On July 19, just as one of Israel’s longest and most brutal heatwaves was cooling off, Ben and Jerry’s announced that it would end ice cream sales in the West Bank.
The well-known, high-quality ice cream brand created in Vermont by Ben Cohen and Jerry Greenfield and now owned by the consumer multinational conglomerate Unilever put out a statement saying that this decision was based on the belief that doing business on the West Bank was inconsistent with the social justice values it wished to maintain. The company made clear its intention to continue to do business in Israel, though the arrangement through which it does this business would change.
The relationship between Ben and Jerry’s and Unilever is unique. At the time of the acquisition Unilever agreed to carry on the company’s tradition of engaging in the “critical, global economic and social missions” that were so important to its creators. To ensure that point, an independent board of directors was formed to oversee the social justice issues with which the company would engage. According to the board’s chair, Anurada Mittal, the independent board had been pushing to withdraw ice cream sales from the occupied territories for years. Mittal said that the board passed a resolution to end sales in Israeli settlements a year ago, but the company’s CEO, Matthew McCarthy, whom Unilever appointed in 2018, “never operationalized it.”
Once the announcement was made, the reaction from Israeli officials was swift and scathing. “The boycott of Israel — a democracy surrounded by islands of terror — reflects a complete loss of bearings. The boycott does not work and will not work, and we will fight it with all our might,” screamed Prime Minister Naftali Bennett.
It was a “disgraceful capitulation” to anti-Semitism and the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement, shouted Foreign Minister Yair Lapid.
President Herzog announced that “over 30 states in the United States have passed anti-BDS legislation in recent years. I plan on asking each of them to enforce these laws against Ben & Jerry’s. The boycott of Israel is a new kind of terrorism, economic terrorism. Terrorism tries to harm the citizens of Israel and the economy of Israel. We must oppose this boycott and terrorism in any form.”
But what Ben and Jerry’s announced was none of these things. It was not boycotting Israel. The company, which has been manufacturing and selling its products in Israel, clearly expressed its intent to continue to do so. The action had nothing to do with the BDS movement. The explicit focus of Ben and Jerry’s action is outside the borders of the State of Israel and did not target Israel, Israelis, or Jews as such.
Perhaps it is because Ben and Jerry’s made clear its commitments to business within the boundaries of the Jewish State as distinguished from the West Bank that “the loyal defenders of Israel” felt such a heated response with great shouting and hand wringing was needed, from both Jerusalem and the American Jewish establishment.
It did not matter that what Ben and Jerry’s announced was not a refusal to buy, but a decision to stop selling. The immediate economic harm would fall mainly on Ben and Jerry’s bottom line.
Ben and Jerry’s decision to leave the West Bank is a protest against the occupation. The reaction of the leading Israeli administration officials was an attempt to confuse the issues in order to hide the fundamental problems connected with the ongoing policies of permanent West Bank occupation. In the end, what these same Israeli officials have done is to take an action of no economic significance and transform it into a major public relations event, and in so doing, they actually have revealed the very contradictions the government officials wish to conceal.
Confused yet? Let us sort this out.
First it is important to be clear about what BDS is and what it isn’t. While regular readers of this column certainly already know, let us review it quickly.
In 2005, 170 Palestinian NGOs, scattered around the world, organized a Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions campaign against Israel, targeting Israel, Israeli companies, and Israeli academic institutions and professors. The campaign was then and continues to be coordinated by the Palestinian BDS National Committee. Of particular importance within the committee is the Palestinian Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel. That committee, PCACBI, was formed in April 2004 to advance a boycott of Israeli academic and cultural institutions as well as Israeli academics and artists. The co-founder of PCACBI is Omar Barghouti, who has played a prominent role in shaping the ideological direction for BDS. Its ideology rejects the idea of Jewish peoplehood and views Israel as a settler-state, comparing it by analogy to South Africa. It calls for the elimination of Israel and the establishment of a single secular state between the Mediterranean and the Jordan River.
While the language of BDS targets Israel and Israelis, in practice the targets are Israeli Jews. Guided by the ideology of PCACBI, BDS promotes “anti-normalization” and seeks to cut contacts between Israelis and Palestinians as well as global commercial, political, cultural, and academic contacts with Israel and Jewish Israelis. Because the movement seeks to sanction Israelis and Jews as such and because it seeks an end to Israel, the BDS movement has been widely condemned.
