Who is discriminating against whom? The owner of Ben & Jerry’s says: It’s Ben & Jerry’s.
A breakthrough in the Ben & Jerry’s boycott stalemate clarifies the ultimate issue in the boycott debate over the past year, since the announcement of B&J’s boycott of the West Bank.
I. The boycott debate
Quote from the Unilever CEO Alan Jope, following his company’s sale of Ben & Jerry’s Israel to its current Israeli licensee:
“I would like to make it exceptionally clear that Unilever rejects completely and repudiates unequivocally any form of discrimination or intolerance. Anti-Semitism has no place in any society. We have never expressed any support for the BDS movement and have no intention of changing that position.”
BDS attempted to stop the sale of Ben & Jerry’s in Israel. BDS lost.
Though we do not doubt the sincerity of CEO Jope, there is no doubt that the massive economic pushback against Unilever for the boycott of Israel launched by its subsidiary Ben & Jerry’s made a critical difference.
We can think of no parallel instance in which states around the country divested tens of millions of dollars from a company to protest its policies. Not to mention the ill will the company gathered along the way.
Ben & Jerry’s idea that ice cream sold on the West Bank somehow discriminated against anyone was absurd on its face. Palestinians do not enjoy ice cream? Palestinian employees of Ben & Jerry’s Israel do not enjoy making a living? A joint-Israeli-Palestinian work force is discriminatory?
Another loss for Ben & Jerry’s: the ice cream in Israel remains the same, but the cartons do not. Gone are the images of the founders of Ben & Jerry’s; gone are the symbols of irrational animus. Not gone is the stubborn purblindness that animated Ben & Jerry’s to begin with. Following the successful sale of Ben & Jerry’s Israel, undertaken to avoid a trial in the US District Court of New Jersey, Ben & Jerry’s said: “We continue to believe that it is inconsistent with Ben & Jerry’s values for our ice cream to be sold in the occupied territory.”
The court heard otherwise. The settlement facilitating the sale of Ben & Jerry’s Israel apparently spared the corporate board of Ben & Jerry’s in the US of contesting the accusations that it, or its owner Unilever, violated the US Export Control Reform Act, the US Tax Code’s reporting requirements, the US-Israel Trade and Commercial Act and other state anti-discrimination and anti-BDS laws.
The settlement also allowed Ben & Jerry’s to avoid defending its claim of Israeli discrimination as over against Israel’s own anti-discrimination law. The Israeli law prohibits: discrimination in providing a product or public service on the basis of race, religion, nationality, place of origin, gender, sexual orientation, age and residence.
In the name of anti-discrimination, Ben & Jerry’s would have had to challenge Israel’s very broad anti-discrimination law. Talk about turning discrimination on its head!
II. The ultimate issue
The ultimate issue here transcends the legalities, the inconsistencies and the public brouhaha. The real issue is the elevation of the abstraction, “social justice,” over real social justice on the ground.
Ben & Jerry’s embrace of social justice as an idealistic business policy fell prey to unthinking rhetoric. It went something like this: Israel is an occupier; ergo, Israel must be punished economically. It’s the only “socially just” thing to do.
Assuming for the sake of argument that Israeli policy on the West Bank is discriminatory, as Ben & Jerry’s believes, what is the solution for a non-governmental entity? An NGO cannot act as the State of Israel or the Palestinian Authority to effectuate a political resolution. An NGO can only fight the discrimination it alleges to exist on the ground. Meaning, Ben & Jerry’s would have to counter the discrimination as practiced by the company it targets: Ben & Jerry’s Israel. Here is where the rubber hits the road. Ben & Jerry’s Israel does not discriminate. Quite the contrary, it builds bridges.
Ben & Jerry’s Israel employs Palestinians.
Ben & Jerry’s Israel supports Israel-Palestinian coexistence programs.
These are what the putative Ben & Jerry’s boycott would target!
In the case of the Ben & Jerry’s boycott, “social justice,” an ideal, proves itself to be the opposite of what it says it is. “Social justice,” an abstraction, would undermine the concrete policies that it says it wants.
“Social justice” becomes a mere slogan that distracts from a solution, not a solution itself. “Social justice,” in the words of Eugene Kontorovich, is “a rhetorical trap,” not a concrete way of aiding Palestinians.
Unilever understood this. The Ben & Jerry’s board in Vermont still does not — not a big loss. For Ben & Jerry’s Vermont has lost the battle to good sense and good will. Ben & Jerry’s Israel will continue to benefit Israeli and Palestinian pocketbooks and palates.
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