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Icy response to Ben & Jerry’s decision to exit settlements

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Kosher supermarkets are rethinking their inventory. Politicians are emptying their freezers. And the foreign minister of Israel is vowing to get involved in local American politics.

The reactions were all part of the firestorm that quirky ice cream manufacturer Ben & Jerry’s set off on Monday morning, 19 July, with its announcement that it would no longer sell ice cream in “occupied Palestinian territory”.

The Vermont-based company, founded by two Jews and long known for its left-leaning politics, had gone dark on social media for two months since the recent outbreak of violence in Israel and Gaza. The announcement broke that silence, simultaneously infuriating Israel advocates who said the decision was an unfair attack on Israel, and disappointing pro-Palestinian advocates who said the company should have gone further.

Israeli politicians, supermarkets in the United States, various pundits, and even Ben & Jerry’s current Israeli licensee went after the ice cream maker and its corporate parent, British multinational Unilever, for its statement. (The company’s Jewish founders, Ben Cohen and Jerry Greenfield, no longer manage the brand, but have often used their frozen treats to push social-justice causes.)

Reactions from Israel’s leaders were harsh. In spite of the distinctions Ben & Jerry’s made in its statement between Israel and the “occupied Palestinian territory”, Prime Minister Naftali Bennett, a long-time supporter of the settlements, called the decision a “boycott of Israel” and said Ben & Jerry’s “decided to brand itself as an anti-Israel ice cream”. His predecessor, Benjamin Netanyahu, tweeted, “Now we Israelis know which ice cream NOT to buy.”

Israeli Foreign Minister Yair Lapid, the architect of the current ruling coalition, who is generally to Bennett’s left regarding the Palestinians, went even further, calling the decision a “shameful surrender to antisemitism, to BDS [the Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions movement], and to all that is wrong with the anti-Israel and anti-Jewish discourse”. He called on US states to take domestic action against Ben & Jerry’s based on state laws that prohibit the government from contracting with entities that boycott Israel.

Israeli cabinet minister Orna Barbivay posted a TikTok video of her throwing a pint in the trash; the flavour she tossed couldn’t be determined at press time.

Other Israeli public figures appeared to compare the ice cream company’s settlement boycott to terrorism. Eran Cicurel, an editor at Israel’s public broadcaster, tweeted that the colour scheme on Ben & Jerry’s statement was similar to that of the flag of the terror group Hamas.

Amichai Chikli, a right-wing legislator in Israel’s Knesset, tweeted, “Ben & Jerry’s you picked the wrong side”, and posted an infamous photo from 2000 of a Palestinian who had just killed two Israeli soldiers displaying his hands through a window, covered in the soldiers’ blood.

American Jewish groups offered varied responses to the company’s scoop that mapped to their political orientation.

Jeremy Ben-Ami, the president of the left-leaning Israel advocacy group J Street, said that Ben & Jerry’s was drawing “a principled and rational distinction between commercial transactions in the state of Israel and those in the territory it occupies”, and said the term “antisemitism” didn’t apply to the company’s actions.

Daniel Sokatch, chief executive of the left-wing New Israel Fund, said that Ben & Jerry’s wasn’t being antisemitic in exiting “occupied Palestinian territory” because “these lands aren’t sovereign Israel”.

“Attacking people who try and distinguish between sovereign and non-sovereign Israel by calling them antisemitic is to evade a matter of fact, abuse the meaning of ‘antisemitism’, and ultimately gaslight those who would try and work towards a future of equality and justice for Israelis and Palestinians alike,” Sokatch said in a statement.

The Anti-Defamation League, a centrist group, said it was “disappointed” by the move. “You can disagree with policies without feeding into dangerous campaigns that seek to undermine Israel,” it said, but refrained from calling for specific action.

And the right-wing Zionist Organization of America called for a boycott of the ice cream, proclaiming that Ben & Jerry’s is “bad for your moral and physical health”. The call was echoed by others such as Jewish conservative commentator Ben Shapiro, who said he would stop eating the brand.

Vermonters for Justice in Palestine, an activist group based in Ben & Jerry’s home state that has been leading a years-long campaign against the ice cream maker for doing business in Israel at all, said the move didn’t go far enough.

“By maintaining a presence in Israel, Ben & Jerry’s continues to be complicit in the killing, imprisonment, and dispossession of Palestinian people and the flaunting of international law,” the group’s president, Kathy Shapiro, said in a statement. A related group, Occupy Burlington, had been a driving force behind the most recent social-media push against Ben & Jerry’s.

Meanwhile, CodePink, an international left-wing women’s group, praised the decision for showing that pressure works. But the group also said the company should do more.

“Ben & Jerry’s included in the statement that they will be remaining in Israel,” said Danaka Katovich, a Middle East campaign coordinator for CodePink. “I hope Ben & Jerry’s continues to listen to Palestinians and their demands moving forward, and will recognise that Israel’s system of apartheid exists not only in the occupied territories but from the Jordan River to the Mediterranean sea.”

The Israeli licensee of Ben & Jerry’s, which operates a factory in the town of Be’er Tuvia, took to social media hours after the announcement to denounce the American corporation and its parent company. It called on Israeli consumers to continue purchasing the ice cream brand because hundreds of local workers needed their support.

In a recorded video, Chief Executive Avi Zinger said he had been notified earlier on Monday morning that the company wouldn’t renew his license when it expires at the end of 2022.

“They did this because we wouldn’t agree to stop selling ice cream in all parts of Israel,” Zinger said. “The reason they did that is because of BDS pressure. We aren’t surrendering, and it’s important that you support us.”

In happier times for Ben & Jerry’s Israel relations, the company made a concentrated outreach to its customer base with original, Israel-exclusive flavours, including charoset and matzah crunch – both certified kosher for Passover.

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