The Ben & Jerry’s boycott is not an attack on Israel. It is protesting a specific policy.


JERUSALEM (JTA) When I talk with Palestinian friends, I argue against BDS. The Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement, I explain, has done little economic damage to Israel. It has only strengthened the right wing here while rendering Palestinians under occupation — along with the occupation itself — conveniently invisible to most Israelis.

For similar reasons, I also argue against “anti-normalization” efforts that reject any form of dialogue, collaboration or partnership with Israelis.

So why do I support Ben & Jerry’s announcement to stop marketing and selling in the occupied West Bank and East Jerusalem? Because that decision, as announced by the corporate parent company Unilever, is not a victory for BDS. At the heart of the BDS movement, especially in the United States and United Kingdom, is an attack on the legitimacy of the State of Israel to exist as a homeland for the Jewish people.

That’s not what Ben & Jerry’s decision is — it’s a boycott to protest a particular policy.

It appears that the Ben & Jerry’s board of directors, which maintains independent governance rights under Unilever, decided indeed to divest totally from Israel. But its decision was overridden by Unilever, which announced that the global company will change its licensing agreement in order to sell inside Israel but not in the West Bank or East Jerusalem, where its prime market has been Israeli Jewish settlers.

My friends in the peace camp inside Israel have advocated for decades to create a distinction between the economy of the settlements in the West Bank and East Jerusalem and Israel proper. It’s a difficult distinction to make because of the intentional blurring, especially in recent years, by the former Netanyahu governments and a strong settlers’ lobby. Borders on official maps have been erased. Road signs make no distinction between the suburbs of Tel Aviv and Ariel in the West Bank. Israeli law stipulates that Israeli civilians must be treated equally no matter where they live.

Yet there are exceptions made and they are significant. Even the Netanyahu government made an exception when it agreed in 2014 to accept Horizon 2020 money from the European Union for scientific research for Israel’s universities and institutes that would exclude any West Bank-based institution. The current Israeli government did the same when it recently accepted cultural funds from the EU that can’t be used over the Green Line.

There’s another precedent here, albeit with another food group. From its inception, the McDonald’s franchise has been held in Israel by Omri Padan, an Israeli who was an original member of Peace Now. (I serve on the board of its sister organization, Americans for Peace Now.) For ideological reasons, Padan will not open a McDonald’s in any of the settlements outside of Israel’s internationally recognized border. Yet there are kosher McDonald’s all over Israel and outside of army bases catering to the very same audience decrying the Ben & Jerry’s decision.

Let’s not conflate boycotts against policy with a BDS movement that wants to eradicate the State of Israel. This only gives impetus to the activists to keep going in their anti-Israel campaign.

The reality is that hard-core BDS efforts have gotten more publicity than they have achieved impact.

The EU, Israel’s largest trading partner, hasn’t stopped trading. Despite COVID, the Israeli economy is set to bounce back nicely.

“Growth is expected to rebound in 2021, with the Bank of Israel forecasting a 6.3% rise if the rapid pace of Israel’s COVID-19 vaccination campaign is maintained,” Reuters reports.

The diplomatic boycott has been similarly fruitless: Witness not only the Abraham Accords, but recent public diplomacy between Israel and Jordan, as well as Israel and Morocco.

Those who claim that a protest against the occupation is a frontal attack on Israel itself are making a mistake. There has been and continues to be only one issue that should be leading the debate: whether we move toward two states by beginning to differentiate borders and freeze the settlements, or we continually drift dangerously to one state. That’s a much more complicated issue than where or whether to eat Chunky Monkey.

I hope that Unilever can hold to its position to keep Ben & Jerry’s ice cream inside Israel while exiting the territories. It would be an important statement, even if just symbolic, to say yes to Israel and no to the occupation.

Writer Jo-Ann Mort
has written frequently about Israel and Palestinian issues for a range of publications, including The American Prospect, Dissent, and The New York Review of Books Daily. She is also a consultant working with non-profits in the progressive community in Israel, the Palestinian Authority areas and the U.S.

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