What You Need to Know About the Ben & Jerry’s Israel Debate

July 21, 2021

The decision by Vermont-based ice cream company Ben & Jerry’s to end sales of ice cream within Israeli settlements on Occupied Palestinian Territory has sparked a national and international debate.

With passionate arguments online, incendiary responses from senior Israeli political leaders, and the threat of possible legal action against Ben & Jerry’s over the decision by state governments in the US, let’s set the record straight on what this debate is (and isn’t) about.

Why is Ben & Jerry’s Stopping Sales in Occupied Territories?

Ben & Jerry’s has announced it will no longer sell its products in Israeli settlements in the occupied West Bank. “We believe it is inconsistent with our values for Ben & Jerry’s ice cream to be sold in the Occupied Palestinian Territory,” the company said in a statement. “Although Ben & Jerry’s will no longer be sold in the OPT, we will stay in Israel through a different arrangement.”

The company said the decision came following “concerns shared with us by our fans and trusted partners” about its sales within Israeli settlements which have been constructed by the Israeli government on Palestinian territory in violation of international law. The American ice cream company, now owned by the British multinational consumer goods company Unilever, is known for its progressive advocacy and — along with its two Jewish co-founders — has a record of supporting voting rights, climate change and racial justice causes, among others.

Despite a large volume of misinformation online, the company is not boycotting Israel, has not endorsed BDS, does not operate in countries such as Russia and China and has the support of both Bennett Cohen and Jerry Greenfield, the company’s two Jewish cofounders.

The Israeli government’s work to expand settlements in Palestinian territory, beyond Israel’s internationally recognized pre-1967 armistice line (also known as the ‘Green Line’), is a violation of international law and a major obstacle to reaching a comprehensive peace agreement.

Human rights advocates, including within Israel, argue that Israeli settlements and the infrastructure that support them deny Palestinians access to their land and are designed to entrench a system of permanent Israeli control over Palestinian territory on the West Bank — a system which denies millions of Palestinians the right to vote, freedom of movement and self-determination.

Is Ben & Jerry’s Boycotting Israel or Supporting the BDS Movement?

NO. The Ben & Jerry’s statement clearly indicates that the company intends to continue selling products in Israel, just not beyond the Green Line in the territory Israel occupies.

One of the reasons the company’s decision has caused such an outsized response is because it comes as part of a broader debate about the Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions movement. The Palestinian-led global BDS movement argues for boycotts and sanctions against all business ties with Israel, in protest against the occupation, the ongoing conflict, and human rights violations against Palestinians.

Nothing in the Ben & Jerry’s statement endorses the global BDS movement. Indeed, the stated intent to continue sales within Israel is in clear opposition to the BDS movement’s call for a complete end to commercial engagement with Israel.

Why Is There So Much Controversy Around the Decision?

Ben & Jerry’s is being accused — by Israeli government leaders and some right-leaning pro-Israel groups — of embracing the BDS Movement, attacking Israel and even of “surrendering to antisemitism”. Many others in the American Jewish community have rallied to the company’s support and have sought to make clear that opposition to unlawful settlements on Palestinian land is not discriminatory or antisemitic.

Israel’s Prime Minister Naftali Bennett, whose own political career has long relied on close ties to the settlement movement, has warned that the parent company of Ben & Jerry’s, Unilever, will face “severe consequences” and has called on individual states in America to invoke “anti-boycott” laws to punish Unilever by cutting all contracts or commercial ties with the company. Israel’s Ambassador to the United States has described the ice cream company’s decision as “discriminatory and antisemitic.”

Within the United States, the response has been more nuanced. The majority of American Jewish voters support a two-state solution and oppose the growth of Israeli settlements in the West Bank. At J Street, which advocates for an end to the occupation and settlement expansion, we have insisted that individuals should be free to protest and speak out against violations of human rights and international law without being labeled as antisemites.

J Street opposes the Global BDS movement and neither supports nor opposes boycotts of settlement products. We’ve emphasized that Ben & Jerry’s has stated they will continue their sales in Israel and are not boycotting the country.

“When a major ice cream company originally founded by two Jewish entrepreneurs decides not to sell its products in the occupied territories, that isn’t antisemitism,” said J Street’s president Jeremy Ben-Ami. “The fight against antisemitism would be helped a great deal if the Israeli government and US Jewish leaders would stop using the term against those who draw a principled and rational distinction between commercial transactions in the State of Israel and those in the territory it occupies.”

Why is Israel calling on American Leaders to Punish Unilever?

Senior Israeli officials have called on state governments in the United States to invoke “anti-BDS laws” to punish Unilever by boycotting its products in state government contracts. In recent years, constitutionally dubious anti-BDS laws or “anti-boycott” laws have been passed in dozens of states and are designed to penalize individuals or corporations that somehow engage in boycott or divestment from Israel, and to prevent state governments from engaging in any official business with those entities. In some cases, they also apply to individuals or corporations that choose not to engage in commercial activity in settlements beyond the Green Line.

Organizations including the ACLU, J Street and T’ruah oppose these laws on free speech grounds, and because they have the potential to be weaponized against political opponents and to silence Palestinians and human rights advocates — while doing nothing to ultimately help the interests of the Jewish community or Israel. Several laws have already been ruled unconstitutional by federal courts in states such as Texas, Arizona and Kansas. In a number of cases, J Street and T’ruah have worked together with First Amendment attorneys to file amicus briefs against these laws.

“No matter how strongly you might disagree or oppose the rhetoric or goals of specific movements and efforts, the right to boycott is an important part of our democracy,” J Street’s president Jeremy Ben-Ami has said. “Such efforts to restrict the constitutional rights of supporters of the Global BDS Movement ultimately only serve to garner more attention for their movement.”

​​Whether the states will actually invoke anti-BDS laws against Ben & Jerry’s depends on a range of factors, including whether the company’s actions constitute a boycott under the text of each law, whether individual state officials want to take legal action, and whether courts uphold or strike down the laws on constitutional grounds.

How can I protect the rights of Ben & Jerry’s (and all Americans) to protest settlements?

From bad faith claims of antisemitism to calling for the punishment of those protesting the occupation, the response to the Ben & Jerry’s announcement has been excessive and at times absurdly self-defeating.

At J Street, as a pro-Israel, pro-peace, pro-democracy organization that wants to see a peaceful end to the occupation and a better future for both peoples, we’re speaking out because everyone has the right to choose not to financially participate in the occupation and settlements — and to do so without being subject to punishment under the law or defamatory smears. We cannot allow supporters of Palestinian rights and critics of the occupation and settlements to be intimidated into silence when they raise their voices about real threats to Palestinian rights and Israel’s future as a democratic homeland for the Jewish people.

Rather than attack an ice cream company for making a principled decision about where and how it does business, we must instead confront the terrible cycle of injustice, retaliation and violence that undermines the rights of all Israelis and Palestinians to live in freedom, security and self-determination.