NEW YORK — Several dozen pro-Israel demonstrators marched to a Ben & Jerry’s shop in midtown Manhattan Thursday evening, protesting the ice cream firm’s decision to cease its sales in West Bank settlements.
The demonstrators gathered in front of New York Public Library where several parked ice cream trucks awaited them, offering a free soft-serve. Plastered on the vehicles were signs that read “End Jew hatred. Say no to Ben & Jerry’s,” alongside a photoshopped picture of a “DivestMint” flavored pint with a red X over it.
Those gathered heard from several speakers, including Jake Benyowitz from the Club Z student Zionist group, blogger and End Jew Hatred activist Virág Gulyás, “Clubhouse Rabbi” Shlomo Litvin and New York State Assembly member David Werpin.
None of the speakers or participants who spoke with The Times of Israel accepted Ben & Jerry’s claim that its targeted boycott of the settlements is different from a boycott of Israel as a whole. While the firm’s owners Unilever have stated that they hope to continue doing business in Israel proper and oppose the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement, and its founders have said they do not endorse BDS but oppose Israel’s “illegal occupation,” the organizers insisted that the ban on sales at settlements effectively amounts to support of BDS and is therefore not only anti-Israel, but antisemitic. (It is not clear if Ben and Jerry’s will continue to be available in Israel when the ban takes effect at the end of next year either, as Israeli law forbids discrimination against Israeli citizens in the territories.)
“One day it’s a boycott of Jews in Judea, the next day it’s an angry mob shouting intifada in Brooklyn,” shouted Benyowitz in a fiery speech to open the event. (Judea is the biblical name for part of the West Bank.)
Gulyás said that in boycotting Israeli settlements, Ben & Jerry’s was engaged in virtue signaling. “But unfortunately they are signaling the wrong virtues,” she said, adding that the position by the ice cream firm amounted to “cultural genocide.”
“Jewish presence in Judea, Tel Aviv, here in New York, is not a provocation,” she added.
Litvin said that while “I love ice cream as much as the next guy, especially if it’s Chalav Yisroel,” his reason for attending the rally was not about ice cream. “If [Jews] don’t have a connection to Hebron, Jerusalem and Nablus, what connection could we possibly have to Ramat Gan,” he said, noting that ancient Jewish history is rooted beyond the Green Line and reasoning that boycotts targeting Jewish presence there were thus antisemitic.
The largely older crowd was decked out in different shades of blue, some wearing “End Jew Hatred” t-shirts and others draped in Israeli flags.
Across the street on 5th Avenue, roughly a dozen demonstrators from the anti-Zionist Neturei Karta Haredi sect gathered for a counter-demonstration, waving Palestinian flags and holding signs that read “anti-Zionism is not antisemitism.”
After the speeches on the pro-Israel side of the street concluded and the participants sang the Israeli and American national anthems, they began marching to the Times Square branch of Ben & Jerry’s a half-mile away.
As they walked, a megaphone-wielding Benyowitz led chants of “Shame on you, Ben & Jerry’s,” “Everyone deserves ice cream” and “From the river to the sea, Israel will always be.
The Neturei Karta group began following along, while staying on the other side of the street as they shouted against Israel.
The odd scene, involving barely one hundred people on both sides of the street, caught many onlookers off-guard.
“What did Ben & Jerry’s do?” asked one bystander.
“They stopped selling ice cream in parts of Israel,” one of the demonstrators responded.
“I’m sorry to hear that. They’re my favorite flavor of ice cream,” the onlooker said.
“What’s BDS?” asked another woman, who was quickly handed a pamphlet by one of the End Jewish Hatred t-shirt wearers. She let it drop to the ground before walking away.
One spectator mistook a blue-shirt-wearing Times Square carriage driver for a participant and asked what the protest was for. The driver happened to have been handed a pamphlet, which he showed to the passerby. “This brand is against the Jewish [sic],” he explained of the ice cream company founded by Ben Cohen and Jerry Greenfield.
No less mystified were the police officers on-site to secure the protest. One of them did her best to explain the situation to her colleagues.
“Ben & Jerry’s won’t sell the ice cream in Israel,” she said. But pointing to the Neturei Karta members across the street, she noted: “I don’t really know what they’re upset about because they’re Jewish.”
The officer added: “I don’t eat from Ben & Jerry’s anyways because they’re against cops.”
The dessert manufacturer has taken up a number of progressive causes and named a flavor “Change the Whirled” in support of last year’s protests against police violence and systemic racism.
By the time the protesters reached the Ben & Jerry’s shop, it had closed for the day, but demonstrators gathered at the entrance and continued chanting slogans against the company.
There too, ice cream trucks were awaiting the participants and in addition to handing out more free ice cream, they played traditional ice cream truck jingles that drowned out the Neturei Karta protesters across the street.