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Analysis

How McDonald’s took the same stance as Ben & Jerry’s but avoided public backlash

By not openly announcing its policy against opening branches beyond Green Line, the fast-food chain has been able to fly mostly under the radar and avoid branding as ‘antisemitic’

Jacob Magid

Jacob Magid is The Times of Israel's US correspondent based in New York

Signs placed in front of McDonald's branches in Tel Aviv on June 4, 2019, accusing the fast-food chain of boycotting West Bank settlements, and urging Israelis to boycott the restaurant giant in return. (Channel 12 screen capture)
Signs placed in front of McDonald's branches in Tel Aviv on June 4, 2019, accusing the fast-food chain of boycotting West Bank settlements, and urging Israelis to boycott the restaurant giant in return. (Channel 12 screen capture)

NEW YORK — Long before Ben & Jerry’s, it was McDonald’s that took a stand against Israeli settlements.

In 2013, the fast-food chain’s chief executive in Israel refused an offer to open a branch in the northern West Bank settlement of Ariel, sparking anger from settlers and right-wing lawmakers from the Jewish Home party, who called on Israelis to boycott McDonald’s in response.

The party’s chairman, Naftali Bennett, vowed to be the first customer to eat a hamburger at local rival Burger Ranch, which announced that it would open a branch in the Ariel mall where McDonald’s had refused.

But the backlash largely ended there, at the fringes. McDonald’s continued operating roughly 180 branches throughout Israel proper, including dozens that are kosher-certified. When Samaria Regional Council chairman Yossi Dagan launched a campaign to prevent McDonald’s from participating in a tender to operate at Ben Gurion Airport in 2019, he failed to convince the powers that be, and the Golden Arches were unveiled in the duty-free area the next year.

Similar to Ben & Jerry’s, McDonald’s backs a position against sales beyond the Green Line, not differentiating between Israeli settlements and other West Bank areas under limited Palestinian control. But unlike the ice cream supplier, McDonald’s avoided issuing a press-stopping statement to announce the policy.

The refusal to open a branch in Ariel was leaked to several Hebrew media outlets by disappointed sources involved in the mall’s acquisition. Reporters who approached McDonald’s Israel for comment received a laconic reply stating that it had “always been the policy” not to open branches beyond the Green Line.

Ben & Jerry’s ice cream pictured on sale in Jerusalem on July 20, 2021. (Ahmad Gharabli/AFP)

Corporate McDonald’s based in the US gives each of its franchises abroad specific borders where they can open branches, and in Israel’s case, those borders never extended beyond the Green Line. But McDonald’s and McDonald’s Israel have been careful not to publicize those boundaries, and representatives from the fast-food chain in the US and Israel declined to speak on the record.

Ben & Jerry’s took a different route, issuing a statement that it proudly posted to its Twitter account last week explaining that “it is inconsistent with our values for Ben & Jerry’s ice cream to be sold in the Occupied Palestinian Territory (OPT).”

This time though, the story doesn’t seem likely to fade with the next news cycle and is already proving far more resilient, given the Israeli government’s full-throttled intervention on the matter.

Israeli officials have lashed out at Ben & Jerry’s over the decision, with Foreign Minister Yair Lapid saying the ice cream company “caved to antisemitism” and President Isaac Herzog referring to the boycott as a “form of terrorism.”

More substantively, Israel’s Ambassador to the US Gilad Erdan reached out to governors of over 30 US states where anti-BDS legislation has been passed in recent years, urging them to sanction Ben & Jerry’s and its parent company Unilever as dictated by those laws. A handful of states have already answered the call and are looking into the matter.

Most of those laws didn’t exist when McDonald’s refused the Ariel mall offer in 2013. But they are on the books today, and yet Israeli officials have not been heard urging American governors to sanction Micky D’s.

Nitsana Darshan-Leitner, who heads the right-wing Shurat Hadin Israel Law Center, said that while McDonald’s may be driven by the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement, its lack of clear public statement on the matter evoked a much tamer response.

A man walks into a kosher McDonald’s restaurant in central Jerusalem, on April 13, 2016. (Nati Shohat/Flash90)

“We could not go forward [with claims against them] because they didn’t make any announcement and there wasn’t any proof,” she said, suggesting that the short reply McDonald’s sent to reporters in 2013 was insufficient for discrimination litigation.

The center offers legal representation and advocacy for terror victims and sues those boycotting Israel.

But dovish Foundation for Middle East Peace (FMEP) president Lara Friedman was less convinced by this defense.

“Israel decides to make an issue of people differentiating [between] settlements [and Israel proper] when it feels like it,” she said, referencing economic agreements former prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s government signed with the EU and South Korea and China that explicitly do not apply to the settlements. “In those cases [Netanyahu] didn’t make a deal of it or accuse them of boycotting Israel.”

Darshan-Leitner agreed that Israeli policy regarding the status of the West Bank has been “inconsistent” and said that this has “disappointed” her. She added that this highlights the need for private organizations to take part in the fight against the boycott movement where the government has failed.

An Airbnb office in Toronto. (Wikimedia/Raysonho @ Open Grid Scheduler/CC0 public domain)

In the meantime though, the government is picking up the slack, with FMEP’s Friedman explaining that Jerusalem “seized on the public nature of Ben & Jerry’s announcement “as an opportunity, rather than a challenge.”

“Where McDonald’s is a challenge because [the government would] like to keep their branches in Israel, Ben & Jerry’s has been an opportunity to reframe the issue in terms of BDS and to send a warning message to anyone else who might want to do it,” she posited, noting that the same strategy was employed against Airbnb three years ago.

Then, the vacation rental issued a similar public announcement that it would be removing some 200 listings located in the settlements, only to walk back the decision several months later after being inundated with lawsuits and threats of divestment from various states across the US.

By keeping a lower profile with a nearly identical stance, McDonald’s seemingly managed to dodge a bullet.

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