Virtue Signaling Causes Ice Cream Headache

Filling your freezer with Ben & Jerry’s won’t improve prospects for Palestinian statehood, and denying yourself that pint of Cherry Garcia or Chunky Monkey does nothing to defend Israel’s right to exist.

The boycott battle swirling around the United States’ No. 1 ice cream brand isn’t really about corporate responsibility, consumer ethics or even foreign policy. It’s little more than an excuse for virtue signaling on both sides of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Airier than over whipped ice cream, the debate elevates symbolism over substance.

Swift backlash followed Ben & Jerry’s recent announcement that the company will stop selling its products in the West Bank and east Jerusalem, which it considers occupied Palestinian territory. Israel’s prime minister and ambassador to the U.S. both condemned the decision, and state officials in Florida and Texas have threatened to halt investments in Unilever, Ben & Jerry’s corporate parent.

Denouncing Ben & Jerry’s, Israeli President Isaac Herzog branded boycotts of the Jewish state a form of “economic terrorism.” That kind of exaggerated invective is just as bad as left-wing groups calling Israel — where Palestinian Arab citizens have expansive civil liberties and serve on the nation’s parliament and high court — an “apartheid state.”

The performative outrage is misguided. For one thing, the Vermont ice cream maker’s contract with its Israeli licensing partner doesn’t expire until the end of 2023.

Opponents eager to inflict economic harm on Ben & Jerry’s aren’t likely to wait that long, making any such actions premature.

Phasing out distribution in disputed territories might seem to align with Ben & Jerry’s famously progressive politics, but it’s a superficial and ultimately ineffectual move. One fewer option in the supermarket’s freezer case will have no discernible effect on Israel’s economy.

To add a scoop of irony, halting sales in the entirety of both territories will affect Palestinian consumers along with Israeli settlers. It’s a form of collective punishment; a charge pro-Palestinian groups often level against Israel’s government and military.

Governors should resist the impulse to ban state agencies from investing or contracting with Unilever. Israel’s ambassador to the U.S. and United Nations raised that possibility in a letter sent to 35 states with anti-Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions laws that target the BDS movement.

In an announcement on its website, Ben & Jerry’s said it will continue doing business in Israel when east Jerusalem and West Bank sales end. That makes it unclear whether the laws apply. Limiting a commercial product’s availability to select locations isn’t the same as refusing to sell in an entire country, and even the latter would affect shoppers, not government.

Anti-BDS laws are at odds with the First Amendment. They discriminate against private companies for exercising their rights to free speech and freedom of association. Last month, the 8th Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals agreed to rehear a case challenging Arkansas’ BDS ban after a divided three-judge panel found the law unconstitutional in February.

Federal courts in Georgia, Arizona, Kansas and Texas have ruled against anti-BDS laws that require companies receiving government contracts to sign a pledge agreeing not to boycott Israel. In a 1982 case affirming the NAACP’s right to boycott white-owned businesses in Mississippi, a unanimous Supreme Court established that economic blockades are protected speech — even when the advocacy itself or the threat of social ostracism intimidates some consumers.

People and businesses often spend their money in ways that align with their values and political views. In one dimension, shopping is simply another form of voting. Ballots are thin and green and crisp, and they aren’t distributed equally. Since some have more “votes” than others, boycotts allow groups to harness the power of collective action in order to send their desired message.

A Gallup poll released in March shows 58% of Americans’ sympathies in the Mideast conflict rest more with the Israelis, compared to 25% who side more with the Palestinians. But 52% of respondents also expressed support for Palestinian statehood.

The overlap reflects complexities and competing interests more likely to be resolved on the world stage than in the frozen foods aisle.

Just as Ben & Jerry’s is free to decide where its products are sold, staunch supporters of Israel are welcome to bypass the brand, trading a sugar rush for an unearned sense of virtue. Neither decision, however, will broker a lasting peace in the Middle East.


You Might Like