We join in that condemnation, as we have in the past.
But what Ben and Jerry’s announced has nothing to do with BDS. Rather, by maintaining its business in Israel, it stands in direct opposition to the BDS program. What Ben and Jerry’s is protesting against is more dangerous to current Israeli policy than the threat of BDS. By withholding its Cherry Garcia and Cookie Dough products from the Occupied Territories, the little ice cream company from Vermont has highlighted the 50-year-long occupation of 2.16 million Arabs living under military rule in the West Bank.
By conflating the Ben and Jerry’s protest with BDS, Israeli administration leaders sought to tar the company by associating its actions with a movement that is widely reviled. In doing so, however, they revealed critical flaws in their own thinking.
If an action that affects only the West Bank is to be viewed as an action against an integral part of Israel, why don’t the residents of the West Bank enjoy the benefits of citizenship? Actually, Jewish West Bank settlers do enjoy citizenship rights; only the Palestinian residents don’t. But that is the point of the Ben and Jerry’s protest.
At the end of the Six Day War in June of 1967, Israel defeated the surrounding Arab armies of Jordan (and Egypt and Syria as well) and conquered the area that had been part of Jordan up to the West Bank of the Jordan River. An armistice line was created at the separation of forces between Jordan and Israel. On the maps at the time, the boundaries from the 1948 armistice were drawn in with a green magic marker; this is what is called the Green Line. While Israel did annex East Jerusalem and placed the Golan Heights under Israeli law, it specifically chose not to annex the rest of the area beyond the Green Line under its control. That area is called the West Bank, in reference to the Jordan River, which separated Israeli and Jordanian armed forces.
Israel planned to hold onto the land beyond the Green Line so it could be used to trade land for peace. In the 54 years since the end of the war, there has been a growing effort to erase that Green Line for certain purposes and let both sides melt together like some kind of Ben and Jerry’s mixed flavor ice cream. Today it appears that Israeli government policy is to trade peace for land.
Protests that target the West Bank settlement project do not target Israel or any entity within the State of Israel. They do not seek to sanction Israelis by virtue of their citizenship, nor Jews by virtue of their identity. The purpose of protesting what is going on in the West Bank is to stop promoting permanent West Bank occupation and an informal annexation without legal rights to Palestinian residents.
Rather than attacking Israel and Jewish peoplehood, the point of protesting against West Bank settlements is to affirm and support the very future of Israel as a democratic Jewish state and the promotion of contacts and discussions with Palestinians on the basis of mutual respect, mutual recognition, and the joint need for security.
So it would seem that the only people who are calling for a boycott here are those people who are throwing Ben and Jerry’s ice cream off the shelves. These are the same people who have claimed that boycotting is economic terror. If we turn down the volume of those who so loudly condemn Ben and Jerry’s, perhaps we will be able to examine the carefully nuanced decision of an international corporate entity.
We can see that they have chosen to stop making a profit by selling ice cream beyond the Green Line. We understand that doing so had made them feel that they were complicit in the occupation itself. And then perhaps we can understand the very real threat here.
The threat is a concerted effort to have the Green Line melt away, not unlike a bowl of ice cream in the sun, and to annex the West Bank without really annexing it. Don’t they know that you can’t have your ice cream and eat it too? If there is only one state between the sea and the Jordan, it can’t be Jewish if it is going to be democratic. It is ironic that the prime minister, the alternate prime minister, and the president of Israel, in their statements, implied an erasure of the Green Line and a unitary state between the sea and the Jordan, just like BDS, while Ben and Jerry’s was resurrecting the Green Line that defines the democratic Jewish State not only legally, but practically as well.
There are many Israelis who understand this. They applaud the Ben and Jerry’s protest (as was evident by a recent ad placed by prominent Israelis in the Israeli newspaper Ha’aretz). They distinguish between BDS on the one hand and a resistance to the informal annexation of the West Bank under conditions of permanent occupation that threatens the democratic Jewish future of Israel, a corrosion of its institutions, and the international recognition and legitimacy the country desires and requires on the other.
Like us, Israelis are enjoying a double scoop of Ben and Jerry’s.
We invite you to join us.
Pick your favorite flavor. Perhaps Disengage-mint