Without an Aggressive Response, Ben & Jerry’s Decision Is a Harbinger of Further Divestment From Israel
Companies hate controversy. Controversy threatens a company’s reputation and future earnings. With the dramatic growth of corporate social responsibility over the past decade, activists have increasingly generated controversy about companies in order to change corporate behavior on a range of social issues.
Often these changes are positive – an increased focus on environmental concerns, or diversity and equity issues, for example.
But BDS activists started applying these same tactics over a decade ago in order to push for corporate divestment from Israel. And they have been successful — as was the case with Ben & Jerry’s. After the Ben & Jerry’s announcement, Omar Barghouti, a BDS leader, declared, “We expect more socially responsible companies to follow suit, perhaps less publicly.”
And more companies may follow suit — especially if the Jewish community doesn’t launch an aggressive and prolonged counter controversy aimed at Ben & Jerry’s and parent company Unilever.
Most companies will do an analysis of their economic and political interests to determine whether submitting to the BDS movement is in their interests. Without pro-Israel pushback, companies may follow suit and divest from Israel — not because they agree with the BDS movement, or harbor antisemitism, but because they hate controversy.
On Unilever’s quarterly earnings call last week, UBS analyst Guillaume Delmas asked, “Where do you draw the line between purpose and an active political agenda?” Delmas was acknowledging that BDS is a political campaign that is manipulating Unilever’s corporate social responsibility goals.
Unilever CEO Alan Jope tried to calm the analysts on the call by saying, “It is not our intent to regularly visit matters of this level of sensitivity … certainly not our intention that every quarter we’ll have one as fiery as this one.” Ironically, on the same call, Jope detailed Unilever’s ice cream sales growth in China, without any mention of the litany of social concerns that surround China.
To combat BDS, it’s time to turn up the heat on Jope and ensure he has fiery quarterly earnings calls until the company’s support for BDS is reversed. All tactics are useful including press attention, boycotts, state pension divestment mandates, shareholder resolutions, protests outside stores, social media, petitions, etc. BDS activists didn’t invent these controversy-generating tactics — they just embrace them more comfortably than the Jewish community.
There has been a debate over the past week among American Jewish progressive leaders on whether the Jewish community should be so vocal on Ben & Jerry’s. Some have suggested that when the Jewish community exerts power, it only creates more antisemitism — or that Ben & Jerry’s capitulation is an acceptable version of BDS since Unilever added a sentence to the Ben & Jerry’s board announcement stating that the company would like to stay in Israel but not the “Occupied Palestinian Territories.”
But the time to get loud on Ben & Jerry’s is now. There should be no hesitation, no fear about antisemitism — which will exist regardless of whether the Jewish community exerts influence or sits quietly. There should be no slicing and dicing of BDS by Jewish organizations focused on battling with Israel over the settlements; the goal of BDS is to rid the world of Israel, and the settlements are just a stepping stone. There will be time for difficult conversations about the conflict, but now is the time to respond to the prolonged campaign of economic warfare aimed at Israel.
The Jewish community needs to realize the power and scope of the corporate social responsibility and socially responsible investing movements, and the uncomfortable fact that the BDS campaign’s narrative on Israel has thoroughly infiltrated these influential arenas.
As a result, companies are under enormous sustained pressure to avoid or divest from Israel.
Launching a counter controversy assault on Ben & Jerry’s and Unilever may or may not make the company back away from supporting BDS, but more importantly, it will signal to the CEOs of the 124 global (non-Israeli) companies actively being pressured by BDS that the controversy doesn’t go away once the company acquiesces to BDS — it only gets worse.
Julie Hammerman is the CEO of JLens, an investor network that serves as the bridge between the Jewish community and the socially responsible investing and corporate social responsibility movements. JLens’ Jewish Advocacy Strategy, with $130M invested by Jewish institutions, conducts investor advocacy with US public companies on Jewish communal concerns, including combating BDS.