Ben & Jerry’s and ending sales in the Occupied Palestinian Territories: Leading by example

Illustration by Paulina Maziarska.

Over recent months there have been numerous escalations in the Israel-Palestine conflict, from Palestinians being forcibly removed from their homes in Sheikh Jarrah to the destruction of the historic neighbourhood of Silwan to make way for a new Israeli theme park. Developments such as these come at a time when Israel has welcomed in new Prime Minister Naftali Bennett, a man who is arguably the country’s most right-wing Prime Minister to date. Not only this, but public support for Palestine has seen an increase as numerous demonstrations took place across the world in May, one of which was London’s largest Pro-Palestine march in history with around 180,000 people gathering in total.

One of the most recent developments to grab headlines has been the actions taken by ice cream company Ben and Jerry’s, who announced on the 19th July that they would be ending all sales in Occupied Palestinian Territory (OPT). In a statement, the Vermont-based company stated that “We believe it is inconsistent with our values for Ben & Jerry’s ice cream to be sold in the Occupied Palestinian Territory”. Ben and Jerry’s is known for its progressive values and support for social justice and environmental campaigns, with their current focus engaging with criminal justice reform. This decision to end sales in the OPT demonstrates Ben and Jerry’s recognition of the illegality of Israel’s occupation over areas of Palestine, an occupation defined as illegal by the United Nations and human rights groups such as Amnesty International.

The response from Israel

It is fair to say that the Israeli government is less than pleased with Ben and Jerry’s decision to end ice cream sales in the OPT. Israel’s Foreign Minister Yair Lapid has called the move a “disgraceful capitulation to antisemitism… to all that is evil in the anti-Israeli and anti-Jewish discourse”. Prime Minister Naftali Bennett has echoed the anger demonstrated by Lapid, as he promised that the conclusion of sales will have “serious consequences” for the ice cream manufacturer and Unilever, their parent company.

These promises of serious consequences and claims of antisemitism may seem disproportionate, yet this is not the first time that Israel has responded to attacks in such a way, whether it be militarily or economically. When Hamas fired rockets into Israel in early May, most were intercepted and those which landed killed 12 Israeli’s in total. In response, Israel launched a barrage of missiles on the Gaza strip, killing 248 Palestinians, including 66 children, and displacing around 72,000 people. In comparison, Israel is responding to an ice cream company ending sales in illegally occupied territories with calls of antisemitism and severe repercussions. This, therefore, begs the question as to why Israel is reacting with such intent and aggression?

The significance of Ben and Jerry’s stance

The answer can begin to be found in the fact that Ben and Jerry’s is arguably the biggest and most well-known company to end the sales of their product in the OPT. This development has been widely reported within American and Israeli media, demonstrating its significance. This move is also a robust victory for the BDS (Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions) Movement, a Palestinian-led organisation that aims to end international support of Israel’s occupation and suppression of Palestinians.

BDS was mentioned by Israel’s Foreign Minister in his condemnation of Ben and Jerry’s decision, and many Israelis see the movement as a threat to the existence of Israel as a Jewish state and its Jewish majority population. BDS aims to provide Arab citizens of Israel with full equality along with their Jewish counterparts and allow the return of Palestinian refugees, granting them citizenship. This would end the Jewish majority, and severely threaten the state of Israel itself. Some activists have pointed out that if the BDS goal of restoring human rights to Palestinians is a threat to the sovereignty of Israel, this demonstrates that Israel somewhat owes its legitimacy to the deprivation of these rights to those living in Israel and the Occupied Territories.

With this in mind, Israel’s ambassador to the United States, Gilad Erdan, has written to the governors of 35 US states which uphold laws against boycotting Israel, urging them to implement sanctions against Ben and Jerry’s in response to their withdrawal of sales. The Israeli government recognises that the more support and momentum the BDS movement gains, the stronger the case grows for restoring equal human rights to Palestinians, both within the OPT and Israel. With this increased momentum, the threat to Israeli occupation grows with it. It seems that the Israeli government feels the need to stump this growth before other companies follow in the footsteps of Ben and Jerry’s.

