Dispatch

Israel Goes to War Again, This Time Against Ben & Jerry’s

Israeli leaders press for legal measures after the ice cream company announced it would halt sales in Jewish settlements.

By , a journalist covering Middle East politics.
Ben and Jerry’s announces new flavor.
Ben & Jerry’s announces a new flavor, Justice ReMix’d, at a press conference in Washington on Sept. 3, 2019. Win McNamee/Getty Images

TEL AVIV, Israel—Israel is vowing to wage a broad legal battle against Ben & Jerry’s after the U.S. ice cream company announced it would no longer sell its popular desserts in Jewish settlements built on occupied Palestinian land to protest Israel’s ongoing military rule over the Palestinians.

Although the partial boycott by Ben & Jerry’s is not expected to harm Israel economically, the company’s decision and Israel’s countermoves are resurfacing thorny questions about the West Bank, which Israel has controlled for decades but never officially annexed. Millions of Palestinians live in the territory, with few of the rights accorded to their settler neighbors.

TEL AVIV, Israel—Israel is vowing to wage a broad legal battle against Ben & Jerry’s after the U.S. ice cream company announced it would no longer sell its popular desserts in Jewish settlements built on occupied Palestinian land to protest Israel’s ongoing military rule over the Palestinians.

Although the partial boycott by Ben & Jerry’s is not expected to harm Israel economically, the company’s decision and Israel’s countermoves are resurfacing thorny questions about the West Bank, which Israel has controlled for decades but never officially annexed. Millions of Palestinians live in the territory, with few of the rights accorded to their settler neighbors.

On Monday, the Vermont-based ice cream empire declared it would halt sales in the “Occupied Palestinian Territory” as it was “inconsistent with our values.”

The company added that the agreement with its Israeli licensee would not be renewed in December 2022 because the local manufacturer refused to stop selling its flavors, including Chunky Monkey, Phish Food, and others, in Israel’s West Bank settlements and East Jerusalem neighborhoods.

Much of the world deems these settlements illegal under international law and doesn’t recognize Israel’s annexation of East Jerusalem; even under Israeli law, the West Bank is under military rule, with Israeli sovereignty extended only to citizens living there and not the territory itself.

The company made clear it was not boycotting Israel, stating that although the West Bank and East Jerusalem were off limits, “we will stay in Israel through a different arrangement.”

The Israeli government immediately rejected any such distinction between its internationally recognized borders and the occupied territories it conquered in the 1967 Six-Day War.

“There are many ice cream brands but only one Jewish state. Ben & Jerry’s has decided to brand itself as the anti-Israel ice cream,” said Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett in response.

He vowed to fight the boycott “with full force.”

On social media, Israeli officials and pro-Israel activists piled on, blasting the decision and calling for a counter boycott.

“Now we Israelis know which ice cream NOT to buy,” Israeli opposition leader Benjamin Netanyahu tweeted.

Israeli Economics Minister Orna Barbivai of the centrist Yesh Atid party filmed a TikTok video of herself throwing a pint of Half Baked in the trash.

Her party leader, Israeli Foreign Minister Yair Lapid, went a step further, declaring that “Ben & Jerry’s decision represents [a] shameful surrender to antisemitism, to [the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions movement], and to all that is wrong with the anti-Israel and anti-Jewish discourse.”

The Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) movement is a global protest movement launched in 2005 with the goal of applying economic pressure on Israel to force a shift in policy vis-à-vis the Palestinians. As the name implies, the movement calls on international corporations and governments to boycott, divest from, and sanction Israel, a “regime of settler colonialism, apartheid, and occupation.”

BDS has had some success in pressuring global artists to cancel shows in Israel, Dutch pension funds to divest from Israeli banks, and the U.S. Presbyterian and Episcopal churches to divest from international companies doing business in the West Bank.

McDonalds in Israel has refused to open branches in the settlements—although it was reportedly the local Israeli franchise holder who made the decision, not the parent company. In 2018, Airbnb announced it was de-listing all its properties in the West Bank settlements.

But most foreign companies operating in Israel and the West Bank have resisted pressure from anti-occupation activists. Airbnb quickly reversed its decision after public uproar.

