Todd L. Pittinsky

Yes, Ben & Jerry – you did pull out of Israel

The media is supposed to doublecheck the 'good guys' as fiercely as they do the 'bad guys'; in the case of the beloved ice cream, they didn't
Ben & Jerry's factory in Kiryat Malachi, Israel. (Flash90)
Ben & Jerry's factory in Kiryat Malachi, Israel. (Flash90)

Di gantseh velt iz meshuga — the whole world has gone crazy

In early fall, ice cream company Ben & Jerry’s pulled out of Israel. I posted to my blog an opinion piece with the title “Peace, Justice and Judaism Made Them Do It?” in which I argue that this “bold move,” as company co-founders Ben Cohen and Jerry Greenfield spun it, was in fact corporate posturing and pandering — more meshuga than meaningful. I thought (and still think) it is a worthwhile read, questioning the “noble,” feel-good, Ben and Jerry’s approach to “tikkun olam” — in fact, an exemplar of cause capitalism with a yummy but super-unhealthy product wrapped in reductionist, self-righteous, and simplistic cause marketing — all topped with moral smugness. I believe I raised an important point about a company that thinks that boycotting Israel is appropriate and that, in doing so, seeks to remove itself from one contested, complex, conflicted part of the world rather than dig in and do meaningful good work there.

Having posted the blog, I began looking to see if a paper might run it. I was very excited when a newspaper I read and respect a great deal (one of the few regional papers with a vibrant editorial desk) expressed interest. My excitement, however, was short-lived.

The piece went up on the editorial page online, was pending publication in print, and then came down — for “accuracy” reasons.

What was inaccurate? I had said several times in the piece that “Ben and Jerry’s pulled out of Israel.” I was now informed that, “for accuracy,” this would need to be changed to “Ben and Jerry’s pulled out of the Occupied Territories.”

This was in line with a July 19, 2021, press release from Ben & Jerry’s public relations office announcing that it would end sales in “Occupied Palestinian Territory, within which Israeli settlements are considered illegal under international law.” The company later claimed, “Although Ben & Jerry’s will no longer be sold in the OPT, we will stay in Israel through a different business arrangement.”

Ben and Jerry’s press release misled to the point of misrepresenting both what the company was doing (i.e., what they were ending) and what it was not doing (i.e., pulling out of Israel). And the US media — including outlets such as The New York Times, The Washington Post, and National Public Radio — soaked it up, parroting back the company’s self-characterization, but not reporting the actual facts.

To read Ben and Jerry’s self-description, they took a precise, narrow approach: they pulled out of the Occupied Territories, specifically and particularly. In fact, no such thing happened in the world. What actually happened is that they publicly terminated their relationship with their licenser for all of Israel, effective as soon as they legally could — that is, when the current contract runs out.

And to read their self-description, which news media parroted back, they are not pulling out of Israel. They say they “will stay in Israel” but offer no supporting evidence to clarify how exactly they could be staying in Israel when they’ve just publicly ended their relationship with their Israeli licenser. The subsequent, not-very-clarifying explanation from the company was: “We will share an update on this as soon as we’re ready.”

Is a vague promise to share an update on how they might pull something off in the future tantamount to staying in Israel? Even more shocking, news outlets reported (and continue to report) that as fact, even though Ben & Jerry’s board chairwoman, Anuradha Mittal, publicly told NBC News — that while it might be Unilever’s (Ben & Jerry’s parent company, the huge multinational) intention to find a new licensee for Israel, it was not Ben and Jerry’s, and that “Unilever had no right to make the commitment on behalf of Ben & Jerry’s.” She went on to say, unequivocally, that the Ben and Jerry’s board had wanted to “release a different statement… that made no reference to continued sales in Israel.” When a company’s own board chair says a company has no immediate plans to stay in Israel, and no interest in committing to do so – how does the news report that as staying in Israel?

Even if the parent company somehow could override the Ben & Jerry board’s public commitment to not stay in Israel, it only said it “intended” to resume business there, not that it actually had. Why is the US media reporting alleged corporate intentions as fact?

