In My Own Words: Ice Cream, Settlements, and Societal Pressure

By Rabbi Rachel Esserman

This column isn’t going to make anyone happy, including myself. My reactions have been all over the place, so writing this is supposed to help me define my thoughts, but I’m not sure it’s going to help.

The issue? The headline on the JTA breaking news e-mail said, “Breaking a 2-month silence, Ben & Jerry’s ice cream announces boycott of Israeli West Bank settlements.” (To read Ben and Jerry’s statement, visit My first thought was that no one in the settlements is going to care. Then, after I clicked through the link and read the article, I became angry: Ben and Jerry’s has not been able to promote its ice cream on social media without the majority of comments being about its support for Israel, rather than its ice cream. I had to wonder, “Does everything have to be political?”

I don’t support the settlements because I don’t believe they are good for Israel. Right now, Israeli citizens of every religion are allowed to vote. An Arab political party is part of the current coalition government. While not perfect, Israel is not an apartheid state because citizenship and rights are not based on religion or race. But if the territories are made part of larger Israel, then all those living there must be given the right to vote – including those who deny Israel’s right to exist – because to do otherwise would make Israel a state with two tiers of citizenship. 

However, I also have to wonder, why all the focus on Israel? The latest estimate for deaths in the Syrian Civil War is placed at 400,000 people, yet those on social media don’t seem as concerned with businesses that deal with the Syrian government. China has been accused of placing 12 million Uyghurs, most of whom are Muslim, in detention camps – sterilizing, torturing and abusing them – but while the United States and other countries have complained, people on social media aren’t asking everyone to stop buying Chinese products.
It’s not that I think Israel is perfect. I have criticized its policies when I think they are wrong, just like I’ve criticized the U.S. or other countries when I don’t agree with their policies. But there seems to be another question behind the social media critique of Israel: the question of its right to exist. Let me be clear: Israel has as much right to exist as any other nation. And I can’t help but wonder why it’s only a Jewish nation whose right to exist is being denied. Legitimate criticism, that’s fine. Destruction of the Jewish homeland is not. 

Did Ben and Jerry’s cave to societal pressure when it should have stood firm? I have no clear answer to that question. The company has a right to stand by what it believes is its social mission. But if it completely stops selling its ice cream in Israel, then I think its stand on human rights is meaningless because Israel and Israelis have the right to exist. And I also have to wonder, when did eating ice cream become so complicated? In the age of social media, it seems that nothing is simple.