Ben and Jerry’s, Israel & Palestine: The Failure of Fanaticism

When most people walk into a Ben and Jerry’s ice cream shop, we are focused on deciding whether we want Cherry Garcia, Chocolate Chip Cookie Dough, Salted Caramel Blondie, or one of the many fantastic confections the franchise is known for. Most people do not think of Middle East political turmoil, in general, or strained Israeli-Palestinian relations, specifically.

And yet that’s exactly what Ben and Jerry’s corporate office apparently wants us to think about. Ben and Jerry’s recently announced “. . . stop selling ice cream in the occupied West Bank and contested east Jerusalem. . . saying such sales were ‘inconsistent with our values.’” The reaction from Israel was swift and angry. According to the Jewish Community Voice, “Israeli politicians, supermarkets in the U.S., various pundits and even Ben and Jerry’s current Israeli licensee went after the ice cream maker and its corporate parent, the British multinational Unilever, for its statement.”

Ben and Jerry's

Prime Minister Naftali Bennett, a longtime supporter of the settlements, called the decision a “boycott of Israel” and said Ben and Jerry’s “decided to brand itself as an anti-Israel ice cream.” Not to be outdone, former Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu tweeted, “Now we Israelis know which ice cream NOT to buy.” Others, such as Eugene Kontorovich, George Mason University International Law Professor, couched the move in stark political terms, stating

Thirty-two states have rules saying that boycotting Israel is, as we see here, a proxy for bigotry and often anti-Semitism. And we see this very clearly here when the board of directors of Ben and Jerry’s, who were involved in this, have a history of supporting Hamas and other radical organizations, anti-Semitic organizations. So states say just like if you discriminate on the basis of sexual orientation, on other… bigoted grounds, we won’t do business with you. You have a right to choose. It’s America. You can do business with whoever you want.

Other Jewish people, however, defended the move by the Vermont ice-cream maker and pushed back against allegations that Ben and Jerry’s is boycotting Israel as a whole while embracing more radical elements.  Writing for the Philadelphia Inquirer, Judy Rubin claims, “But Ben and Jerry’s wasn’t calling for a boycott of Israel proper. It was focused on Jewish settlements in the mostly Palestinian West Bank, which the U.S. State Department regards as ‘occupied’ territory. U.S. policy for decades, before the Trump administration, sought to curb growth of settlements lest they rule out any future political accord between Israel and the Palestinians.”

Of course, there was a positive reaction in the Arab world. James Zogby, president of the Arab American Institute in Washington, DC. said, “Ben and Jerry’s made a very courageous decision, and a risky decision. It’s really significant to focus on the calculation. Businesses don’t usually do stuff like that.” 

Meanwhile, the Israeli government appears to take the decision as a political threat, and will likely respond in kind. According to Al Jazeera, the Israeli government is “threatening to use controversial anti-boycott laws that pro-Israel advocates have won in more than 30 US states to try to punish the ice cream maker for its decision.”

There is a legal basis for this as the Israeli supermarket chains that distribute the Ben and Jerry’s product line also operate in the settlements, and under Israeli law, people or companies that boycott the settlements can be sued. This will undoubtedly cause further conflict and worsen already deteriorating relations between Israel and the Palestinians. That’s because there are two underlying, unresolved issues at stake, and both must be effectively dealt with for any meaningful progress to be made. 

First, there is a growing gap between how Israel sees itself, its policies, and its behaviors, and how the rest of the world perceives these dynamics. As Yasmeen Serhan, a London-based staff writer at The Atlantic points out: “More fundamentally, the dustup reveals a growing divergence between how the world sees Israel and how the country sees itself. While the international community, including the United States, continues to distinguish between Israel and the territories it occupies, the reaction to the Ben and Jerry’s decision has shown that, as far as many Israeli politicians are concerned, that distinction no longer exists.”

There is also a historical element concerning tensions around settlements and boycotts. As a recent CBS News article argues: “On the global stage, Israel does not differentiate between settlements and the rest of the country. When home-rental company Airbnb announced in 2018 that it would no longer list properties in West Bank settlements, Israel harshly condemned the move as part of a broader Palestinian-led boycott movement against Israel.” 

Beyond the inability of Israel to separate itself as a country with inherent sovereign rights, and the world’s perception of them as an oppressor of a minority population they have no legal claim over, there is another problem, which is the long-established link between the call for specific boycotts against Israel and the Palestinian-led Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) movement, which, according to its website, is a “movement for freedom, justice and equality” that “upholds the simple principle that Palestinians are entitled to the same rights as the rest of humanity.” 

Unilever, the company that bought and currently runs Ben and Jerry’s, has never cited BDS as an animating force, and recently decried the linkage, saying, “Unilever rejects completely and repudiates unequivocally any form of discrimination or intolerance. Anti-Semitism has no place in any society. We have never expressed any support for the Boycott Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement and have no intention of changing that position.”

Yet, apparently, BDS supporters do not see it that way. Here are some statements by BDS supporters that contradict the Unilever statement:

  • “This announcement is so important and came after years of pressure on the company to end its involvement in the Israeli violation of the international law and our Palestinian rights.” (Mahmoud Nawajaa, coordinator of the Palestinian BDS National Committee)
  • “In making its announcement, Ben and Jerry’s becomes the most prominent U.S. company to sign on to the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) movement, an attempt to economically isolate Israel.” (Phil Hall , Benzinga Staff Writer)
  • “It shows you cannot have business with an apartheid state without being complicit. We expect more socially responsible companies to follow suit, perhaps less publicly.” (Omar Barghouti, a BDS co-founder) 

The bottom line is that both sides see the other as allied with extremist elements and beholden to radical ideologies, which makes any policy formulation that aims for unity nearly impossible. As Nitzan Horowitz, leader of Meretz, a left-wing Israeli party, so plainly puts it, “But I’m saying that the solution and the discussion do not need to be at this level at all. It needs to be at the diplomatic level so as to solve the problem from the foundation, because if we don’t do that we will always encounter these claims, these campaigns, attempts to boycott… The principal matter as far as I am concerned is promoting the arrangement vis-à-vis the Palestinians.”

Of course, in reality, one cannot separate any of these matters because they are inexorably linked to one another. There are legitimate claims on both sides of the issue and proposals that call for the extinguishment or imprisonment of people from the other side do absolutely nothing to bring about lasting peace. 

The situation is tantamount to perpetually re-enacting some type of twisted modern myth in which each faction asks the other to continually sacrifice bodies into the eternal volcanic flames of political fanaticism, all the while hoping the god they worship will find favor with their cause.  And though Israel holds the upper hand in this endless saga, and therefore has the onus of change on their shoulders, Palestinians should also recognize they are not hapless, isolated victims and take responsibility for the more radical elements and associations in their midst.

Because in the end, both Yahweh and Allah, who are one God, want the bloodshed to cease. As Golda Meir, the fourth prime minister of Israel once said, “We do not rejoice in victories. We rejoice when a new kind of cotton is grown and when strawberries bloom in Israel.” It’s time to harvest peace, and it takes two sides to do so. 



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