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Ben & Jerry’s decision to pull out of West Bank prompts rancor in Israel

Ice cream company Ben & Jerry's said July 20 it is “inconsistent" with its values for their ice cream to be sold in Palestinian territory occupied by Israel. (Video: Reuters)
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Ben & Jerry’s, the iconic Vermont-based brand, announced Monday that it would no longer sell ice cream in the West Bank.

In a statement, the company said it was “inconsistent with our values” for the ice cream to be sold in Palestinian territory that was occupied by Israel. Ben and Jerry’s said it would not be renewing an agreement with a local licensee when it expires at the end of next year.

Though Ben & Jerry’s ice creams would no longer be sold in occupied Palestinian territories, “we will stay in Israel through a different arrangement,” the statement continued.

The move provoked rancor in Israel, with government officials condemning the move. “Ben & Jerry’s decided to brand itself as anti-Israel ice cream,” Prime Minister Naftali Bennett said in a statement. “This is a moral mistake and I believe it will turn out to be a business mistake as well.”

Foreign Minister Yair Lapid dubbed it a “shameful capitulation to antisemitism” and added that Israel could use U.S. laws that target the boycotts, divestment and sanctions movement to retaliate against the company.

Opposition leader Benjamin Netanyahu, known to be a voracious consumer of ice cream who once had a $2,700-a-year habit while prime minister, also condemned the company, writing on Twitter that Ben & Jerry’s showed Israelis “which ice cream NOT to buy.”

However, some Israeli politicians appeared to welcome the news. Ayman Odeh, leader of the Joint List of Arab parties, tweeted an image of himself eating a tub of “Cone sweet cone” Ben & Jerry’s and grinning.

The decision to pull out of the West Bank came after pressure from pro-Palestinian groups, which argued that the sale of Ben & Jerry’s products in Israeli settlements in Palestinian territory was at odds with the company’s support for social justice.

The brand had been sharply criticized in the aftermath of the conflict between Israeli forces and militants in the Gaza strip in May, with both supporters and critics of Palestinian causes bombarding its social media with questions about the Middle East.

“Any mint lovers out there?” the company’s main Twitter account had asked May 18, before hundreds of accounts pushed it to a position on the Gaza Strip conflict.

“I switched from Häagen-Dazs to you because your stances caught my attention. Your continued silence on this has me seriously considering a boycott,” wrote one critic.

“I’d like the Full-Baked Apartheid please,” wrote another.

The day after, a group called Decolonize Burlington, based in the same Vermont town as Ben & Jerry’s, demanded an international boycott of the local ice cream manufacturer and accused it of hypocrisy for not speaking out on Israel the same way it had about refugee rights, global warming and the Black Lives Matter movement.

“If Ben & Jerry’s wants to profit off of anti-racist messaging, they need to be consistent,” Decolonize Burlington stated. “The BLM movement has publicly supported the Palestinian cause. It’s time for Ben & Jerry’s to divest from their holdings in Israel.”

During the height of the protests after George Floyd’s police killing last summer, Ben & Jerry’s had taken a public stance in support of racial justice. “Silence is not an option,” the company wrote in an essay.

Somewhat ironically, the company went silent on social media after the May 18 tweet. The tweet announcing the end of sales in the West Bank was the first message from Ben & Jerry’s in 62 days.

Some activists appeared to welcome the news, suggesting that it showed the power of social media campaigns, though others expressed disappointment that the company was pulling out of only the West Bank and not all of Israel.

Ben & Jerry’s was founded in 1978 by two Jewish Americans, Ben Cohen and Jerry Greenfield. The ice cream maker was bought in 2000 by British company Unilever, though Ben and Jerry’s maintains an unusual amount of freedom under the terms of the deal.

In a statement released Monday, Unilever said that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict was a “very complex and sensitive situation” but that it had recognized the “right of the brand and its independent Board to take decisions about its social mission.”

According to its website, Ben & Jerry’s has conducted business in Israel since 1987 and opened its first store in downtown Tel Aviv the following year. It currently operates two shops in Israel and has a manufacturing plant in Be’er Tuvia.

“Ben & Jerry’s sees its role in the Middle East as a company that remains committed to contributing resources to foster multicultural programs and values-led ingredient sourcing initiatives in the region,” the company wrote on its website in 2015.

Ben & Jerry’s Israel, a local business that holds the license for the brand in the country, had proved popular, both reproducing famous U.S. flavors such as “Phish Food” and adding local twists such as one containing charoset fruit and nut flavor in honor of Passover.

In a message on Twitter, Ben & Jerry’s Israel condemned the decision to pull out of the West Bank, suggesting that its agreement with the Vermont-based company had been terminated after the firm had refused to stop selling “all over Israel.”

“Ice cream is not part of politics,” it wrote.

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