In an interview on Sunday on Axios on HBO, Ben & Jerry’s co-founder Ben Cohen had what can only be called an AOC moment, referring to Democratic New York congresswoman and “Squad” leader Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez.
Cohen, sitting on a folding chair in a bucolic Vermont pasture along with Jerry Greenfield, the other half of the eponymous Ben & Jerry’s ice-cream empire, was asked by Axios’s Alexi McCammond about the company’s decision in July to boycott the settlements and stop selling its ice cream beyond the Green Line.
“We were always in favor of a two-state solution,” Cohen said when asked why this move was taken now, since the conflict has been going on for so long. “The policy of the Israeli government has been to endorse these settlements in the occupied territories, that keep on making it harder and harder to actually have a two-state solution.”
Asked, then, why not stop all sales to Israel completely, Cohen replied: “I disagree with the US policy, [but] we couldn’t stop selling in the US. I think it is fine to be involved in a country, be a citizen of a country and to protest some of the country’s actions, and that is essentially what we are doing in regards to Israel. We hugely support Israel’s right to exist, but we are against a particular policy.”
Asked why, if that is the case, the company does not halt sales in Georgia, which in April adopted a new election law that both men oppose. Or why continue to sell in Texas, where new laws make it more difficult for women to have access to abortions, a policy they are certainly opposed to.
Cohen shrugged, paused, then with a blank look said, “I don’t know. I mean it is an interesting question. I don’t know what that would accomplish… I think you ask a really good question, and I’d have to sit and think about it a bit.”
And why does that qualify as an AOC moment?
Because it brings to mind her July 2018 interview with PBS’s Margaret Hoover on the Firing Line, which went viral.
When Hoover asked Ocasio-Cortez, who was then running for Congress, about her position on Israel, she said: “I believe absolutely in Israel’s right to exist. I am supporting a two-state solution… I also think that what people are starting to see, at least in the occupation of Palestine, is an increasing crisis of humanitarian conditions. And that to me is where I tend to come from on this issue.”
When Hoover asked her to explain what she meant by “the occupation of Palestine,” AOC responded: “What I meant is, like, the settlements that are increasing in these areas, where Palestinians are facing difficulties in accessing their housing and homes.” Pressed to expand on that, she said with a laugh, “I am not the expert on geopolitics on this issue. I am a firm believer in finding a two-state solution on this issue.”
And this is why Cohen’s response was an AOC moment. Because when asked to go beyond shallow slogans – I’m in favor of a two-state solution, the occupation is bad – he, like AOC, had no answer.
The question to the Ben & Jerry co-founders, who sold the company but are still involved in it, was a good one. Cohen and Greenfield, known for their progressive politics, who have always worn those politics on their company’s sleeve – perhaps as a way to boost sales – disagree with the policies of many US states and countries around the world where their ice cream is sold.
Cohen himself recognizes this, and said, “by that reasoning, we should not sell any ice cream anywhere. I’ve got issues with what is being done in almost every state, and almost every country.”
Exactly. Then why single out Israel?
Here Greenfield proffered an answer: “I think that one thing that is different is that what Israel is doing is considered illegal by international law.”
That, itself, is an arguable point, with the US State Department in 2019 under Mike Pompeo having denied that characterization as US policy, and the Israeli Supreme Court – a body no means in the pocket of the settlers and which also knows a thing or two about international law – not accepting that definition.
But even so, one could argue that it is likely that in the 190 countries where Unilever, Ben & Jerry’s parent company, sells their vast array of products, some of the policies of those countries run contrary to various interpretations of international law. Even some of the countries where Ben & Jerry’s is sold. Yet the ice cream has not been pulled from the shelves there.
Then why in Israel?
Cohen addressed charges by critics that it has to do with antisemitism.
“It’s absurd,” he said when asked about the claims of antisemitism. “I mean, I’m anti-Jewish? I mean, I’m a Jew. My family is Jewish, my friends are Jewish.”
As if there has never been such a thing as a Jewish antisemite. This is by no means meant to imply that Cohen is one, but rather just to make the point that ancient, medieval and modern history has shown that just because you’re a Jew, does not mean you can’t hate Jews.
It definitely does not mean you can’t hate Israel, and what is becoming more and more apparent is how easily this hatred of Israel bleeds into physical manifestations of antisemitism.
The antisemitism on the streets of the US following last May’s conflict in Gaza, where several Jews in LA, Chicago and New York were beaten up, was not antisemitism in the theological or even in the 19th or 20th-century political sense, it was fierce anti-Zionism which spilled over into beating up Jews just because they were Jews – something that should fit any definition of antisemitism.
But take Cohen at his word, and say the claims of antisemitism are absurd. Then why is Ben & Jerry’s singling out the settlements?
Because it’s low-hanging fruit, and maybe even good for business.
That it’s low-hanging fruit came out in Cohen’s answer about how the Ben & Jerry’s decision is a result of the Israeli government’s policies on settlements that make it harder to reach a two-state solution.
That’s a shallow slogan that ignores a much more complex reality. Yes, the settlements may make it harder to have a two-state solution, but so do Palestinians’ maximalist demands and Hamas and Palestinian Islamic Jihad terror.
Like AOC, Cohen hooked onto the settlements, because that’s easy, because it takes a very complicated issue and reduces it to one source of all the problems. Because it’s acceptable and in vogue and “progressive” to bash settlements.
And how is the boycott of settlements good for business? Greenfield hinted at this when he said that Ben & Jerry’s “publicly supported Occupy Wall Street, Black Lives Matter, but over the years the company continues to sell more ice cream and thrive.”
Perhaps the “but” here is out of place. Perhaps he should have said, “Ben & Jerry’s publicly supported Occupy Wall Street, Black Lives Matter, and as a result, over the years, the company continues to sell more ice cream and thrive.”
Might that also have been one of the rationales for the company taking its move now on settlements? Get behind an issue seen as cutting edge ‘woke,’ in the hopes that by virtue signaling on a popular Progressive issue, it may boost sales.
Or, as Nick Kostov wrote in the Wall Street Journal piece last month about various states divesting from Unilever stocks because of the Ben & Jerry/settlements brouhaha, the fallout for Unilever “comes as more companies take public stands on societal issues, an approach Unilever has put at the heart of its strategy. For decades, companies largely tried to avoid wading publicly into social and political debates, preferring to influence policy through lobbying efforts, campaign contributions and membership in industry groups. But in a reversal for many big businesses, brands have embraced what has become known as purpose marketing, which many believe helps to drive sales growth.”
What Israel-supporters opposed to Ben & Jerry’s move are seeking to do, is show that when it comes to the Jewish state, this type of “purpose marketing” will have the opposite effect.