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Lessons from the Ben & Jerry's boycott

Sep 06,2021 - Last updated at Sep 06,2021

Some expected that all hell would break loose when Ben & Jerry's, the ice cream company, announced that as of 2022 they would no longer license the sale of their products in occupied Palestinian territories. After an initial hysterical response from Israel and its supporters in the US, the story has largely faded from the news. This should not be interpreted to mean that it's over. Rather it's just another episode in a long-playing drama that will continue to unfold in the months and years to come.

There were several reasons why the official Israeli response to Ben & Jerry's decision was so intense: It is the most prominent American business to have taken such a stance; the company's commitment to promoting social justice has given it iconic status among American progressives; and its founders are Jewish Americans. 

Fearing that the Ben & Jerry's decision might embolden others to follow suit, the Israeli reaction was an exaggerated one with various leaders trying to outdo one another in expressing indignation in hopes that the "sound and fury" would be enough to discourage them.

Israel's president called the boycott an effort "to undermine the very existence of the State of Israel", terming it "a new form of terrorism". Others accused Ben & Jerry's of committing "a blood libel" or "a shameful surrender to anti-Semitism advocated by the Global BDS Movement that seeks the destruction of the State of Israel".

Israel's foreign ministry announced that it was writing to the 35 states across the US that have passed anti-BDS legislation, asking them to enforce their laws by punishing Ben & Jerry's. Prompted by some pro-Israel US groups, a handful of elected officials in a few states announced that they will be reviewing options, but thus far, little has been done. 

The initial hysteria, the scurrilous charges of anti-Semitism, and the effort to link Ben & Jerry's decision to the "Global BDS Movement" demand a response.

Ben & Jerry's has a long history of support for progressive causes. They have a board that helps shape company policies on issues from climate change to racial and social justice. For years, activists in the company's home state of Vermont and nationally have been pushing for this boycott noting that Israel's policies in the occupied lands were inconsistent with Ben & Jerry's mission to support social justice. The company has now agreed and taken the courageous step to pull their product out of Israeli settlements in the West Bank.

As Ben Cohen and Jerry Greenfield, the company's co-founders, noted in a New York Times op-ed they penned last month, it was justice, human rights and respect for international law that moved them to act, not hatred for Israel and most certainly not direction from some "Global BDS Movement".

This is what Israel and supporters of its policies won't let themselves understand. Because they either cannot bring themselves to find fault in Israeli behaviour or are simply incapable of breaking ranks with the Israeli government, they need to cast blame elsewhere. Instead of addressing the issues of the occupation and its attendant human rights abuses and violations of law, they have worked to defame critics or criminalise the actions of those who, like Ben & Jerry's, dare to say that in conscience they cannot continue to contribute to these abuses. 

In recent years, Israel has poured tens of millions of dollars into the campaign to make boycotting Israel illegal, with some limited success. To date, some 35 states have passed laws to that effect. Each time, however, that these laws have been challenged in court, they have been struck down as violations of free speech. And almost monthly, students at another college campus or leaders of another religious body affirm their intention to boycott Israel or call for sanctions against that state because of its violations of human rights and international law. Clearly, the effort to silence these critics has failed.

Israel is also losing the debate in US public opinion, especially among progressives and Democrats. A recent poll commissioned by the Arab American Institute found significant support for the boycott effort. By a margin of 43 per cent to 26 per cent American voters said that it was legitimate for opponents of Israel's settlement policies to call for boycotts or the imposition of sanctions to show displeasure with these policies. Among Democrats, the margin was 57 per cent to 15 per cent. And 49 per cent of Americans agreed with Ben & Jerry's decision to withdraw its product from Israeli settlements in the occupied West Bank, with only 31 per cent disagreeing with the company's decision. Among Democrats the margin was a substantial 65 per cent to 18 per cent.

And so after the all of the name-calling and fortunes spent to silence critics, the challenge to Israeli policies continue to grow. As for Ben & Jerry's, the company appears to have weathered the storm. It's still in business and still a leader in the progressive movement for social justice. It's not automatic that other companies will follow their lead. That will depend on whether grassroots activists are able to replicate the pressure campaign they mobilised to convince Ben & Jerry's to take action. One argument on their side in future boycott efforts is that companies needn't be afraid. That bridge has been crossed.


The writer is president of the Washington-based Arab American Institute

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