WASHINGTON - Ben & Jerry's announced Monday that it would end sales of ice cream in the Israeli settlements in the West Bank, following "concerns shared with us by our fans and trusted partners."
"Although Ben & Jerry’s will no longer be sold in the OPT [Occupied Palestinian Territories], we will stay in Israel through a different arrangement. We will share an update on this as soon as we’re ready," Ben & Jerry's added.
The Vermont-based ice cream company, which launched in 1978, has long been associated with progressive values. Last year, following the murder of George Floyd, the company added a special section of its website devoted to combating white supremacy.
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But until now, Ben & Jerry’s had conspicuously refrained from weighing in on Israeli-Palestinian affairs. So while it has readily marked the anniversary of the Supreme Court’s landmark Brown v. Board of Education ruling barring school segregation in the 1950s and condemned the Jan. 6 U.S. Capitol attack as a riot for white supremacy, the company did not mention Israel or Palestine even as the flare-up in May grabbed headlines around the world.
The criticism of the brand over its silence on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict coalesced during the most recent fighting between Israel and the Gaza Strip. In June, Ben & Jerry's social media accounts were bombarded with criticism for licensing a factory in Israel which provides Israeli settlements with products. Since then and until today, Ben & Jerry's social media was silent.
In its statement, Ben & Jerry's also said: "We have a longstanding partnership with our licensee, who manufactures Ben & Jerry’s ice cream in Israel and distributes it in the region. We have been working to change this, and so we have informed our licensee that we will not renew the license agreement when it expires at the end of next year."
In 1988, the company opened its first Israeli store on Tel Aviv’s Dizengoff Street. One year later, it opened a factory in Yavneh – which, surprisingly, was the company’s first production plant outside the United States. In 2009, the factory moved to Be’er Tuvia.
In 2014, the company began using fair-trade ingredients at its plant here, just as it does in the United States, and four years ago, it began making vegan ice cream.
The Israeli Ben & Jerry’s, the brand’s only independent licensee, is widely popular. It has produced special flavors for holidays, such as haroset for Passover and “mixed-up” for this spring’s national election, and last year held a Purim costume party whose prize was a six-month supply of ice cream.
Meanwhile, the Israeli franchisee promised to continue selling its products throughout Israel, and urged consumers not to boycott Ben & Jerry's ice cream. “Global Ben & Jerry’s decided not to renew the agreement with us in another year and a half in light of our refusal [to comply] with their demand and stop selling throughout Israel," the Israeli franchisee said.
"We call on the Israeli government and consumers not to permit a boycott of Israel. This is an unprecedented step by Unilever, the owner of global Ben & Jerry’s. Ice cream is not part of politics. We call on Israelis to continue to buy [this] Israeli product, which provides a living for hundreds of workers in the south."
'Plenty of ice creams, only one country'
Prime Minister Naftali Bennett sharply rebuked Ben & Jerry's decision, saying that the company has decided to rebrand as an "antisemitic ice cream." "There are many brands of ice cream," Bennett said. "But we only have one country."
In his statement, Bennett called the company's decision "morally wrong," and said that he believes it will also prove to be "financially wrong." "The boycott of Israel – a democracy surrounded by isles of terrorism – reflects a complete loss of direction."
"The boycott isn't working and it will not work, and we will fight it with everything we've got," the prime minister said.
For his part, current opposition leader and former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu tweeted: "Now we Israelis know which ice cream NOT to buy."
Foreign Minister Yair Lapid upbraided Ben & Jerry's, calling its decision a "shameful surrender" to BDS and to antisemitism. Lapid noted that many states in America have laws against sanctioning Israel, and promised to demand they implement these laws against the Vermont company. "We will not stay silent," Lapid said.
The Foreign Ministry also issued a statement, saying that the Ben & Jerry's decision was a "willing cooperation with economic terrorism led by the boycott movement, an anti-Israeli movement tinted with antisemitic hues.
"It is a discriminatory and immoral decision that singles out Israel, harms both Israelis and Palestinians, and gives a tailwind to extremist, thuggish groups. This decision not only does not advance peace and the solution of the conflict, but strengthens the opponents of reconciliation between the two peoples and those who call for the destruction of the State of Israel."
The Foreign Ministry also rebuked Unilever, the company that owns Ben & Jerry's, for not taking a moral stand on the matter. Unilever Israel said it was aware of the ice cream company’s decision and “wants to make clear that Unilever Israel has no connection to the Ben & Jerry’s brand in Israel, which is run by a franchisee and is a competitor of Unilever’s in the local ice cream market.”
The Yesha Council, an umbrella organization of the Israeli settlements in the West Bank, said it hopes Ben & Jerry's backtracks on its decision, and in the meantime urged Israelis to buy local ice cream instead of Ben & Jerry's. "In the hot summer days, we urge Israelis around the country to eat delicious, sweet Israeli ice cream. There's no need to buy products from companies that boycott hundreds of thousands of citizens of the State of Israel because of where they chose to live," they said in a statement.
"We hope that the Ben & Jerry's company will walk back this discriminatory decision, which brings a bitter spirit to such a sweet area."
The American Israel Public Affairs Committee — the most powerful pro-Israel organization in Washington — sharply criticized the "discriminatory" move. "It is against the interests of peace and reconciliation to launch a one-sided boycott when it is the Palestinian leadership that refuses to come to the negotiating table with Israel," an AIPAC spokesperson told Haaretz.
Americans for Peace Now, the U.S. sister organization to Israel's left-wing Peace Now, praised the move, congratulating Ben & Jerry's "for making a principled distinction between sovereign Israel and Israeli settlements in the occupied West Bank, which are illegal and illegitimate."
Arab American Institute Director Omar Baddar said "Ben and Jerry's deserves praise for doing the right thing," adding that "in a better world, you wouldn't need praise for merely abiding by international law and refraining from profiting off of land theft."
JTA contributed to this article.