Why is Israel angry with an ice cream brand?

U.S.-based ice cream brand Ben and Jerry has decided to stop selling its products to the Jewish settlements in the Israeli-occupied Palestinian territories.

July 23, 2021 03:25 pm | Updated July 24, 2021 07:46 am IST

A Ben & Jerry's ice-cream delivery truck is seen at their factory in Be'er Tuvia, Israel, on July 20, 2021.

A Ben & Jerry's ice-cream delivery truck is seen at their factory in Be'er Tuvia, Israel, on July 20, 2021.

Ice creams hardly play a role in international conflicts. But the U.S.-based ice cream brand Ben and Jerry’s decision to stop selling its products to the Jewish settlements in the Israeli-occupied Palestinian territories of East Jerusalem and West Bank has triggered an uproar in Israel, which has taken the battle against the brand to its parent company and 35 American States. Israel Prime Minister Naftali Bennett has warned Unilever, the London-based parent company of Ben and Jerry’s, of “severe consequences” over its subsidiary’s decision.

What’s behind the move?

In its July 19 statement, Ben and Jerry’s, known for taking up progressive causes such as Black Lives Matter, said the sales of its products in the occupied Palestinian territories was "inconsistent with our values". Israel seized the West Bank and East Jerusalem in the 1967 war and has promoted Jewish settlements in the territories since the 1970s. Currently, there are about 140 Israeli settlements in the West Bank and East Jerusalem where more than 6,00,000 Jews live.

Ben and Jerry’s, founded in the 1970s by two American hippies, operates in Israel through a licensee, Ben & Jerry’s Israel, which makes and distributes its products in Israel and the occupied territories. “We have informed our licensee that we will not renew the license agreement when it expires at the end of next year,” the company said. It added that it would seek another arrangement to sell its ice creams within the internationally accepted borders of Israel. The details of the new arrangement will be announced “when we are ready,” Ben and Jerry’s said.

The Palestine Solidarity Campaign, an activist group based in the U.K. that promotes boycotting Israeli goods, has welcomed Ben and Jerry’s decision. “This is Huge. Very important step by Ben and Jerry's and a message to all complicit companies. The tide of history is turning. #BDS,” the PSC tweeted on Monday. Activists who support the Boycott Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement has been campaigning for a years for economic measures to put pressure on Israel to change its policies regarding settlements and occupation of the Palestinian territories.

What’s Unilever’s position?

Unilever, the British multinational, acquired Ben and Jerry’s in 2000 for $326 million in an unusual agreement that allowed the brand to keep an independent board with the right to make decisions on its social missions and brand integrity. The decision to end sales to the Jewish settlements in Palestinian territories came from the Board.

In a separate statement, Unilever said “the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is a very complex and sensitive situation”. It added: “Ben & Jerry’s was acquired by Unilever in 2000. As part of the acquisition agreement, we have always recognised the right of the brand and its independent Board to take decisions about its social mission. We also welcome the fact that Ben & Jerry’s will stay in Israel.”

There were signs of tensions between the parent company and the independent board of Ben and Jerry’s. Anuradha Mittal, the Board’s chair, told NBC that Unilever issued the statement against the wishes of the Board. The Board issued a statement on Monday, accusing Unilever and its CEO of violating “the spirit and the letter of the acquisition agreement”.

Momentum for BDS?

Almost all Israeli leaders, from PM Bennet to former PM Benjamin Netanyahu, have responded strongly to Ben and Jerry’s decision.

Gilad Erdan, Israel’s Ambassador in Washington, has written to each of the 35 Governors of American States that have passed laws against BDS, urging them to sanction the ice cream brand. In the letter, a copy of which was posted on Twitter, Ambassador Erdan wrote Ben and Jerry’s decision amounted to “de-facto adoption of anti-Semitic practices and the de-legitimization of the Jewish state”.

In 2018, Airbnb announced it would remove listings on its website in the Jewish settlements in Palestine, but reversed the decision a few months later after having come under enormous pressure from Israel and a lawsuit in a federal U.S. court.

This time too, Israel is leaving no chance behind to mount economic and legal pressure on Ben and Jerry’s and Unilever to undo the decision.

The challenge Israel faces is that if Ben and Jerry’s sticks to its decision in solidarity with the Palestinians, it could set a successful precedent for other corporations and give a boost to the BDS movement.

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