Friday, September 17, 2021

Just one week ago it was impossible not to think about Ben & Jerry’s. Except unlike any other time, it was not because of a Cherry Garcia craving. Friends, politicians, influencers and the Jewish community at large made it known that the ice cream purveyor, now owned by Unilever, announced they would stop selling its products in “Occupied Palestinian Territory (OPT),” referring to the West Bank of Israel. The decision energized supporters of the Boycott, Divest & Sanction (BDS) movement, who advocate for a worldwide boycott of Israel. Conversely, Zionists around the world and active opponents of BDS have been very vocal about their disappointment in Ben & Jerry’s and its parent company.

As local grocery stores announced they would be pulling Ben & Jerry’s products from shelves, including Teaneck’s own Glatt Express and Cedar Market, several other establishments announced they would be doing the same in solidarity with Israel. New York City supermarket chain Morton Williams, co-owned by Avi Kaner, shared that it would be drastically reducing the availability of Ben & Jerry’s products in all 16 of its stores. Similarly, Gristedes supermarkets will be reducing its in-store space for the ice cream distributor, with CEO John Catsimatidis announcing on Twitter that “it’s a tragedy that Ben & Jerry’s has politicized ice cream.”

Grocery stores and retailers have not been the only establishments to respond to the company’s announcement since last week. Owners of independent franchise locations of Ben & Jerry’s have been faced with a decision made by a major corporation despite their own personal views. Joel Gasman, the owner and operator of Ben & Jerry’s on the Upper West Side of Manhattan, posted on the store’s Facebook page that he is “saddened by the impact that this has had on our business and the Jewish community.” In the viral post, which has been shared over 1,000 times, Gasman shared, “We are proud Jews, Americans, and active supporters of the New York Jewish community and State of Israel. We think the only concern you should have when coming into our store is deciding if you want rainbow or chocolate sprinkles!” In response to the decision, the store has committed to donating 10% of its profits to Israel education.

Teaneck-based kashrut agency Kof-K, which certifies Ben & Jerry’s ice cream, had not shared an official response to the decision when it was first announced last week. Following a flood of disappointment and anger, Kof-K sent out a statement expressing deep concern and a commitment to fulfilling its contractual obligations with the company while “using its influence to make sure the anti-Israel policy never becomes implemented” by remaining in contact with the Israeli government and the Yesha Council. Kof-K asserted that concerns about the policy should be directed to Unilever and Ben & Jerry’s given the situation’s volatility.

Politicians and government officials have also stepped up in their responses to the decision from the ice cream giant. In a letter to Unilever CEO Alan Jope, dated July 25, U.S. Congressman Josh Gottheimer of New Jersey expressed his “deep disappointment” with the company’s decision. He clarified that Ben & Jerry’s explicit support of the BDS movement “sends the wrong message,” and that BDS does not promote peace. “They single out one side of the conflict for blame while encouraging the other side to reject direct negotiations in favor of a unilateral strategy,” he wrote about BDS. Gottheimer concluded his letter by urging Unilever to reverse course by continuing to do business without yielding to anti-Israel political pressure.”

Many state governments, including New Jersey, have been evaluating whether the decision by Unilever and Ben & Jerry’s violates statewide anti-BDS laws, passed by 34 states back in 2016. The law prohibits state agencies from investing in pension and annuity funds of companies or individuals supporting a boycott of Israel. Given that Unilever’s North American headquarters are in Englewood Cliffs, the state of New Jersey is faced with whether it should take action against the company. Press secretary Alyana Alfaro Post shared a statement on July 22 that New Jersey Governor Phil Murphy is “disappointed” with the decision and he believes that “we must continue working toward the shared goal of peace and mutual respect.”

And there are many organizations that are using more than just their words, boldly taking action to demonstrate a strong stance for Israel. The Israeli-American Council (IAC) headed straight to the Ben & Jerry’s factory in Burlington, Vermont, to fly a banner that read “Serve Ice Cream, Not Hate,” and included the hashtag #BDSisHATE. A few days later, the IAC kicked off a global advocacy campaign urging Unilever and Ben & Jerry’s not to align with the BDS movement, stating that the decision is “shameful.”

It’s clear that the dismay and frustration with Ben & Jerry’s has spread like wildfire. Hopefully for Zionists and the Jewish community, the heat will melt the ice cream’s support for BDS.

Channa Fischer reports on digital Jewish and Zionist advocacy. She resides in Washington Heights.

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