An Israeli-Palestinian Ice Cream Sandwich

Inside the dueling campaigns using Ben & Jerry’s to move U.S. sentiment on Israel.

Israeli soldiers eat ice cream.
Israeli soldiers eat ice cream.
Three Israeli soldiers enjoy ice cream at a shop inside the Ben & Jerry’s factory in Be’er Tuvia in southern Israel on July 21. EMMANUEL DUNAND/AFP via Getty Images

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When you’re Jerry Greenfield, politics follows you everywhere, even into the gym.

When you’re Jerry Greenfield, politics follows you everywhere, even into the gym.

About four years ago, the co-founder of the iconic ice cream maker, Ben & Jerry’s, had a chance encounter with Palestinian American activist Wafic Faour at the EDGE Sports & Fitness center in Williston, Vermont.

Faour, a member of the Vermonters for Justice in Palestine, had been pressing the ice cream company for years to boycott Israel. He confronted Greenfield as he was leaving the gym about his company’s ongoing operations in occupied Palestinian lands. Greenfield replied his company’s beef with the Palestinian advocacy group “had been solved,” as Ben & Jerry’s had begun to source some of its ingredients from Palestinians, Faour recalled. “We are now buying Palestinian almonds from Palestinian farmers,” Greenfield assured him.

Faour, who was raised in two Palestinian refugee camps in Lebanon and migrated to the United States as an 18-year-old student, was indignant. The Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) movement aims to end Israel’s violations of international law, he said, not provide a few jobs for Palestinians. “You think by spending money here and there you can solve the Palestinians’ national aspirations?” he recalled asking Greenfield. “Did you ask the farmers what hopes and aspirations they have under the muzzle of a gun?” Greenfield, Faour recalled, “was speechless.”

Last month, Ben & Jerry’s announced it would no longer sell its products in Jewish settlements built on occupied Palestinian land in the West Bank and East Jerusalem. The decision—which was made by Ben & Jerry’s independent board of directors—appears to be, at least in part, the result of pressure from pro-Palestinian groups and was applauded by U.S. progressives.

But by trying to thread the needle on such a contentious issue—the company will seek to continue selling ice cream in Israel proper—Ben & Jerry’s now risks antagonizing both sides. Israel has vowed to fight the decision with all its considerable diplomatic might while Faour described it as a positive step—but not nearly enough. “Ben & Jerry’s has a flavor called Half Baked. They came with half baked statements,” Faour told Foreign Policy. (Ben & Jerry’s declined to comment on the veracity of Faour’s account.)

Despite its differences with Ben & Jerry’s, Faour said his organization is preparing a proposal to work with the ice cream company in a campaign to oppose laws targeting BDS, which mobilizes against Israel, that have emerged across the country. But after the melee of their latest announcement, it is unclear whether Ben & Jerry’s, which has sought to differentiate itself from the BDS movement, will go along. The company, like other groups and institutions that have waded into the muck of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, could well end up paying a high price for the decision.

The Israeli response has the potential, at least, to actually do some damage to Ben & Jerry’s. It also underscores just how deeply Israel is willing to insert itself into U.S. politics, even down to the local level, to protect its own interests. And it raises interesting questions about a key pillar in U.S. jurisprudence: the U.S. Constitution’s First Amendment.

Israel’s new foreign affairs minister, Yair Lapid, denounced Ben & Jerry’s move, calling it a “shameful capitulation to antisemitism, BDS, and everything bad in the anti-Israel and anti-Jewish discourse.”

Lapid deployed Israel’s diplomatic corps to pull out all the stops in combating the company’s decision. This included an unprecedented campaign to win over U.S. state legislators. The mechanism Israel’s diplomats planned to use was a raft of laws first adopted by Illinois and South Carolina in 2015 and subsequently passed in 32 other states, often with bipartisan support. These laws generally prohibit investments of state pension funds in companies that boycott Israel and require government contractors to pledge not to support Israel boycotts in order to do business for the government.

Last month, Gilad Erdan, Israel’s ambassador to the United States and former ambassador to the United Nations, wrote a letter to the governor of Tennessee, seeking his support in denouncing Ben & Jerry’s decision. Erdan described the company’s action as “discriminatory and antisemitic” as well as amounting to a violation of Tennesse’s state law.

