The Ben & Jerry's hypocrisy

Solidarity activists are planning new actions to pressure a "socially responsible" business to cut its ties with Israeli apartheid, report Mark Hage and Nolan Rampy.

This picture of Israeli soldiers was featured on the Facebook page of the Ben & Jerry's franchise in IsraelThis picture of Israeli soldiers was featured on the Facebook page of the Ben & Jerry's franchise in Israel

BEN & JERRY'S annual Free Cone Day is coming this spring, and Vermonters for a Just Peace in Palestine/Israel (VTJP) is calling on activists around the world to make that day about freedom in Palestine at Ben & Jerry's scoop shops.

VTJP launched its Ben & Jerry's campaign in March 2013 after learning that the company--recognized as a global leader among "socially responsible" businesses--has a factory in Israel that sells its ice cream in illegal, Jewish-only settlements in occupied Palestine. Moreover, Ben & Jerry's factory is likely using water diverted from the West Bank in violation of international law, according to a VTJP report.

VTJP's campaign is grounded in the argument that marketing and investing in the commercial life of Israeli settlements amounts to complicity with the occupation and its injustices. Despite the campaign being less than a year old, thousands of individuals and nearly 260 organizations worldwide have joined with VTJP in demanding that Ben & Jerry's stop the sale of its products in Israeli settlements.

Among them are 42 students, past and present, of Oberlin College, the alma mater of Ben & Jerry's co-founder Jerry Greenfield. They sent him a letter highlighting the contradiction between his professed commitment to ethical business practices and Ben & Jerry's business in occupied Palestine.

In June, an activist with the U.S. Campaign to End the Israeli Occupation presented a VTJP petition with close to 4,000 signatures to the company's other founder, Ben Cohen, at an event organized by Code Pink to protest the influence of money in American politics. Shortly thereafter, at a large event at the University of Vermont in September called "Making Dough, Making Change," Ben & Jerry's CEO was compelled to answer a question about the company's complicity in the Israeli occupation.

What you can do

If you or your group want to take part in this year's Free Cone Day Protest, send VTJP an e-mail at [email protected]. You’ll receive information on how to organize a local action, along with sample leaflets and a press release.

If you want to support VTJP's campaign, but are unable to organize a local action, send an e-mail to Ben & Jerry's CEO letting him know that social justice and occupation don't mix.

Top management in Vermont has responded to this pressure and local actions by engaging VTJP directly in talks, and last summer, Ben & Jerry's Chief Financial Officer Michael Graning traveled to occupied Palestine to "get a better understanding of, among other things, settlements, water issues and the West Bank wall." Board chairperson Jeff Furman also told the media that the company believes its franchise has now ended its catering services to the settlements.

But Ben & Jerry's franchise in Israel continues to do business with Israeli settlements and apartheid. Far from being embarrassed by such blatant hypocrisy, its Facebook page displays a photograph of a group of Israeli soldiers in the occupied Golan Heights in Syria being "pampered" (according to the caption) with Ben & Jerry's ice cream.

Undoubtedly, their counterparts in the occupied West Bank and East Jerusalem are similarly being pampered while on break from inflicting repression, terror and violence on Palestinians and their communities.

Israeli soldiers make it possible for Jewish-only settlements to grow in number and for supermarkets in those settlements to offer all the amenities of the "good life," including pints of Ben & Jerry's ice cream--in contrast to the economic and social deprivations imposed on the Palestinian people.

As long as Jewish settlers remain the beneficiaries of settler-colonialism in occupied Palestine and companies like Ben & Jerry's are not held accountable for their business ties to the settlements, the suffering and dispossession of the Palestinian people will continue and intensify.

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ON BEN & JERRRY'S Free Cone Day last year, VTJP organized a protest and leafleting action at the company's flagship scoop shop in Burlington, Vt., while members of Students for Justice in Palestine and the Burlington branch of the ISO leafleted at a scoop shop on campus. Palestine solidarity groups in New York and California also mobilized for similar actions at Ben & Jerry's outlets in their communities. The protest generated excellent independent media coverage, locally and nationally.

This year, VTJP is organizing another Free Cone Day protest and asking Palestine solidarity organizations and people of conscience to join us. The exact date for the event has yet to be determined by the company, but we expect it will again be in early April.

Our theme in 2014: Make Free Cone Day about freedom in Palestine!

An action of this sort can both reach a large number of people and build political awareness of the occupation. The choice of Ben & Jerry's scoop shops as sites of popular protest also helps to expand the reach and appeal of the international boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) movement--in part, because it highlights the issue of "normalization" with Israel.

Most companies are antagonistic to progressive or left-wing causes, but Ben & Jerry's has built a brand image and a loyal following around its social mission of "deep respect for human beings" and "the communities in which they live." Because of its well-known reputation as a business with a social conscience, Ben & Jerry's commercial ventures with Israel, more so perhaps than those of any other company, contribute significantly to "normalizing" the occupation by obfuscating the contradiction between cooperation with Israel and the imperatives of social justice.

There is no such thing as ethical commerce in a land under military occupation, or with a system of settler-colonialism, or with apartheid. A victory in this campaign will send the message, loud and clear, to other companies with socially responsible ethics that doing business with Israel's occupation and settlements is fundamentally incompatible with those ethics.

Together, we can deliver a message on Free Cone Day to Ben & Jerry's that its immoral complicity with Israel's occupation must end.