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.