WASHINGTON – In their most extensive comments on the matter to date, one of Ben & Jerry’s Jewish co-founders and its board chair defended the company’s recent decision to cease ice cream sales in Israeli settlements.
Speaking at a webinar hosted by Americans for Peace Now on Monday, co-founder Ben Cohen said business is the most powerful force in society today and he believes it needs to contribute to society by standing up for justice.
“I’m really glad the company has taken on the difficult issue of how Israel and Palestine will coexist,” he said. “We’re using our voice and power to take a stand in favor of basic human rights. We did it and we’re proud of it,” he added.
Anuradha Mittal, who was speaking in a personal capacity and not on behalf of the company whose board she chairs, condemned the “many rumors, lies and myths” that emerged following the announcement last month that Ben & Jerry’s will no longer sell its products in the occupied Palestinian territories after its license agreement with an Israeli licensee expires at the end of next year.
“Ben & Jerry’s decision is not against Israel,” she said. “It is not about boycotting Israel. The decision was that the sale of our ice cream in the Occupied Palestinian Territory is inconsistent with our values.”
She said the decision was made after years of direct engagement, including numerous trips to the region by both management and the board, where they visited both Israel and the West Bank, and met with a wide range of stakeholders. These included Israeli government officials, active and former soldiers, Palestinian families whose homes have been demolished, United Nations officials and Palestinian farmers, she explained.
“We saw the impact of this occupation and its disastrous impact for both Israelis and the Palestinians,” Mittal said. “We realized that our products are moving on roads where Palestinians cannot drive and movement is severely restricted,” she added.
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She also highlighted expanding settlement growth and the occupation’s impact on Palestinians’ daily livelihoods.
Mittal acknowledged that details are still being worked out concerning the continued sale of ice cream for Palestinian communities in the West Bank, saying she was not in a position to speak on those plans. “Management works this out and then brings it to the board,” she said.
Cohen, meanwhile, doubled down on his criticism of conflating criticism of Israel with antisemitism, calling it inaccurate and disingenuous.
“Israel, most assuredly, has the right to exist. I support it in general; I’m against some of its actions. One of these is oppressing a whole group of people in the occupied territories,” he explained.
He added that “impoverishing a whole group of people and causing unemployment rates that are above 40 percent is just inhumane and is a human rights violation,” describing it as counterproductive and a way of creating more terrorists. “If you want to create a more stable society, you don’t need to bomb villages into nonexistence and impoverishing people,” he said.
Mittal clarified that the Ben & Jerry’s board and management were aligned on the decision to freeze sales, based on the company’s three-part mission of brand integrity, social mission and economic mission. They were fully aware of the opposition the move would provoke, she said.
She did, however, call out the death threats received by individual board and management figures, as well as boycott threats and calls from the Israeli government to pressure U.S. states to use anti-BDS laws against Unilever (Ben & Jerry’s parent company). To date, eight states have taken steps to investigate whether these laws are applicable to the settlement decision.
Mittal noted that Unilever respected Ben & Jerry’s independent decision per the acquisition agreement, calling the threat of anti-BDS laws against the company “ridiculous.”
“There was never a discussion on a complete pullout, divestment or boycott of Israel,” she said, calling the right to protest a fundamental American value. “It’s pretty shocking to see American democracy being under threat if it can [come under] this much influence from foreign governments,” she added.
She noted that critics of Ben & Jerry’s have criticized her personally, “spreading lies about me as chair of the board promoting BDS or pushing the company to do that.” She said she has been called a Jew-hater and antisemitic, while her positions have been misinterpreted.
While she acknowledged that many of the smears were not surprising, “what is disheartening is to see people’s inability to respect another person’s right to disagree politely. The indecency, the misogynistic racism and intimidation – including death threats. That is not for any civilized society; that is not the basis of any conversation around democracy.”
Mittal added that those critics “are not in a position to defend the occupation, so they’re spreading lies about the company. The occupation is anti-Israel. Our decision was pro-Israel, pro-humanity, pro-human rights.”
Cohen advised other companies to use their power to stand up for justice, even if some people will be opposed, and that this will pay off in the long run.
“What I absolutely believe to the core of my being is that mothers in Palestine have no desire to kill the children of other mothers in Israel. And mothers in Israel have no desire to kill the children of other mothers in Palestine,” he said. “Peace will never come to Israelis and Palestinians if we don’t find a way to create a situation where Palestinians can have a decent life. Right now, they cannot because of Israel’s actions.”