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'Boycott movement is always looking for targets'

Ben & Jerry’s could make BDS flavor of the month, warns Foreign Ministry source

Diplomat says anti-settlement decision by US ice cream company will encourages activists, as Lapid says he plans to address US governors of states that have anti-BDS legislation

Lazar Berman is The Times of Israel's diplomatic reporter

Illustrative: BDS movement in France. (CC BY-SA, Odemirense, Wikimedia commons)
Illustrative: BDS movement in France. (CC BY-SA, Odemirense, Wikimedia commons)

Ben & Jerry’s announcement Monday that it will not distribute its products in Israeli settlements will likely embolden supporters of the boycotts, divestment and sanctions movement, a Foreign Ministry source told The Times of Israel on Tuesday.

“The BDS movement doesn’t stop,” said the diplomatic source. “It is always looking for targets, and pushing and pushing.”

“Every step, every surrender, certainly invites another one after it. It’s not going to stop. There’s pressure all the time. I can’t say this is the beginning of a wave. This is one company that faced intense pressure, and made the decision that it made,” he continued. But “it’s not unreasonable to assume that if there’s a success, it will encourage them.

“As we’ve seen in the past, even when they don’t succeed, they don’t stop,” he said.

Other observers were less concerned by the Ben & Jerry’s announcement.

“In practical terms, I think that there will be no implications whatsoever,” said Adi Schwartz, a fellow at the Center for International Communications at Bar-Ilan University. “We know economically that BDS is a huge failure. There is no impact whatsoever on Israel’s economy.”

Ice cream moves along the production line at Ben & Jerry’s Homemade Ice Cream, in Waterbury, Vermont on March 23, 2010. (AP Photo/Toby Talbot/File)

“With all due respect, there a few other ice cream producers that will be very happy to replace Ben & Jerry’s in Israel, in the West Bank,” he said.

Schwartz called the move a “propaganda tool” designed in part to drive a wedge between Israeli and American Jews.

BDS models itself on the campaign against apartheid South Africa. Israel views BDS as an assault on its very existence, pointing to the extreme views of some supporters and the movement’s refusal to endorse a two-state solution.

The Airbnb model

The Foreign Ministry said that it is taking action to counter the Ben & Jerry’s decision. “There are steps that we will certainly take,” said the source. “We won’t just leave this as is.”

It appears that a major part of that effort will be based on anti-BDS legislation in US states.

“I plan on asking each [state] to enforce these laws against Ben & Jerry’s,” said Foreign Minister Yair Lapid in a tweet. “They will not treat the State of Israel like this without a response.”

The recent Airbnb settlement ban will likely serve as a model for possible avenues to fight the boycott. Airbnb announced in November 2018 that it would remove some 200 rental listings in West Bank settlements, contending that the settlements “are at the core of the dispute between Israelis and Palestinians.” The movement to boycott Israel saw the decision as a victory.

A home in the West Bank settlement of Tekoa that is rented out using Airbnb. (Meni Lavi)

But in April 2019 Airbnb reversed its policy in the wake of a court settlement between the vacation rental company and a dozen American Jewish plaintiffs who had sued the company, organized by Shurat Hadin-Israel Law Center, a pro-Israel legal organization.

In the lawsuit, the plaintiffs claimed that Airbnb was discriminating against them for being Jewish, since it still allowed listings by Palestinian Muslims and Christians in the West Bank.

Nitsana Darshan-Leitner, chairwoman of Shurat HaDin, the Israel Law Center (Courtesy: Shurat HaDin)

In its announcement Monday, Ben & Jerry’s said that it would no longer distribute its products in the “Occupied Palestinian Territory,” apparently referring to West Bank settlements and East Jerusalem. It said the decision would take effect at the end of 2022, when its contract with the current Israeli manufacturer and distributor expires.

The original announcement said Ben & Jerry’s would continue to operate in Israel, but it is not clear if this is the case. Ben & Jerry’s board said Unilever, its parent company, had made the commitment on its behalf without consulting it. An Israeli firm would be vulnerable to civil action were it to discriminate against Israeli citizens in the territories.

The Ben & Jerry’s decision came the same day that the government officially approved the closing of the Strategic Affairs Ministry, which led the fight against BDS in the past, and its absorption into the Foreign Ministry.

“As we saw in the Ben & Jerry’s episode,” said Deputy Foreign Minister Idan Roll, “BDS is not resting on its laurels, and we must fight it with all the necessary tools.”

Founded in Vermont in 1978, but currently owned by consumer goods conglomerate Unilever, Ben & Jerry’s has not shied away from social causes. While many businesses tread lightly in politics for fear of alienating customers, the ice cream maker has taken the opposite approach, often espousing progressive causes.

Ben & Jerry’s took a stand against what it called the Trump administration’s regressive policies by rebranding one of its flavors Pecan Resist in 2018, ahead of midterm elections.

‘No involvement in this decision’

The Israel subsidiary of Unilever, the European consumer-product giant that bought Ben & Jerry’s in 2000, stressed that the conglomerate had no part in the decision.

