‘This is a highly volatile situation…’

‘This is a highly volatile situation…’

Local fallout from Ben and Jerry’s decision to leave the West Bank

A woman drives past a closed Ben & Jerry’s store in Yavne, south of Tel Aviv, on July 23. (Ahmad Gharabli/AFP via Getty Images)
A woman drives past a closed Ben & Jerry’s store in Yavne, south of Tel Aviv, on July 23. (Ahmad Gharabli/AFP via Getty Images)

It’s been a rocky road for Ben and Jerry’s Ice Cream these past couple months, and the path ahead is no smoothie.

On May 18, a week after Israel began responding with air raids to rocket fire from the Hamas-controlled Gaza Strip, the company’s social media feeds went silent.

This came as an apparent response to pro-Palestinian activists who were swarming the social media comments sections of Ben & Jerry’s to demand that it boycott Israel, although the company declined to comment.

The international ice cream brand, which has hundreds of millions of dollars in annual sales, typically posts to its Twitter, Instagram, or Facebook pages daily, including about the many progressive social causes that it supports. The silence was atypical for the company famously founded by two Jewish hippies in Vermont. Ben & Jerry’s, which launched in 1978, is known for its marketing strategy of appealing to social justice values.

Two months later, on July 19, Ben & Jerry’s finally posted to Twitter.

“Ben & Jerry’s will end sales of our ice cream in the Occupied Palestinian Territory,” the tweet said, pointing to a statement that declared  it “inconsistent with our values for Ben & Jerry’s ice cream to be sold in the Occupied Palestinian Territory (OPT).”

In the statement, the company said it was ending its partnership with its Israeli licensee when the agreement expires next year, and concluded, “Although Ben & Jerry’s will no longer be sold in the OPT, we will stay in Israel through a different arrangement.”

While the statement sent some Palestinian activists into moo-phoria, plenty of Jewish activists considered the decision half baked.

And quite possibly, worthy of sanction by American authorities.

In New Jersey, five Jewish federation leaders wrote to state authorities, urging that they investigate whether Unilever, the British-based company that acquired Ben and Jerry’s in 2000, be investigated for falling out of compliance with the state’s anti-BDS law.

The letters, addressed to Governor Phil Murphy and to Shoaib Khan, the acting director of the Division of Investment of the New Jersey Department of Treasury, noted that a 2016 law “provides that no assets of any pension or annuity fund under the jurisdiction of the Division of Investment in the Department of the Treasury, or its successor, shall be invested in any company that boycotts the goods, products, or businesses of Israel, boycotts those doing business with Israel, or boycotts companies operating in Israel or Israeli-controlled territory.”

The letter, which was signed by Jason Shames, the CEO of the Jewish Federation of Northern New Jersey; Dov Ben-Shimon, the CEO of the Jewish Federation of Greater MetroWest New Jersey; and the executive directors of three other New Jersey Jewish federations, said that Ben and Jerry’s plans to prohibit sales in the West Bank “fall squarely within the prohibited activities” defined by the law. They ask that the Division of Investment investigate the state’s investments in Unilever and “take appropriate and immediate action to sell, redeem, divest, or withdraw” such investments.

“It is fitting and appropriate that the State of New Jersey reaffirm its interest in viable trade and exchange with an ally of the United States and a vibrant economic partner of the State while demonstrating a swift response to those who discriminate against the Israeli people,” the letter said.

While the state had not formally responded by early this week, it is “aware and actively working on this issue,” according to Linda Scherzer, the director of the MetroWest federation’s Community Relations Committee.

She noted that Governor Murphy had been quoted as saying that he was “disappointed in the decision by Ben and Jerry’s,” and that a separate  statement by a press aide noted that “The Governor believes we must continue working toward the shared goal of peace and mutual respect.”

Ms. Scherzer said she was on a phone call with the Israeli consulate on Friday and told them that the federations were taking this action.

Also on Friday, former Governor Chris Christie weighed in on Twitter, writing that “The law is absolutely clear. Unilever has permitted Ben & Jerry’s to engage in conduct that violates NJ law. The Governor must order divestment by the state. That’s both what the law says and what it intended. I should know—I signed it.”

Last Thursday, the Israeli Foreign Ministry told all Israeli diplomats in North America and Europe to start a pressure campaign against Ben and Jerry’s, according to a report by veteran Israeli reporter Barak Ravid published on Axios.com on Tuesday.

“Israeli diplomats were instructed 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,” Mr. Ravid wrote.

“We need to make use of the 18 months that are left until the decision comes into force and try to change it,” the Foreign Ministry reportedly wrote to its diplomats. “We want to create long-term pressure on Unilever and Ben & Jerry’s by consumers, politicians, and in the press and social media in order to lead to a dialogue with the companies.”  

