Why Ben & Jerry's decision presents a BDS dilemma for Israel

Ben and Jerry's ice cream
5 min read
Washington, DC
26 July, 2021
In-depth: Ben & Jerry's decision to stop selling ice cream in the occupied Palestinian territories creates a nuanced BDS strategy difficult to dismiss.

Judging by the Israeli government’s response, Ben & Jerry’s decision to shut up shop in the occupied Palestinian territories clearly struck a nerve.

Last Monday, after months of mounting pressure by activists, the ice cream company released a statement saying it would not renew its contract in the occupied Palestinian territories, emphasising it would be inconsistent with their values.

"Israel's president called Ben & Jerry's decision 'a new form of terrorism'"

Last Tuesday, Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett told Alan Jope, the CEO of Unilever, of which Ben & Jerry's is a subsidiary, that he considered the move a "glaring anti-Israel measure" and said that the government would move "aggressively against any boycott measure targeting civilians".

Israel's president, Isaac Herzog, called the move "a new form of terrorism", and Foreign Minister Yair Lapid called it a "shameful surrender to antisemitism".

Israel's official response sounded more like they were reacting to a violent act or threat. In reality, the Israeli government aimed its harsh language at Jewish ice cream producers known for their socially conscious business practices who will continue to sell their products in Israel proper.

Israel's new BDS dilemma

By choosing to cease sales, the ice cream company is sending the message not that it is against Israel, but that it is against its occupation of Palestine. This difference not only makes it difficult to accuse Ben & Jerry's of being anti-Semitic or anti-Israeli but also highlights Israel's illegal occupation under international law.

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"The Israeli government understands the significance of BDS in general and the importance of countering any successful efforts of activists to convince companies, leaders, celebrities, and other public figures," Anwar Mhajne, assistant professor of political science at Stonehill College, told The New Arab.

"The slight change in public opinion and media coverage in the world and the US about past attacks on Gaza and the internal violence in cities like Lod made this Ben & Jerry's boycott even more concerning to Israel".

A nuanced boycott

What might be most concerning to Israel is the widespread nature of this boycott, which is being supported by Palestinian activists and liberal Jewish groups alike.

"Because of the visibility of this event, this nuance was introduced, which was communicated very clearly to the broader public," Atalia Omer, associate professor of religion, conflict, and peace studies at the University of Notre Dame, told The New Arab.

"The Israeli government understands the significance of BDS in general and the importance of countering any successful efforts of activists to convince companies, leaders, celebrities, and other public figures"

"This is why it's a win from the perspective of BDS activists. This is where the reinforcing of the green line (the 1948 borders) is important strategically".

Reinforcing the green line, she believes, is important for what she describes as liberal Zionism - supporting Israel, but rejecting their occupation. "Symbolically, it's a different landscape to navigate".

Diana Greenwald, assistant professor of political science at the City College of New York, tells TNA, "That introduces difficulties for people who say it's a boycott of Israel in its entirety. It's a boycott of the Occupied Territories and the status quo there".

Israel separation wall - Getty
A view of Israel's separation wall in the occupied West Bank. [Getty]

What do anti-BDS state laws mean for Ben & Jerry's?

Anti-BDS legislation exists in 35 US states. Vermont, where Ben & Jerry's is based, is not among them. But the ice cream company is already facing pressure from the existing out-of-state legislation.

Shortly after the announcement, Israeli ambassador to the US, Gilad Erdan sent messages to the governors of the 35 states urging them to enforce their anti-BDS legislation. Five states - Florida, Illinois, Texas, New Jersey, and New York - are already considering sanctioning the company.

"After Airbnb's similar announcement two years ago the company was flooded with lawsuits, leading it to reverse its decision"

So far, federal law has sided with critics of anti-BDS legislation. Moreover, the Supreme Court protects people's right to boycott, considering it a component of free speech.

Still, after Airbnb's similar announcement two years ago the company was flooded with lawsuits, leading it to reverse its decision. It remains to be seen if Ben & Jerry's can weather this pressure, which will become more clear when its contract in the West Bank expires at the end of next year.

A new era - of BDS and backlash?

It is too early to say what lies ahead. Ben & Jerry's have certainly shifted the long-held Israeli narrative of BDS being anti-Israel, possibly paving the way for other companies.

"This opens up the question of whether or not other companies will follow suit," says Greenwald.

In Brief

Before that happens, Ben & Jerry's will have to overcome mounting pressure from the Israeli government as well as the US, where 35 states have passed anti-BDS legislation. There is still time before Ben & Jerry's contract in the occupied Palestinian territories is up for renewal for it to change course.

For now, the move is symbolic but still important.

"The more it becomes an OK thing to talk about, the better it is for the movement, but also there's the backlash," says Omer.

"It's hard to predict. But, in the long run, it's inevitable that things will shift".

Brooke Anderson is The New Arab's correspondent in Washington DC, covering US and international politics, business and culture.

Follow her on Twitter: @Brookethenews