Ben & Jerry’s New York Times Treacle
Ben Cohen and Jerry Greenfield, founders of Ben & Jerry’s, published an op ed in yesterday’s NY Times, about the controversy over Unilever’s decision to abandon the Occupied Territories as a market for their ice cream. In it, they strongly affirmed their commitment to the partial boycott (though they didn’t use the term and couldn’t for reasons I’ll explain), while rebutting charges from the Israel Lobby that the decision was anti-Semitic.
The piece, with the testosterone-infused slogan-title, We’re Ben and Jerry. Men of Ice Cream, Men of Principle, does little to end the controversy and is far from the demands of the Palestine rights groups which have been lobbying for a decade for a full company boycott of Israel. That’s why, instead of associating themselves with feel-good products and slogans like ice cream” and “principles,” their argument was cloying, sentimental treacle. For example:
In its statement, the company drew a contrast between the democratic territory of Israel and the territories Israel occupies. The decision to halt sales outside Israel’s democratic borders is not a boycott of Israel. The Ben & Jerry’s statement did not endorse the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement.
As the recent reports by B’Tselem and Human Rights Watch confirm, there no longer is any distinction between Israel and the Territories. They are both a unified system of apartheid from the river to the sea.
It’s a long-used liberal Zionist nostrum that Israel is a “liberal democracy.” This enables a separation between the Occupation from Israel itself, and so redeem the latter, while condemning the former. But this is no longer a credible moral stance. Israel itself has abandoned democracy in favor of Judeo-supremacy. This is shown not only via the 50 laws which discriminate against Palestinian citizens of Israel; it is also inscribed in the Nation State law which explicitly states that the country exists by, of, and for Jews. Among other things the legislation specifically abandoned Arabic as one of the country’s national languages and Islam as one of its recognized religions.
While Israel has not formally annexed the Territories, it maintains full control over all of it. Even areas in which the PA is supposed to have full control are routinely invaded by Israeli forces who arrest Palestinians, and destroy homes, businesses and non-profit offices. In Gaza, Israel maintains a two decade illegal siege of the enclave, including control of ingress and egress, fulfilling the international definition of a military occupation. In addition, Human Rights Watch just released a report finding that Israel’s attack on Gaza last May constituted war crimes. It urged the International Criminal Court to include these events in its ongoing investigation, which the outgoing chief prosecutor said she would do during the war.
It’s also curious that the two company founders suggest their support for leaving the settlements under the mantle of international law, claiming B&J’s stance is in accord with its own social justice principles. In fact, Greenfield attended a meeting with local BDS activists, after he heard they were urging human rights NGOs who took corporate grants to turn them down. At this meeting, Greenfield told the attendees he had visited Israel, that he had not visited the Palestinian Territories, nor had he met any Israeli Palestinians while he was in Israel. When asked about his views of the Israeli Occupation, settlements, and Israel’s May attack on Gaza he demurred. He refused to answer all questions of a political nature. Clearly, Cohen and Greenfield’s commitment to social justice principles concerning Palestine are more motivated by board and activist pressure than by moral values.
As Israel’s behavior continues to betray all the principles which the company purports to hold dear, concepts like BDS and Israeli apartheid will become normalized for the American public. This, in turn, will force Ben and Jerry and their company to adapt to changing moral realities and accede to the full demands for justice and Palestinian rights.
Boycott: the Movement That Dare Not Speak Its Name
While the op-ed renounces the concept of boycott, this is a matter of semantics. The company’s decision to leave the Territories at the end of its current contract in a little over a year is a partial boycott. But the only viable, morally sound position, as the above argument makes clear, is a full boycott of Israel and the Territories.
Neither the NY Times piece nor the Unilever statement use the term boycott because there is an Israeli law prohibiting support for BDS. There are also 35 US state laws against the practice (though every court case appealing against these individual laws has found them unconstitutional in federal courts). The founders of the company seem to have adopted a legal strategy that by rejecting the term they’ve inoculated themselves against the arguments that will be used in the scores of cases which will arise from this decision.
However, there is no way to thread this needle. The thread of Israeli racism is too thick and the eye of Israeli apartheid needle is too small.
One of the more disturbing claims by the Israel Lobby is that both the company decision to leave the settlements and the Palestinian pressure on Ben & Jerry’s is anti-Semitic. Bill Daroff, CEO of the far-right President’s Conference says that the Palestinians are “singling out Jewish-owned businesses.” That’s of course utter nonsense. First, Cohen and Greenfield no longer own the company. But even if they did, this is an issue of justice. It has nothing to do with religion. Everything to do with politics. Israeli apartheid is unjust and must be confronted. No one has said a word about religion. At least no one on the Palestinian side. The only party raising the issue of religion is the Israel Lobby itself. In doing so, it is exploiting Judaism for the sake of Israeli political power. A phenomenon that is deeply objectionable.
