‘I am not anti-Semitic,’ says Ben & Jerry’s board chair amid boycott controversy

In first reaction since decision not to sell ice cream in West Bank settlements, Anuradha Mittal says she is proud of stance and was subjected to ‘vile hate’

Anuradha Mittal (Courtesy)
Anuradha Mittal (Courtesy)

JTA — One week after Ben & Jerry’s announced that it would stop selling ice cream in the “Occupied Palestinian Territory,” the company’s board chair for the first time publicly rejected the suggestion that the move was antisemitic.

Meanwhile, the brand’s parent company, Unilever, disavowed the movement to boycott Israel. The disavowal comes as Unilever faces the prospect of being penalized financially in states that have anti-boycott laws.

On Tuesday, Anuradha Mittal, the chair of Ben & Jerry’s board of directors, tweeted her first comments on the boycott since it was announced last week. She stood by the decision and denied being antisemitic following Foreign Minister Yair Lapid’s statement that the boycott is a “shameful surrender to antisemitism.”

“I am proud of @benandjerrys for taking a stance to end sale of its ice cream in the Occupied Palestinian Territory,” she tweeted, using the same term for the West Bank that the announcement used.

“This action is not anti-Semitic. I am not anti-Semitic. The vile hate that has been thrown at me does [not] intimidate me. Pls work for peace – not hatred!”

Mittal did not detail the “vile hate” she has received, though critics of the decision have attacked her on social media.

Mittal’s post came days after a report by NBC News that her board was unhappy with the text of the statement put out by Unilever announcing the boycott. Ben & Jerry’s would “stay in Israel through a different arrangement,” it said. That clause did not appear in the announcement drafted by the board.

Mittal has not said that Ben & Jerry’s should withdraw from Israel entirely, and the board hasn’t voiced that position publicly. But on Twitter, Mittal has previously endorsed the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement against Israel known as BDS.

“The catastrophe continues #Nakba70 years later #palestine bleeds Boycott Divest Sanctions #israel,” she wrote in 2018.

On Tuesday, she also tweeted a statement of support from liberal Jewish groups and quoted a passage from the Unilever statement emphasizing “a clear distinction between the State of Israel & the Palestinian territories it militarily occupies.”

Unilever is also stressing that the settlement boycott is not the same as BDS. The company’s statement, made in nearly identical letters sent to Jewish organizations on Tuesday, comes as a handful of states are considering divesting funds from Unilever under laws that ban the states from doing business with companies that boycott Israel.

The letters say that Unilever is committed to doing business with Israel, where it employs 2,000 people and has invested nearly $296 million in the country’s market.

“We look forward to investing in our business in Israel long into the future,” say the letters, which were sent to the Anti-Defamation League and the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, both of which had criticized Ben & Jerry’s West Bank pullout. “We have never expressed any support for the Boycott Divestment Sanctions (BDS) movement and have no intention of changing that position.”

View of the Ben & Jerry’s factory shop in Yavne, on July 20, 2021. (Flash90)

Both the ADL and Presidents Conference said they appreciated the letter but reiterated their previous criticism. The latter said Unilever’s “response does not go nearly far enough” and encouraged the company to try to override the Ben & Jerry’s board decision, though an internal agreement between Unilever and the Ben & Jerry’s board appears to make that impossible. The umbrella group also praised the states that are looking into whether the boycott violates anti-BDS laws.

The Presidents Conference said it opposed the Ben & Jerry’s decision, “as boycotts of Israel are discriminatory.” While the announcement and letter make clear that the boycott applies only to the West Bank, which Israel controls but has not annexed, Presidents Conference CEO William Daroff told JTA that the boycott would force the closure of Ben & Jerry’s plant in Israel, and that the group feels an “obligation to speak out when Jewish owned businesses are singled out.” Daroff added, “Ben & Jerry’s made a political decision that singles out Israelis and one ‘disputed’ territory.”

The ADL also thanked Unilever for its statement against BDS but said, “While ADL is a strong supporter of the two-state solution, we believe that it is wrong for any company to single out Israel by refusing to sell its products to Israelis and Palestinians living in the West Bank.”

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