Ben, Jerry, and the Hilarity of Privilege
In a famous dialogue from the ancient Greek historian Thucydides’ history of the Peloponnesian War, the rival city-states Athens and Sparta each make a case for themselves on the question of the Athenian empire. The Athenians assert their right to imperial power, after which a representative of the Spartans remarks of their speech: “They spoke much in praise of themselves, but did not deny they were harming our allies and the Peloponnese.”
I was put in mind of this classic exchange when I read, with increasing amusement, the recent New York Times oped by the founders of the ice cream giant Ben & Jerry’s defending the company’s decision to cease selling its products in Israeli communities in the “occupied Palestinian territories,” as the company put it.
Bennett Cohen and Jerry Greenfield’s missive, in fact, appeared to prove that the ancient Spartans’ statement was not so much a specific criticism as the assertion of a universal constant. Ben and Jerry speak much in praise of themselves, indeed praise themselves beyond all reason, but nowhere deny that their company’s decision may do considerable harm to the Jewish state.
Their hilariously overwrought self-regard ensues immediately, with the article’s stupefying title “Men of Ice Cream, Men of Principle.” One must give Ben and Jerry the benefit of the doubt on this, given that editors generally pick an article’s title; but nonetheless, they did apparently allow it to be printed without objection, which means responsibility for its titanic self-regard, bordering on outright camp, is at least somewhat theirs.
This self-regard becomes, if possible, even more titanic in the piece itself. Ben and Jerry profusely identify themselves with such rarified principles as Judaism, human rights, and the gods of history itself. They assert that they are “proud Jews,” that boycotting the settlements “can and should be seen as advancing the concepts of justice and human rights, core tenets of Judaism,” and that they “believe it is on the right side of history.”
History, of course, has no “right side.” History simply does what it likes and proceeds as it is. It has no morality and is wholly indifferent to human values of any kind. To claim otherwise is akin to claiming that there is some transcendent justice or injustice to a hurricane or an earthquake. The claim is, in other words, an absurdity; but it is a convenient absurdity, because it allows one to believe that one is not just right, but validated by the metaphysical essence of the universe itself. One doesn’t know what to say about such an assertion, except for the fact that it is, of course, uproariously ludicrous.
Ben and Jerry’s specific defenses are convenient as well, given that they are composed of, at best, a gibbering recitation of irrelevant clichés. They assert, of course, that “it’s possible to support Israel and oppose some of its policies, just as we’ve opposed policies of the US government,” “we fundamentally reject the notion that it is antisemitic to question the policies of the State of Israel,” and that they see their company’s actions “not as anti-Israel, but as part of a long history of being pro-peace.”
This, in turn, allows the two men to assert a supreme morality to the boycott, which they view as an act of near-transcendental courage, presumably validated by history itself.
“In our view,” they say, “ending the sales of ice cream in the occupied territories is one of the most important decisions the company has made in its 43-year history. It was especially brave of the company. Even though it undoubtedly knew that the response would be swift and powerful, Ben & Jerry’s took the step to align its business and operations with its progressive values.”
However, they ultimately imply, this brave resistance and willful martyrdom is not simply political or moral, but divine. Indeed, it is not much of an exaggeration to say that Ben and Jerry believe that their company’s decision is godly.
“Over the years, we’ve also come to believe that there is a spiritual aspect to business, just as there is to the lives of individuals,” they say. “As you give, you receive.”
One doesn’t know quite what to say about such a statement. The only possible response is, essentially, non-verbal — which is to say, laughter. But it does point to something profoundly important, indicated perhaps by the article’s most confounding assertion: “The Ben & Jerry’s statement did not endorse the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement.”
Only the spiritual could be capable of such willful denial of reality; because one can, just, legitimately claim that boycotting the settlements is not anti-Israel or antisemitic — although large parts of Jerusalem, including Judaism’s holiest sites, are also defined as “occupied” under the progressive rubric. Even given this generous interpretation, however, it is a simple fact that, whether one intends to or not, boycotting Israel or Israelis in any form, let alone apotheosizing such behavior in the New York Times, objectively aids and abets the BDS movement.
And this has immense implications, because as much as one may hide behind admonitions of truth, justice, and the gods of history, BDS remains what it is: a racist, antisemitic, genocidal movement that believes Israel has no right to exist and wishes to engineer that non-existence. A movement, moreover, which quite openly uses Judea and Samaria as the thin end of the wedge to eventually dislodge Israel in its entirety. To boycott Israel or Israelis — let alone their holiest sites — helps legitimize this, whether one likes it or not.
In other words, despite Ben and Jerry’s self-serving and self-congratulatory claims, this is not a question of whether one can criticize Israel without being antisemitic. The principle they cite is not what is at stake. What is at stake is the right of the Jewish people to exist without harassment and hate, without having their state constantly threatened with annihilation, and without being told they are horrible people for defending themselves against the onslaught. Indeed, one may note that Ben and Jerry, throughout their praise of themselves as just, moral, and progressive, say absolutely nothing about the antisemitic pogrom that has recently erupted at the hands of precisely those they are aiding and abetting.
And this, perhaps more than anything else, points to the essence of their error, because it screams out the fact of their privilege. As rich, successful, and assimilated American Jewish progressives, neither Ben nor Jerry can possibly understand a country like Israel. A country composed of Jews who have never known privilege. Who have, in fact, lived the dirt of history more than any other people — from concentration camps to expulsion to extreme poverty to the ravages of war. They cannot possibly understand such people’s anxieties, concerns, anger, and determination to defend themselves. And this is, in turn, how Ben and Jerry can view themselves as so much better than Jews less privileged than they.
What this results in, however, is not simply undignified and unjust, it is also absurd. Israelis have crawled out of history by their fingernails, while Ben and Jerry enjoy eating and selling high-sugar desserts. That the latter have chosen to set themselves up as the former’s moral superiors is, more than anything else, extremely funny.
But what Ben and Jerry are aiding and abetting is not funny, at least in its implications. If history had a “right side,” Ben and Jerry would unquestionably be on the wrong side of it. Zionism’s victory means that the unprivileged Jews have won, and the privileged will soon be left in the ash heap of history. And this, more than anything else, is likely why Ben and Jerry view us with nothing more than insipid and ironic incomprehension, and themselves with such effusive, hilarious, and onanistic adoration.