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A protester against Ben & Jerry’s decision to boycott Israeli settlements sells ice cream at a demonstration in New York on August 12th, 2021.
July 5th, 2022
Last week, consumer goods conglomerate Unilever announced it had sold off its Ben & Jerry’s business interests in Israel to American Quality Products, the Israeli company that had long distributed Ben & Jerry’s ice cream in the region, including to Israeli settlements built on land taken from Palestinians. But Ben & Jerry’s—a US-based ice cream company, famous for its social justice bent, that was founded in 1978 and acquired by Unilever in 2000—is now attempting to stop Unilever’s Israel sale. Earlier today, the company filed suit against its parent company, arguing that Unilever breached its acquisition agreement with Ben & Jerry’s, which promises the ice cream brand autonomy on matters relating to its social mission. Ben & Jerry’s is asking a judge to block the Unilever sale, as well as for damages.
The escalating battle over the future of Ben & Jerry’s ice cream in Israel comes nearly a year after Ben & Jerry’s announced a boycott of Israeli settlements because, the company explained, it was “inconsistent with our values” for its ice cream “to be present within an internationally recognised illegal occupation.” Omar Shakir, the Israel and Palestine director for Human Rights Watch, told Jewish Currents that Ben & Jerry’s made that decision “to avoid complicity in serious human rights abuses and to avoid providing a veneer of normalcy to a situation of structural violence and apartheid.”
However, Unilever’s June 29th announcement that “Ben & Jerry’s will be sold under its Hebrew and Arabic names throughout Israel and the West Bank under the full ownership of its current licensee” has undermined the Ben & Jerry’s settlement boycott. Now, Israeli settlers will be able to enjoy ice cream that tastes like Ben & Jerry’s, even if the US company is no longer making the product (although it’s unclear whether this ice cream will use the same recipe as the US brand).
The Unilever announcement was taken as an immediate victory for Israel and its advocates. Yair Lapid, Israel’s Foreign Minister, and Orna Barbivay, Israel’s Economy Minister, welcomed the move as “an important victory of values against discrimination and antisemitism that is at the heart of the campaign to boycott Israel.” The Palestinian Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) National Committee, which spearheads the global movement to boycott Israel over its human rights abuses targeting Palestinians, and five other US-based Palestinian rights groups condemned Unilever for its effort to “appease Israel” and “attempt to subvert the principled stand by Ben & Jerry’s board.”
Unilever’s decision put an end to a lawsuit Unilever faced from American Quality Products’ owner, Avi Zinger, who had sued Unilever in US federal court in March, accusing Ben & Jerry’s of unlawfully breaching its licensing agreement.
The Unilever sale to Zinger was the successful culmination of a year-long effort to lobby the parent company to reverse its subsidiary’s decision. That campaign included Zinger’s lawsuit, accusations that Ben & Jerry’s was antisemitic for boycotting West Bank settlements, letters to the Securities and Exchange Commission accusing Unilever of violating financial disclosure rules, and pledges from seven states—Arizona, New Jersey, New York, Texas, Illinois, Colorado and Florida—to disinvest hundreds of millions of dollars from Unilever stock, in accordance with laws preventing state funds from going to companies that participate in the BDS movement. (In response to Unilever’s sale, Arizona, Texas, New York and New Jersey have pledged to review the inclusion of Unilever on their investment blacklists, while Florida and Colorado said they would not reverse their prohibitions on investing in Unilever.)
For Israel advocates, Unilever’s statement demonstrated the power of their campaign, which was meant to send a message to other corporations about what would happen to them if they heeded the Palestinian call to boycott Israel over its human rights abuses. “I expect, in the future, multinationals will think twice before they decide to ostracize Israel for BDS reasons,” said Michael Ashner, an investor who started the Coalition to Hold Unilever Accountable, which campaigned against Ben & Jerry’s boycott of settlements. “This has been a very costly and difficult period for [Unilever], and I am glad that they’ve come around to a different view.”
Still, close observers of the Unilever announcement said the reality of what the company did was more complicated than the tenor of Israeli press coverage—which portrayed the move as a full reversal of the Ben & Jerry’s decision—made it seem. Ben & Jerry’s is now out of the business of selling ice cream in Israel, and as the company pointed out in its own response to the Unilever announcement, “our company will no longer profit from Ben & Jerry’s in Israel.” In its place will be Zinger’s version of Ben & Jerry’s, marketed only in Hebrew and Arabic. “If the idea of the anti-BDS campaign is to compel international companies to operate in settlements, this is the opposite of that,” said Lara Friedman, president of the Foundation for Middle East Peace (and a Jewish Currents contributing writer). “This international company is now not operating in Israel or the West Bank.”