Unilever offers its opinion on the decision

Unilever, the parent company for Ben and Jerry’s, was addressed directly by Naftali Bennett in his condemnation, and the conglomerate has since decided to distance itself from the ice cream company’s stance on sales in the OPT. Alan Jope, CEO of Unilever, told investors that “Unilever remains fully committed to our business in Israel” during a conference call on the 22nd July. Jope also referenced the acquisition agreement that was signed by Ben and Jerry’s and their parent company in 2000, which allows the company to retain more autonomy over its decision-making compared to other Unilever subsidiaries. According to Jope, the decision to end ice cream sales in the OPT was made solely by Ben and Jerry’s and its independent board.

In response to Unilever’s stance on the sales row, the former Chief Executive of Unilever, Paul Polman, has stated that Unilever’s current leadership need to “fight for what is right” and that they have an “obligation to speak up”. If Unilever were to take up Polman’s plea, however unlikely that may be, it would mean a massive victory for BDS and ignite an unprecedented debate regarding business in the OPT.

Palestine is already in the spotlight

Ben and Jerry’s new stance on ice cream sales in the OPT is just the latest revelation in the Israel-Palestine conflict, which has seen numerous developments in 2021. Although escalations in violence between the two sides and the continuation of Israeli settlement construction in the West Bank is nothing new, the recent cases of such events have attracted significantly more attention, both from the public and the media. In May, social media platforms such as Twitter and Instagram were flooded with users showing their support for Sheikh Jarrah, a Palestinian neighbourhood in which the residents were facing forced evictions from the Israeli courts. In fact, these campaigns were still making an impact going into June. As conflict escalated throughout May, with Hamas and Israel exchanging rockets and missiles, coverage of the violence became more widespread across Western media.

Perhaps more importantly, the discussion of the conflict on news outlets began to demonstrate a rhetoric that was less skewed in Israel’s favour. The Palestinian Liberation Organisation’s (PLO) Ambassador to the UK, Husam Zomlot, famously challenged BBC journalist Emily Maitlis as she focused on condemning Palestine rather than Israel. As Maitlis pushed the question as to whether Zomlot would condemn Hamas, the Palestinian ambassador replied “This isn't about Hamas, this is about Israel. Israel provokes, Israel commits every crime you can imagine, Israel injures more than 300 worshippers – peaceful worshippers – this morning in Al-Aqsa Mosque.”

As the general conversation about the Israel-Palestine conflict has shifted slightly towards a more balanced tone, the decision taken by Ben and Jerry’s to end their sales in the OPT holds even more significance.

How does this change perceptions of Israel and Palestine?

As expected, many Israelis and Zionists across the world have demonstrated their disagreement with Ben and Jerry’s decision. Israeli journalist Michele Chabin dangerously suggested that such a decision was antisemitic, even stating that defining Israeli’s treatment of Palestinians as apartheid was an ‘anti-Jewish conspiracy theory’.

Another stand has been made against Israel’s illegal occupation of the West Bank, and once again it has been barraged with claims of antisemitism. This is a worrying accusation, not only because of its inaccuracy but also because of the damage it does to genuine charges of antisemitism that Jewish people have experienced and have been increasing in recent months.

Despite this rhetoric, Ben and Jerry’s latest push for equal human rights demonstrates progress for the BDS movement and the international corporate recognition of Israel’s abuses of Palestinians. Not only this, but such a development comes at a time when it seems that political figures such as congresswoman Ilhan Omar face less repercussions when criticising Israel and the support it receives from the United States.

It remains to be seen what the full legal and political response to Ben and Jerry’s decision will be, but it is already certain that this is a significant moment in the economic retaliation to Israel’s occupation over Palestinians. The ice cream company may ultimately reverse their move due to pressure from numerous players, but a ripple effect has already taken place, and other companies have been made to sit up and take note. As for now, if other businesses and organisations were wondering as to how you take a stand against human rights abuses, ask Ben and Jerry’s.