According to Mr. Ravid, “The Israeli government has formed a special task force to pressure Ben & Jerry’s ice cream and its parent company Unilever to reverse their decision to boycott Israeli settlements in the West Bank.”

When word of the Ben & Jerry’s decision came last week, several local kosher supermarkets announced that they no longer would carry the ice cream line. The Teaneck-based Kof-K kosher certification organization received calls demanding that it stop certifying the products. On Monday, Kof-K released a statement saying it would not pull the certification now, but would use its ability to pressure the company to change its policy. 

“Although Ben and Jerry’s and its parent company Unilever announced that they will not be leaving Israel, the KOF-K is quite concerned about Ben & Jerry’s decision not to sell to Yehuda and Shomron as of January 1, 2023,” the statement said, referring to the West Bank by the terms used by the Israeli government. “Unilever has committed that the company will adhere to their contract. The KOF-K has been in contact with the Israeli Government and the Yesha Council” — the umbrella body of Jewish settlements in the West Bank — “to determine the most effective way to respond. Based on the advice of the Yesha council the KOF-K will continue to fulfill its contractual obligations to Ben & Jerry’s while using its influence to make sure that this anti-Israel policy never becomes implemented. The KOF-K has expressed to Unilever and Ben and Jerry’s CEOs the negative repercussions of this policy.

“We encourage everyone to advocate on behalf of Israel. Please address your concerns about this policy directly to Unilever and Ben & Jerry’s. This is a highly volatile situation and the KOF-K remains in contact with the Israeli Government and the Yesha Council as the most prudent way to make sure the policy never becomes implemented,” the statement concluded.

At the same time, a growing chorus of progressive Jews in Israel and America is praising the boycott.

On Tuesday, a coalition of Israeli progressives took out a full-page ad in Haaretz, a left-leaning newspaper, to thank Ben Cohen and Jerry Greenfield, the Jewish founders of the eponymous ice cream company. The pair have not been involved in the company’s operations since 2000 and have not commented on the West Bank decision.

A range of Jewish and Arab public figures signed the ad. Some of the Jewish signatories are Zehava Galon, the former head of the left-wing Meretz party; Naomi Chazan, a former Meretz lawmaker and deputy Knesset speaker; Dana Olmert, the daughter of former centrist Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert; Michael Sfard, a prominent Israeli human rights attorney, and Ohad Naharin, the famed Israeli choreographer.

“We are writing to let you know that in Israel there are also other opinions,” the ad says. “Thank you for your commitment to Palestinian human rights.”

The ad comes on the heels of a letter signed by seven left-wing American Jewish groups, including J Street, the New Israel Fund, and the liberal rabbinic organization T’ruah, urging governors not to penalize Ben & Jerry’s or Unilever for the settlement boycott.

“Using the full force and power of government to penalize those who exercise their rights in opposition to Israeli policy does nothing but generate further attention and sympathy for boycotts, and frames backing Israel as being in opposition to fundamental freedoms in the minds of many Americans,” the letter says. “That is a strategic disaster for those, like us, who are trying to maintain and grow a healthy U.S.-Israel relationship.”

One North Jersey rabbi affiliated with T’ruah criticized the effort to penalize Ben and Jerry’s.

“Why would a state with an anti-BDS law want to divest from a company that’s selling ice cream in Israel? That seems counterintuitive,” Rabbi Elliot Tepperman, spiritual leader of Bnai Keshet in Montclair, said. “The anti-BDS laws undermine core principles of American democracy and do nothing to protect Israel. Both BDS and anti-BDS campaigns are unproductive. Instead, we need to rededicate ourselves to the hard, courageous, and creative efforts required to pursue peace and safety for Israelis and Palestinians.”

But Jason Shames, executive director of the Jewish Federation of Northern New Jersey, said that the Ben & Jerry policy meant that “Israel is being singled out yet again.

“At this point the world needs to say to the countries and people who don’t accept Israel’s right to exist: Too bad!”

“It’s horrible,” he said of the Ben and Jerry’s decision. “It’s a complete capitulation to the BDS movement. It’s disgusting. Israel doesn’t have a human rights problem — they have a media problem, and a problem with Muslim countries that can’t accept its existence. This is one of the most infuriating anti-Israel instances in fifty years.”

This rebuke from Ben and Jerry’s felt very personal to Mr. Shames.

“Every Thursday this summer, my daughter and I would go to Ben and Jerry’s. Every single Thursday. And now I’m not doing that any more. I’ll never touch that stuff again, even if they reverse it.”

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