Last week, Florida’s Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis announced he was taking steps to punish ice cream company Ben & Jerry’s for its high-profile decision to stop selling its products in the Israeli-occupied Palestinian territories.
In a letter to the manager of Florida’s state investments, DeSantis nominated Ben & Jerry’s, and its parent company, Unilever, for a de facto divestment blacklist for companies that boycott Israel. In other words: DeSantis is calling for his government to boycott Ben & Jerry’s for their boycott.
For all their raging about how the American left is trying to “cancel” everything they don’t like by stifling speech and political expression, these GOPers are doing precisely that.
DeSantis is one of several Republican politicians looking to punish the famous ice cream company. Rep. Lee Zeldin, R-N.Y., has called for his state to sever ties with Ben & Jerry’s and Unilever, and Texas Comptroller Glenn Hegar has said that he’s looking into the possibility of divesting from the companies. Pennsylvania Republican State Rep. Aaron Kaufer recently wrote a letter to the governor demanding the government “end any affiliation or serving of Ben & Jerry’s ice cream” within the state’s public institutions.
Now, it should be no surprise that Republicans are aghast at criticism of Israel, a country whose policies they indiscriminately defend because of their evangelical base and their view of the state as an indispensable geopolitical asset in the Middle East. But the way they’re going about dealing with this particular critique is a bit amusing. Because for all their raging about how the American left is trying to “cancel” everything they don’t like by stifling speech and political expression, these GOPers are doing precisely that — and in a heavy-handed way.
DeSantis and other Republicans are angling to make use of dozens of state laws across the country designed to sanction companies that participate in the pro-Palestinian Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) movement. BDS campaigns are designed to apply economic and cultural pressure on Israel and, hopefully, get Israeli leaders to improve their treatment of Palestinians. (It should be noted that at the state and the federal levels, these laws have received support from both parties in the U.S.) Defenders of anti-BDS laws argue that BDS unfairly singles out Israel for criticism and many describe the movement as antisemitic.
But, as a number of progressive Jewish organizations have pointed out, criticism of Israel should not be conflated with antisemitism; while antisemitism might motivate some, the reality is that the mainstream BDS movement grounds its criticism in international law surrounding human rights and freedom from discrimination. And free speech advocates like the American Civil Liberties Union have argued anti-BDS laws punish political expression protected under the First Amendment. Courts have almost always ruled that anti-BDS laws are unconstitutional in response to lawsuits (although so far there hasn’t been a case involving a major corporation suing over its rights to boycott a territory).
Boycotts have long been used as a tool for expressing dissent and for lobbying against discrimination — they were used to great effect by the American civil rights movement and global efforts to end South African apartheid rule. And that’s really the point here. Regardless of where you stand on BDS, Republicans are clearly trying to stigmatize and punish political expression they disagree with. They’re behaving like full-throated cancel culture warriors.
And this isn’t new behavior. Republicans love to hate “cancel culture” even as they enthusiastically embrace it. It’s a kind of activism conservatives have fully embraced as they have pushed to ban NFL players from kneeling during the national anthem and swiftly punish dissent within their own ranks in Congress.
Perhaps the best example of how Republicans stifle thinking they find objectionable is their use of bans in several states to try to outlaw “critical race theory,” or scholarship that discusses how racism is embedded within American institutions. These theatrics aren’t meant to just win a few news cycles — these efforts are central to the current GOP political strategy as we head toward the 2022 midterms.
The Republican Party’s concerns about an America under siege from liberal cancel culture are specious exaggerations. There are some real debates to be had about how social media culture has produced some unhealthy modes of dealing with social transgressions and critical thinking. But the GOP’s own behavior shows it isn’t a serious participant in that conversation, both because Republicans have acted so hypocritically, and because they apparently think bullying an ice cream company for disagreeing with them is a pressing matter in America right now.