“Unilever Israel does not manage Ben & Jerry’s locally,” the company said in a statement Tuesday. “The brand is run by a competitor’s business which owns the Ben & Jerry’s franchise in the Israeli market. Unilever Israel had no involvement in this decision. It was made by Ben & Jerry’s globally and its independent Board of Directors. We are very proud of our history in Israel and are fully committed to our long-term presence.”

The company stressed that it employs around 2,000 employees, mostly in factories in Arad, Acre, Safed and Haifa.

“In the last decade alone,” Unilever Israel said, “the company has invested in the Israeli market more than 1 billion NIS, and will continue to invest in its people, brands, and business in the local market.”

In this Thursday, March 15, 2018 file photo, the logo for Unilever appears above a trading post on the floor of the New York Stock Exchange. (AP Photo/Richard Drew, file)

Ben & Jerry’s current Israel distributor also condemned the ice cream company’s decision to drop its licensing agreement.

“The decision is entirely unacceptable. Ben & Jerry’s International decided not to renew their agreement with us in a year and a half, after we refused their demand to stop distribution throughout Israel,” it said. “We urge the Israeli government and consumers — don’t let them boycott Israel.”

“Keep ice cream out of politics,” it added.

Because of Israeli law opening up companies that boycott settlements to lawsuits, it is unlikely Ben & Jerry’s would be able to find a new local franchisee to uphold a ban on West Bank sales if it does not renew the agreement with Avi Zinger, the current franchisee who fought the ice cream company’s decision.

In 2011, Israel passed a law allowing civil lawsuits that demand compensation from those who call for boycotts against companies in Israel and West Bank settlements. The legislation was largely upheld by the High Court of Justice in 2015, though justices repealed a clause stipulating that courts may order unlimited sums in compensation to plaintiffs without proof of damages.

Ben & Jerry’s chairman, Anuradha Mittal, told NBC News that the statement saying the company will no longer distribute its products in the “Occupied Palestinian Territory” but will remain in Israel was released by Unilever without consulting with the ice cream maker’s board, which had intended to put out a different statement that made no mention of committing to continue doing business with the Jewish state.

Protesters at the Port of Oakland on June 4, 2021, where they halted a container ship owned by the Israel-based Zim Integrated Shipping Services Ltd. in a campaign tied to the BDS movement. (Brooke Anderson via J: Jewish News of Northern California)

NBC, which reviewed the company’s intended statement, said it made no mention of remaining in Israel and focused on Ben & Jerry’s commitment to social justice causes.

While many companies and countries have differentiated between Israel and its settlements in the West Bank, a complete boycott of Israel by a major Western company has been almost unheard of in recent years.

Mittal said Ben & Jerry’s board had been pushing for years to stop selling its products in settlements.

Mittal did not rule out the company doing business in Israel in the future with a different distributor, but said such a decision would have to be agreed upon by the board and that Unilever had no right to make the commitment on behalf of Ben & Jerry’s.

Anuradha Mittal (Courtesy)

“The statement released by Ben & Jerry’s regarding its operation in Israel and the Occupied Palestinian Territory (the OPT) does not reflect the position of the independent board, nor was it approved by the independent board,” said the board in a separate statement to NBC. “By taking a position and publishing a statement without the approval of the independent board on an issue directly related to Ben & Jerry’s social mission and brand integrity, Unilever and its CEO at Ben & Jerry’s are in violation of the spirit and the letter of the acquisition agreement.”

Mittal also said that the board had passed a resolution to end sales of Ben & Jerry’s products in Israeli settlements last July, but that the company’s CEO, Matthew McCarthy, appointed by Unilever in 2018, “never operationalized it.”

Israel captured the West Bank from Jordan in the 1967 Six Day War, and today, more than 400,000 Israeli settlers live there. Most of the international community considers the settlements illegal and an impediment to the creation of an independent Palestinian state. Israel sees the territory as disputed and says the fate of the settlements must be resolved in peace negotiations with the Palestinians.

Ben & Jerry’s statement did not explicitly identify the concerns that led to the decision, but last month, a group called Vermonters for Justice in Palestine called on the company to “end complicity in Israel’s occupation and abuses of Palestinian human rights.”

In this Dec. 5, 2012 file photo, a Jewish settler looks at the West Bank settlement of Maaleh Adumim, from the E-1 area on the eastern outskirts of Jerusalem. (AP Photo/Sebastian Scheiner, File)

“How much longer will Ben & Jerry’s permit its Israeli-manufactured ice cream to be sold in Jewish-only settlements while Palestinian land is being confiscated, Palestinian homes are being destroyed, and Palestinian families in neighborhoods like Sheik Jarrah are facing eviction to make way for Jewish settlers?” the organization’s Ian Stokes said in a June 10 news release.

In a Monday statement, the organization said Ben & Jerry’s actions did not go far enough.

“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,” said the Vermont group’s Kathy Shapiro.

The Associated Press contributed to this report. 

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