The US government review of the May killing of the Palestinian American journalist Shireen Abu Akleh found that Israeli soldiers were the likely source of the gunfire that killed her, but also said the bullet turned over to them by the Palestinian Authority was so damaged that a firm conclusion could not be reached, according to a State Department statement released Monday. The State Department also said Abu Akleh’s death was not intentional, instead maintaining that the killing was the result of “tragic circumstances” during Israeli troops’ confrontation with Palestinian militants in Jenin. CNN reporters, however, wrote that the evidence they uncovered during their investigation into Abu Akhleh’s death suggested that a soldier “targeted” Abu Akleh, a conclusion that upset Israeli officials. The State Department’s conclusion that Israel was responsible for Abu Akleh’s death also angered Israeli officials, according to The Times of Israel’s Jacob Magid. Israel had maintained in the killing’s aftermath that while it was possible an Israeli soldier killed Abu Akleh, it was also possible that Palestinian gunman had shot her. Palestinian officials, meanwhile, called on the US to hold Israel accountable for Abu Akleh’s death. The State Department’s statement also did not satisfy the Abu Akleh family. “[It] is frankly insulting to Shireen’s memory and ignores the history and context of the brutal and violent nature of what is now the longest military occupation in modern history,” a statement from the family reads in part. B’Tselem, the leading Israeli human rights group, also criticized the State Department. “It is not clear on what grounds does the US State Department seek to dismiss her killing as ‘the result of tragic circumstances’ and not as a crime for which those responsible should be held to account,” B’Tselem said in a statement.
- On Monday, Israeli officials announced the delay of a hearing that would have advanced the controversial settlement project known as E1. The settlement in question is particularly contentious because, if built, it would divide the West Bank into two, cutting off Palestinian access to East Jerusalem, the desired location for a Palestinian capital in an eventual Palestinian state. The timing of the July 18th hearing drew concern from US officials, as it would have taken place four days after President Biden, whose administration opposes the E1 project, visits Israel. On July 1st, 31 Democrats sent a letter to Secretary of State Antony Blinken, imploring the Biden administration to “continue holding firm” on its opposition to E1. “We urge you to continue emphasizing in the lead-up to this visit that settlement construction in E-1 remains a red line for the United States, and to use every diplomatic tool at your disposal to ensure that Israel does not further advance these devastating plans,” the lawmakers wrote.
Following a series of intra-coalition disputes on Israeli policy in the occupied Palestinian territories, Israel’s government collapsed last week, leading to the fifth Israeli election in three years. Naftali Bennett, Israel’s prime minister since June 2021, resigned from his seat, handing power over to the new prime minister, Yair Lapid, in keeping with the agreement between Bennett and Lapid upon forming their ruling coalition last year. Bennett also resigned from his position as head of the Yamina party, and is, for now, stepping away from politics. The government collapse sets up a referendum on whether Benjamin Netanyahu, the former prime minister, will return to power alongside his far-right allies, or whether Israel will return to the gridlock that characterized its elections in April and September 2019, when no party successfully formed a government.
- Richard Horton, the editor-in-chief of the prominent medical journal The Lancet, accused the World Health Organization (WHO) of practicing “statistical genocide” against Palestinians after the organization omitted the Palestinian population from a major annual report that chronicles the most recent data on health in countries around the world, +972 Magazine reports. After Horton raised his criticism, Middle East scholars published a letter in The Lancet in which they wrote that the “erasure and exclusion from history and from the present continue to be used against the Palestinian people as a weapon of war—a war in which even basic data on life and health are perceived as a threat, a threat to the uncovering of the truth: that Palestinians are here to stay.”
- Rep. Marie Newman, the progressive Illinois Democrat who was one of the most outspoken voices for Palestinian rights in Congress, lost her election bid last Tuesday to Rep. Sean Casten, a centrist who beat Newman by nearly 40 percentage points. Late last year, redistricting changes placed Newman in the same district as fellow progressive Rep. Jesus “Chuy” Garcia. But rather than face Garcia in a majority-Latinx district, Newman decided to take on Casten, another fellow incumbent, in Illinois’ 6th congressional district. Newman faced the opposition of the Israel lobby group Democratic Majority for Israel, which spent $540,000 against her. Newman was also dogged by corruption accusations—including that she promised a job to a Palestinian American professor and adopted her position in favor of Palestinian rights in exchange for the professor agreeing not to run against her in a district with a substantial Palestinian American population.
- The Jewish social group Avodah was mired in controversy last week after it parted ways with Anna Rajgopal, a Rice University student who was hired for a temporary position focusing on racial justice and Jews of color. The firing of Rajgopal came after a campaign waged by the right-wing group StopAntisemitism.org, a group that, much like blacklisting website Canary Mission, targets individuals with incendiary social media posts, often with the intent of getting institutions to fire those who have expressed solidarity with Palestinians. In this case, StopAntisemitism highlighted some of Rajgopal’s own incendiary posts, including ones in which she called supporters of Zionism “ugly.” Avodah said it does not make personnel decisions based on the demands of outside organizations, but many progressives criticized the social justice group for seeming to follow the lead of a right-wing organization. Critics of Avodah’s move pointed to emails published that showed Cheryl Cook, the head of Avodah, responding to right-wing pressure. “After looking more closely into statements made by Anna, we decided their comments were not aligned with Avodah’s mission,” Cook wrote in response to an email expressing criticism of their hire, according to right-wing blog Israellycool. “Anna was hired in a part-time summer role, but we don’t believe their publicly-shared values align with ours, and we are parting ways.”