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The ancient Jewish historian Flavius Josephus wrote his famous account of the Judean wars against Rome called The Wars of the Jews. Though some aspects of his account have been questioned given that he betrayed his people and went over to the Roman side, it is indisputably one of the great triumphs of Jewish historical writing.
As an indication of how low Israel has fallen, its fiercest defenders are now fighting an Ice Cream War of the Jews. Instead of Judean rebels fighting fiercely against overwhelming Roman odds, a bunch of Judeo-settler extremists are waging war against a corporate monolith, Unilever, for abandoning the Occupied Palestinian Territories as a market.
But make no mistake. This is not merely a dispute over whether a Jewish settler can enjoy a scoop of his favorite ice cream in the comfort of his settler home. The issues behind this dispute are of critical importance on many levels.
A bit of history is in order. Back in 1978, two young Jews from Long Island started a little business making what would come to be called artisanal ice cream (“super-premium” in market parlance) in a renovated gas station in northern Vermont. Their names were Jerry Greenfield and Ben Cohen. In some ways, their odyssey from New York mirrored that of Bernie Sanders, the child of Jewish immigrants who left Brooklyn for the wilds of Vermont a decade earlier.
Cohen and Greenfield originally intended to open a bagel shop, but the equipment necessary was too expensive. So they paid for a mail order course in ice-cream making and the rest was history.
This was back in the days of Deadheads, communes, and psychedelia. Ben & Jerry wore beards and favored t-shirts and flannel. Back in those days, nothing satisfied a drug-infused bout of munchies better than a spoon and a pint of Ben & Jerry’s.
The company gained a huge following especially for its guerilla marketing. At every rock and world music festival, you would find a Ben & Jerry’s vendor selling wonderful cool flavors like Cherry Garcia (named for Who Else?), Chunky Monkey, and one named for Woodstock MC and Bay Area counter-culture fixture, Wavy Gravy. More importantly, the company and its founders tapped into the political-moral zeitgeist with their embrace of the social justice values of the peace and civil rights movements of the 1960s and 70s. These progressive corporate policies earned huge brand loyalty which persists to this day.
As they aged and as the competition coalesced into ice cream makers backed by multi-national companies with huge marketing budgets and muscle for store placement, the founders decided to sell. In 2000, Unilever won the bidding, paying over $300-million to become the new owner. But Ben & Jerry scored a key concession: the company board of directors which had helped guide the company during its period of independence, would continue to serve the same role. This created a terribly unwieldy arrangement, in which a board prone to guerilla marketing, tie-dye shirts, and woke culture strove to maintain the authenticity of the Ben & Jerry’s brand in the face of the stolid corporatism of the foreign-based Unilever.
Further complicating this relationship is that Cohen and Greenfield appear to continue exerting influence within the company, especially in relation to the issue of Israel. A local activist with Vermonters for Justice in Palestine, Wafic Faour, told me that his NGO has begun a campaign asking other non-profits to refuse to accept grant-funding from the company, which hands out a percentage of its profits to groups pursuing its social justice values.
When Jerry Greenfield learned of this, he requested a meeting with the group during which they asked him about his views on Israel-Palestine, including the Occupation, Israeli settlements and the recent war in Gaza. Greenfield told them he had visited Israel five years ago, had not traveled to the Occupied Territories or Gaza, and had not met with any Israeli Palestinians. He refused to answer all questions about his views on the politics of the conflict.
But the very fact that Greenfield arranged this meeting testifies to his continuing impact on grant-making and even business decisions. Faour believes (these are his personal views and do not represent VJP) that Greenfield and Cohen were deeply involved in the decision to withdraw from settlements and in the decision to ignore the independent board’s directive to boycott all of Israel.
During their discussions with management, the group was told that Ben & Jerry’s Israel operation is not a money-maker. Thus, it seems the decision to do business in Israel, and the subsequent decision to leave the settlements have little or nothing to do with money and everything to do with politics. Cohen and Greenfield, as liberal Zionists, want to support Israel. But they also want to acknowledge the woke politics of their board and customers, which no longer are willing to stomach Israeli apartheid. So they’ve tried (and failed) to thread the needle.
Another lesser known aspect of B&J’s Israeli presence is its factory near Kiryat Malachi. Beer Tuvia, where the plant is located sits on the former Palestinian village of Qastina, which was depopulated by military order in 1948. In other words, it’s 1,000 residents were expelled from their homes as part of the Nakba. The ruins of the former village remain undisturbed nearby.
For several years, the board had wanted to honor the BDS call for companies to boycott Israel. It informed Unilever of its decision and…nothing happened. The Unilever-appointed CEO ignored the board and B&J continued to be sold in both Israel and the Occupied Territories.
