Israel Fears More Companies Will Follow Ben & Jerry’s Boycott

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Lids of Ben & Jerry's ice-cream tubs are seen as a labourer works at their factory in Be'er Tuvia, Israel July 20, 2021
Making Ben & Jerry's ice cream at Be'er TuviaCredit: RONEN ZVULUN/ REUTERS

Ben & Jerry’s announcement on Monday that it will stop selling its ice cream in the Israeli settlements in the West Bank has raised concerns that other multinational corporations could start shunning the settlements as well.

It remained unclear whether the decision was final, and whether Unilever, the conglomerate that owns Ben & Jerry’s, agreed to it. An Israeli political source told Haaretz on Monday night that “Ben & Jerry’s isn’t the only company in BDS’ sights.” It’s hard to know whether the ice cream maker’s move will influence other companies, the source added.

Ben & Jerry's announcement was followed by sharp rebukes from Israeli leaders, including Prime Minister Naftali Bennett, who accused the Jewish-founded company of antisemitism, and Foreign Minister Yair Lapid, who threatened to appeal to American states to apply their anti-boycott laws to punish the Vermont company.

Bennett also called the CEO of Unilever, which owns Ben & Jerry's, to tell him that that Israel "will act aggressively against any type of boycott against its citizens."

Behind the scenes, sources described the move as a strategic maneuver to extricate the company from the barrage of criticism by pro-Palestinian activists. An Israeli source called the boycott decision "disorganized" and devoid of economic and business sense. "It was designed to relieve the pressure on the company in recent months. The announcement talks of ceasing activity in a year and a half. What will happen then? Nobody actually knows,” the source said.

The ice cream maker’s announcement followed a decade of pressure by pro-Palestinian groups supporting the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement against Israel. Over the years, representatives of Ben & Jerry’s visited Israel to study the conflict first-hand. A representative of Israel’s Foreign Ministry even visited Ben & Jerry’s plant in Vermont. Sources in Israel said that BDS activists put pressure not only on Ben & Jerry's, but on American NGOs collaborating with the company in its social initiatives. Lately the pro-boycott pressure mounted, mainly after the fighting between Israel and the Gaza Strip in May. Amid online backlash, Ben & Jerry’s stopped posting entirely on social networks during May.

Ben & Jerry’s is not the first company to declare its intention to operate strictly within the Green Line, the demarcation line before the 1967 Six-Day War that separates Israel and the West Bank. In recent years, several companies, investment funds, and institutions said they would boycott the settlements, though some reversed course.

In 2018, Airbnb announced its would remove listings in West Bank settlements. After a few months, following pressure, the company reneged on that decision. In 2014 the Dutch pension giant PGGM divested its holdings in all five major Israeli banks because they have branches in the West Bank and finance settlement construction. In 2013, the McDonald’s franchise in Israel refused to open branches in the West Bank. And until 30 years ago, a long list of international companies had refused to operate in Israel at all because of the Arab boycott.

Aside from boycotting business in the settlements, some international investors have also engaged in secondary boycotts of foreign companies to them to desist from operating in the West Bank settlements. In 2014, the Presbyterian Church divested holdings in Motorola, HP and Caterpillar because of their involvement in the settlements.

Not only businesses call for boycotts of the territories. The European Union itself made Israel’s access to the Creative Europe program, which grants hundreds of millions of euros in support to cultural and arts projects, conditional on Israel agreeing not to use funding on projects beyond the Green Line.

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