Fact Sheet: Ben & Jerry’s and the Occupation

Mark Lurinsky
on October 20, 2021
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  • What action has Ben & Jerry’s taken in regard to the occupation?  Earlier this year, the board of Ben & Jerry’s ice cream announced a decision to discontinue sales within settlements on occupied Palestinian territory, while continuing its business within the internationally recognized boundaries of Israel.  This new policy would go into effect at the end of 2022, when the company’s existing licensing agreement in Israel expires. This is a principled decision aimed at drawing a distinction between Israeli territory, and the territory it occupies.
  • Why is this important?  When the Israeli military took over the West Bank and Gaza in the wake of the 1967 Middle East War, the stated Israeli policy was that it would ultimately withdraw from these territories as part of a negotiated peace.  Instead of doing this, the Israeli government allowed and promoted first a trickle, and then a flood of settlement construction – including by a variety of religious fundamentalists and hard-core right-wing advocates of a “Greater Israel” – which established settlements in the territories and pushed out Palestinian families. The number of Israelis now living in settlements is close to half a million.  Under international law, the creation of such settlements is illegal.  U.S. official policy for many decades has also recognized that the creation and expansion of settlements is illegitimate and constitutes an obstacle to peace between Israelis and Palestinians. Within the territories, the Palestinian residents are subject to military rule and have no rights. Right-wing advocates are continuing to push for the expansion of settlements and the Israeli government is taking further to erase the “green line” – the recognized border between Israel and the territories, and to pursue a policy of de facto annexation, absorbing the territories into Israel.  Ben & Jerry’s announced new policy is one of a few creative protests to call attention to this harmful development and to signal the need for Israel to change course.
  • Is Ben & Jerry’s continuing to do business in Israel?  Yes. Despite falsehoods spread by bad-faith actors that this constitutes a boycott of Israel, this is not true. In a recent op-ed, the Jewish American company founders Ben Cohen and Jerry Greenfield (now both retired), have pointed out that Israel was one of their first overseas markets and stated, “we were then, and remain today, supporters of the State of Israel.”  They pointed out that in Ben & Jerry’s’ official corporate statement on its forthcoming move, the company drew a contrast between the democratic territory of Israel and the territories Israel occupies.
  • Why are some people pushing for New Jersey to ‘punish’ Ben & Jerry’s? Starting in 2016, New Jersey, along with various other states, enacted so-called “anti-BDS” statutes to signal official government opposition to and to strike back against the international Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement which has been protesting Israel as a country.  These statutes authorized punitive actions against companies and individuals who were deemed to be supporting the “BDS” boycott movement.  Many such laws have been challenged in court because they likely violate First Amendment rights.  So far every challenge to anti-BDS laws to have reached a ruling on its merits – all of which arose in the context of individual actions purportedly in violation of the laws – have resulted in the law at issue being struck down on First Amendment grounds.
  • What’s in the New Jersey’s law?  The New Jersey law prohibits investment of our public employee pension funds in companies that are deemed to be part of the “BDS” movement.  A particularly pernicious feature of the state law, which seems to be what is being cited in this case, is its expansive and vague definition of the “boycotts” which it targets as including “actions which … limit commercial relations [in] Israeli-controlled territory” Flying in the face of decades of official United States foreign policy, the law attempts to erase the difference between the State of Israel and the occupied territories with their illegal settlements.
  • Where do things stand now?  In early September, an officer of the New Jersey Treasury sent an official letter to Unilever, Ben & Jerry’s corporate parent.  The letter declared that our state would begin to sell-off its pension funds’ investments in their company after 90 days unless Unilever successfully appealed or else somehow reversed the announced decision of its ice cream seller subsidiary about the occupied territories.  Apart from the questions which are raised about the constitutionality of the New Jersey law or whether it would even apply to Ben & Jerry’s, it’s far from clear why this official state action is being done in so much haste, since Ben & Jerry’s announced policy change would not go into effect until at least January 2023.  It’s hard to escape the conclusion that our state government may be knuckling under to pressure for “blood” of Ben & Jerry’s and playing into the hands of politicians trying to create a “wedge” issue to distract from actual policy considerations.
  • Why are people smearing Ben & Jerry’s as ‘antisemitic’?  Given the continued relationship to the company of retired founders Ben Cohen and Jerry Greenfield, self-described “proud Jews”, it’s hard to believe that the company’s policy on the occupation is in any way intended to target Jews. In fact, Ben & Jerry’s ice cream has shown itself to be conspicuously responsive to Jewish cultural sensibilities — in 2015, the company created a Charoset-flavored ice cream to mark the Passover holiday. Ben and Jerry’s is also explicitly not targeting the State of Israel, only a specific, pernicious policy of the Israeli government.  Unfortunately, however, some organizations continue to conflate opposition to the Israeli government with antisemitism as an effort to smear and silence critics — a tactic which undermines the shared fight against real cases of antisemitism. Those claiming that somehow Ben & Jerry’s is “singling out” Israel for disapproval are promoting a bad-faith argument that relies on falsely equating the illegal settlements in the occupied territories with the country of Israel and then with Jews, and on guilt by association tactics by conflating the Ben & Jerry’s protest with the BDS movement. Not surprisingly, some of those trying now to tar the ice cream company’s reputation have beat the bushes to find or manufacture allegations suggesting that Ben & Jerry hasn’t been concerned about social and human rights concerns except for Israel.  These are classic “whataboutism” distractions from the issue of the occupation. The ice cream company has a long history of corporate social activism on any number of important domestic and international issues, including fighting back against climate change and insisting on equal rights for LGBTQ people.  It has also put its money where its mouth is by establishing the Ben & Jerry’s Foundation with 7.5% of the company’s pre-tax profits in 1985. Ben & Jerry’s policy against the deepening occupation of Palestinian territories is part of its broader social vision.

Want to learn more about the deepening occupation and de facto annexation of the Palestinian territories?  

Read Ben & Jerry’s Op-Ed in the New York Times >>

Read J Street’s Policy Position on Settlements >>

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