No Dairy & Politics

Will Ben & Jerry’s lose its kosher stamp of approval?

An individual at Kof-K said existing contracts make the matter difficult while others expressed concern that food certifications not be political

AHMAD GHARABLI/AFP via Getty Images

Ben & Jerry's ice cream pictured on sale in Jerusalem on July 20, 2021.

Following Ben & Jerry’s announcement that it plans to stop selling its ice cream in what it referred to as the “Occupied Palestinian Territory,” the kashrut agency Kof-K has not yet decided whether to cease its kosher certification of Ben & Jerry’s products, an employee told Jewish Insider on Thursday. 

“We do have a contract that cannot just be arbitrarily broken, so it’s not so simple,” said a person who picked up the phone at the Kof-K but declined to give his name. 

“We are definitely doing stuff to address it,” the Kof-K employee said. “We have reached out to the Yesha Council” — the organization representing Jewish settlers in the West Bank — “we’ve spoken to them. We’re trying to speak to the Prime Minister’s Office, which we will probably get through today. We’ve got calls and emails back and forth with the president of Unilever and Ben & Jerry’s.”

As many members of the American pro-Israel community have looked for a way to register their disapproval of Ben & Jerry’s announcement, some have called on the Teaneck, N.J.-based Kof-K, one of the largest kosher certification agencies in the country, to rescind its certification of the company’s products. 

One person with knowledge of kashrut certifications told JI that they expect the Kof-K to find a way out of the contract. “While likely contractually complicated, Kof-K will probably find a way to drop them as a client for their kosher certification,” this source said. “If that were to happen, the company will probably scramble to find some third-rate kosher certifier as a fig leaf — showing that, despite their anti-Jewish boycott, they somehow care about Jews.” 

The campaign to decertify Ben & Jerry’s follows other actions taken this week. (Some Jewish organizations on the left including J Street and Americans for Peace Now have spoken in favor of the company’s policy and encouraged supporters to purchase the company’s ice cream; J Street launched a petition to “protect Ben & Jerry’s right to protest the occupation.”) 

Several kosher supermarket chains have announced that they will no longer stock Ben & Jerry’s. The Vaad Harabonim of Queens, the Orthodox religious authority in Queens, N.Y., sent an email to the local community urging people “not to purchase any Ben & Jerry’s product” and praising “those stores who make the courageous decision to not stock any Ben & Jerry’s product.” 

“Were I a Ben & Jerry’s customer,” said Rabbi Levi Shemtov, executive vice president of American Friends of Lubavitch (Chabad), who noted that he has not tried the ice cream because its American products do not have the more stringent Cholov Yisroel certification, “I would stop buying it, because Ben & Jerry’s mission in life should be to bring pleasure to people through their products. As far as I’m concerned, they’ve now inserted salt or emotional poison into their product.”

But Shemtov expressed concern that removing the hechsher, or kosher certification, from Ben & Jerry’s products that meet kashrut guidelines brings politics into a realm where it does not belong. 

“A kashrut authority or a hechsher determines whether whatever’s in the container is kosher to eat, because kashrut authorities shouldn’t do politics, nor should they do issues beyond the kosher certification of the contents,” Shemtov explained. “So I understand the Kof-K choosing to maintain the hechsher despite Ben & Jerry’s politics.”

Politics have been mixed up with kosher certification in the past, even if not at the international scale of one of the world’s most well-known and beloved ice cream brands. 

In 2018, the rabbinic authority in Flatbush, Brooklyn, threatened to remove the kosher certification of two restaurants unless they canceled a New Year’s Eve comedy show with an Orthodox lesbian comic. The restaurants, fearing the loss of certification, complied. In 2013, a kosher restaurant called Jezebel in Manhattan’s Soho neighborhood changed its name to JSoho when seeking certification from the Orthodox Union, which found the name Jezebel inappropriate. 

In 2017, the OU certified ice cream from Big Gay Ice Cream, a popular New York City ice cream shop that also sells its products online and in grocery stores. The move received criticism from some members of the Orthodox Jewish community, and by last year, the OU had removed its hechsher from Big Gay Ice Cream.

Dani Klein, a writer who runs the website YeahThatsKosher, published an op-ed earlier this week calling the removal of kashrut certification for political reasons “dangerous.” But he told JI he understands where the desire to remove the kosher certification from Ben & Jerry’s is coming from: For supporters of rescinding Ben & Jerry’s hechsher, the issue goes beyond politics. “I have been reading a lot of the commentary saying, ‘Well, you know, this goes against the core values of our people, and so we should take an action against it, even though it has nothing to do with food,’” Klein noted. 

A related debate about whether kashrut extends beyond the way food is prepared took place more than a decade ago. National outrage ensued following allegations of abuse of both workers and animals at the kosher slaughterhouse Agriprocessors, in Postville, Iowa, leading to the arrest of several employees, including CEO Sholom Rubashkin. 

Efforts from the Reform and Conservative movements that sought to advance an “ethical kashrut” certification, which would denote that animals were slaughtered humanely and that workers would earn a living wage and be treated fairly, largely failed. The Rabbinical Council of America, an Orthodox group, put forth ethical guidelines for Orthodox kashrut certifications, but the guidelines were never enacted as policy or incorporated into the certification process.  

Still, some argue that the Ben & Jerry’s situation is unique. “We haven’t seen this type of BDS [Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement against Israel] move on this level from a food company,” said Klein. “We haven’t seen a need for a kashrut organization to pull its hashgacha. Having said that, no hashgachas have been pulled yet.”

The idea is already having an impact, even if the Kof-K has not yet reached a decision. The Australian Kashrut Authority decided not to include Ben & Jerry’s on its list of kosher products, although Ben & Jerry’s sold in Australia is still kosher — it has a Kof-K certification. 

Bethany Mandel, a conservative journalist, argued that removing the kashrut certification would set a dangerous precedent. “There are BDS people who keep kosher, and we should not be putting anybody in a position where they’re sort of having to be their own mashgiach,” she said, referring to the person who observes food production and certifies its kashrut. 

“I think that we should be expressing our feelings with our money,” said Mandel. “I think kosher certifiers should stick to what is kosher and what is not.”