Entrance to ice cream factory in the West Bank
The entrance of the ice cream shop inside the Ben & Jerry's factory in Be'er Tuvia in southern Israel in 2021. (Photo/Emmanuel Dunand-AFP via Getty Images)

Unilever sells Ben & Jerry’s Israeli operations, allowing West Bank sales to continue

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Unilever said Tuesday that it would sell its Israeli Ben & Jerry’s operations to Avi Zinger, a move that Jewish groups are praising as a blow to the anti-Israel Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement. 

Zinger’s American Quality Products Ltd. currently distributes Ben & Jerry’s ice cream within Israel.

The sale comes after Ben & Jerry’s — which is partly governed by an independent board — announced last summer that it would stop selling its products in the Israeli-occupied West Bank. That announcement ignited a furor against international conglomerate Unilever. State officials across the United States followed the calls of pro-Israel activists to punish the company under laws and regulations meant to target the BDS movement.

Unilever has said that it did not support the BDS movement — which calls for companies to boycott Israel entirely, something that Ben & Jerry’s did not plan to do — and referenced that position again in announcing the sale of its Israeli business.

“Unilever rejects completely and repudiates unequivocally any form of discrimination or intolerance,” the company said in a statement. “We have never expressed any support for the Boycott Divestment Sanctions (BDS) movement and have no intention of changing that position.”

The company said that it made the sale after consulting with the Israeli government, which released a statement praising the decision Wednesday.

“We will fight delegitimization and the BDS campaign in every arena, whether in the public square, in the economic sphere or in the moral realm,” said Israeli Foreign Minister Yair Lapid.

The deal is complicated, allowing American Quality Products to sell Ben & Jerry’s ice cream with Hebrew and Arabic branding. It is not allowed to use the English logo, according to the Times of Israel. This appeared to be a method of getting around Ben & Jerry’s independent board, which was created to preserve the company’s tradition of supporting social justice causes when it was acquired by Unilever in 2000.

The Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations in a statement called the move “a victory against discrimination and for dialogue and inclusion” and that Alan Jope, Unilever’s chief executive, had been in touch with the group this morning.

Jonathan Greenblatt, chief of the Anti-Defamation League, said on social media that the news “is as welcome as a scoop of Cherry Garcia on a hot summer day.”

“Today is yet another demonstration of the ineffectiveness of trying to boycott and ostracize Israel — and proves that healing can happen when all sides work together,” Greenblatt said.

But others argued that the successful campaign to convince Unilever to continue selling ice cream in Israeli settlements, which are illegal under international law, was a pyrrhic victory for the pro-Israel movement. Ben & Jerry’s decision last July to cease selling its products in the “Occupied Palestinian Territory” stopped well short of the BDS movement’s official call for companies not to do any business with Israel.

The BDS campaign calls for this total boycott with the ultimate goal of forcing Israel to allow Palestinian refugees and their descendants to return to Israel, which would effectively end Israel’s status as a Jewish-majority nation. The sweeping nature of BDS, and its absolutist demands, has largely relegated support for it to the fringes of American politics. 

In contrast, Ben & Jerry’s attempt to end operations in the West Bank — which has been occupied by Israel since 1967, but never annexed — was far more limited.

“It’s possible to support Israel and oppose some of its policies,” Ben Cohen and Jerry Greenfield, the company’s founders, wrote in a New York Times op-ed last year. “As such, we unequivocally support the decision of the company to end business in the occupied territories, which a majority of the international community, including the United Nations, has deemed an illegal occupation.”

This position echoes calls from some other liberal American Jews to specifically shun Israeli settlements. Peter Beinart called for a settlement boycott in 2012, referring to it as “Zionist B.D.S.” He said that maintaining the distinction between Israel, which is a liberal democracy, and the West Bank — where Jewish settlers enjoy significantly more civil rights than Palestinians — would keep “alive the hope of a Jewish democratic state alongside a Palestinian one.”

Sixty-six percent of American Jews believe Israel should dismantle at least some of its West Bank settlements as part of a peace agreement with the Palestinians, according to a 2019 poll by the American Jewish Committee.

Some critics Wednesday lambasted the American Jewish establishment for launching a campaign that collapsed the distinction between boycotting Israel and refusing to do business in West Bank settlements.

“The One State Solution. Brought to you by the ADL and Unilever,” Yair Wallach, a lecturer at SOAS University of London, said on Twitter, referring to the alternative to the two-state solution where Israel exists alongside a sovereign Palestinian state. The one-state solution refers to a binational Israeli-Palestinian nation — either an Israeli-Palestinian democracy or a Jewish-dominated state that annexes the occupied territories.

Both the Israeli government and Jewish organizations opposed to Ben & Jerry’s original announcement described it as antisemitic. “Antisemitism will not defeat us, not even when it comes to ice-cream,” Lapid said in his statement. Unilever also echoed these concerns in the announcement of its sale: “Unilever rejects completely and repudiates unequivocally any form of discrimination or intolerance. Antisemitism has no place in any society.”

Yet there is little evidence that most Jewish Americans thought that Ben & Jerry’s was discriminating against Jews by refusing to sell ice cream in Israeli settlements. There does not appear to have been any public polling done about the company’s decision, but the Jewish Electorate Institute found last summer that less than one-third of Jewish voters found a wide swath of political attacks on Israel to be antisemitic. Forty-three percent of American Jews “strongly oppose” BDS, according to the Pew Research Center, while 10% support it.

Arno Rosenfeld
Arno Rosenfeld

Arno Rosenfeld is a reporter at the Forward. He is a former J. intern and has worked as a correspondent for JTA and The Times of Israel.

Forward

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