Boycott success: Ben & Jerry’s ends ice cream sales in Israeli settlements

After nearly 10 years of campaigns by Palestinian human rights activists, Ben & Jerry’s has announced its ice cream will no longer be sold in grocery stores in illegal Israeli settlements.

Campaigners have called for an end to the sale of Ben & Jerry’s ice cream in settlements since 2013. Settlements are communities established by Israel on land in the Occupied Palestinian Territories, described by the UN as a "flagrant violation of international law”. 

On 19th July, the company announced on its website: “We believe it is inconsistent with our values for Ben & Jerry’s ice cream to be sold in the Occupied Palestinian Territory”.

Ben & Jerry’s was founded in Vermont in 1978, and local campaign group Vermonters for Justice in Palestine (VTPJ) spearheaded the campaign to end its sales in settlements and across Israel. In addition to calling for a boycott of the company, the campaign involved meetings with Ben & Jerry’s management, appeals to recipients of Ben & Jerry’s Foundation grant, and petitions. 

2021 has seen increased aggression between the Israeli military and Hamas, including several bombings and airstrikes on Gaza by the Israeli military. It is unclear what prompted Unilever’s announcement.

Ben & Jerry’s future in Israel

While Ben & Jerry’s announcement has been praised by campaigners, many call on the company to end all operations in Israel.  

Ben & Jerry’s parent company Unilever has worked with a local franchisee in Israel since 1987. The franchisee has a Ben & Jerry’s manufacturing facility and two scoop shops near Tel Aviv. Unilever will not renew the licensing agreement, which expires in December 2022, though it has stated that Ben & Jerry’s will stay in Israel through an alternative arrangement, the details of which have seemingly not yet been confirmed.

Ian Stokes of VTPJ said,

“The recent announcement by Ben & Jerry’s ending the sale of its ice cream in illegal settlements is very welcome. However, it does not adequately address all of the demands of the boycott call, such as ending sales across Israel. We therefore continue to call for a consumer boycott.”

The Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) Movement tweeted “Following years of #BDS campaigns @benandjerrys has announced it will end sales of its ice cream in Israel's illegal settlements on stolen Palestinian land. We warmly welcome their decision but call on Ben & Jerry's to end all operations in apartheid Israel.”

Ben & Jerry's ice cream cone in hand in front of shop

Overriding independent advisory board

The announcements by Ben & Jerry’s and Unilever that the brand will continue operating in Israel has been met with concern by Ben & Jerry’s own board of directors, as well as campaign organisations. 

Ben & Jerry’s became a wholly-owned subsidiary of Unilever in 2000, but it has its own independent board of directors. This independent Ben & Jerry’s board was established as part of the terms of agreement of the acquisition, with the objective of “Preserving and expanding Ben & Jerry's social mission, brand integrity and product quality, by providing social mission-mindful insight and guidance to ensure we're making the best ice cream possible in the best way possible.”

The merger agreement between Ben & Jerry’s and Unilever is often seen as a gold standard example of companies seeking to preserve the spirit of their company after selling out to a multinational. 

The independent board claims that Unilever published the statement about withdrawal from settlements without the board’s permission, legally violating the terms of the agreement Unilever signed during the Ben & Jerry’s merger. In particular, the board says it did not approve the section of the statements that committed to future work with Israel: Unilever stated, “We remain fully committed to our presence in Israel, where we have invested in our people, brands and business for several decades. [...] Ben & Jerry’s will stay in Israel.”

Chair of the independent board Anuradha Mittal claims that the board had been pushing to withdraw from settlements for years, and had planned to publish a statement announcing its position on settlements without referencing continued sales in Israel.

However, Mittal has inferred on Twitter that Ben & Jerry’s does not support the BDS movement.

Backlash for withdrawing from settlements

In Israel several politicians have slammed Ben & Jerry’s for the move, with the former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu tweeting, “Now we Israelis know which ice cream NOT to buy”. Prime minister Naftali Bennett warned Unilever, “This is an action that has severe consequences, including legal, and [Israel] will take strong action against any boycott directed against its citizens.”

Yet 92 Israeli public figures have signed a letter of thanks to Ben & Jerry’s for its decision.

Human rights organisations have frequently called upon companies that are involved in settlements to withdraw. 

In 2018, following a Human Rights Watch campaign, Airbnb announced it would stop advertising rental properties located in Israeli settlements. However, it reversed the decision after facing lawsuits filed against it in the United States and Israel. Airbnb stated, “Under the settlement terms, Airbnb will not move forward with implementing the removal of listings in the West Bank from the platform.” It continued “Any profits generated for Airbnb by any Airbnb host activity in the entire West Bank will be donated to non-profit organizations dedicated to humanitarian aid that serve people in different parts of the world.”

Omar Shakir of Human Rights Watch stated

“Donating profits from unlawful settlement listings does nothing to remedy ‘human suffering’ they’ve acknowledged causing.”

The BDS movement continues to call on companies to withdraw from the settlements.