Ben & Jerry’s Denies Charges of Boycotting Israeli Company

The conflict in the Middle East has given Ben & Jerry’s several chilly licks recently.

Caught between groups opposed to Israeli settlements and Jewish organizations defending Israeli business operations in disputed territory, the ice cream manufacturer has sought to appease critics from both sides.

Under a hail of protest from anti-settler groups, the company’s Israeli franchise canceled a contract last month to purchase water from Mei Eden, a mineral water company based in the Golan Heights.

Bram Kleppner, the international products manager for Ben & Jerry’s, said on an Israeli radio show that the company, known for its social conscience, decided to “upset less people rather than more.” He added that many countries “have occupied the Golan over the past 3,000 years, so who are we to decide who is right?”

But after Jewish groups in the United States criticized Ben & Jerry’s for endorsing a boycott of certain Israeli products, the company said that in fact the company was not boycotting Mei Eden.

“The company is not boycotting products from the Golan Heights, nor would it join in such a boycott if one were organized,” Avi Zenger, president of the American Company for Ice Cream Manufacturing, the Ben & Jerry’s licensee in Israel, said last week.

The Israeli licensee bought “roughly $750 worth of water” from Mei Eden for a sorbet promotion during the summer, the company said. Zenger added that he would consider buying from Mei Eden in the future.

But some Jewish organizations still consider the episode a slap at Israel.

“Only when Ben & Jerry’s buys another $750 worth of Mei Eden will we know some other issue wasn’t at hand,” said Abraham Foxman, national director of the Anti-Defamation League.

Criticism of Mei Eden began in September 1997, after an Israeli group, Gush Shalom, urged consumers to boycott goods produced in Israeli settlements in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, and in the Golan. The group published a list of Israeli companies, including Mei Eden, that operate in those areas.

Israel, which captured the Golan Heights from Syria in the 1967 Six-Day War, annexed the territory in 1981 — a move that is not recognized by other countries.

Perry Odak, the chief executive officer of Ben & Jerry’s, was inundated with letters and e-mails criticizing the company after the Mei Eden contract was revealed in Israeli newspapers in June.

New Yorkers for a Just Middle East, a loose interfaith coalition, was one of the first groups to contact Ben & Jerry’s, urging Odak in an Aug. 13 letter to “terminate any existing contracts” with the mineral water company.

“Should an agreement indeed exist between Ben & Jerry’s and Eden Springs, and should you continue this agreement, we will consider calling for a boycott of Ben & Jerry’s products,” the group wrote.

Nathan Krystall, the 33-year-old Jewish founder of the coalition, said members are concerned that none of the profits from businesses like Mei Eden are reaching the Arab population in the Golan.

Arab American groups also criticized the popular ice cream company.

In an Aug. 24 letter to Odak, the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee’s president, Hala Maksoud, said it was appalling that a company that “has prided itself” on promoting humanitarian and environmental issues is “essentially legitimizing Israeli violation of international law and illegal occupation of Arab land.”

Maksoud threatened to recommend a boycott of Ben & Jerry’s products if it did not end the water contract.

After the company stopped purchasing Mei Eden last month, Jewish organizations weighed in with protests, charging that Ben & Jerry’s was joining those calling for a boycott of the Israeli product.

Foxman said succumbing to boycotts only strengthens them.

Although Ben & Jerry’s “may have been well-intended and are supporters of the peace process, this is a very serious matter. It shows peace is not around the corner,” he said.

Foxman wrote in a Sept. 25 letter to Ben & Jerry’s that the European Union is considering excluding Israeli products manufactured in disputed territories from preferential trade benefits. He added that Arab organizations and countries are urging boycotts of Israeli goods.

“Unfortunately,” Foxman wrote, “Ben & Jerry’s has given the appearance of acquiescing to this campaign against Israeli products.”

The president of the Zionist Organization of America, Morton Klein, said Jewish entrepreneurs Ben Cohen and Jerry Greenfield have sent a message to all Jewish businesses to boycott Israel.

Klein also wrote a letter to Odak, cautioning that Ben & Jerry’s should be careful about “delving into historical areas with which it is obviously unfamiliar.”

Ben & Jerry’s opened its first Israeli ice cream shop 10 years ago in Tel Aviv. Sweet Fifty, a flavor developed to celebrate Israel’s 50th anniversary, and other Ben & Jerry’s favorites are now sold in eight shops across Israel.

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