“American companies with radical ideological agendas cannot be allowed to go against the policy of the United States and act against normalization and peace,” Erdan wrote in the letter, which was provided to Foreign Policy by his office. “I ask that you consider speaking out against the company’s decision, and taking any other relevant steps, including in relation to your state laws and the commercial dealings between Ben & Jerry’s and the State of Tennessee.”

The letter—versions of which were sent to the more than 30 states with anti-Israel boycott laws—was part of a broader effort by the Israeli government to activate U.S. politicians, American Jewish organizations, and the Christian evangelical community to make Ben & Jerry’s and its parent company, Unilever, pay a steep price for singling out Israel’s settlements.

The effort reflected a fear in Israeli government circles that the move by a popular American brand—one founded by two Jewish progressives in a state that elected one of the most prominent Jews in U.S. politics, Sen. Bernie Sanders—had the potential to trigger copycat protests by other companies.

“We are trying to show that whoever boycotts Israel will be boycotted themselves,” Danny Danon, Israel’s former ambassador to the United Nations, told Foreign Policy in a phone interview. “This is a symbolic fight. There is always a fear that others will join the club of hate and join Ben & Jerry’s.”

Danny Ayalon, Israel’s former ambassador to the United States, said the Israeli government’s aggressive response reflects the insecurity of a new generation of leaders governing with a thin majority and facing a challenge from their right flank.

“They are judged against [opposition leader Benjamin] Netanyahu, and the timing of Ben & Jerry’s announcement came at the beginning of their watch,” Ayalon said. “It compelled them to be active and to show that the country is still in good hands because Bibi is trying to convey the message that when he is out of office, there is nobody at the helm and the country is defenseless.”

In an indication of seriousness, last month, the Israeli government sent a classified cable to its missions and embassies calling on its envoys to ramp up pressure on Ben & Jerry’s before its decision comes into force at the end of 2022.

“We need to make use of the 18 months that are left until the decision comes into force and try to change it,” the cable said, which was leaked to Axios. “We want to create long-term pressure on Unilever and Ben & Jerry’s by consumers, politicians, and in the press and social media in order to lead to a dialogue with the companies.”

Israel’s supporters in the United States heeded this call, issuing public denunciations of Ben & Jerry’s decision. On July 22, the leaders of four American Jewish organizations, including William Daroff, CEO of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, appealed to Texas Gov. Greg Abbott to divest any state investments in Unilever. The letter —which was published by Jewish Insider—was also signed by Christian Zionist John Hagee, founder of Christians United For Israel.

Israeli Interior Minister Ayelet Shaked wrote directly to Hagee and urged him “to defend [Israel] from those who seek its delegitimization and destruction.”

“We must not be silent in the face of such an outrageous decision,” she wrote. “I ask you to take firm action to counter Ben and Jerry’s disgraceful boycott, including by ensuring the full implementation of national, state and local counter-BDS and counter-discrimination legislation. I also ask you to declare that churches, organizations and communities which you lead will choose to purchase other ice cream brands, until Ben and Jerry’s reverses its shameful decision to side with the forces of hate and conflict.”

On July 21, Hagee sent a letter to the Texas comptroller requesting the state divest any investments in Ben & Jerry’s and Unilever. “None of our taxpayers’ dollars should be invented in entities for whom antisemitism is boardroom policy.”

A spokesperson for Hagee, Ari Morgenstern, insisted the religious appeal was not prompted by a request from the Israeli government, and Hagee sent the letter to the Texas comptroller before learning about the Israeli minister’s appeal: “We make our own decisions concerning the issues in which we engage and do not take direction from third parties,” Morgenstern said.

The Israeli pressure campaign has received a favorable response from lawmakers in several states, including Texas, New Jersey, New York, and Florida, which ordered reviews of their states’ policies to determine if Ben & Jerry’s action violated their own laws and policies designed to penalize organizations that support the BDS movement.

In conservative states, the opportunity to take a swing at a liberal, northeast ice cream company founded by two self-styled hippies has been irresistible.

