Ignore Israel’s meltdown, Ben & Jerry's West Bank pullout proves BDS pressure sticks

Ignore Israel’s meltdown, Ben & Jerry's West Bank pullout proves BDS pressure sticks
Opinion: Ben & Jerry's decision to end sales in the Occupied Palestinian Territories is a welcome first step, but the real credit goes to BDS activists, not corporations for doing the bare minimum, writes Elias Jahshan.
6 min read
21 Jul, 2021
Ben & Jerry's ice cream is renowned for its solidarity with progressive causes but has been slow to support Palestine. [Getty]

Too often, we Palestinians find ourselves updating our PEP list.

The term, which stands for "Progressive Except for Palestine", is becoming increasingly recognised. Prominent academic and former CNN journalist Mark Lamont Hill even co-wrote a book about it. In short, PEPs are famous people or corporations who have a track record of espousing progressive values and support of social justice issues, but fail to apply those same values to Palestinians and the Palestinian cause.

There are countless notable names on the PEPs list. Recently, we had to add Mark Ruffalo after he crumpled under pressure and apologised for his initial pro-Palestinian tweets amid Israel's attacks on Gaza in May. 

However, one name that has long been on the PEP list is ice cream maker Ben & Jerry's.

For years, the Vermont-based corporation has shown its support for countless progressive causes and marginalised communities. It was one of the earliest corporate supporters of Black Lives Matter and Defund the Police, and it has voiced support for environmental action, refugees, and LGBTQ rights - especially trans rights.

However, activists have spent years pressuring Ben & Jerry's to address its double standard when addressing Israel and its complicity in Israel's violation of international law. The ice cream maker has a factory there and distributes its products in illegal settlements across the West Bank. Additionally, in recent months Ben & Jerry's social media has been flooded with demands that the firm divests from and speaks out on Israel.

Ben & Jerry's West Bank boycott

On 19 July, after being unusually quiet on social media for two months - its last post was on May 18, amidst the peak of the Gaza operation - Ben & Jerry's announced it would no longer sell its ice cream products in stores located in illegal Jewish-only settlements in the West Bank. It would achieve this by not renewing its licencing agreement, which expires next year, with its Israeli licensee.

"We believe it is inconsistent with our values for Ben & Jerry's ice cream to be sold in the Occupied Palestinian Territory (OPT). We also hear and recognise the concerns shared with us by our fans and trusted partners," Ben & Jerry's public statement read.

"We have a longstanding partnership with our licensee, who manufactures Ben & Jerry's ice cream in Israel and distributes it in the region… we have informed our licensee that we will not renew the license agreement when it expires at the end of next year. Although Ben & Jerry's will no longer be sold in the OPT, we will stay in Israel through a different arrangement. We will share an update on this as soon as we're ready."

It is easy to dismiss the statement as just another insufferable PR stunt by a cashed-up corporation. The careful word choices, the conspicuous lack of acknowledging apartheid and not a single mention of "illegal settlements" or land theft does not sit well with the cynic in me. Not to mention the fact that Ben & Jerry's confirmed it would still sell in Israel - which is still occupied Palestine. The only difference between conventional Israel and the West Bank, East Jerusalem, and Gaza is that its occupation has been normalised since 1948. 

Shrinking Palestine infog

In essence, Ben & Jerry's is still a PEP.

But I digress. This isn't about me. While Ben & Jerry's announcement is certainly a positive move, it's important to stress that this is only a first step. Indeed, it has made a pledge to respect basic international law - and I stress "basic" - but we must be careful not to worship corporations for doing the bare minimum. 

Give credit where credit is due, but Ben & Jerry's still needs to do more. Its announcement is essentially a half-baked stance against Israeli apartheid and occupation. We should remain vigilant about pressuring the firm - and many others - to withdraw from Israel completely.

"We must be careful not to worship corporations for doing the bare minimum. Give credit where credit is due, but Ben & Jerry's still needs to do more"

That said, it is crucial to highlight that Ben & Jerry's announcement proves that boycotts work. Full credit must be given to the activists, led by lobby groups Vermonters for Justice in Palestine (VTJP) and Decolonize Burlington, who worked tirelessly behind the scenes over the last decade to pressure Ben & Jerry's and make this decision.

Yet even the VTJP believes more needs to be done. It called on the ice cream maker to end all sales, marketing, and factory operations in Israel, highlighting how Ben & Jerry's Israeli factory is built on stolen land near the demolished Palestinian village of Qastina. VTJP also urged Ben & Jerry's to pressure Israel to end its occupation and settlement enterprise and appealed to other corporations to follow suit.

In a statement, VTJP member Kathy Shapiro said: "By maintaining a presence in Israel, Ben & Jerry's continues to be complicit in the killing, imprisonment, and dispossession of Palestinian people and the flaunting of international law. Israel destroys lives and property in the lands it occupies by force." 

She could not have said it better.

The wider Boycott, Divest, and Sanctions (BDS) movement calls on corporations to cut financial links with Israeli apartheid until Israel's illegal occupation and crimes come to an end, Palestinian citizens are granted equality and justice, and Palestinian refugees are able to return home. It's easy to say that Ben & Jerry's announcement is not enough, but one of the goals of BDS's economic boycott is to persuade private companies to end their participation in Israel's crimes. Granted, it's only one goal among several - but not selling on illegal settlements in the West Bank still fulfils an important BDS demand.

Meanwhile, as Israeli politicians froth at the mouth over an ice cream brand withdrawing from illegal settlements (while remaining mostly silent in response to recent headlines about NSO Group - the Israeli tech firm providing software for dictatorships to chase down journalists and dissidents), it's arguable that Ben & Jerry's decision won't have tangible implications in Israel-Palestine itself. 

If anything, it shows that among progressives and liberals globally, there is an increasing awareness of complicity in Israeli occupation and crimes. It might be premature to remove Ben & Jerry's from our PEP list, but at least the company is listening to Palestinians.


Elias Jahshan is a Palestinian/Lebanese-Australian journalist based in London.

Follow him on Twitter: @Elias_Jahshan

Have questions or comments? Email us at: editorial-english@alaraby.co.uk.

Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab.