Ashley Smith:Activists in Vermonters for Justice in Palestine (VTJP) and Decolonize Burlington just scored a victory with Ben & Jerry’s decision. How did the struggle grow out of the recent wave of protests against Israel’s war on Palestinians? How did you win this? What is its significance?
Hannah Rose:For those of us in Burlington, the struggle to get Ben & Jerry’s to stop selling its ice cream in the occupied territories grew right out of the public outrage at Israel’s attacks on Palestinians in East Jerusalem and Gaza. I felt like it was a pivotal moment when Americans were outraged in a way that I hadn’t seen before.
People were looking for a way that they could tangibly help Palestinians. We capitalized on the momentum of the global indignation at the Sheikh Jarrah evictions and said, “Hey, people have been demanding that Ben & Jerry’s stop selling their ice cream in the territories for over a decade and it’s time to make them do it now.” We thought it was a concrete way to contribute to the BDS movement, which will help Palestinians win liberation.
The first thing we did was put out a comprehensive post about why we were calling for a boycott of Ben & Jerry’s and doing this after Israel’s war on Gaza. It picked up traction quickly. Our post had something like 70,000 shares. We were all taken aback by the velocity of it.
Ben & Jerry’s followers started emailing the board and commenting on every one of their social media posts. Anything that Ben & Jerry’s posted was flooded with comments from disappointed customers and folks who are in solidarity with Palestinians, asking why they operated in the settlements in the occupied territories.
And then about a week later, we rolled out another post that provided the emails and phone numbers for some board members and templates of what to write and say on the phone. People sent countless emails and left countless messages saying “I was once a customer of Ben and Jerry’s, I’m disappointed with your actions. Please change your policy and maybe I’ll come back.”
They were under nonstop pressure to the point where they couldn’t post anything without getting overwhelmingly pro-Palestinian responses. So, they went silent for a month. They were clearly on the defensive and debating what to do.
AJ+ plus reached out to me through Decolonize Burlington’s Instagram to do an interview with them. I did it because I knew that they had an overwhelmingly pro-Palestinian audience and several million followers. Ben & Jerry’s contacted me immediately after it aired. They realized that they now had to move quickly.
It was a perfect storm. We brought street heat and social media pressure to add to the work Vermonters for Justice in Palestine (VTJP) had already been doing for over a decade. We didn’t need to do any new research but just disseminate the information and turn up the public pressure on Ben & Jerry’s. And within a month we scored a significant victory.
Wafic Faour:To be honest, at the beginning I felt it wasn’t a complete win because it didn’t meet the full demand of VTJP and because of the confusing nature of Ben & Jerry’s statement. On the one hand, they said they were ending the sale of ice cream in the Jewish-only settlements in the occupied territories. On the other hand, they said they were going to continue selling their product through different channels.
But then Ben & Jerry’s independent board issued a different statement saying that they were ending the sale in occupied territories. Ben & Jerry’s parent company, Unilever, issued their own statement saying they were going to continue selling in Israel. So, these contradictory statements created a foggy situation.
I finally felt victory when I saw the reaction by Israel and its allies. The current Israeli prime minister, the foreign minister, the former prime minister, the settlers’ organization and their leaders, their lobbyists in Washington, Senators, and Congresspeople all denounced Ben & Jerry’s decision in the most extreme fashion. It was clear that they saw it as a defeat for them and a victory for BDS.
They fear this will become precedent for even bigger victories. So, they are calling for more laws to be enforced against BDS. That puts the question of BDS and our right to demand it in the national and international spotlight. So even if this concession by Ben & Jerry’s is small and a bit confusing, it must be seen as a victory and one that can be built on to win even more significant changes from Ben & Jerry’s as well as other companies and institutions locally, nationally, and internationally.
None of this would have happened without Palestinian blood being spilled in Gaza and Jerusalem, and the struggle of the Palestinian people to resist occupation all the way back to 1948.
AS:What has Ben & Jerry’s agreed to? What are its limitations? What is the significance of the victory?
HR:First let me start with the importance of seeing this as a victory. It is a rhetorical breakthrough first and foremost. A major US corporation used the word “Palestine”—a word that is usually shunned in our culture and society—in a press release and on Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter. And they acknowledged that the territories are occupied.
They explicitly stated in huge letters that Ben & Jerry’s will no longer be sold in occupied Palestinian territories. For the average American to see such a statement from a corporation is huge. That is a massive admission. Remember, marketing as they say is everything! Their statement sets us up to argue that all of Palestine is occupied and we must organize for BDS on Israel as a whole.
There are limitations. They are not complying fully with BDS on Israel as a whole and Unilever is trying to work around what they announced. But the wins outweighed those limitations.
Ben & Jerry’s divestment from occupied territories has really polarized people; everyone now must take a stand either against occupation or for it. That erodes the middle ground of liberal Zionism, which pretends to care about Palestinian human rights, but they also claim that the occupied territories are Israeli land.
Ben & Jerry’s announcement makes that an untenable argument. And the attention it got internationally is unprecedented.
WF:I think their statement that the Israeli occupation is against the values of Ben & Jerry’s recognizes the truth of what VTJP and Decolonize Burlington argued again and again in our campaign. We told them that selling ice cream to settlers on stolen land violates their social mission statement.
We argued that Palestinians must be recognized as part of their commitment to social justice. We told them you cannot include some issues and not others. You cannot be consistent and include support for Black Lives Matter, immigrant rights, environmental demands, and other social justice clauses and exclude Palestine and Palestinians. We want all these flavors including justice for Palestine. You cannot cherry pick justice.
They kept using two excuses. First, they said they couldn’t pull out from the occupied territories because of the Israeli laws against BDS. It doesn’t allow a foreign company to operate in Israel without selling in Jewish-only settlements.
The second excuse they had was that their factory, which is in an area inside Israel that was occupied in 1948, had no control over where their distributors sold their ice cream. They can take it from Israel and sell it settlements and areas occupied in 1967.
We got them to abandon those excuses and take a stand. Now, Ben & Jerry’s is trapped in a contradiction. They cannot operate in Israel and stand by their statement and social mission.
AS:How has the Israeli state and its Zionist backers reacted to the victory?
HR:The response has been virulent, non-stop condemnation. This proves that BDS is a powerful, effective, and foolproof strategy to end Israeli occupation and Apartheid. If it wasn’t so effective, they would not fight so hard against it. BDS is the best thing people outside of Palestine can do to support the struggle for liberation.
Maybe for us, Ben & Jerry’s is just ice cream, but for the Israeli state the loss of it is a threat to their whole economy. Up until now Ben & Jerry’s has given liberal cover for occupation. Now Israel’s big worry is that other corporations will follow their lead creating a snowball of divestment.
WF:As Hannah said, BDS works. We used it in the struggle against Apartheid South Africa and to bring an end to that criminal, racist regime. That precedent gives us tremendous hope. The Palestinian people can use BDS to win our liberation.
The Israeli reaction showed us one thing, and it will be remembered in the future; the victory with Ben & Jerry’s is just a sample of what is coming. Our struggle will accelerate until we win full BDS against Israel. Like South Africa it is an illegal, illegitimate entity based on racism and discrimination.
The Israeli regime’s reaction proves that it is weak, and we can bring it down. Think about it, a mere half-baked statement from Ben & Jerry’s recognizing the existence of Palestinians shook the entire state, Israeli society, and Zionist ideology to its core.
You know the Palestinians are a positive people, and we think about scoring one victory and building on it. We will now demand that Ben & Jerry’s work with us and go after those 30 plus states that are enacting anti-BDS laws. They can follow through on their social justice mission, stand by the first amendment, and defend the right of boycott.
Remember, the boycott has a deep history in the United States all the way back to its revolution. In 1773, a group of patriots in Boston dumped tea in the Boston harbor when the colonialist King George forced the tax law on the Massachusetts colony. That was a form of boycott. When the other colonies joined that movement and stopped paying taxes on the tea, it was a boycott and divestment action.
BDS is as American as apple pie. Later the U.S. added the First Amendment to the Constitution that protected the right of freedom of speech. Advocacy of BDS is protected by the first amendment. Palestinian solidarity activists must not be denied this right.
AS:Some people do not understand that Ben & Jerry’s is a subsidiary of the giant multinational Unilever. What is Unilever going to do? How should the BDS movement respond?
WF:Unilever should follow the footsteps of Ben & Jerry’s declaration that it is wrong to sell products in Jewish-only settlements in occupied land. They too should not sell any products in a country that has apartheid laws against the indigenous people—the Palestinian people. It’s wrong.
Now Unilever will come under a lot of pressure from other companies, the Israeli state, and U.S. politicians to retreat. But they will not be able to overrule Ben & Jerry’s statement. The independent board of Ben & Jerry’s has the last say on company policy.
In fact, Unilever should be our next target in a worldwide campaign. We should of course go after other companies and institutions, but Unilever should be at the top of the list.
For 10 years, we heard a lot of people dismissing the campaign against Ben & Jerry’s saying “it’s just ice cream” or “they do good stuff.” But that’s why we targeted them; they were caught in the contradiction of claiming to stand for peace and justice and they were supporting occupation.
Unilever is also caught in a contradiction. Their board boasts another mission—improving the environment. But you can’t invest in Israel and advocate environmental justice. We will bring in the environmentalist groups and show them what is happening in historic Palestine, how Israel is destroying the country’s trees, shores, water, and air. We will win them over and with them we will force Unilever out of Israel.
We will win even if they manage to get Ben & Jerry’s to retreat. We have justice on our side. Palestinians are human beings, we have human rights, we have equal rights, and we are going to make them realize this. That’s the lesson of the Ben & Jerry’s campaign.
We worked for 10 years, doing education, leafleting on free cone day, educating the public about Palestine, and exposing the hypocrisy of Ben & Jerry’s. We didn’t tweet because we didn’t know how to tweet! Now some of us do.
So, we did the groundwork through education over the last 10 years and over the last couple of months, Decolonize Burlington magnified it. And then we won. So, we will launch a new education campaign against Unilever. It may take another 10 years, but we will win.
HR:Ben & Jerry’s was a relatively easy target because they profit so much from their liberal message of “Peace, Love and Ice Cream.” So, we pointed out that their actions don’t align with their words.
Unilever is going to be a challenging target. It doesn’t pretend to care about human rights, so we will have a harder fight. But like Wafic said, I’m confident that we will win against Unilever. We’ll just have to be agile and find their weaknesses.
AS:How have people in the BDS movement responded to the victory against Ben & Jerry’s? What does this mean for other BDS campaigns?
HR:It was welcomed and celebrated. At the same time people said “finally! Now let’s work for more!” In that sense, I think it has helped inspire people to go after more corporations and institutions. I think it’s a real opportunity to make BDS part of public discourse and stop people from shying away from it.
But like a lot of us in Decolonize Burlington, many activists felt like Ben & Jerry’s didn’t do enough. I think we should see their decision as the bare minimum that sets it up for us to make even more radical demands. We always say BDS is the floor, not the ceiling. So, we worked so hard for so long to get an acknowledgement of Palestinian’s most basic of human rights. That’s level one of Palestine solidarity.
So, I go back and forth about what Ben & Jerry’s announcement means. On the one hand, I think it was amazing. On the other hand, it was not enough. But we’ll take it, and we’ll use it to build momentum for more wins. We’re not even close to done; we’re just getting started.
WF:I think that the reaction from BDS leaders and organizations was very careful and balanced. The BDS organizations like Adalah said Ben & Jerry’s statement is the first step. But like us, they demanded a complete stop to all sales in Israel.
It’s good to stop sales in the occupied territories, but not enough. Israel itself is on occupied territory that it maintains through apartheid laws. As international human rights organizations like B’Tselem have documented, there are 62 laws that discriminate against Palestinians. Apartheid exists from the Mediterranean Sea to the River Jordan.
We are discriminated against in education. The Israeli state spends more on Jewish schools than Palestinian ones. We are discriminated against in housing. We are denied the right to build housing on our historical land, while Jewish immigrants are provided housing. The same discrimination exists in healthcare. We are also discriminated against by the police.
This is only the tip of the iceberg. The list of racist laws is nearly endless including over marriage. Even Israel’s self-description is racist. The Zionists call it a Jewish state. Therefore, Palestinians are not considered full citizens.
So, we tell Ben & Jerry’s, and any company operating in Israel, “do you really want to be complicit with such a government and its racism and occupation?” This is the question we must ask again and again. It is not a question of ice cream or any other product. It is a question of recognizing Palestinian’s human rights.
AS:In the wake of this victory with Ben & Jerry’s, you’re working on getting Burlington Vermont’s City Council to pass a resolution in solidarity with the Palestinian people. Tell us a little bit about that initiative and how that flows out of this victory. What would it mean for the city of Burlington to pass the resolution?
WF:We were actually drafting this resolution before Ben & Jerry’s announcement. But now afterward, the resolution is now an even bigger priority for us. We are living in a city that prides itself as progressive, one that stands for human rights and equal rights.
We are asking the City Council to take a stand for those rights for Palestinians. We have three demands in the resolution. One, we are demanding that the City of Burlington support the ending of all military occupation and colonization of all Arab land and the dismantling of the separation wall. Two, recognize the fundamental right of the Arab Palestinian citizens of Israel to full equality. Three, advocate protecting the right of Palestinian refugees to return to their homes in historic Palestine.
We have lots of support among our council members for the resolution. The Racial Equity Subcommittee of the City Council will endorse and introduce the resolution and the whole City Council will vote on it sometime in September.
In theory, it shouldn’t be difficult for the City Council to pass it. As a matter of fact, I will be extremely surprised if the City Council opposes it. Of course, our opposition will be organized to stop this resolution from passing, especially after Ben & Jerry’s victory.
They will be present at City Hall. So, we must bring all the organizations and people that support our demands into organizing at every step of the struggle. We need the people of Burlington to engage and pressure the City Councilors.
The councilors need to feel that we are watching them and that we want them to do the right thing. So, it will take a good deal of organizing and effort to succeed. But I think in the end the people and the councilors will stand with us.
When we win it in Burlington, we are planning to take it to the state government. We’re already in contact with legislators who are willing to sponsor a similar resolution. Like the victory at Ben and Jerry’s, winning the resolution in Burlington is just the beginning.
HR:I agree with everything Wafic said. I think it’s fantastic that we have this next step coming out of the victory with Ben & Jerry’s. A resolution of this nature is pretty unprecedented. The debate about it will attract national and international press coverage. If it passes, it will only add momentum to our organizing. The snowball effect will be tremendous.
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Ashley Smith is a member of the Democratic Socialists of America in Burlington, Vermont. He has written in numerous publications including Spectre, Truthout, Jacobin, New Politics, and many other online and print publications.