We got Ben & Jerry’s to stop selling in Israeli settlements. Here’s how we did it
On 19 July, Ben & Jerry’s, the celebrated ice cream company based in Vermont, where I live, set off a firestorm after it announced it would no longer allow its ice cream to be sold in Israel’s illegal settlements in the occupied West Bank, including East Jerusalem, and would not renew its licensing agreement with its franchise in Israel beyond next year. The company said that continuing to sell ice cream in the occupied Palestinian territory would be “inconsistent” with its values.
I spent the last decade organizing with fellow activists in Vermont to convince Ben & Jerry’s to end its business in Israel’s settlements. The company’s statement, therefore, was a welcome step towards a more just world. But this principled decision was met with a barrage of baseless accusations of antisemitism from Israeli leaders, along with threats to punish the company using anti-BDS laws that crack down on Americans’ constitutionally protected right to boycott.
Israel is demanding that our elected officials trample our first amendment rights and coerce a private American company to conduct business in a manner exclusively on terms pleasing to Israel’s government and settlers, no matter what that government or its settlers do to Palestinians. This is as outrageous as it sounds.
It might be surprising that an ice cream company could cause such a meltdown, but Ben & Jerry’s set a remarkable precedent
What is inciting this reaction from Israeli officials? Fundamentally, it is not Ben & Jerry’s decision to turn off a small spigot of commerce. In communication with our group, Vermonters for Justice in Palestine (VTJP), the former chair of the company’s independent board of directors said that sales in the settlements amounted to a very small percentage of its licensee’s total revenue.
Here’s the rub: a prominent and respected American company that helped define the socially responsible business movement has said out loud that social justice values cannot be reconciled with commerce in segregated settlements that are the product of land theft, state violence and the denial of civil and human rights to millions. Israel’s settlements are cited extensively in a Human Rights Watch report released in May, which found Israel guilty of apartheid.
Israel has oppressed Palestinians for decades, but the groundswell of support for Palestinian freedom has reached new levels. It’s only a matter of time before other companies take Ben & Jerry’s lead. It might be surprising that an ice cream company could cause such a meltdown, but Ben & Jerry’s set a remarkable precedent, one worth learning from. Here’s how the Ben & Jerry’s campaign unfolded.
In 2011, VTJP wrote to Ben & Jerry’s to uncover information on the company’s franchise and its ties to settlements. Through independent research, including by a VTJP member who visited a number of settlements in occupied Palestinian territory, we gathered indisputable evidence that Ben & Jerry’s ice cream was being sold and catered in settlements. We took our findings to the company.
Our private engagement with the company came to a standstill in 2013, so we published a report and launched a public campaign that urged Ben & Jerry’s to end its complicity with Israel’s settlements. We stressed the obvious: the settlements are a flagrant violation of international law. Selling their products in illegally occupied land, moreover, is in flagrant contradiction to the company’s social mission and proud history of social activism. People of conscience all over the world endorsed our efforts.
Ben & Jerry’s told us its franchise could not sever its business in Israel from that in the settlements without potentially incurring consequences under Israeli law. We responded that it should then leave Israel altogether if its social values were truly foundational to its identity and integrity as a business.
In 2014, after Israel’s assault on Gaza killed 2,200 Palestinians, including more than 500 children, we launched a boycott. The rest is history.
Ben & Jerry’s 19 July statement says the company intends to stay in Israel beyond 2022. This part of the statement was not written by the company’s independent board, but by Unilever, Ben & Jerry’s parent company. According to reports, the independent board does not intend to keep doing business in Israel.
The company’s statement is a decisive first step. VTJP will continue to organize until the company’s commitments are honored in full, consistent with the decisions of Ben & Jerry’s independent board.
We also implore other companies to break their ties to Israel’s settlements and to its economy as a whole. After all, Israel’s settlements don’t exist in isolation; they are fully backed by Israel, and it is perfectly clear that Israel’s human rights abuses extend beyond its settlements.
For centuries, ordinary people have turned to boycotts as a means of speaking truth to power and of confronting injustice, against what seem to be insurmountable odds. It’s the classic David and Goliath story. In the end, we know boycotts work and that freedom, justice and equality will win.