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One Year On: The campaign to end Ben & Jerry's complicity with Israel's occupation

March 29, 2014 at 3:33 pm

On 13 March 2013, Vermonters for a Just Peace in Palestine/Israel (VTJP) launched an international campaign calling on Ben & Jerry’s, an iconic leader of the socially responsible business community, to stop marketing, catering and selling ice cream in Israel’s illegal settlements in the occupied West Bank and East Jerusalem.

One year later, we have not yet called for a full boycott, because our thrust is still to convince Ben & Jerry’s to recognise that it cannot be a company famous and respected for ethical business practices and also be complicit with Israel’s military occupation.

The unholy alliance between commerce and occupation makes a mockery of Ben & Jerry’s social mission and history of funding and advocating for progressive causes. Its Israeli franchise’s business with Jewish-only settlements is possible only because a brutal regime of occupation and collective punishment, including land and water expropriation and severe movement restrictions, has been established in violation of international law.

To be fair, Ben & Jerry’s is not a corporate predator in Palestine in the vein of Motorola, Hewlitt Packard, Caterpillar or scores of other companies with ties to Israel’s military and police. But that’s not the point. The simple, unsavoury fact is that Ben & Jerry’s franchise in Israel, like many other businesses, benefits directly from an entrenched political, legal and economic system of occupation, colonisation and racial segregation.

Peace, Love & Occupation?

VTJP began investigating the company’s links to Israeli settlements in 2011 and had its first face-to-face dialogue with management in 2012. We discovered that Ben & Jerry’s corporate headquarters in South Burlington, Vermont – not its parent company, Unilever – is responsible for the contract with the franchise in Israel.

In recent years, the company announced plans to open more scoop shops in Israel, and it built a new factory near Kiryat Malachi, a city built on the former lands of a Palestinian village ethnically cleansed by Jewish forces in 1948. Our research further points to the possibility that the company, like many in Israel, is drawing water illegally diverted from the West Bank.

The trucks of Israeli companies distributing Ben & Jerry’s ice cream travel down the forgotten roads of the Nakba, then on super highways that have eviscerated the 1949 Armistice line or “Green Line”, easily circumventing military checkpoints and roadblocks that torment Palestinians, arriving at supermarkets in Jewish settlements – places like Gilo, Pisgat Ze’ev, Ma’ale Admumim and Mishor Adumim.

In 2011, a Vermont activist visited supermarkets in these settlements and found Ben & Jerry’s ice cream for sale. With the help of an Israeli-Jewish comrade, we also learned that the company provides the settlements with party carts and event catering1.

Every pint of Ben & Jerry’s ice cream sold in Israeli settlements, particularly given its brand of social consciousness, helps “normalise” life for Jewish settlers and bolster the viability of their commercial venues – while millions of Palestinians are denied their freedom and a national homeland because, and only because, they are not Jewish.

Israeli settlers, ensconced in racially exclusive, fortified settlements on stolen land, commit terrible crimes against Palestinians. But when their sweet tooth beckons, they can still find Ben & Jerry’s Finest in their supermarket freezers.

Our Campaign & the Company’s Response: Year One

Nearly 4,000 individuals signed a petition in the first few months of our campaign to endorse our efforts, and, since last September, 210 organisations – from the American Friends Service Committee in the US to BDS South Africa – have signed a letter calling on Ben & Jerry’s to stop selling its products in Israeli settlements.

The organisational signatories, to date, are from 13 countries (including Israel) and occupied Palestine, and 29 states across the US, plus the District of Columbia.

There have also been reactive stirrings inside Ben & Jerry’s as well. The chairperson of the company’s Board of Directors, Jeff Furman, a veteran anti-racism activist, travelled to Palestine in 2012 with African-American civil rights leaders, and was profoundly disturbed by what he witnessed. Furman, who is Jewish, has bluntly characterised Israel’s rule in the occupied Palestinian territories as “apartheid”.

Last summer, Ben & Jerry’s Chief Financial Officer also visited the West Bank while on a short business trip to Israel, and a delegation of corporate officers and board members is traveling to Palestine this March on a fact-finding mission spearheaded by Jeff Furman to educate his fellow board members as well as management.

2014 “Free Cone Day” leafleting action

VTJP is now busy organising its second-annual, national day of leafleting at participating Ben & Jerry’s scoop shops on the company’s popular Free Cone Day. This year’s event, we believe, will take place on Tuesday, 8 April, but we’re still waiting on the company to formally announce the date.

Our theme this year is: Your ice cream cone is free today. Palestine is not!

We urge activists and people of conscience in the US and around the world to join us. To learn how, plus to locate a scoop shop in or near your community, access prepared outreach materials, or confirm the date of the event, e-mail us at [email protected].

Individuals or groups can also send a prepared or tailored e-mail to Ben & Jerry’s CEO Jostein Solheim via our website. A Free Cone Day message for BDS activists and supporters will be posted at this location on the actual day.

Moving forward into the second year, VTJP is committed to sustaining and intensifying its Ben & Jerry’s campaign, consistent with the goals of the international Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement.

1Ben & Jerry’s Board Chair, Jeff Furman, told the Burlington Free Press that, as a result of VTJP’s activism, he believes catering to the settlements is no longer happening. VTJP has not been able to independently verify Furman’s statement.

Note: This page was updated at 14.45GMT on March 13, 2014 to correct a typo in the date of the visit by a Vermont activist to the supermarkets in Israeli settlements. The correct year is 2011, but it was initially written as 2012.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.