The Ben & Jerry’s Boycott That’s Not a Boycott
A company official says the ice cream maker’s decision to exit the West Bank is consistent with its values
Pro-Israel supporters spent Wednesday evening in Manhattan railing against Ben & Jerry’s.
Marching into Times Square and to the doorstep of the Ben & Jerry’s franchise location on W. 44th St., the demonstrators vowed they would no longer support the ice cream maker following its recent controversial decision not to renew its Israel licensee’s ability to distribute Ben & Jerry’s products in what the company described as “Occupied Palestinian Territory,” which, according to the company, includes the West Bank and eastern Jerusalem.
The Times Square franchisee caught wind of the protest ahead of time and closed the store in the afternoon. There was no one for the rally-goers to speak with except for passersby – many wondering what all the fuss was about ice cream, and assembled media. Little did they know that the man who is in charge of Ben & Jerry’s social mission – the mission whose self-described values led to the decision to exit the West Bank and eastern Jerusalem – was standing by the shop’s front door, quietly handing out water to policemen patrolling the rally.
Dave Rapaport, who has served as Ben & Jerry’s Global Social Mission Officer for the last three years, spoke exclusively with The Media Line about the company’s decision and its repercussions.
“People are free to have their opinions. We knew that people would be agreeing with this and disagreeing with this. We made the decision to end sales in the West Bank and east Jerusalem after years, literally, of consideration and fact-finding. So, while we very much respect the right of everybody to voice their opinions – and we’re certainly, as a company, no strangers to that, this isn’t certainly going to change our point of view or our decision,” Rapaport said.
“We believe that it’s just not consistent with our values to be selling ice cream in an area that is recognized internationally as an illegal military occupation where there is a great disparity of rights and human rights concerns. So, we’re staying with that and, as we’ve stated, we plan to stay in Israel, as well,” he said.
People are free to have their opinions. We knew that people would be agreeing with this and disagreeing with this. We made the decision to end sales in the West Bank and east Jerusalem after years, literally, of consideration and fact-finding.
There are a number of recognized military occupations around the world, including in Cyprus, where Ben & Jerry’s has a kiosk in the divided city of Nicosia. Rapaport said the situation in Israel and the Palestinian Authority is different and unique.
“If there were any place where, as is the case in the West Bank, ice cream is delivered over roads that Palestinians aren’t allowed to drive on and being sold in the stores as is often the case where they’re not actually able to get into to buy our product, if that were the case in other places, we’d consider making the same decision, but that isn’t the case anywhere else where we are selling ice cream,” Rapaport said.
He is referring to the approximately 40 km of roads in the West Bank near Israeli communities that, for Israeli-imposed security reasons, are accessible only to those with Israeli license plates, including Palestinians with Jerusalem residency. New roads that will have the same restrictions are variably in the planning or construction stages. The Palestinian Authority has similar measures in place for roads it controls in the West Bank, largely because neither the Palestinian Authority nor the Israel Defense Forces can guarantee the safety of Israelis traveling on them.
Then why didn’t Ben & Jerry’s find a way to distribute its product directly to the Palestinian market if it felt so strongly about it? Rapaport paused for a full 20 seconds before answering.
“The issue is that the human rights situation in the West Bank and east Jerusalem means that doing business there for us means that we’re complicit in an injustice that’s not consistent with our values and so we had to make the decision to end sales there as long as that continues,” he said.
New York State Assemblyman David Weprin, who spoke at the rally, counters that the human rights circumstances in the West Bank are no less the fault of the Palestinian Authority itself, and accused Ben & Jerry’s of hypocrisy, and even antisemitism, in pursuit of its social mission.
“The Palestinian Authority continues to engage in great injustices. Palestinians are denied the right to vote, women and LGBTQ people face violence and discrimination, journalists are stifled, and cruel and inhumane methods of torture are used. What about this is progressive? Where is Ben & Jerry’s’ outrage over this,” Weprin told The Media Line.
The decision by Ben & Jerry’s comes at a cost. Ben & Jerry’s and its parent company, Unilever, are facing consequences in a number of US states, 35 of which have some law or executive order on the books barring the state from doing business with any company that boycotts Israel and, in some cases, any territory that Israel controls.
A source in Israel’s Foreign Ministry told The Media Line that four more states, in addition to those that have already taken measures publicly against Ben & Jerry’s and/or Unilever, are going to announce action in the coming days and weeks. On Wednesday at the Manhattan protest, Weprin announced the filing of a new anti-BDS (Boycott, Divestment & Sanctions) law to replace the anti-BDS executive order of outgoing Gov. Andrew Cuomo. Anti-BDS measures have failed in the New York State legislature several times before, necessitating Cuomo’s order.
Ben & Jerry’s is trying a novel legal concept: avoid calling its action a boycott, even as the rest of the world – supporters and critics alike – use the term.
“We’ve been very clear that this is not a boycott and it’s certainly not a boycott of Israel. We are comfortable with that decision and we’re not concerned with any legal risks involved,” Rapaport said.
Rapaport says that Israel’s policies outside of its sovereign borders vis-a-vis the Palestinians won’t affect the company’s stance that it wants to keep operating in Israel, even though the country’s own anti-boycott laws make that seem unfeasible, at best.
“We operate in a lot of places where there may be policies that we find are inconsistent with our values, but this is not what that was about. We want to continue to be in Israel because we believe we have a chance to work with organizations and activists to try to make change there, just like here in the United States. So, there’s no reason to change that,” said Rapaport.
We’ve been very clear that this is not a boycott and it’s certainly not a boycott of Israel. We are comfortable with that decision and we’re not concerned with any legal risks involved
Still, the company continues to sell its product in countries like the Philippines and Singapore, which consistently rank poorly on global surveys of human rights abuses. Rapaport could not cite any other country besides the US and Israel where Ben & Jerry’s is pursuing a social justice campaign based on the policies of a government.
“We have ongoing activism campaigns in support of NGOs here in the US that are working for criminal justice reform. We work for changes to stop climate change, we’re working for refugee asylum rights in Europe, we’ve worked around the world for LGBTQ rights. So, we will certainly continue to do that,” Rapaport said.
Kalman Yeger, a New York City Council member, has noticed what he says are such omissions and inconsistencies in Israel-boycott policies from companies like Ben & Jerry’s.
“The lies and propaganda being promulgated by the BDS movement have to be addressed and they have to be challenged. We can’t let it go unanswered. And the things that they say about Israel, even if they believed it – why doesn’t BDS boycott, divest and sanction any other human rights violator in the world? Not Cuba, not Saudi Arabia, not Iran. They have no problem with any place else except for Israel,” Yeger told The Media Line.
Yeger said this within earshot of Rapaport, not realizing the opportunity he had to directly engage with the source of his anger. As Yeger turned down the street, Rapaport turned his attention to his franchisee, who, less than an hour after the protest ended and the street cleared, was ready to open for business again. Five feet from the door remained an ice cream truck with an Israeli flag on its hood, a stark reminder that the controversy is not going away anytime soon.