In any country where Ben & Jerry’s operates — for a host of financial, liability, and logistical reasons — the company contracts with local companies which, in turn, get the right to produce, brand, and/or distribute Ben & Jerry’s products in that country (or region). There was no contract with any company specifically for the territories. But the Israeli distributor sold some pints which were in turn sold in the territories and, as a result, its contract — the contract for all of Israel — was “not renewed.”

Ben & Jerry’s has declined to renew its sole contract for selling in all of Israel. Neither it nor Unilever has announced any contract to replace that one. How is no contract to sell its products in Israel, after having sold them there since 1978, anything other than pulling out of Israel?

And how does “accuracy” require me not to say that? Was I actually being censored, and in the opinion pages no less, for something in my piece that was not even an opinion but plain, descriptive fact?

Maybe it’s just my upbringing, but when a marketing or PR department tells me why a company did something that wasn’t strictly a business decision, I tend to like-sort-of-not entirely believe them. But a surprising number of news outlets did, parroting back both what Ben & Jerry’s said it had done — pulled out of the Occupied Territories — and what it said it would do — stay in Israel — but not what it demonstrably did do — pull out of Israel.

Why is Ben & Jerry’s getting such an outrageous pass? Likely because in progressive circles the company is famous for being a “good” company?  But “famous for being” doesn’t always equal “is.” In the US, where 30 million people of all ages have eating disorders, a Ben & Jerry’s slogan ran “Eat away your feelings.” Remember “Taste the Lin-Sanity? The company chose to honor Asian-American basketball player Jeremy Lin with lychee honey swirls and fortune cookie pieces — because presumably all Asian-Americans are best characterized and honored by these flavors? Ben and Jerry’s is the company that announced a limited “batch flavor” called “Pecan Resist,” which it marketed as “a campaign to lick injustice” — by buying super-premium ice cream which I would think made it harder just to get up off the couch, let alone fight the power.

I have come to two conclusions:

First, the news media, desperate to push content out fast, is too prone to accept corporate self-descriptions as fact, to the point of censoring their own editorial pages. They are particularly prone to do so in cases where a company or cause is branded as “progressive.” It’s the media’s job to double-check whomever they consider the good guys as fiercely as they do the bad guys.

Second, Ben Cohen and Jerry Greenfield’s approach to social justice is, to put it politely, nutty. Peace requires a willingness to engage with others with complex and contrasting narratives in order to coexist. It requires building positive, constructive interdependency — program by program, even person by person. It requires deep dialogue, preferably with younger people and future leaders. It requires supporting the groups that work constructively for peace. It requires resources to invest in positive, productive initiatives which lift companies up and create positive interdependencies so that positive futures are possible.

But none of that is what Ben & Jerry’s did and — whatever one thinks of their actions — it’s pretty scary that American newspapers ran misleading headline after misleading headline (after misleading headline) scripted by a company’s PR department, while a perfectly accurate characterization could not run, even on an opinion page.

My original piece had the subtitle “Ben and Jerry’s Go Full Meshuga” — when facts can’t appear in opinion pages, let alone news articles, then di gantseh velt iz meshugeh – the whole world has gone crazy.

About the Author
Todd L. Pittinsky is a professor at Stony Brook University (SUNY). Prior, he was an Associate Professor at the Harvard Kennedy School, where he also served as Research Director for the Harvard Center for Public Leadership. Todd was a Distinguished Senior Fellow of the Holocaust Memorial & Tolerance Center (2020-2022) and a Faculty Fellow of Hannah Arendt Center at Bard College (2018–2020). He has published in leading academic journals and has authored or co-authored general audience pieces in outlets including The Atlantic, the Boston Herald, the Christian Science Monitor, The Jerusalem Post, New York Daily News, New York Post, New York Times, Phi Delta Kappan, Science and The Wall Street Journal. Todd’s most recent book is “Leaders Who Lust: Power, Money, Sex, Success, Legitimacy, Legacy” (with B. Kellerman, Cambridge University Press).
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