“Texans have better options for a sweet treat this summer,” the Texas comptroller said in a July 22 statement, promoting his state’s own ice cream offerings. “Blue Bell was founded in Brenham, Texas, and, for my money, tastes much better than the stuck-up stuff made by a foreign-owned company started in Vermont.”

The state of Florida placed Ben & Jerry’s British parent company, Unilever, on its list of “Scrutinized Companies that Boycott Israel,” giving the multinational 90 days to persuade the ice cream brand to reverse course or else face sanctions against hundreds of its other brands, including Lipton, Hellmann’s, and Dove. “I will not stand idly by as woke corporate ideologues seek to boycott and divest from our ally, Israel,” Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis added earlier this month.

In an op-ed in the New York Times, Ben & Jerry’s co-founders Bennett Cohen and Jerry Greenfield said they backed their board’s decision to cut off sales, describing themselves as “proud Jews” who support the state of Israel.

“It’s possible to support Israel and oppose some of its policies, just as we’ve opposed policies of the U.S. government,” they wrote in the July 28 article. “As such, we unequivocally support the decision of the company to end business in the occupied territories, which a majority of the international community, including the United Nations, has deemed an illegal occupation.”

“That we support the company’s decision is not a contradiction nor is it anti-Semitic,” they added. “In fact, we believe this act can and should be seen as advancing the concepts of justice and human rights, core tenets of Judaism.”

So far, the prospect of sanctions against Ben & Jerry’s and Unilever are unclear. Federal courts in Texas, Kansas, and Arizona have struck down some of the anti-BDS state laws that require government contractors to pledge not to boycott Israel, raising questions about the ultimate success of the effort in U.S. courts.

But persuading the courts or Americans themselves to sanction Ben & Jerry’s may not be the ultimate point of the exercise, according to some observers. “This is less about waiting to see if sanctions are imposed on Ben & Jerry’s,” said Lara Friedman, president of the Foundation for Middle East Peace. “The point is to send a message to any company that this is going to cost you financial harm. It’s the chilling effect.”

Several Democratic aides, many who oppose the BDS movement, have privately expressed anger over the Israeli effort, saying it amounts to brazen interference in U.S. political life. Israeli claims that Ben & Jerry’s is engaging in a boycott against Israel is untrue, they say. But even if the claims were true, what right does Israel have to dictate an American’s right to decide, asked one Democratic Senate aide. “Who the fuck are you to order state governors to punish this American company?” the aide asked.

But some Democrats—including Rep. Josh Gottheimer from New Jersey, where Unilever’s U.S. headquarters are based—have criticized Ben & Jerry’s. Gottheimer expressed “deep disappointment” with Ben & Jerry’s actions to Foreign Policy and said he hoped it would “reconsider this wrong and misguided decision.”

The progressive Jewish American political organization J Street came to Ben & Jerry’s defense. In a July 21 statement, the group’s leader, Jeremy Ben-Ami, said: “Ben & Jerry’s decision is a legitimate, peaceful protest against the systemic injustice of occupation and a reminder that settlers are, in fact, illegal under international law.”

But most Democrats have remained silent on the issue, including Vermont’s liberal senators, Bernie Sanders and Patrick Leahy, who have not issued statements regarding the Israeli campaign. “The silence has been deafening,” said a second Democratic congressional aide. “It’s a free speech issue. The right to boycott is long-standing in this country. One can disagree with Ben & Jerry’s decision, but the Israelis are acting like the company has no right to its point of view, and that by choosing not to do business in an area under military occupation they are antisemitic, which is ludicrous.”

If friends of Ben & Jerry’s are thin on the ground in Washington, so too is backing for Israel from its traditional congressional allies. The response was particularly muted among Democrats, who see the Ben & Jerry’s brouhaha as an unnecessary, unhelpful controversy when the party is already struggling to paper over sharp intramural divisions on the Israel-Palestine issue.

“There is a universal feeling that Israel is overreacting here,” said a third Democratic congressional aide. “We get it that they have to be on edge all the time and don’t want dominoes to start falling. But the blatant nature of this is making people uncomfortable.”

