyn, who frequently appeared on Russian and Iranian state television. And there are still some who openly advocate for the destruction of the state of Israel.

However, Ben & Jerry’s founders (Bennett Cohen and Jerry Greenfield) also happen to be Jews. Writing in The New York Times, Cohen and Greenfield made the point that supporting Israel does not mean supporting every policy of the Israeli Government — just as supporting America does not mean supporting every policy by the American Government. Describing themselves as ‘proud Jews’, they argued that Ben & Jerry’s boycott of the occupied Palestinian territories ‘can and should be seen as advancing the concepts of justice and human rights, core tenets of Judaism’.

Many Jewish Americans share this sentiment. In fact, Ron Dermer, a former Israeli ambassador to the United States, recently gave an interview where he criticised American Jews for being ‘disproportionately among [Israel’s] critics’. And he is not wrong. During Israel’s most recent attack on Gaza and the Al-Aqsa mosque in East Jerusalem, the former presidential candidate Bernie Sanders (who is Jewish) accused Israel of ‘political and economic repression’ of Palestinians, in an essay for the New York Times.

Many more American Jews are becoming increasingly disillusioned with Israel. Former Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s closeness to Donald Trump did not help. Only 21 per cent of Jewish Americans voted for Trump in 2020).

It is fair to say that Ben & Jerry’s are guilty of double standards, but being critical of the Israeli government’s treatment of Palestinians is not anti-Semitic in and of itself.

More importantly, it should not be left to an ice cream company to do the right thing. The international community should be leading the fight in helping reach a settlement that would benefit both Palestinians and Israelis.

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