Israel seeks to punish Ben & Jerry’s

I have written before about how the government of Israel, faced with rising global criticisms of its apartheid policies towards Palestinians, has started passing laws in US states that make it an offense to support things like the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) movement that “works to end international support for Israel’s oppression of Palestinians and pressure Israel to comply with international law”. In other words, Israel wants to punish speech that is critical of it. They have been successful in 35 states in passing such laws.

They now have a bigger target because the popular ice cream company Ben & Jerry’s has announced that they will no longer do business in the Occupied Territories. Israel has announced that they will be taking legal action against the company, once again dragging out the dreary old charge of anti-Semitism that is thrown at anyone who has the temerity to criticize its policies.

Israel’s prime minister vowed Tuesday to “act aggressively” against the decision by Ben & Jerry’s to stop selling its ice cream in Israeli-occupied territories, as the country’s ambassador to the U.S. urged dozens of state governors to punish the company under anti-boycott laws.

Israel’s Ambassador to the United Nations and the United States, Gilad Erdan, sent letters to 35 governors whose states have laws against boycotting Israel asking that they consider speaking out against Ben & Jerry’s decision “and taking any other relevant steps, including in relation to your state laws and the commercial dealings between Ben & Jerry’s and your state.”

Erdan said Israel views the company’s decision as “the de-facto adoption of anti-Semitic practices and advancement of the de-legitimization of the Jewish state and the dehumanization of the Jewish people.”

Does the government of Israel they not realize that this over-the-top rhetoric alleging anti-Semitism has long since lost its bite from overuse?

But even some of Israel’s supporters said the company was on solid ground.

Jeremy Ben-Ami, president of the liberal pro-Israel group J-Street, said it was not antisemitism to differentiate between Israel and settlements built on occupied territory.

“Instead of demonizing and attacking companies and individuals for making principled decisions,” he said, “these leaders would make a greater contribution to the fight against antisemitism by helping to bring the unjust and harmful occupation to a peaceful end.”

The battle comes against the backdrop of shifting U.S. attitudes toward Israel. Where Israel once enjoyed solid bipartisan support in the U.S., the country has turned into a divisive issue in recent years, with Republicans strongly supporting it and Democrats, especially young liberal voters, increasingly supporting the Palestinians.

Several factors have fueled this trend, including former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s close alliance with former President Donald Trump.

Michael Oren, who served as Netanyahu’s ambassador to the U.S., said the trends were worrisome for Israel.

While he said the Ben & Jerry’s decision posed no immediate threat to Israel’s robust economy, he said the boycott movement could contribute to a “steady erosion of Israel’s legitimacy.”

It is one thing for individuals, who can be intimidated by the cost of mounting a legal defense, to be threatened with legal action by an entity with deep pockets, like a nation. But states may be hesitant to take on a popular company like Ben & Jerry’s since it may cause a backlash and it has the resources to defend itself. The real question is whether governments of US states, while willing to pass laws to placate the Israel lobby, will be willing to actually incur the costs of prosecuting violations of a law designed to serve the interests of a foreign country.


  1. blf says

    As I understand it, the local independent franchise had refused to boycott the occupation, with lead to Ben & Jerrys refusing to renew their contact when it ends about 18 months from now. When that happens, they will indeed be boycotting the occupation, and (unless a new franchise or whatever is found), also Israel. (Possibly also Palestine, I don’t know the full territory covered by the current franchise? Nor do I know if Ben & Jerrys is looking for a new franchisee or whatever.)

    Originally, the anti-BDS Israel-is-never-wrong nutters called for Ben & Jerrys in Israel to be boycotted, but after the franchise pointed out such a boycott would “harm” them, they reversed position — and sales are up, according to the franchise, by 21%.

  2. Bruce says

    Unilever is fairly big, so it will be hard to intimidate their Ben and Jerry’s line. Also, letting their Mideast contract expire is likely not actionable in law, and is likely a net benefit in terms of worldwide sales. Most who care about this issue will buy more B&J, not less, worldwide.

  3. Reginald Selkirk says

    OT: Cleveland’s baseball team announces name change. Check your news feed.

  4. mnb0 says

    @3 Bruce: “Unilever is fairly big”
    Unilever’s revenue in 2019 was 52 billion Euro.
    Israeli government expenses in 2011 were 76 USD.
    So you made quite an understatement.

  5. garnetstar says

    I thought that in the US, and I suppose Israel, our god is capitalism, under which companies get to make whatever business decisions (like, not to renew a contract) they felt like? No matter how sociopathic or anti-whomever.

    Johnson & Johnson has decided to no longer sell its famous baby powder in the US, because they just lost an (admittedly ridiculous) lawsuit over it. So, they’re not allowed to do that, because anti-US, or something?

    As for “the boycott movement could contribute to a steady erosion of Israel’s legitimacy”? Hey! You noticed! And, I must say, their actions are doing that mighty fine, that is the *reason* for the boycotts.

    Gotta say to Israel, you may think that one company won’t affect your economy, but there is an inevitable end to this road, and that is South Africa. How did that work out for them?

  6. says

    I think you missed the most important part, Mano.

    Israel’s new PM called B&J’s decision “terrorism”:

    “The boycott against Israel is a new type of terrorism — economic terrorism. Terrorism that seeks to harm Israeli citizens and the Israeli economy. We must oppose this boycott and terrorism of any kind,” Herzog said during his remarks at a memorial event for former prime minister Yitzhak Shamir.