When Uniliver was prepared to act, it released a statement that contradicted a dueling (unreleased) statement prepared by the board, which did not mention the Occupied Territories and implied Ben & Jerry’s would stop selling in Israel as well. The board now contends that the corporate release violates the 2000 terms of sale of the company. The lead director had an angry response:
“I am saddened by the deceit of it,” Mittal said. “This is not about Israel. It is about the violation of the acquisition agreement that maintained the soul of the company. I can’t stop thinking that this is what happens when you have a board with all women and people of color who have been pushing to do the right thing.”
When Unilever acquired Ben & Jerry’s in 2000, the companies crafted an unusual acquisition agreement that legally vested an independent board with control over the ice cream company’s social mission, brand integrity and policies. That means the board has to approve any changes to the product, licensing deals, new markets and social mission statements.
“It’s an amazingly unique acquisition agreement and really ties the hands of the CEO and Unilever,” Mittal said. “It was designed so that a progressive business could ensure its independence and protect its values when acquired by a large corporation.”
Now Unilever is getting it from both sides. While the board complains Unilever’s decision didn’t go far enough, a hue and cry arose from a different quarter: the Israeli government has mounted complaints about corporate anti-Semitism and economic terrorism targeting the “Jewish state.” The Israel Lobby is in full dudgeon and pulling out all the stops pressuring Unilever to renounce its decision.
But the company is in a legal bind. If it does so, it risks the independent board suing for breach of contract. If it maintains the boycott of the Palestinian territories it will face years of legal battles and boycotts of all Unilever products spurred by the Lobby and Israel itself. It puts Unilever between a rock and a hard place.
Israel Projects Its Power Worldwide
There is an entire industry devoted to projecting pro-Israel power in the corporate and political realm. That explains why 35 US states have anti-BDS laws, why 20 states have anti-Sharia laws, and why legal NGOs file scores of nuisance suits blaming Arabs and Iran for terror attacks.
The Israel Lobby has become not just a means of advancing Israeli interests abroad, it has become an extension of all of Israel’s other means of dominating its enemies and rivals. That includes its intelligence apparatus murdering Iranian scientists, its export of of the tools of the surveillance state, and even its military might. Von Clausewicz said that war was “a continuation of politics by other means.” But the reverse is also true in this case: Israel’s battle to criminalize hostile political-economic speech is a continuation of war by other means. All of these are part of an organic whole designed to protect the privileges and power Israel has enjoyed for over 70 years.
The lawsuits mentioned above are the product of the lawfare NGO, Shurat HaDin, closely associated with Israeli intelligence circles. In this case, it has filed an Israeli trademark for “Judea and Samaria Ben & Jerry’s” ice cream. It intends to rip-off everything about the legitimate product including labeling and ingredients to create ice cream celebrating Israeli settlerism. Though on its face, it’s a ridiculous suit, that’s not the point. Lawfare is a political-legal strategy meant to keep the pro-Israel narrative in the public mind and to draw blood from corporations who refuse to capitulate to it in their business decisions. The goal is to bend risk-averse senior Unilever executives to its will and force them to end the boycott.
An Israeli class-action lawyer has filed a $5-million lawsuit on behalf of her son, a soldier imposing Israeli control in the Palestinian Territories. She claims that he has been harmed grievously by his inability to enjoy his favorite scoop as he fires live ammunition at Palestinians protesting the illegal Occupation and theft of their lands. Further, the poor lad has been shamed and his reputation blackened by the boycott’s claim Israel is a racist apartheid state. While we may laugh at how ridiculous and patently self-serving such lawsuits are–it’s important to realize they are part of a larger lawfare strategy in which the legal system is appropriated on behalf of the battle for Brand Israel.
So far, in the case of the Ice Cream Wars, it hasn’t worked. Unilever hasn’t released any statement since the original one announcing the settlement boycott. But it remains to be seen whether it will stay the course or retreat, as AirBNB did a few years ago.
Israel has implemented a scorched-earth policy regarding this controversy. Unilever faces a full-court press of hasbara, breaking out the most egregious victimization tropes. The prime minister accused the company of being anti-Semitic (as if refusing to recognize Israel’s illegal settlements was a crime against the Jewish people). Pres. Isaac Herzog went a step further. He called the boycott terrorism: economic terrorism to be specific, designed to destroy the Israeli state. What’s critical to note here is that Israeli officials are tacitly stating what they’ve refused to admit in practice: there is no difference between Israel and the Territories. They are one and the same.
