JERUSALEM (RNS) — Ben & Jerry’s announcement that it will ban the sale of its ice cream in what it calls the “occupied Palestinian territories” beginning in 2023 could have wide-reaching legal and political ramifications, Middle East observers say.
In a statement Monday (July 19), Ben & Jerry’s said that continuing to sell products in the West Bank and East Jerusalem, territories Israel captured in the Six-Day War in 1967, “is incompatible with our values.”
The Vermont company, which its founders, both Jewish, sold to the British company Unilever two decades ago, said it would not renew the contract of its Israeli licensee, which expires at the end of 2022, because the licensee sells Ben & Jerry’s ice cream in what the company calls “occupied” areas.
“We have been working to change this, and so we have informed our licensee that we will not renew the license agreement when it expires at the end of next year,” Ben & Jerry’s said.
The statement added that the company “will stay in Israel through a different arrangement,” but did not elaborate. The Israeli franchise is located in southern Israel, within Israel’s internationally recognized pre-1967 borders.
Many Israeli and Diaspora Jews say that Ben & Jerry’s has singled out Israel while ignoring the actions of other nations, and that it was the Palestinians who rejected the two-state solution drafted by the United Nations.
“There are over 100 disputed territories that involve over 120 countries around the world, yet Ben & Jerry’s only decided to boycott Israel. Don’t tell me it has nothing to do with antisemitism,” Yoni Michanie, a Jewish Israeli, wrote on Twitter.
Israeli Foreign Minister Yair Lapid termed the territories’ boycott a “shameful surrender to antisemitism, to BDS and to all that is wrong with the anti-Israel and anti-Jewish discourse,” using the acronym for the “boycott, divest, sanction” movement that targets Israel for its treatment of Palestinians.
Lapid urged the 30-plus U.S. states that have passed laws prohibiting their local governments from contracting with people or entities that boycott Israel to enforce them against Ben & Jerry’s and Unilever.
Some U.S. Jewish groups have called for a stateside boycott of Ben & Jerry’s, and several Jewish-owned stores in the U.S. have said they will no longer carry its products.
The anticipated boycott comes at a time of rapidly rising antisemitism, and as an 11-day armed conflict in late May between Israel and Hamas increased calls to shun Israel.
During the short war, social media was awash with antisemitic cartoons as well as anti-Jewish conspiracy theories and claims that Israel’s treatment of Palestinians amounts to “apartheid.”
In a poll conducted by the Anti-Defamation League soon after the Israel-Gaza hostilities ended on May 30, more than half (53%) of American Jews said they had witnessed “more behavior or conduct deemed antisemitic” than prior to the outbreak of violence.
In the same study, 56% of the respondents said that calling for companies and organizations to boycott, divest or sanction Israel is antisemitic.
Daniel Pomerantz, CEO of the pro-Israel watchdog group HonestReporting and an expert in international law, said boycotts have traditionally played an important role in free speech and social justice within the United States.
But Pomerantz cautioned against allowing powerful private companies to dictate foreign policy through boycotts. In the U.S., he said, “we reserve that right to our elected officials.”
Mahmoud Nawajaa, a BDS official, praised Ben & Jerry’s decision, which the company took “after years of pressure to end its involvement in the violation of international law.”
Gershon Baskin, a longtime Israeli peace activist, concurred, insisting that Ben & Jerry’s “isn’t anti-Israel” or antisemitic. “It’s making a statement about the occupation, and even if they decide not to sell in Israel at all because of the occupation, it still wouldn’t be antisemitic.”
Baskin called boycotts a “political act of nonviolence.”
“When we tell Palestinians not to use violence, and instead encourage them to use diplomacy and nonviolence, we call it antisemitic,” he said. By rejecting the BDS movement, “where are we leaving them?”
On social media, Israelis cracked jokes about former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s roughly $3,000 per month ice cream budget, revealed several years back (he favored pistachio), and urged the local Ben & Jerry’s licensee to come out with a new flavor: Settle-mint.
Avi Zinger, the longtime Ben & Jerry’s franchise holder in Israel, told Ynet News that he refused to yield to the parent company’s pressure to stop selling to all Israelis and Palestinians, whether in a Jewish settlement or Ramallah.
“I answered, ‘I am Israeli and I cannot limit my sales there and also the law requires me to sell in all of Israel.’ I cannot go against my country.”