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July 7, 2022 10:38 am

Stopping BDS Cold: Five Lessons to Be Learned From Ben & Jerry’s Attempt to Cream Israel

avatar by Gil Hoffman


Tubs of Ben & Jerry’s ice cream, a Unilever brand, are seen at their shop in London. Photo: Reuters/Hannah McKay

The agreement enabling Ben & Jerry’s ice cream to continue to be sold throughout Israel announced on June 29 was a sweet victory against the BDS movement.

This was a resounding win against the worldwide BDS campaign, many of whose advocates openly support the destruction of the Jewish state. The agreement was also a personal victory for the 160 people employed at the Negev factory who had been worrying about their jobs since the decision last July by Ben & Jerry’s to end its contract with its Israeli licensee, Avi Zinger, over his refusal to stop selling its ice cream over Israel’s pre-1967 border.

But parent company Unilever’s announcement last Wednesday that it had sold its Ben & Jerry’s ice cream business in Israel to Zinger has much farther reaching ramifications than their jobs or the packaging now being labeled in Hebrew and not English.

Not only did Unilever’s move prove that BDS can be defeated, but it provided a new working model that can be employed in the future.

Here are five lessons from the controversy:

Takeaway #1: Gain the Moral High Ground

Ben & Jerry’s cited the company’s liberal values when it decided to break the 34-year agreement with its Israeli licensee, because he would not stop selling ice cream in what the company termed “Occupied Palestinian Territory.”

But it quickly became apparent that the board of Ben & Jerry’s did not want its ice cream sold anywhere in the Jewish state, due to the extreme political views of the board members. Anuradha Mittal, the chair of Ben & Jerry’s board of directors, endorsed BDS on social media, posted an article defending Hezbollah, and was accused in a watchdog complaint to the Internal Revenue Service of funneling tens of thousands of dollars from the company to her pro-Palestinian organization.

Company founders Ben Cohen and Jerry Greenfield were offended by accusations of antisemitism. But when interviewed, they could not answer why the company had not stopped or conditioned sales in places like Georgia that also have policies they oppose.

Singling out the one Jewish state is part of the IHRA working definition of antisemitism that has been adopted or endorsed by 865 entities worldwide, including 37 countries, and the US Departments of Education and State.

By contrast, whenever Zinger spoke, he was apolitical. He mentioned peace and coexistence and his opposition to discrimination.

“This is a significant victory for us and for all who believe in cooperation and coexistence, and it is a resounding defeat for those who call for discrimination and boycotts,” Zinger said in his June 29 victory tweet.

Takeaway #2: BDS Must Be Fought Both Publicly and Behind the Scenes

As part of the public relations battle, Zinger invited the press to visit the factory and speak to workers, including Muslim and Christian Arabs, Bedouin, and Israeli Jews from across the political and religious spectrum. An Ethiopian immigrant with nine children who was afraid of losing his livelihood made a particularly strong impression on the international media.

In addition, Foreign Minister Yair Lapid, who is now Israel’s prime minister, spoke to US governors whose states passed anti-BDS laws and urged them to take immediate action. Seven US states either restricted or sold Unilever stocks or bonds to protest Ben & Jerry’s decision, removing hundreds of millions in pension funds from Unilever. Then-prime minister Naftali Bennett spoke to Unilever CEO Alan Jope.

Meanwhile, the Knesset started working on implementing anti-boycott regulations against companies that were targeting Israel, which would have damaged Unilever’s massive investments in several Israeli companies that have nothing to do with ice cream.

But most of the work was done behind the scenes, painstakingly, by top Foreign Ministry officials. Foreign Ministry legal adviser Tal Becker and deputy director-general for public diplomacy Noam Katz worked tirelessly for several months to help find an amicable solution.

“The lesson is that quiet, smart diplomacy can be very effective,” a source close to Lapid told HonestReporting.

Takeaway #3: Partnerships Are Required to Defeat BDS

Zinger could not have fought Unilever and Ben & Jerry’s by himself. He takes pride in being a simple businessman who likes ice cream and hates politics.

“I don’t want to be a model, and I’m not interested in politics or politicians,” he told HonestReporting. “I just want to make ice cream and help my workers.”

So Zinger built a team of lawyers led by Alyza Lewin, the president of the Louis D. Brandeis Center for Human Rights Under Law, which sued Unilever in the US District Court of New Jersey, where the company is headquartered.

Private business, government, legal authorities, and public diplomacy organizations working together will be integral parts of all future efforts to fight BDS effectively.

Takeaway #4: Aim High

There was no point in fighting Ben & Jerry’s Vermont, which has a long history of supporting fringe political causes. Part of successful public diplomacy is knowing when to not make a wasted effort.

Unilever, by contrast, is an international corporation that could not afford to be tainted by charges of antisemitism. One official who worked for Zinger said the strategy was to “wear out Unilever” with the public campaign.

The corporation could and should have acted against the Vermont decision from day one. But the end result of it taking so long was ultimately much better, because after being put on the defensive, Unilever’s announcement went well past Ben & Jerry’s.

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

Those who question whether BDS is antisemitism no longer have to quote an Israel advocate saying it. Here, Unilever says it loudly and clearly.

Unilever boasted that it has invested more than one billion shekels in its business in Israel and said the company “looks forward to continuing to make a positive contribution to Israel’s economy and society for many decades to come.”

Takeaway #5: Create a Win-Win Situation for Everyone…including the Loser

Zinger can now distribute ice cream in Israel forever. He can also sell products with Arabic-language labels for the first time, and as part of the agreement, he will be given rights to sell any new flavors launched by Ben & Jerry’s in Vermont.

As such, his lawyers, Lapid and Israeli consumers emerged victorious.

But what about Ben & Jerry’s in Vermont? They won, too, because they can now claim that they will no longer profit from selling ice cream in what they see as occupied land.

“We continue to believe it is inconsistent with Ben & Jerry’s values for our ice cream to be sold in the Occupied Palestinian Territory,” a Ben & Jerry’s representative posted on Twitter.

The biggest winner, however, is Israel, which has gained a new deterrence mechanism in the fight against BDS — thanks to the Ben & Jerry’s victory that set a precedent that could prevent future battles from even taking place.

Or, as a Foreign Ministry official told HonestReporting: “This is definitely a resounding public punch with a strong message to every large international corporation.”

The author is the Executive Director of HonestReporting, a Jerusalem-based media watchdog with a focus on antisemitism and anti-Israel bias — where a version of this article first appeared.

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