Social justice off the menu

Amidst a formidable backlash, Ben Cohen and Jerry Greenfield rushed to defend their namesake company’s decision to pull out of Israel. They argue that the company’s actions are fair and appropriate in light of its longtime North Stars – “peace” and “social justice”. For good measure, they also suggest it is a Jewish thing to do. The two claims are meshuga, a (mostly) polite Yiddish way of saying “nutty”.

Luxury capitalism – even luxury welfare capitalism – is not social justice. Ben and Jerry’s ice cream pioneered a model of capitalism: premium products at premium prices, the icing on the cake being a commitment to advancing “peace” and “social justice”. A pint of Ben & Jerry can cost more than a half a gallon from other brands. Ben and Jerry’s don’t seem interested in bringing the delicacies of their passion for ice cream to the masses. It is clearly a mark for the “haves”.

Keeping the best for yourself is not social justice. changes chooses to franchise its stores (think Miami Beach, Coral Gables, Fort Lauderdale), rather than keeping them in-house so store employees can earn the same generous salaries and benefits as head office “key talent”.

Selling to social injustice is not social justice. In business, if not in life, we sometimes choose our parents. The business called “Ben & Jerry’s” is no small, independent, passionate project – those days are long gone. It is called “Ben and Jerry’s Homemade Holdings Inc.”, a division of Unilever. That is, Ben & Jerry’s parent company is responsible for some of the most sexist ads in the world. , and the one where a chocolate guy gets licked by a bunch of women.

Social justice is not opaque. Social justice actions should be characterized by transparency, not opacity. Ben & Jerry’s have been surprisingly silent on how they decide what is and isn’t “socially fair.” Israel is the only country from which the company has ever withdrawn for “ethical” reasons. Selling to Iran, Syria, China and Cuba apparently does not pose such an ethical challenge – as they define it. True social justice work requires the formation of coalitions, but by all accounts Ben & Jerry’s made no effort to bridge the gap, to work with those who disagreed, to forge a middle ground. Slogans are not policy making. The company claims to pursue “social justice” on behalf of its clients, but without transparency on what it means and when it will or will not be achieved.

Social justice is rarely, if ever, a cause of obesity. Ben and Jerry’s ice cream is one of the brands highest in fat and sugar. Selling is allowed in a free society, but it’s about as social as selling cigarettes. Ben and Jerry’s finally released a line of premium “light” ice cream, because it was beaten in the market by Halo. With a decades-old obesity epidemic in the United States (and many other countries), selling super-rich, super-sweet ice cream has never been on the menu of social justice.

Perhaps sensing that their social justice argument wouldn’t be as compelling as they might hope, Ben and Jerry themselves offer a second defense – that withdrawing from Israel is the Jewish thing to do. Here, their arguments are both cliché and invalid. “We are not anti-Semites,” they write. Of course not, but your namesake company is now exposing an anti-Israel bias and using a mistaken social justice imperative to defend it. “We are Jews,” they write. Of course you are, but that does not guarantee that your actions – or those you defend – are motivated by “Jewish values” and advance “fundamental principles of Judaism”. “This is not BDS,” they and the advocates write. In fact, if it smells like BDS, sounds like BDS, and does what BDS does, then yes, it’s BDS. In fact, the official Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions organization has applauded Ben & Jerry’s actions and called on Unilever to do more, because “there cannot be business as usual with apartheid Israel.” But let’s go agree to disagree and call it BDS-ish.

Perhaps the most “not kosher” thing about their corporate defense is the arbitrary way in which the social justice formula they use to decide when to act and when not to act is applied. This is not Jewishness – in fact, Judaism (like many other religions and ethical systems) teaches that sins of omission can be as culpable as sins of commission. Ben & Jerry’s says “silence is NOT an option”. Except, as I mentioned, in the case of Iran. And Syria. And China. And Cuba. Etc.

Ben & Jerry’s is a company that advocates for certain causes. It is not a business driven in a deep way by an imperative of social justice. Claiming it is meshuga at best. No one is saying it has to be driven by a social justice imperative, of course, but no one should be saying it. Its withdrawal from Israel, regardless of the number of Jews involved in its launch or coming to its defense, does not reflect Jewish values. No one is saying he has to do it, but no one should be saying it.

Todd L. Pittinsky is Professor at Stony Brook University, Fellow of the Hannah Arendt Center at Bard College, and Distinguished Senior Fellow of the Holocaust Memorial & Tolerance Center in Nassau County.

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