Senate leaders, including close supporters of Israel like Sen. Chuck Schumer, have tried to stay out of the fight.

“I don’t think they want to touch this right now. They’ve got other stuff going on,” said the first Democratic aide. “Look, you’ve got two Jewish guys who founded a great ice cream company in a state with the country’s most prominent Jewish politician. The optics aren’t good.”

Curiously, Democratic lawmakers in Washington say Israel and its supporters have done little lobbying on Capitol Hill. “We haven’t heard from the Israelis; we haven’t heard from anyone,” said one Democratic Senate aide.

“We’re not feeling a lot of pressure despite the fact that the Israeli government has been openly activating their troops in the U.S.,” added the third Democratic congressional aide.

Israeli officials said Erdan has reached out to dozens of politicians in state capitals and in Washington.

Erdan, who previously served as one of the key architects of Israel’s anti-BDS effort, recently tweeted he has taken the campaign to Capitol Hill, saying he met with Reps. Lois Frankel and Juan Vargas as well as spoke to Sen. Ben Cardin. “I will continue the struggle so that Ben & Jerry’s and Unilever will learn that there is a price to be paid for boycotting Israel!” Erdan wrote.

For supporters of an Israel boycott, Ben & Jerry’s action marked the culmination of a decadelong grassroots pressure campaign by Vermonters for Justice in Palestine.

The Vermont advocacy group was founded in April 2001 with a mission to “support the Palestinian people in their struggle for human rights and to end the illegal, immoral, and brutal Israeli occuption through education, advocacy, and action.”

For years, a coalition of Palestinian activists, university professors, and church activists focused their attention on educating Vermonters on the plight of Palestinians.

They drew inspiration from the emerging Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions movement, which was established in 2005 by a wide coalition of Palestinian unions and civil society groups. BDS advocated for the imposition of economic penalties on Israel to pressure it to end the occupation of Palestinian lands. Modeled on the South Africa anti-apartheid movement, it calls on major institutions to divest and boycott Israeli businesses until the Israeli government complies with international law.

Ben & Jerry’s—a local company with a well-known international brand—was a natural target. It had licensed an Israeli businessperson to begin distributing and manufacturing its ice cream from a factory outside Tel Aviv in 1987.

Around 2011, the Vermont activists began hearing rumors that the ice cream was being sold in Israeli settlements. At the same time, a Vermont activist who lived in East Jerusalem photographed Ben & Jerry’s ice cream being sold at Shufersal supermarkets in Israeli settlements.

By then, Cohen and Greenfield had already sold their company to the British multinational company, Unilever, but they negotiated an agreement giving them the freedom to pursue their own social justice mission and established a board to carry it out.

The Vermont activists began a letter-writing campaign aimed at pressuring the company to halt its operations in Israel and held some initial meetings with Ben & Jerry’s executives, including the then-chairperson of the board, Jeff Furman.

But the effort bore little fruit.

Dissatisfied with the response, the group launched a public pressure campaign in 2013, demonstrating at Ben & Jerry’s scoop shops.

“I would say that early on [when] we met, they listened but did not act,” said Ian Stokes, one of the leaders of the Vermonters for Justice in Palestine. “But Vermont and Burlington are small communities, so [we] do occasionally encounter B&J people and have conversations. For instance, on Free Cone Day, I personally rode my bicycle to the B&J headquarters in South Burlington and handed leaflets to people entering the building.”

An upsurge of violence between Israelis and Palestinians in May that left more than 200 people dead, mostly Palestinians, proved a turning point. Social justice movements, including the Movement for Black Lives and Decolonize Burlington, rallied to Palestians’ defense and ramped up pressure on Ben & Jerry’s to act. “The decision by Ben and Jerry’s may be our most important BDS win to date,” Sandra Tamari, executive director of Adalah Justice Project, a U.S.-based Palestinian advocacy group, said in a statement. “It opens the door for other mainstream companies to heed the Palestinian call for cutting ties with the Israeli state.”

Colum Lynch was a staff writer at Foreign Policy between 2010 and 2022. Twitter: @columlynch

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