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ice cream, ben and jerry's, boycott, israel, palestine

Melting Support for Israeli Apartheid

Why an ice cream company’s divestment decision matters. 

Words: Lauren Billet
Pictures: Alex Jones

Ice cream is a typical item of summer conversation. But this week, the frozen treat entered the sizzling political arena as Ben & Jerry’s announced that it will end sales of its ice cream in the Occupied Palestinian Territories. The private decision of this Vermont-based company is now a diplomatic flashpoint, as the Israeli government has formally written to 35 US Governors asking for their support in inflicting economic, reputational, and legal consequences upon the ice cream maker. Other proponents of Israeli policy claim the move is rooted in antisemitism — an argument deployed with regrettable frequency whenever an individual or entity critiques or imposes consequences against Israel for its apartheid policies. Even the Israeli prime minister vowed to respond “aggressively.” But what might appear like some half baked, political theater over a frozen dessert is actually an effective illustration of Israel’s strategy of strong-arming critics into silence. And if Ben & Jerry’s doesn’t melt under the pressure, it could provide an opportunity for progress in the liberation of Palestine.

Many Palestinians and allies are viewing Ben and Jerry’s decision as a win for the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement, better known as BDS or the BDS movement, which is a Palestinian civil society-led movement whose main call is for Palestinians and allies to implement and maintain the non-violent boycott, divestment from, and sanctioning of companies profiting from Israeli occupation “until Israel meets its obligation to recognize the Palestinian people’s inalienable rights to self-determination and fully complies with the precepts of international law” through ending the occupation, recognizing the full rights of the people whose land it occupies, and allowing for the Palestinian right to return. And given Ben and Jerry’s progressive reputation, advocates for Palestinian rights have been calling on the ice cream maker to stop profiting from sales in illegal settlements for years.

The BDS movement has, since its 2005 beginnings, been misrepresented by Israel and its supporters as the pinnacle of antisemitic action in support of Palestine despite the fact the movement targets the apartheid policies of the Israeli state, and not Judaism nor the Jewish people. Demanding respect for human rights and international law is a logical and human response to generational trauma and violence at the hands of the colonial settler state that is Israel. But rather than respect BDS as a time-honored form of nonviolent protest — one that should be welcomed in any true “democracy” — Israel’s right-wing government has sought to quash it beyond Israel’s borders.

Anti-BDS legislation currently exists in 35 of the 50 US states. While early anti-BDS legislation focused on academic boycotts at American universities, legislation has grown to limit the ability of a state’s freedom to make contracts and investments with entities participating in the BDS movement, as well as to seek “to redefine antisemitism to include criticism of Israel for use in discrimination complaints or criminal investigations.” Casting all criticism of Israel as antisemitic and hence discriminatory has significant legal and constitutional implications for American citizens and entities who wish to act in the interest of global human rights. It has even cost some Americans their jobs.

While Ben & Jerry’s decision may be the “first major test of American anti-BDS laws,” the focus of such a controversy should be on why such laws even exist: Israel is threatened by Americans’ long overdue recognition of its apartheid policies.

There are only 10 states within the US that have never implemented anti-BDS legislation at the state or local level. This isn’t to say that lawmakers have not tried. Take Oregon, for example: 6 resolutions seeking to penalize Oregonians for acting in solidarity with Palestine via the BDS movement have been introduced at the state level in the past 4 years. None have passed. While Delaware has not had state legislation introduced, its New Castle County introduced anti-BDS legislation in 2015; as with Oregon, the legislation ultimately failed. But it’s unclear how long that resistance will last.

While Ben & Jerry’s decision may be the “first major test of American anti-BDS laws,” the focus of such a controversy should be on why such laws even exist: Israel is threatened by Americans’ long overdue recognition of its apartheid policies.

The United States is Israel’s biggest supporter in all senses of the word. Not only does the US side with and protect Israel in international governing and judicial bodies, but it provides Israel with billions in security assistance and even has American police train with the Israeli Occupation Forces. In America’s era of collective (white) awakening to the realities of racism and police brutality, we must recognize that the quest for justice at home is directly connected to causes abroad like the liberation of Palestine. The questions that lawmakers of all levels need to answer are this: What right does Israel have to write to American governors asking them to impose such consequences against an independent US company? And why should American state governments prioritize the protection of the policies of a foreign government over the protection of the constitutional right to freedom of expression at home?

Unfortunately, Ben & Jerry’s decision may not last long enough to see these questions answered. The response to Ben & Jerry’s is reminiscent of the response to Airbnb’s 2018 announcement that it would remove listings “in Israeli settlements in the occupied West Bank that are at the core of the dispute between Israelis and Palestinians.” Responses to this statement were saturated with accusations of antisemitism and terrorism, similar to the response to Ben & Jerry’s. Under the pressure, Airbnb reversed its decision in 2019, prioritizing profit over humanitarian progress and justice for Palestinians.

Whether Ben & Jerry’s truly stands behind its progressive values is yet to be seen, but if they remain steadfast in their values and do not allow for the false claims of antisemitism to pressure them into reversing their decision, then they are advancing not only the BDS movement but the cold, sweet truth: That critiquing Israel is not an act of antisemitism but an act of justice and protection of human rights. It symbolically places activism for Palestinian rights right where it belongs, among the suite of causes a progressive company like Ben & Jerry’s should champion. And, importantly, it represents yet another crack in Israel’s apartheid wall.

Lauren Billet is the Communications Associate at the Center for International Policy. 

Lauren Billet

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