Ben & Jerry’s Ice Cream: The BDS Movement Gains Traction

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Published August 28, 2021

By Nadifa Abdi

Support for Palestinian rights waxes and wanes in the public sphere. Attempts by activists to increase visibility of the plight of Gazans and the suffering in all the occupied lands under Israeli rule is instantly stomped out with cries of anti-Semitism. Now Ben & Jerry’s, a popular ice cream brand and socially conscious company, announced mid-July that they would no longer sell their products in the occupied territories, beyond the pre-1967 borders. The company’s founders, Ben Cohen and Jerry Greenfield, made their decision public on July 19, stating in part, “We believe it is inconsistent with our values for Ben & Jerry’s ice cream to be sold in the Occupied Palestinian Territory (OPT).”

Those who support Israel unequivocally, including most politicians in the U.S. government, are more than disturbed by the position taken by Ben & Jerry’s. What they fear is a snowball effect. A decade ago, Ehud Barak, then Israel’s defense minister, presaged this development. Speaking at Israel’s Institute for National Security Studies, he stated, “We face a diplomatic tsunami that the majority of the public is unaware of,” and that “Israel’s delegitimization is in sight.” He also referenced the prime minister at that time, Benjamin Netanyahu, warning that he “was pushing Israel into a corner from which the old South Africa’s deterioration began.”

The snowball has picked up speed. While Ben & Jerry’s issued a public statement about their decision, most don’t know that McDonald’s decided in 2013 not to open a franchise in the Israeli settlement of Ariel in the West Bank. According to an article in The Times of Israel in July of this year, McDonald’s decision was in line with their position that they would not operate anywhere in the occupied territories, including the Israeli settlements. McDonald’s did not publicize this decision and it flew under the radar. Not so with Ben & Jerry’s and their decision increases the mainstream denunciations of Israeli occupation and oppression of Palestinians.

Mainstream Criticism of Occupation Grows

The Israeli human rights organization B’Tselem has called the Israeli form of apartheid, a “regime of Jewish supremacy from the river to the sea.” In March, the International Criminal Court announced its decision to investigate the charge of war crimes in the West Bank, East Jerusalem, and the Gaza Strip since June 2014. A paper published in April this year by the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace declares that the Israelis and Palestinians “do not live as equals” and that the U.S. must “seek to mitigate the fundamental asymmetry of power between Israel, an occupying state, and Palestinians, an occupied people, and devise strategies to confront the enduring structural barriers to conflict resolution.” Human Rights Watch reported this year that Israeli “…authorities have dispossessed, confined, forcibly separated, and subjugated Palestinians by virtue of their identity to varying degrees of intensity. In certain areas, as described in this report, these deprivations are so severe that they amount to the crimes against humanity of apartheid and persecution.”

These are just a few examples of the increasing criticism of Israeli policy and practice toward Palestinians. After Ben & Jerry’s took its stand, many tried to smear them as anti-Semitic. They responded to all the negative reactions in a Bottom of Form New York Times op-ed with the following: “The company’s stated decision to more fully align its operations with its values is not a rejection of Israel. It is a rejection of Israeli policy, which perpetuates an illegal occupation that is a barrier to peace and violates the basic human rights of the Palestinian people who live under the occupation. As Jewish supporters of the State of Israel, we fundamentally reject the notion that it is anti-Semitic to question the policies of the State of Israel.”

Opposition to BDS

For sixteen years the BDS movement has been urging the use of the same tactics which helped to end apartheid in South Africa. Yet, as the BDS movement gains strength, some Western governments have either ruled BDS as anti-Semitic (Germany) or passed laws to prevent boycotts of Israel (U.K). Since 2005, 35 U.S. states have also written resolutions and executive orders to punish boycotters or block pension fund investments to BDS-supporting companies, while others are placed on blacklists.

According to an article on the news website Axios, Israel has created a special task force “to pressure Ben & Jerry’s ice cream and its parent company Unilever to reverse their decision to boycott Israeli settlements in the West Bank.” Many political leaders in Israel have accused the ice cream company of anti-Semitism and Gilad Erdan, the Israeli ambassador to the U.S. and the U.N., has contacted the governors of the 35 U.S. states that have sought to outlaw boycotting Israel. In a letter, he urged them to denounce Ben & Jerry’s and to take “any other relevant steps, including in relation to your state laws and the commercial dealings between Ben & Jerry’s and your state.” His letter continued, “We view this decision very severely, as it is the de-facto adoption of anti-Semitic practices and advancement of the de-legitimization of the Jewish state and the de-humanization of the Jewish people.” Ironically, Benjamin Netanyahu, Israel’s former Prime Minister, encourages boycotting Ben & Jerry’s, saying, “Now we Israelis know which ice cream NOT to buy.”

Declining Support for Israel’s Occupation

International support for Israel has been on the decline in the past decade as their human rights abuses continue and more and more Americans see the occupation for what it is. A Brookings Institution poll from 2019 showed that 48 percent of Democrats who know about BDS, support it. Yet, Israel reflexively paints critics of its policies as anti-Semitic. Now they have pushed that further, labeling Ben & Jerry’s move as a new type of terrorism. Israeli President Isaac Herzog stated, “The boycott of Israel is a new sort of terrorism, economic terrorism.”

Lawsuits have challenged the anti-boycott laws in a number of states including Arkansas, Arizona, Georgia, Kansas, Maryland, and Texas. Four federal district courts have ruled that the boycotts are protected by the First Amendment and, as of July of this year, none of the anti-boycott laws has been upheld by the courts. As BDS continues to gain traction, there is enormous pressure from pro-Israel political and media forces in the U.S. While Ben & Jerry’s move is a minor economic threat to Israel, they fear this will signal to other corporations and companies that it is possible to follow suit.

In recent times, Americans have risen up to highlight the need to face the malevolence of racism, and grassroots activists from different groups increasingly support one another’s movements, knowing that a struggle for the rights of indigenous people and other minorities in the U.S. intersects with the Palestinian struggle, and that each success advances the other movements for human rights and non-discrimination. BDS activists still have a target on their backs as governments, evangelicals, and Israel-firsters campaign hard to bring them down. Time will tell who will come out on top.

Avatar photo Nadifa AbdiAuthor Nadifa Abdi is a happily married mother of four who practices patience on a daily basis. She enjoys writing and reading and currently is working on two fiction projects for young adults. Sr. Nadifa is passionate about promoting and contributing to Islamic media that conveys a better understanding about Islam and Muslims.

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