“Economically, BDS has been a huge failure, with no practical impact on the Israeli economy,” Adi Schwartz, a conservative Israeli researcher and author, told Foreign Policy, citing Israel’s booming economy and its opening in recent years to large markets in India, Latin America, and the Middle East. “This is a propaganda tool more than anything else … trying to drive a wedge between Israel and Jews in America.”

But BDS activists saw the announcement as evidence of the group’s growing impact.

“[BDS] has been extremely successful in changing the conversation in America, especially among the young people and Jewish Americans,” Ofer Neiman, a member of Boycott from Within, an Israeli pro-BDS group, told Foreign Policy.

Critics of BDS complain the group refrains from targeting other countries engaged in repressive policies and territorial disputes and focuses solely on Israel. They also contend that BDS’s ultimate goal is not to end the West Bank’s occupation but rather to end Israel as a Jewish state. Some opponents of the Ben & Jerry’s decision accused the company of making common cause with a movement seeking Israel’s destruction.

Neiman, in his conversation with FP, said the group sought to train a spotlight on Israel’s “discriminatory foundations” and the “contradiction between [the state’s] Jewish and democratic character.”

Ben & Jerry’s has long been known for its social and political activism, including support for gay rights and the Black Lives Matter movement. According to board chair Anuradha Mittal, the company’s decision not to sell ice scream to Israeli settlers had been in the works for quite some time.

In an interview with NBC on Monday, she highlighted the 11-day conflict in May between Israel and Gaza as an accelerating factor. In fact, she criticized the company CEO and European multinational Unilever (which bought Ben & Jerry’s in 2000) for not going far enough in the decision.

The board, according to Mittal, wanted Ben & Jerry’s to halt all sales in Israel, not just in the settlements. The company’s board is now gearing up for a legal battle with its parent firm over who has the authority to make such a decision.

“I am saddened by the deceit of it. This is not about Israel. It is about the violation of the acquisition agreement [between Unilever and Ben & Jerry’s] that maintained the soul of the company,” Mittal told NBC. Unilever, for its part, said on Monday it was committed to continuing its presence in Israel.

Further muddying the waters is the status of Ben & Jerry’s Israeli licensee, which expressed concern on Monday about financial losses stemming from Israeli calls for a counterboycott.

“We’re a completely separate body [from Ben & Jerry’s international branch],” the local firm’s chief technology officer told Army Radio on Tuesday. “A person who doesn’t buy Ben & Jerry’s in Israel is simply supporting the BDS.” She pleaded with the public to not harm an Israeli company that employed hundreds of people and had itself rejected calls to stop selling its ice cream in the settlements.

Israel’s legal measures would largely focus on the way Ben & Jerry’s might be violating U.S. laws with its announcement. Some three dozen U.S. states have passed anti-BDS laws in recent years. Israeli officials said they would pressure those states to hold Ben & Jerry’s accountable.

“I plan on asking each of [these states] to enforce these laws against Ben & Jerrys. They will not treat the state of Israel like this without a response,” Lapid said Monday. Israel’s ambassador in Washington has already drafted letters for each individual governor.

The anti-BDS laws would potentially bar Ben & Jerry’s, and possibly Unilever, from receiving state contracts—although some legal scholars believe the laws infringe on the companies’ freedom of speech and might not survive court challenges. Likely more damaging, they could also force state pension funds to divest from (or not invest in) the companies.

“The effort here is to impose the greatest possible reputational harm and business costs on Ben & Jerry’s and Unilever,” both to reverse the policy and send a chilling message to other companies, Lara Friedman, president of the Washington-based Foundation for Middle East Peace, told Foreign Policy.

“But this was the point of these anti-BDS laws: redefining support for Israel as support for Israel and its permanent control over the West Bank and East Jerusalem.”

Friedman cautioned it was too early to view the Ben & Jerry’s decision as a “turning point” in the overall debate. But she said it was already helping shape the public narrative—forcing both Israelis and Israel’s supporters (and detractors) to debate the fate of the occupation, settlements, and what exactly constitutes “Israel.”

“Look at the amount of press this has generated,” Friedman added. All over ice cream.

Neri Zilber is a journalist covering Middle East politics and an adjunct fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. He is the co-author of State with No Army, Army with No State: Evolution of the Palestinian Authority Security Forces, 1994-2018. Twitter: @NeriZilber

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