For now, two cheers for Ben & Jerry's

For now, two cheers for Ben & Jerry's

We should celebrate the ice cream manufacturer’s new policy of not selling its product in occupied Palestinian territories. We should also be disturbed by the company’s justifications.

EAST DUMMERSTON — Responding to a decade-long campaign initiated by Vermonters for Justice in Palestine, Ben & Jerry's announced on July 19 that it would no longer sell its ice cream in the occupied Palestinian territories after the company's current franchising agreement expires at the end of 2022.

Writing in The New York Times, Bennett (Ben) Cohen and Jerry Greenfield, who describe themselves as “Jewish supporters of the State of Israel,” said they were seeking to draw a “contrast between the democratic territory of Israel and the territories” it illegally occupies.

Rather than boycotting Israel as a whole, they noted, the company was simply rejecting an “Israeli policy” that represents “a barrier to peace” and violates “the basic human rights of the Palestinian people who live under the occupation.”

The Israeli government reacted angrily to the announcement.

Naftali Bennett, Israeli's far-right prime minister, claimed that Ben & Jerry's was rebranding itself as “antisemitic ice cream” and threatened Unilever (the British company that acquired Ben & Jerry's in 2000) with “severe consequences.”

Foreign Affairs Minister Yair Lapid called Ben & Jerry's action “a shameful surrender to antisemitism.” Israel's “left-of-center” president, Isaac Herzog, declared that Ben & Jerry's was engaging in “a new kind of terrorism.”

In a classified cable to its diplomatic missions in North America and Europe, Israel's Foreign Ministry sent instructions to “encourage Jewish organizations, pro-Israel advocacy groups and evangelical communities to organize demonstrations in front of Ben & Jerry's and Unilever offices and put pressure on investors and distributors for both companies.”

The objective? “[T]o make use of the eighteen months that are left until the decision comes into force” and to create “pressure on Unilever and Ben & Jerry's by consumers, politicians, and in the press and social media.”

Responding to a direct Israeli appeal to U.S. governors for legal action against Ben & Jerry's, two states (Arizona and New Jersey) have, as of mid-September, announced they are divesting from Unilever.

Other states are considering such divestment. The New York state comptroller wrote to Unilever's chief executive in late July warning he was 'troubled and concerned' by Ben & Jerry's decision and he “gave the company 90 days to dissuade him” from taking action.

As political analyst Mitchell Plitnick has pointed out, there is nothing unusual about the response of Israel and its allies.

“Rather, their furious response is a deliberate, proven strategy to deter any attempt at promoting corporate accountability around the occupation,” he said.

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So how should readers of The Commons react to Ben & Jerry's decision?

From one point of view, we should endorse the combined statement of groups including the American Friends Service Committee, Jewish Voice for Peace, the Adalah Justice Project, and Vermonters for Justice in Palestine praising Ben & Jerry's for daring “to take a courageous and principled step to end complicity in Israel's occupation and human rights violations.”

And we should hope that the company's action represents a watershed moment in the international opposition to Israeli policies.

From another point of view, however, we should be disturbed by the manner in which Ben & Jerry's has justified its new policy.

By emphatically distinguishing between the occupied territories and Israel “proper,” and by choosing to maintain a business presence in the latter, Ben & Jerry's is helping to perpetuate a dangerous obfuscation of the glaring reality.

This reality, in the words of Israel's leading human rights organization, B'Tselem, is “[t]here is [only] one regime governing the entire area [...] between the Mediterranean Sea and the Jordan River,” and it is “organized under a single principle: advancing and cementing the supremacy of one group - Jews - over another - Palestinians.”

Any clear-cut distinction between “democratic Israel” and the “undemocratic” occupied territories is a spurious one. As Human Rights Watch bluntly put it in its landmark April report, “A Threshold Crossed: Israeli Authorities and the Crimes of Apartheid and Persecution”: “Two primary groups live in Israel and the OPT [Occupied Palestinian Territories]: Jewish Israelis and Palestinians. One primary sovereign, the Israeli government, rules over them.”

While Palestinians in the West Bank, East Jerusalem, and Gaza are manifestly denied fundamental human rights by the Israeli sovereign, the report continues, Palestinians of pre-1967 Israel also have “a status inferior to Jewish citizens by law” and likewise experience “institutional discrimination [...] including widespread restrictions on accessing land confiscated from them, home demolitions, and effective prohibitions on family reunification.”

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The distinction between a “good” Israeli state and society and a “bad” Israeli occupation (which has been in place for 54 years) is untenable.

Both the government and economy of Israel are thoroughly and inextricably enmeshed with the occupied territories: Israeli settlers in the occupied territories drive on roads laid down by the Israeli government, use water supplied by the National Water Carrier of Israel, are “protected” by the Israeli Defense Forces, do their banking with Israeli banks.

Israeli maps no longer distinguish between the so-called Green Line (established in 1948) and Greater Israel. Israeli politicians routinely refer to “Judea” and “Samaria” as though they are Israeli provinces. Occupied East Jerusalem and its environs have long since been formally annexed.

Though Ben & Jerry's trumpets the distinction it is making between the settlements and the rest of Israel, the majority of Israeli lawmakers have themselves dropped the façade.

In a letter dated July 28, no fewer than 90 of the 120 members of the Israeli Knesset (parliament) declared that Ben & Jerry's divestment represented a boycott of “towns and cities in Israel.” As the Israeli journalist Mairav Zonszein pointed out, “The uniformity of official reaction in Israel [...] reflects an Israeli political consensus [...] that does not distinguish between Israeli territory within its internationally recognized 1948 borders and the territories it occupied in 1967.”

Ben & Jerry's is to be commended for taking a stand, especially since it knew in advance that it would immediately become the object of a ferocious backlash. But the company's action is nevertheless inadequate.

Not until Ben & Jerry's pulls its ice cream out of Tel Aviv and Haifa, Netanya and Beersheba - that is, out of all of Israel - should we give this venerable Vermont institution our unreserved approbation.

For the moment, the company's policy merits only two cheers.

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