Barry Newman
Barry Newman

Can, and Will Ben and Jerry’s Remain Kosher?

The clamour over the Ben and Jerry’s dramatic statement has calmed down and we can now sort out the bad guys from the good guys. Whether or not the ice cream company will still have a footprint in Israel once the local license expires remains to be seen. More interestingly, though, is the immediate future of the product outside of Israel, and just what impact the company’s capitulation to the BDS movement will have on sales in population centers that are heavily Jewish.

It would be reasonable to assume that the kosher-observant community throughout the world is, for the most part, supporters of Israel and have therefore began emptying their freezers of Ben and Jerry’s ice cream. Which means, in turn, that supermarkets and grocery stores in areas that have a large Jewish population will very likely find sales of Strawberry Cheesecake and Phish Food dropping significantly and will have no choice but to consider whether or not to continue carrying Ben and Jerry’s products.

This is an obvious and not unjustified response to the heinous announcement by the Ben and Jerry’s parent company that as of January 2023 their product line will no longer be available to the more than 700,000 Jews that live in the so-called disputed territories and East Jerusalem. Although the company’s stated long-range strategy is to find a way to continue making their ice cream available to the rest of Israel, that idea may prove to be moot if, in addition to the drop in sales, they lose their kosher certification as well. An uncertified Ben and Jerry’s – or even one with a marginal, anonymous certification of kashruth – will hardly be welcome in Israel, rendering any planned marketing or public relations efforts hardly worth the investment.

The company currently receives its kosher stamp of approval from Kof-K, an internationally recognized and highly respected certifying organization. Not surprisingly, reports are coming in that Kof-K management is being inundated with recommendations, requests and downright demands that they end their association with Ben and Jerry’s. An anti-Israel if not borderline antisemitic overture such as a declared boycott precludes them from receiving a symbol of Jewish respectability, goes the argument. The questions rabbis and kashruth supervisors involved with Ben and Jerry’s are now pondering over go way beyond whether the food coloring used in rainbow sprinkles are acceptable; where, it must now be determined, does politics end and kashrut begin.

All agree that a slippery slope has come, quite literally, out of nowhere and must very carefully be navigated, if for no other reason than that the outcome may very well represent a binding – or at least influential – precedent. Knowledgeable authorities are no doubt being consulted as to whether a publicly expressed position that has negative connotations for Jews – and that includes, of course, a call to boycott any part of the Jewish homeland – excludes a company from receiving a certificate of kashrut. And as always, when two rabbis are queried, three answers are provided.

Those closely associated with Kof-K have indicated that the agency will most likely find some legally acceptable way to end its association with Ben and Jerry’s, although that is by no means a final determination. Should that happen, the ice cream manufacturer will most likely endeavor to find a replacement of sorts in order to maintain a relationship with the Jewish community; there are many rabbis who, for a fee, will provide a written statement that a product complies with the minimum standards of kashrut and label it with a generic K.

On the other hand, more than a few mainstream authorities have indicated that politics have no place in determining if a food product is acceptable for Jewish consumption and are urging Kof-K to resist calls to divest from Ben and Jerry’s. I can certainly understand that their concern focuses on what is inside the Ben and Jerry’s container and not on where that container is sold, although I do hope that this principle will not be tested by blatant enemies of Israel and the Jewish people, such as neo-Nazis or Islamic jihadists.

This will not be the first time that Orthodox-based kashruth agencies have been confronted with a potential conflict of principles. There have been instances, for example, where restaurants have been threatened with the loss of certification for reasons that have absolutely nothing to do with ingredients, hours of operation or storage facilities. In one situation, the name of an establishment sounded too un-Jewish, and in another, someone considered incompatible with Jewish values was entertaining the patrons. The kashruth certification was deemed too critical to give up, so the proprietors agreed, albeit reluctantly, to the changes that were demanded.

Not that compromises have always been in one direction only. The kashruth certification agency of the Union of Orthodox Congregations (O-U) gives its nod of approval to Borden’s Eggnog, a dairy based beverage that is unique to Christmas and is produced and sold during the month of December only. Over the years, questions have been raised about how the O-U can endorse a product that is, for all practical purposes, co-joined with the most un-Jewish of all celebrations, although, to be fair, the name of the holiday does not appear on the packaging.

The O-U, in addition, sees no problem certifying the kashruth of Hershey’s chocolate filled and candy-coated eggs that are available for a month or so in the Spring but virtually disappear from the shelves immediately after Easter Sunday. In this case, too, any mention of the holiday does not appear on the packaging.

Kof-K is truly in a quandary and it will be interesting indeed to see what ultimately happens. It’s not impossible, of course, that the threatened boycott will be rescinded and that Ben and Jerry’s will continue to operate in Israel and throughout the world with no changes whatsoever, although, to be honest, I don’t see how any self-respecting Jew can even think of supporting the company after they provided a glimpse of their true colors.

For my part, though, I certainly hope that Kof-K maintains its relation with the company and decides not remove the certification of kashruth. I have begun to exercise my right as a consumer and will no longer absorb the calories associated with Ben and Jerry’s products, but can only do so as long as they remain kosher. After all, you can’t boycott something that you’re forbidden to consume in the first place, can you?

About the Author
Born and raised on New York’s Lower East Side, Barry's family made aliya in 1985. He worked as a Technical Writer for most of his professional life (with a brief respite for a venture in catering) and currently provides ad hoc assistance to amutot in the preparation of requests for grants. And not inconsequently, he is a survivor of stage 4 bladder cancer, and though he doesn't wake up each day smelling the roses, he has an appreciation of what it means to be alive.
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