To Eat More or Less Ben & Jerry’s? Israelis Conflicted Over Response to Settlement Boycott

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Young fans of Ben & Jerry's ice cream at the local franchise's scoop shop in Yavneh, central Israel, earlier today.
Young fans of Ben & Jerry's ice cream at the local franchise's scoop shop in Yavneh, central Israel, earlier today.Credit: Ilan Assayag

Hagit and Benny Rockah have been living with their eight kids in the central Israeli city of Yavneh for three years now. Tuesday afternoon was the first time they ever ventured into the local Ben & Jerry’s scoop shop – one of only two remaining in the entire country.

“We’ve come today with a clear message,” says Hagit, after checking to make sure the shop had kashrut certification. “We’re here to show our solidarity with the local franchise owner who stood up to Israel’s haters. When the world is against us, we have to show even more support for one another.”

It was barely a day since Ben & Jerry’s issued the dramatic announcement that it would stop selling ice cream in West Bank settlements, citing “concerns shared with us by our fans and trusted partners.” 

The new policy will not take effect immediately but at the end of next year, when the company’s contract with its Israeli franchise holder expires. The franchise owner had refused to comply with the demand to stop selling the ice cream in the West Bank. The Vermont-based company, which is owned by Unilever, said it planned to continue selling its products in Israel “through a different arrangement.”

As her husband and two daughters choose their ice cream flavors, Hagit volunteers that they are a “Likudnik family” and strongly support the Jewish settlement enterprise in the West Bank, which she refers to as “the Greater Land of Israel.”

“I invite others like us to come here and show this guy that we’re right behind him,” she says.

Dahlia, who asked that her last name not be published, is rummaging through the freezers at the back of the store, looking for her favorite “Peanut Butter Cup” flavor. 

“Oh there it is,” she exclaims, proceeding to load six pints into her shopping bag.

A retired social worker, she lives nearby and says she wouldn’t dream of buying another brand of ice cream. She usually comes when she needs to refill her freezer, but today she made an exception since she is not yet out of stock. “I wanted to show my support for the local franchise,” she says. “There’s another year-and-a-half left before his contract runs out, so we should use that time to buy as much ice cream from him as we can.”

Will she continue buying her favorite brand once the settlement boycott takes effect? “I’m not sure,” Dahlia says.

A couple ordering ice cream at the Ben & Jerry's scoop shop in Yavneh today.Credit: Ilan Assayag

Facing a dilemma

In the early afternoon hours of a stiflingly hot summer day, customer traffic at the ice cream shop is surprisingly light. There are no long lines at the counter and many of the tables are empty. It might have something to do with the location: The scoop shop is situated conveniently next door to the factory where Ben & Jerry’s produces ice cream for the local market. But that means it’s also smack in the middle of an industrial zone where there is not much else to do nearby.

Israelis are still figuring out how they should respond to the change in policy announced by one of their favorite ice cream brands. Those who appreciate Ben & Jerry’s taking a stand against the occupation (probably only a minority, with not even one representative of this group among the customers at the scoop shop Tuesday afternoon) will have less of a problem: They can continue to purchase the brand, perhaps with even fewer pangs of guilt. 

By contrast, those who take issue with the new policy face a dilemma – or will face one when the new policy takes effect. 

Right after Ben & Jerry’s announced the boycott, Economy and Industry Minister Orna Barbivai (from the centrist Yesh Atid party) posted a video of herself on social media taking a container of their ice cream from her freezer and dumping it in the trash can. 

Several customers at the scoop shop Tuesday admitted to having a similar urge, until they gave it a bit more thought. 

A youngster stocking up on Ben & Jerry's at the Yavneh store today. Credit: Ilan Assayag

Chaim Shmila, a bus driver whose route begins in Yavneh, says he was initially very angry at the company and resolved not to buy its products anymore. “But then I thought, why should I take my anger out on the franchise owner? If anything, I should try to give him more business.”

Nor can he be that angry at the two guys behind the famous brand: Ben Cohen and Jerry Greenfield. “They’re our Jewish brothers,” he says, “even if they’re, how do you call them, ‘progressives.’ It makes sense, though, that they turned out that way. After all, they come from the same state as Bernie Sanders – another one of those so-called Jews.”

Oren Levy, a marketing executive who lives in Rehovot, is a regular at the Yavneh scoop shop (the other Ben & Jerry’s scoop shop in Israel is located further south, in Be’er Tuvia). “I bring my mom to Yavneh once a week for a dentist’s appointment, and if she behaves well I take her out for ice cream after,” he relays with a smirk.

Levy, who describes himself as an “absolute leftist” and a strong supporter of Palestinians rights, says he is nonetheless opposed to the new Ben & Jerry’s policy. “It’s bad and mean,” he says. “My initial reaction was that we should boycott them back. But then I began thinking about this guy here who owns the franchise and I said to myself it’s not his fault. We should be supporting him.”

When asked how he proposes ending the occupation, which he says he opposes, Levy responds: “Not through violence, and that includes economic violence – which is what this is.”

Pnina, who asked that her last name not be published, holds similar political views. She strongly opposes the Israeli occupation, but says “this is not the way to fight it.”

A couple eating ice cream at the Ben & Jerry's shop in Yavneh today. Credit: Ilan Assayag

“I think children who live out there should be able to enjoy Ben & Jerry’s ice cream as well,” the retired schoolteacher says. 

She calls the new company policy “terribly annoying.” But then, on second thought, adds: “Maybe it’s high time that we resolved this issue of the occupation.”

By contrast, Yossi, an electronics technician, says he is a big believer in the settlement movement. Asked what he will do when the Ben & Jerry’s settlement boycott takes effect, he says: “I will probably stop buying their products.” 

Avi, a resident of Yavneh, hasn’t yet figured out where he stands on the boycott issue, “But one thing’s for sure – my kids are not giving up on ice cream,” he says.

His adolescent son Gal wants to know why there are so many news photographers at the scoop shop this afternoon. His dad explains that Ben & Jerry’s announced it will no longer be selling its ice cream “in certain places where Jews live.”

“Why would it decide that?” the son asks.

“It’s complicated,” the dad responds.

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