Israel Under Pressure as BDS Campaign Claims the Latest Victory

  • Middle East Policy

    Middle East Policy has been one of the world’s most cited publications on the region since its inception in 1982, and our Breaking Analysis series makes high-quality, diverse analysis available to a broader audience.

Medlir Mema, PhD
Fellow, Middle East Policy Council


Last week, the Vermont-based ice-cream maker Ben & Jerry’s announced that it found selling its products in the Occupied Territories “inconsistent” with the company’s values. Unilever, the parent company of Ben and Jerry’s, has expressed support for the decision, while insisting that it did not intend to follow suit with regard to the other products it offers on the Israeli market. Still, Ben and Jerry’s announcement is seen as a landmark development in the ongoing Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) campaign aimed at putting an end to the Israeli occupation of Palestinian territories.

The announcement triggered an immediate response by the Israeli government implicitly threatening the company’s ability to continue to access the Israeli market. According to The National, “Israel’s new Prime Minister Naftali Bennett warned UK-based consumer goods giant Unilever that it faced “serious consequences” after the Ben & Jerry’s ice cream brand it owns said it is pulling out of the occupied Palestinian territories….The Vermont, US, brand, which was built on ethical values and whose products are marked with the Fair Trade logo, has faced pressure from Palestinian rights groups to stop selling its products in Israeli settlements in the West Bank.”

Others, critical of Ben and Jerry’s decision, have moved in quickly to both capitalize on it as well as to show that the company’s actions won’t go unanswered. Writing for the Jerusalem Post, Tovah Lazaroff noted, “The Israeli NGO Shurat HaDin has moved to seize the Ben & Jerry’s trademark in the West Bank settlements and Jewish neighborhoods of east Jerusalem so that it can produce and sell ice cream there under the well-known brand name…. Avi Zinger, who owns the local Israel franchise, has been clear that he has no intention of withdrawing to the Green Line when it comes to ice cream sales. Still, Shurat HaDin wrote to Unilever, ‘we will actively and aggressively defend our Ben & Jerry’s name, rights and trademarks in the area by all legal means’.”

The decision was, of course, received warmly by Palestinian officials and supporters, many of whom see BDS as an important form of public pressure on the Israeli government. An Albawaba report on last week’s announcement cites an official Palestinian government press release, according to which “the Palestinian Foreign Ministry described the decision as ‘moral’ and ‘legal’…. Politician Ayman Odeh, the head of the Arab Joint List in the Israeli Knesset, posted a photo of himself eating Ben and Jerry’s ice cream in Israel. His colleague in the Knesset, Aida Touma-Sliman, wrote: ‘This decision is just and moral’.”

The decision has also received support from progressive Jewish groups. Summarizing some of the early reactions, Arab News’ Ali Younes points out that, while some “Israeli officials and pro-Israeli groups in the US have called the company’s decision ‘anti-Semitic’, ‘anti-Israel’, and ‘a new form of terrorism’, Jeremy Ben-Ami, president of J Street — an influential liberal Jewish group based in Washington D.C, issued a statement rejecting those labels…. Ben-Ami also decried [Israel’s Ambassador to the US Gilad] Erdan for interfering in domestic US politics and for lobbying to pass ‘constitutionally dubious laws’ — a reference to anti-BDS laws — that undermine the First Amendment rights of American citizens, then demanding the use of such laws against Ben & Jerry’s.”

In an op-ed for the Times of Israel, Dan Perry suggests, approvingly, that what we are currently witnessing is only the beginning of a wave of changes that are likely to arrive as a new generation of leaders comes into office: “So far annexation has been avoided, and things have worked out for 54 years…. My prediction is that things will only really start to fall apart when today’s students, who detest injustice, become the leaders of the West, in about 25 years. Then the pressure will be turned up around the time demographics kick in: when separation is no longer possible because there are too many settlers, Israel will officially become a bi-national state and have to grant voting rights to the millions of Palestinians it controls.”

The response among Israelis, however, has been overwhelmingly negative. For example, in a recent op-ed published by Yedioth Ahronoth, Ben-Dror Yemini called for a boycott of the company, accusing Ben and Jerry’s of giving aid to a “campaign of hate…. Anyone who opposes racism, lies, incitement, human rights abuses should boycott your ice cream. For even if you did not have racist or anti-Semitic intentions – which is actually the same thing—your boycott is another success story for the racist and anti-Semitic campaign that opposes the very existence of just one state in the whole world: the Jewish state. This is what you should know about this campaign, which is led by the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement (BDS). This campaign has no interest in peace nor in ending the occupation.”

Acknowledging the difference of opinion among various Israeli and Jewish organizations, Israel Hayom’s Jonathan Tobin expresses concerns about the impact that such disagreements may have on what he considers to be a growing anti-Israeli chorus: “The decision of the Ben & Jerry’s company to “end sales of our ice cream in occupied Palestinian territories” was widely condemned across the political spectrum in Israel, by many mainstream Jewish groups and by American political leaders. But the notion that this is an issue around which Jews are going to rally is wrong. Even worse, it may be that, like so much else, it will become fodder for partisan squabbling and is highlighting the growing acceptance of anti-Zionist attitudes even among those on the Jewish left who still say they support Israel.”

Recalling previous similar efforts to delegitimize Israeli rule in the Occupied Territories, Maurice Silber writes in his Times of Israel op-ed that such developments rarely, if ever, have staying power and will likely have no perceptible impact on Israel. In fact, “a potential organized counter-boycott in the US and all over the world by Jewish or pro-Israel Christian consumers could well cost B&J a lot more than the benefits of helping the BDS movement. The company will not sell a single pint more because of this boycott, but it might need to deal with a public relations nightmare that could cost it dearly and possibly jeopardize its profitability. Worse, the ramifications could spill over to Unilever, which is ultimately responsible for the actions of its divisions and brands, including Ben & Jerry’s.”

Others, like Shmuel Sackett, founder and director of the Am Yisrael Chai Fund, have begun to sound the alarm bells, going so far as to argue, as Sacket does in this Arutz Sheva op-ed, that such campaigns should instigate a return of Jews to their homeland in a sign of solidarity, adding,It’s not enough to just kick both Ben and Jerry out of your homes and stores. You need to kick yourselves out of your foreign countries as well! All these signs that have been posted by stores proudly displaying… “We Stand with Israel” need to be changed to “We Stand in Israel” because that is what the Jewish nation needs more than anything else…. Therefore, here’s what really needs to be done. Call Nefesh b’Nefesh and get your Aliyah moving along….Then get on the plane and never look back.”

  • Middle East Policy

    Middle East Policy has been one of the world’s most cited publications on the region since its inception in 1982, and our Breaking Analysis series makes high-quality, diverse analysis available to a broader audience.

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