The founders of Ben & Jerry’s doubled down on the company’s decision to end business in the Israeli occupied West Bank with a compelling article in the New York Times yesterday. Demonstrating rare moral leadership and courage where none seems to exist in the profit-seeking world occupied by multinational companies, the eponymous Bennett Cohen and Jerry Greenfield, powerfully explained why they believe Ben & Jerry’s “is on the right side of history”, by taking the decision to boycott business in the occupied West Bank.
Having given up control of the company which they founded in 1978, Cohen and Greenfield could have sat on the side-line and watched Ben & Jerry’s name being dragged through the mud by a potent pro-Israeli campaign whose sole purpose is to taint every call for boycott of the occupation state as anti-Semitic, a conclusion with which they strongly disagree.
“We fundamentally reject the notion that it is anti-Semitic to question the policies of the State of Israel,” said Cohen and Greenfield after introducing themselves as Jews that support the state of Israel.
Signalling that Israel’s occupation has reached a critical stage, the founders acknowledged that ending the sales of ice cream in the occupied territories is one of the most important decisions the company has undertaken in its 43-year history. Cohen and Greenfield insisted that it was “especially brave” of the company to have done so and bring it in line with the firm’s “progressive values” and principals. “We believe this act can and should be seen as advancing the concepts of justice and human rights,” which they stressed were “core tenets of Judaism.”
Their intervention also seems timed so as to protect Ben & Jerry’s from further attack after its parent company Unilever threw the firm under the bus by slamming the decision as anti-Semitic in a letter to several pro-Israel groups, including the notorious US-based Anti-Defamation League (ADL). In their article, which on the main offers the standard moral progressive case for boycotting the occupied territories, Cohen and Greenfield did not say anything that would be controversial to so called liberal Zionists. The EU has a policy to boycott the occupied territories as does multinational firms like McDonald’s which took a stand against Israel’s illegal settlements.
Cohen and Greenfield explained that the company drew a contrast between what they called the “democratic territory of Israel and the territories Israel occupies” and furthermore that “the decision to halt sales outside Israel’s democratic borders is not a boycott of Israel.” For anyone that pays lip service to the idea of a two-state solution, as many that have slammed Ben & Jerry’s do, the ice cream firm’s position should not have been controversial in the least. But the backlash highlights once again the ever-increasing gap between the idea of Israel in the minds of its supporters outside the Zionist state and the reality of occupation on the ground.
As I argued earlier this year following the publication of a landmark report by Israeli human rights group B’Tselem, prominent critics of Israel – to which I would include Cohen and Greenfield – have long believed that while apartheid may be a reality in the Occupied Palestinian Territories, inside “Israel proper”, there is a democratic state. This is based on the false assumption that the occupation is temporary, and that Palestinians will eventually be granted self-determination and statehood. This of course is nothing but an illusion, not least because since Israel’s occupation, the Zionist state has done everything possible to seize Palestinian territory and entrench its hold on the land. A stark reminder, if one were needed, is that in the seven decades since Israel’s founding in Palestine there have been only six months — during 1966-67 — when the occupation state did not place members of one specific ethnic group that were not Jews under military government while it confiscated their land.
Unlike Israel’s soft critics, B’Tselem insisted that after more than half a century, Israel and its occupation should be treated as a single entity guided by the core racist organising principle of “advancing and perpetuating the supremacy of one group – Jews – over another – Palestinians.” According to the rights group, the legal bar for defining Israel as an apartheid regime had been met.
B’Tselem’s conclusion was echoed three months later by a landmark report by Human Rights Watch. Concluding that the threshold for designating Israel as an apartheid state had been crossed, HRW said that the occupation state is the “sole governing power” controlling every inch of what was historic Palestine, as well as the lives of its 6.8 million non-Jews who live under different regimes of Israeli control depending on where they happen to live. “Across these areas and in most aspects of life, Israeli authorities methodically privilege Jewish Israelis and discriminate against Palestinians,” said HRW explaining that the usual division of the historic land as “Israel proper” and occupied territories bore no resemblance to reality.
Though many so called progressives still hold on to this demarcation – which seems to rest on nothing more than a vain hope that the occupation state will one day extricate itself from its racist, settler colonial apartheid policies – the reaction from Israel’s highest officials to Ben & Jerry’s boycott should leave no doubts that what they call “Israel proper” and the occupation are one and the same.
Proving this point, newly sworn in Israeli President, Isaac Herzog, who is supposed to represent the country’s so called moderate camp, having served as chairman of the Labor Party, joined the chorus of outrage against Ben & Jerry’s and decried it’s decision as “new form of terrorism.” Israeli Foreign Minister Yair Lapid also weighed, as did many others, taking to Twitter to accuse the popular ice cream outlet of “surrender to antisemitism.” He said he would be asking 30 US states — which have passed anti-BDS legislation — to act against Ben & Jerry’s. Last week the US state of Texas threatened to ban Ben & Jerry’s ice cream because of its West Bank settlement boycott. Many others are likely to follow.
Though Cohen and Greenfield should be applauded for their piece yesterday, making a powerful case for boycotting the occupied territories, the reality they describe no longer exists. To really be “on the right side of history” they should join B’Tselem, HRW and many others including the 116 academics that have called for the boycott of Israel because apartheid in the “occupied territories” can no longer be separated from “Israel proper”. Israel and apartheid are one and the same.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.