Israel, BDS and the Ben & Jerry's ice cream wars
There is no slight against Israel too insignificant for the Israel lobby. When it identifies such an affront, it marshals all its forces as if the very sky over Tel Aviv were falling. This week’s case in point is the “ice cream war” between the lobby and the global food conglomerate, Unilever.
A year ago, the board of Ben & Jerry’s (B&J), a major US ice cream manufacturer, agreed to cease sales of its ice cream in Israel’s Occupied Territories. Vermont (where the company was founded) human rights activists mounted a years-long campaign informed by the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement, which advocates for Palestinian rights.
Over 20 years ago, the founders of the company, Ben Cohen and Jerry Greenfield, sold the company to Unilever for $300 million. Because they had championed social justice and human rights as part of their branding, Cohen and Greenfield carved out a special arrangement by which B&J would retain an independent board, tasked with implementing the corporate mission to support the causes it had engaged with from its founding.
"Last year, the board agreed with local pro-Palestine activists that sales in the Occupied Territories violated the principles of the company, and decided to end sales. This aroused the outrage of pro-Israel lobby forces"
Last year, the board agreed with local pro-Palestine activists that sales in the Occupied Territories violated the principles of the company, and decided to end sales. This aroused the outrage of pro-Israel lobby forces in the US, who attacked B&J and targeted the board’s president, Anuradha Mittal, who herself works for a human rights NGO, calling her a “vicious Jew hater.” Israel’s president even called the boycott itself “terrorism.” She was terrified for the safety of herself and her family, and was forced to abandon her home.
Unilever responded that it disagreed with the boycott, and the board’s decision did not reflect the views of the parent company, but it would (reluctantly) honour the decision. This further angered critics, and pro-Israel groups and Jewish media adopted this as one of their key issues. They began a campaign against Unilever to impact its bottom line by lobbying states to divest themselves of the company’s stock. Estimates say that the overall loss was $1 billion.
Though the financial loss wasn’t significant, it generated reams of bad publicity. Anti-BDS forces celebrated every state which passed laws divesting from Unilever. Israel lobby groups and their executives mounted an aggressive campaign, both attacking the company and accusing it of anti-Semitism.
Eventually, Unilever’s CEO, Alan Jope succumbed to pressure and wrote a public letter declaring he would ignore the B&J board’s earlier decision. Instead, he would sell the company’s business in the West Bank to an Israeli distributor who could retain the Ben & Jerry’s logo and use Hebrew and Arabic labelling to sell the product. Given the controversy, it seems highly unlikely any Palestinian would purchase his ice cream.
The complaint filed in the US District Court in Manhattan said the sale announced on June 29 threatened to undermine the integrity of the Ben & Jerry's brandhttps://t.co/llotCp2kGW— The New Arab (@The_NewArab) July 5, 2022
The tone of Jope’s letter was flattering to the lobby and adopted almost all of their talking points. He stated that Unilever had spent the year hearing from all sides of the issue and seriously considering their respective positions.
He later declares how “proud” he is of the company’s business in Israel including four factories there. He neglects to mention that one of them is located on the site of a former Palestinian village destroyed during the Nakba or to distinguish between Israel and its West Bank colony, tacitly endorsing Israel’s theft of Palestinian land.
Of course, he also made sure to assert that Unilever stood against anti-Semitism, and rejects the BDS movement.
Jope further determined that the B&J board was restricted to directing its social justice programs, while the corporate parent had control of all business decisions. This relegated the board to the sidelines and rendered its human rights efforts peripheral, and almost irrelevant to the overall brand.
Then, earlier this week, the B&J board announced it would sue Unilever for usurping its role in protecting the ethical integrity of the ice cream company. Restricting its role to merely managing social justice projects funded by Ben & Jerrys was a violation of the contract the two founding partners negotiated with Unilever when they sold their company.
Ben & Jerry’s is not the first example of corporate extortion exerted by the Israeli lobby. A few years ago, Airbnb announced a similar decision not to offer accommodations in the Occupied Territory. But a similar pressure campaign forced it to relent and resume offering such lodging.
But this is more than a battle over ice cream or home rentals. It is part of a coordinated global campaign to destroy BDS initiated by Israel. It determined that the movement and its three principles demands—the Right of Return; guaranteeing equal rights to its Palestinian citizens; and the withdrawal of Israeli settlements—were an “existential threat” despite failing to show how a non-violent movement for human rights could destroy a country. A government minister even declared that Israel would henceforth engage in “civil targeted assassinations” of BDS leaders around the world.
"Despite such intense pressure against BDS, it has not deterred or harmed its overall efforts, which have seen growing success"
Over 35 US states have passed laws prohibiting support for BDS. They have forbidden their agencies from contracting with companies or individuals supporting BDS, and ordered divestment of stock in such companies by state pension funds. They have also established a form of loyalty oath by forcing contractors and consultants to promise they do not, and will not, support BDS.
BDS supporters argue that such legislation violates the free speech rights guaranteed under the US Constitution. In several cases brought by such victims, lower courts have agreed and found the laws infringe on protected speech. However, no case has yet reached higher courts or the Supreme Court, which means that the laws remain in effect until there is such judicial review.
Despite such intense pressure against BDS, it has not deterred or harmed its overall efforts, which have seen growing success. Some countries have ordered companies not to label products produced in the Territories as “made in Israel.” Other foreign pension funds have withdrawn from companies which benefit from the Israeli Occupation.
Numerous university student unions and faculty bodies have endorsed BDS, despite fierce opposition by students supported by lobby groups and donors. Academic professional bodies and labour unions have joined in offering such support. A number of companies have sold their Israeli subsidiaries, at least in part due to lobbying by pro-Palestine activists.
A case in point is General Mills, one of whose major subsidiaries is Pillsbury. The children of the founders penned an op-ed supporting BDS and denouncing Pillsbury for “benefiting from Israeli war crimes.” Though General Mills claims divestiture was purely a business call, it’s undeniable that the letter had an impact on the corporate decision announced only two months later.
Cultural figures like Sally Rooney, Lana Del Rey, Stevie Wonder, Natalie Portman (herself born in Israel), Junot Diaz, and Lauryn Hill have either endorsed BDS or refused to perform or allowed their works to be published in Israel. Groups like Jewish Voice for Peace have succeeded in cancelling local police delegations from “training” in Israel, as part of its “Stop the Deadly Exchange” project.
Despite winning the ice cream battle, Israel and its global lobby will ultimately lose the “war.” Israeli apartheid policies further erode its support throughout the world. They do more damage to the country than BDS ever can. Israel has ensured it such an ultimate victory.
Richard Silverstein writes the Tikun Olam blog and is a freelance journalist specialising in exposing secrets of the Israeli national security state. He campaigns against opacity and the negative impact of Israeli military censorship.
Follow him on Twitter: @richards1052
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Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab, its editorial board or staff.