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Ben & Jerry's: The 'boycott' of Israel and the battle of competing narratives

A month after the ice cream brand announced it would not work in the occupied Palestinian territories, a coordinated campaign of misinformation continues
A man walks past a closed Ben & Jerry's ice-cream shop in the Israeli city of Yavne, about 30 kilometres south of Tel Aviv, on 23 July 2021 (AFP)

Ben & Jerry's has never considered and will not be looking to boycott or divest from Israel, the chair of the board for the iconic American ice cream brand has said.

Speaking earlier this week in a special webinar hosted by Americans for Peace Now, both Anuradha Mittal, chair of the board, and Ben Cohen, co-founder of the ice cream company, sought to clarify the record and put an end to false reports claiming that the company had endorsed the Palestinian-led Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) initiative against Israel.

"What the company has done is not a boycott of Israel, though these lies have been spread. There was never discussion of a complete pull out of Israel or divestment from Israel, or a boycott of Israel," Mittal, also director of the Oakland Institute think tank, said.

"What we all aligned around was that it was not okay for our product to be sold in the occupied territories, a decision that was reached after years of very thoughtful, considerate work as to what is the right thing for us in terms of our values." 

'Ben & Jerry's decision... was an attempt to make them look less hypocritical as a company that purportedly cares about human rights'

- Nerdeen Kiswani, Within our Lifetime

The Vermont-founded company, known for its evocative social justice stances, be it on climate change or the criminal justice system, found itself in the middle of a firestorm the moment it announced it would cease operations in the occupied territories and in Jewish-only settlements.

But the statement was also very vague and confusing. It said it would cease working with its current franchisee who has distributed the ice cream since 1987, but would continue operating in Israel.

It has yet to provide further details.

Ben & Jerry's decision was slammed by senior Israeli officials, including the country's current and former prime ministers, as well as the newly elected president and the ambassador to the US.

Meanwhile, the initial statement was welcomed by Palestinian organisations, including the BDS campaign, as well as Vermonters for Justice in Palestine, who have been at the forefront of pushing Ben & Jerry's to withdraw from Israel for close to a decade.

Urged to go further

Both the BDS campaign as well as Vermonters for Justice in Palestine called for the company to go further.

"The BDS movement warmly welcomes their decision but call on Ben & Jerry's to end all operations in apartheid Israel," the BDS movement said in a statement.

But the hysteria that arrived with the announcement also culminated in a massive misinformation campaign, as the Israeli lobby looked to exercise maximum mileage out of the iconic ice cream company's decision.

Whereas many Palestinian organisations in the US praised Ben & Jerry's decision as a victory for BDS, pointing to it as further proof the tide was shifting against the normalisation of Israeli oppression, the Israeli government and its lobby in the US used the opportunity to claim that it was another example of antisemitism and anti-Jewish hate, culminating in death threats and abuse directed at the board of Ben & Jerry's.

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Ben Cohen, co-founder of Ben & Jerry's, said the charge of antisemitism was not merely ironic, but "inaccurate and disingenuous."

"Israel, most assuredly, has the right to exist. I support the state of Israel in general but I'm against some of its actions," Cohen said.

"One of its actions is oppressing a whole group of people in the occupied territories... impoverishing a whole group of people and causing unemployment rates that are above 40 percent is just inhumane and is a human rights violation."

Reacting to Ben & Jerry's decision to withdraw from the occupied territories - which would only come into effect at the end of 2022, the Israeli foreign ministry mobilised its diplomats to push US states to exercise anti-BDS laws against Ben & Jerry's parent company, Unilever

Israel's President Isaac Herzog would go on to describe boycotts of Israel as "a new kind of terrorism".

Under pressure for clarity, the webinar on August 16 was ostensibly an attempt to clarify that, while Ben & Jerry's would not be cowed into rescinding its decision to vacate the occupied territories, it wouldn't be divesting or boycotting the state of Israel either.

Battle of narratives

Nerdeen Kiswani, chair of the group Within Our Lifetime, told Middle East Eye that the frenzy over Ben & Jerry's announcement was ultimately a struggle between competing narratives.

Kiswani said it was clear from the get-go that Ben & Jerry's were never serious about boycotting Israel; the company was merely seeking to save face over criticism leveled at them for their silence on Israeli occupation as well as over selling ice cream in illegal settlements and the occupied territories. 

Kiswani said that by reducing Israel to merely the occupation, Ben & Jerry's were endorsing the idea that "some Palestinians in certain areas should have some rights, but they don't believe all Palestinians in all of Palestine should have all rights and liberation."

Palestinians have long accused Israel of functioning as an apartheid state, a determination corroborated by Human Rights Watch in April 2021. HRW concluded in a landmark report that the objective of maintaining Jewish Israeli control over demographics, political power, and land has long guided government policy across the whole of Israel and occupied Palestine. 

"You cannot have a Zionist state without Zionist policies, so the Zionist state in its entirety must be rejected and must be boycotted if they truly believe in Palestinian liberation," Kiswani said.

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"Ben & Jerry's were looking to reclaim their social justice credentials because they were coming under pressure to act on Palestine. But what happened was that the Palestinians wanted so desperately for this to be a BDS win, they began buying their products while they are still eligible for boycott. 

"Meanwhile, the Zionists dressed themselves up as victims here to try and make sure other companies don't consider Palestinians in their PR strategies. It was always about trying to control the narrative," Kiswani said.

"Ben & Jerry's decision to focus merely on the occupied territories and settlements was an attempt to make them look less hypocritical as a company that purportedly cares about human rights," she added.

Ian Stokes, from Vermonters for Justice in Palestine, agreed that by focusing only on settlements or on the occupied territories was to wilfully ignore the entire story of Israeli takeover of Palestinian land.

Stokes told MEE whether or not Ben & Jerry's operated in the settlements, it wouldn't be able to hide the fact that the company's Israeli factory itself is built on a Palestinian village, Qastina, that was ethnically cleansed in 1948.

"And so the history is catching up ... Palestinians were expelled from this village in 1948," Stokes said.

MEE's request during the webinar for comment and clarity as to why the group's policy only focused on the occupied territories and not all of Israel was not answered.