The importance of this distinction is that it confirms a two state solution is dead. Israel-Palestine is a single entity from the river to the sea. Just as Israel boasts about Jerusalem being its capital, “eternal and undivided,” this dispute points to the fact that the Green Line is a mirage. There is no distinction between Israel and the Palestinian Territories. That means one thing and one thing only: the only just solution is one-state. If Israel treats itself as a single entity then the world must follow suit. It must stop the vain exercise in futility that is the two-state solution.
Power of Boycott as Protected Speech
The boycott has exposed another troubling aspect of Israel’s policies. It is not satisfied merely to impose its will inside its own territory. Of course, it projects its power regionally within its forever wars against neighboring states (Palestine-Gaza, Lebanon, Syria, Iran). But it’s far more ambitious, even interfering in the domestic affairs of foreign states like the US and UK. The Al Jazeera documentary, The Lobby (UK), exposed a plot by Israeli intelligence officer working out of the Israeli embassy to destroy the political career of a junior Tory minister who was deemed insufficiently obsequious to Israeli interests.
Here in the Pacific Northwest, Israeli then-deputy foreign minister Danny Ayalon, told Israeli TV that the StandWithUs lawsuit against the Olympia Food Coop for boycotting nine Israeli products was part of an official state policy to attack delegitimization, wherever it reared its ugly head. Another lawsuit was filed against a Brooklyn food coop.
Israel has declared the BDS movement an existential threat to its existence. It has pulled out all the stops in fighting it tooth and nail around the world. That’s why it has activated the Lobby to write anti-BDS legislation and pass it in 35 states. So far, those cases which have challenged these laws have resulted in losses as political speech of this sort is constitutionally protected by the First Amendment.
Boycotts in general have a long history in the US and Britain (the word itself derives from an English land agent, Charles Boycott, whose tenants protested against rapacious rent increases). These laws also would have criminalized the boycott movement against South African apartheid; and Martin Luther King’s Montgomery bus boycott, a key tool of the early civil rights movement, which transformed Rosa Parks from a tired housemaid into a national hero. Finally, Caesar Chavez’s Farmworkers grape boycott of the late 1960s became a powerful tool to recognize the labor rights of one of America’s most oppressed classes, Mexican-American farmworkers. To echo Stokely Carmichael: boycotts are as American as apple pie. They are a critical moral and political tool in the fight for social justice. It may take years before such cases wend their way to the Supreme Court. But even a right-wing majority should recognize this is protected speech. If so, Israel and its Lobby allies will lose yet another battle in the fight to preserve a racist apartheid system.
Israel has set up a major battle for the hearts and minds of American consumers: the quintessential American business success story allied with quintessential American values of fairness and justice; against an Israeli monolith seeking to grind such companies and their values into dust. Frankly, we can safely predict that no matter how hard it tries, this is a losing proposition in the long-and possibly even short–term.
Justice Tastes Better Than Complicity: Ben & Jerry’s must now end all business with apartheid Israel.
— Movement 4 Black Lives (@Mvmnt4BlkLives) July 22, 2021
Another way in which such a battle will strengthen forces inimical to Israeli apartheid is by summoning the Black Lives Matter movement to the cause. Already, there have been such statements of solidarity for Ben & Jerry’s stand. The movement for intersectionality, amidst these international struggles for social justice and political rights, can only be strengthened.
But the anti-boycott legislation raises an even more important point: it interferes with internal political processes inside this country. When Russia subverts our elections as it did in 2016 in a successful effort to make Trump president, we justifiably rail against such outside interference. We name and shame the Russian officials behind such perfidy. We target their technology and infrastructure and sabotage it so the outsiders know they will pay a price for their effrontery. What about Israel? Why do we permit it to do what we deny to other countries? We are a sovereign nation. We don’t brook such meddling. As far back as the founding of the nation, George Washington warned us not to become entangled in foreign alliances and affairs for fear it would lead us into the same quicksand as it had the European powers. Though this has never stopped the impulse for American empire over the centuries, it has instilled in us a revulsion against those who seek to sabotage our own domestic politics.
Israel deserves the same opprobrium we reserved for Putin and his agents. It deserves the same level of outrage. Americans must come to see such projection of Israeli interests and power, not as a legitimate form of lobbying but as unwarranted subversion of the American political process. That will happen gradually if we continue electing progressive candidates to Congress. It will happen if we combat the millions thrown by the Democratic Majority for Israel (Aipac’s astro-turf Democratic affiliate) to defeat progressive candidates like Jamaal Bowman, Bernie Sanders, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and now, Nina Turner. We must tell Israel, the Lobby, and wealthy Jewish donors who advance their interests–enough is enough. These donors must understand that they’re doing Israel’s bidding, not America’s.