    Having only 3 ice cream brands to choose from instead of 4, unless you drive a few dozen kilometers, of course, where you get your old choice back, that’s now “terrorism”.

  7. sonofrojblake says

    the government of Israel[…] has started passing laws in US states

    I mean, there’s suggesting there might be a worldwide conspiracy of Jews running things, and then there’s saying that the government of one country is just straight up passing laws in other countries.

    I know what you meant, but for goodness sake be careful what you say because the charge of anti-Semitism is the most toxic in the world and bad faith actors absolutely WILL weaponise it, even against Jews (see so they’d have no hesitation using it against someone like you, and I hate to see that work.

  8. Who Cares says

    Religious fanaticism trumps economic fundamentalism. Might want to look up what the fundamentalist evangelicals in the US want to do with Israel and then remember that there are enough of them that if Biden had veered to much of the script, the one the fundagelicals demand with regards to Israel, during the 2020 election that Trump would have won.

  9. garnetstar says

    WhoCares @10, you’re quite right. The US won’t be jumping on any boycotts soon.

    I recall that Mano wrote (or, someone commented) that the US didn’t get behind the boycott of South Africa until the cold war was over and we didn’t need S. Africa to be our ally in the proxy wars anymore. So, not hoping for much from the US now.

    But, Israel is definitely moving down that pariah road, and I think a lot of countries will be heading towards that stance to Israeli apartheid. Not the US, of course! That’ll be the last thing ever.

  10. anat says

    Back when I was growing up in Israel plenty of international companies refused to export their products to Israel due to threats of boycott by the Arab nations. So we did not have McDonalds, Burger King, nor Pepsi products (Coca Cola was selling there anyway). We had local knock offs -- McDavid, Burger Ranch etc. Then in the early 90s (I think, if I remember correctly) the various companies started selling to Israel. (Not that I cared much then, as I only rarely consumed such products back then and nowadays all such products are off my menu between being vegetarian and various health concerns.) IOW Israel lived without many international franchises and can adapt to living without them again (though it is always harder to give up something one is used to having than not having it in the first place). It really shouldn’t be a big deal for the Israeli consumer, but of course it is a reason to make a lot of political noise.

  11. consciousness razor says

    garnetstar, #11:

    I recall that Mano wrote (or, someone commented) that the US didn’t get behind the boycott of South Africa until the cold war was over and we didn’t need S. Africa to be our ally in the proxy wars anymore. So, not hoping for much from the US now.

    It was before the end of the Cold War, if that’s understood to mean Christmas 1991 and the dissolution of the USSR, rather than something that’s still happening today … but only several years earlier.

    For some more info, the wiki articles on South-Africa — US relations and the Comprehensive Anti-Apartheid Act of 1986 (vetoed by Reagan but overridden by the House and Senate).

    Although we were for the most part supportive or at least accepting throughout the apartheid era (including some arms sales, as we’ve been doing with a bunch of countries), I wouldn’t say we ever had the sort of special friendship like we’re supposed to have with Israel now. They were just pawns for us, and they could provide some of our industries with useful stuff. Our current relationship with Israel is … not that.

  12. Aashiq says

    Here is what I predict will happen. Israel will coerce the Unilever Board to reverse Ben & Jerry’s decision. The reason is not economic, it is political. It is a question of breaching the wall that protects Israel from criticism by whatever means necessary. The book “The Iron Wall” by Avi Shlaim discusses this strategy, which has been operative for decades.

    Israel today is protected from any and all criticism, legitimate and otherwise, as though it were a sacred object. Once you start establishing criteria to make a distinction, you open the door to more critics. The most efficient method which has worked so far has been zero tolerance.

  13. jenorafeuer says

    Thing is, Unilever by contact can’t just unilaterally reverse Ben and Jerry’s decision. My understanding is that part of the contract when Unilever bought out B&J was that B&J themselves would still have some say in marketing and politics, specifically because their progressive stances had been so much a part of their brand. So if Unilever actively tries to overrule Ben and Jerry on this, they’re then in breach of contract and technically wouldn’t be allowed to use the Ben & Jerry’s name.

    So you’ve had the head of Unilever making comments that shows he doesn’t want to alienate the Israeli hardliners, but he hasn’t gone so far as to try to reverse things because he knows what a shitstorm that would stir up.

    And, honestly, the fact that the stance here has been specifically about operations in the occupied territories makes it a whole lot more specific, and makes the Israeli hardliner over-reaction look even worse.

  14. Aashiq says

    It may be true that Unilever can’t legally reverse B&J’s decision. However, the stakes are too high for the Israelis to let it be, if the decision stands it would be the “hole in the dike”. I believe they will keep working on it, using business and personal angles, until B&J relents.

    Every B&J decision maker will be personally worked on till they change their decision. Bet on it….

  15. jenorafeuer says

    Oh, most likely. But you better believe this will cause pushback. Given the past activities of B&J, and the fact that they had enough clout and foresight to write that into the contract in the first place,I fully believe that B&J would rather pull the brand from the market entirely rather than go back on this. And they wouldn’t be shy about saying why, either.

    (I mean, these are the guys who actually managed to get approval from The Grateful Dead, a notoriously cautious band with regards to merchandising rights, to call one of their ice cream flavours ‘Cherry Garcia’.)

    When it starts being framed as ‘You can’t buy Ben & Jerry’s anymore because the Israeli government threw a tantrum’, that’s going to cause a public outcry far beyond most of the previous anti-BDS measures, because that’s going to be something that hits people personally.

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