Tale of two stories: Ben & Jerry’s, Pegasus

Human Relations
Lee Chottiner

Lee Chottiner

As a pro-Israel Jew, it was gobsmacking to watch the … hmmm … meltdown in the Jewish world over news that Ben & Jerry’s will no longer sell its ice cream in Israeli settlements.
Ben & Jerry’s was founded by Jewish entrepreneurs Ben Cohen and Jerry Greenfield, who sold the company to Britain-based Unilever in 2000.
Unilever announced on July 19 that it will stop selling its products in the occupied territories, though it will still do business inside the Green Line.
The story is still unfolding. Ben & Jerry’s board chair, Anuradha Mittal, tweeted Tuesday that she was “proud” of the company’s stance and denied being anti-Semitic, according to JTA. Likewise, Unilever issued a statement disavowing the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement (BDS).
Nevertheless, Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett has called the boycott “a moral mistake.” Kosher supermarkets pulled pints of Ben & Jerry’s from their freezers (which is understandable) and Jewish organizations rushed out statements condemning the makers of Cherry Garcia.
The rabbinical authority that provides the hechsher to Ben & Jerry’s felt the heat to decertify the frozen treat and Israeli Foreign Minister Yair Lapid called on U.S. states to use their anti-BDS laws to divest from Unilever.
Finally, Jews took to social media to trash their once-favorite dessert. Many have criticized Mittal, who said she won’t be intimidated by “vile hate.”
Some progressive pro-Israel groups – J Street, New Israel Fund and Americans for Peace Now – have supported Ben & Jerry’s and what they describe as a principled stand. Far and away, though, the response in the Jewish world pushed back – hard – against the ice cream maker, even equating its actions with anti-Semitism.
This dash to melt Ben & Jerry’s support (and profits) is certainly justifiable, but there is a down-side: It could hand BDS proponents a psychological victory by framing the company as a corporate martyr. It could even generate public sympathy for a brand that has a history of social action.
It might have been more effective to simply voice our objections, stop buying the ice cream and move on – giving BDS as little oxygen as possible.
Now, compare that reaction to the news that Israeli cyber firm NSO Group Technologies has sold spyware, called Pegasus, which is being abused worldwide. Heads of state, opposition leaders, among other notables, are allegedly being spied on with Israeli technology.
The Israeli government is looking into the allegations, but according to Reuters, a source close to the probe said it was “doubtful” that it would result in any curbs on Pegasus exports. NSO denies any wrongdoing.
Yet news of this scandal isn’t registering with Jews nearly as much as the revelation than an ice cream maker won’t sell its pints in the settlements.
BDS poses a real threat to Israel; this is painfully true. But the reaction from the Jewish world to this news may have made the problem worse, emboldening BDS forces.
To borrow a phrase from Las Vegas: poker faces. Never let your enemy know what you are thinking or feeling.
Meanwhile, this NSO story, which has the potential to harm Israel’s global standing, is barely moving the needle. There shouldn’t be an overreaction to this story either, but there should be concern.
So, what comes next?
First, stop talking about Ben & Jerry’s. It won’t halt the media coverage, but at least the Jewish world won’t be throwing more fresh meat to the BDS beast.
Second, insist upon transparency during the Pegasus probe. The sunlight will reflect well on Israel, demonstrating that her public institutions can handle scrutiny.
Finally, be smart consumers of news. Walter Cronkite, quoting another source, once said, “What you don’t know can kill you,” which is metaphorically true in both these cases. The Ben & Jerry’s story did merit coverage, just not this much. NSO merited more.

(Lee Chottiner is the editor of the Jewish Louisville Community.)

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