Another alarming aspect of the controversy is the ongoing silence of the independent board of directors, whose mission is to uphold the social values of the company and ensure its marketing is in accord with this message. After Unilever announced it would leave the Territories, the board released a strong statement criticizing it. The board had prepared its own statement whose intention was clearly that the company would leave Israel entirely at the end of the contract. It also clearly enunciated the board’s power and responsibility to make such decisions, even if Unilever disagreed.
Since that initial statement, the board has remained silent. Now, we must find out if the board has been cowed by the founders or whether it retains the ability to make and implement decisions independently.
Finally, make no mistake: though Ben and Jerry say that they retain no operational control over the company they sold to Unilever in 2000, that is not true. Proof of this is in the names attached to the op-ed. It was not signed by a company executive, but by the two of them. They retain tremendous authority to chart the company’s course. And they have chosen one that will satisfy neither their detractors from the Israel Lobby or from the Palestinian human rights movement.
23 thoughts on “Ben & Jerry’s New York Times Treacle – Tikun Olam תיקון עולם إصلاح العالم”
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Rich, granted that I don’t know even a fraction of the history, law, or policies, much less the realities on the ground that you do, but IMO, this article is good, sound, logical.
Question: do you and Counterpunch have a workable relationship? I’d like to see their analyses of the situation (understatement of the year) and reactions to your articles.
@ Sisyphus: First, Counterpunch doesn’t pay for articles (at least they haven’t paid me). Second, I’ve pitched them in the past and often gotten no response. Third, I do like Counterpunch and would be happy to publish there.
What country besides Israel has the Ben and Jerry’s Board of Directors voted to Boycott?
Has the B&G Board divested from another country, say China or KSA?
‘Unilever…has annual revenues of $61 billion (£45 billion) and its products are available in over 190 countries and maintains corporate offices in numerous human rights-abusing countries, including China, Pakistan, Russia, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, Venezuela, Vietnam and Zimbabwe.
Unilever is reportedly a major purchaser of tomato paste from state-owned factories in China’s Xinjiang region, where the U.S. State Department says China is engaged in “horrific abuses.” In January 2021, the U.S. government halted the import of all such tomato paste into the U.S., citing the use of forced labor that amounted to “exploiting modern slavery.” Yet neither Unilever nor Ben & Jerry’s appears to have ever taken action against China’s massive human rights violations in Xinjiang.’
So Ben and Jerry’s Board had no problem with their parent company in bed with repressive and genocidal regimes.
But Israel, the Board has a big problem with.
“Now vee may perhaps to begin. Yes?”
Ben and Jerry’s social and political activism do not have to meet any requirements to be considered as such, but it is varied. Given the long history of occupation and the fact that B&J are blatantly Jews and that this is subtly or not so subtly part of their image they needed to act. It’s taken them years. I read the pressure started in 2012, at least. I doubt they are selling in Tibet. Also I don’t believe that complaints about Unilever’s activist policies are valid with regard to Ben and Jerry’s own as the recent Newsweek article does.
@ Jack Hoffman: Whataboutism, Jack. It’s a tired, hackneyed hasbara ploy. The truth is B&J doesn’t have any other markets similar to Israel. It has no stores in China, Russia or Saudi Arabia. But even if it did, there are no movements by human rights activists calling for business boycotts of China or Saudi Arabia. But since human rights in those countries interest you so much, I suggest you start such movements. And if you don’t you’re a f*ing hypocrite.
How much business Ben & Jerry’s has in China, Russia or Saudi Arabia isn’t the issue.
The issue is that the Ben and Jerry’s board of directors is uniquely positioned to challenge their parent company’s (Unilever) policies of doing business with corrupt, repressive and genocidal regimes, but instead of meeting that challenge, the Board grabs for the low hanging fruit and boycotts Israel.
The board’s actions in this regard aren’t necessarily hypocritical, but rather suggests a certain lack of courage, an unwillingness to speak truth to power.
The charge of inconsistency and hypocrisy don’t hold. Neither Ben and Jerry’ nor in fact Unilever have to take a stand against every injustice. But Ben and Jerry are compelled to take a stand here as much as any if not all Jews with a moral conscience are, as Israel’s behavior reflects on all Jews.
The inconsistency, and illogic, of your argument is glaring.
In effect, what you’ve said is that as a Jew, I’m morally bound to stop my Jewish neighbor from beating his wife, but I’m less morally bound to stop my gentile neighbor from raping and strangling his wife.
I believe the greater injustice is the one that should be met first.
No. I said Jews are being represented by Israel. Israel (politically) claims to be the homeland of the Jews. We can run there or just go there and live with special status as citizens. Netanyahu called all Jews to come to Israel. Jews support Israel. (Got it?) Therefore I am compelled as a Jew to take a stand one way or another. Jews like Ben and Jerry are taking a stand about about injustice, about international law. Overdue. I am not, nor is Ben and Jerry or any other Jew so compelled so strongly or at all in your other cases or in all cases of injustice, though for sure we do. Why?- because this reflects, by inference, on ME. (Got it?)
I also wish to point out that this “whataboutism” ADMITS to Israel’s injustice by comparing to these other countries.
PS- Rather, those who support Israel unconditionally are inconsistent and hypocritical when they criticize say KSA or Russia or China about essentially the same issues of human rights.
Israel is the homeland of the Jews – but only once these Jews make it their home.
A Jew that lives in a far-away country has no right to participate in any internal decisions, nor enjoy any of whatever Israel has to offer.
A Jew that lives in the US is a citizen of US, not Israel. Period.
Your comment is off – as if you would say that every Catholic in the world decides on what the Vatican should or shouldn’t do..
Who died and made you King of the Jews?? And you represent whom precisely? Don’t speak for anyone or anything but yourself. You’re don’t define the rights and obligations of Jews in Israel or anywhere. The day I need to get your permission to speak about Israel is the day the earth stands still.
As long as Israel claims to speak for me I have a right to speak about it. As long as Israel wants US aid, I have a right to speak about it. As long as Israel schnorrs from American Jews I will speak about Israel. But I have a deal for you: you get Israel to stop taking all aid from the US, stop fundraising in the US, and stop claiming that it speaks for world Jewry, and I’ll gladly butt out. How about it?
@ Jack Hoffman: That was your last comment in this thread. Ben & Jerry’s is a subsidiary of Unilever. Subsidiaries don’t tell the corporate honchos what to do, who to sell to, which markets to abandon. You clearly don’t have a clue how large corporations and small subsidiaries work.
“Subsidiaries don’t tell the corporate honchos what to do, who to sell to, which markets to abandon. You clearly don’t have a clue how large corporations and small subsidiaries work.”
Ben & Jerry Anuradha Mitta must not have gotten the memo either, because she just tore her corporate boss a new one after Uniliver issued a statement that deferred to Ben and Jerry’s much vaunted social agenda and affirmed it would continue to offer its products in Israel.
Anuradha Mittal, lashed out at Unilever, saying the B&J board had not been consulted on this statement and did not support it.
In an interview with NBC News immediately following the release of the Unilever statement, Mittal accused her corporate boss of having been deceitful, adding, “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.”
So a subsidiary board chair can call her corporate boss deceitful and implicitly racist and misogynistic.
Jeez, Richard. What’s it you say subsidiaries can’t tell their corporate honcho?
@ KC: Mittal does not have a “corporate boss.” She is Ben & Jerry’s board president. She doesn’t answer to anyone. Her board is “independent” as negotiated in the sales contract with Unilever.
On the other hand, she has no sway over Unilever and really has nothing to do with Unilever except in terms of her role at B&J. And then, its usually her telling Unilever about what her board has decided regarding marketing B&J.
you are so right! This tired lousy excuse of “blah blah blah women of colour” – as if anyone really paid attention to her colour.
She is just full of herself…
Offensive, misogynist and racist. Only a male could say something so disgusting. I wish I could transform you into a woman of color and then have you tell me that someone calling you a “cheap Hindu whore” has nothing to do with your gender or color.
You are now moderated. Do not attempt to post in this thread again, and do not post more than 3 comments in any 24 hr period.
@richard – you are wrong. There are movements by human rights activists calling for business boycotts of China or Saudi Arabia.
I guess you didn’t bother checking the facts before responding.
Such movements exist not in far-away countries – but even in the US and Canada, led by survivors of the oppressive regimes of China and the KSA.
You call @Jack Hoffman a hypocrite – but in fact those who cherry-pick topics for human rights “championing” are the real hypocrites.
The “social activism” of the lunatic board of B&J is definitely cherry-picking.
@ Alex: The board of directors of Ben & Jerry’s is NOT a “lunatic board.” I find that comment deeply offensive and put you on notice that you could be moderated if you publish future comments here. Be careful who & what you insult.
There may very well be calls for boycotts of other countries than Israel. But if they exist they have not gathered anywhere near the traction and support BDS has. I would suggest you don’t have a clue about the social justice/human rights agenda of the B&J board. Your ox was gored and you’re pissed. You could give a shit about the other guy’s ox.
[comment deleted: major comment rule violation. Palestinian denial is absolutely forbidden here. You are now moderated. Your next comment rule violation leads to outright banning.]