Progressive except on Palestine

July 5, 2013

Marc Estrin and Nolan Rampy are Palestine solidarity activists and members of Vermonters for a Just Peace in Palestine/Israel. In this commentary, they make the case that if fellow Vermonters Ben Cohen and Jerry Greenfield of Ben & Jerry's were consistent in their support for progressive causes, they'd support the struggle for justice in Palestine.

HOW DIFFICULT it is when allies are not always allies--on certain issues.

The most predictable of those "certain issues" is the conflict in Israel/Palestine. Historically, a disproportionate number of American radicals have been Jewish, and many have deep, sometimes confused feelings about the goings-on between the river and the sea.

At one end of a spectrum are those who have grown up with Israel as a second motherland, and who find it difficult to criticize Mom. The other end is seeded with varieties of Electra, ready to denounce or even kill. Most are in the middle, conflicted and often paralyzed. "Too complicated. I'm working on other things." And they are.

Take Ben & Jerry's. Those of us who have lived for a long time in Vermont know the origins and consistent behavior of our local ice-cream makers. They have watched the company grow from a start-up in an abandoned garage--a soup shop with a small ice cream-making bucket in the window--to become part of an international corporation owned by Unilever.

Palestine solidarity activists protest Ben & Jerry's during a free cone giveaway day
Palestine solidarity activists protest Ben & Jerry's during a free cone giveaway day

Along the way, Ben & Jerry's has supported left, peace and Occupy activities with grants, not mention free ice cream for their fundraisers. Their support for left activism has continued--by some mysterious special arrangement--even after Unilever's acquisition. Ben & Jerry's, unlike other moneymakers, was always on our side.

Except for Palestine.

This exception has been so common on the left it has spawned an acronym: PEP--progressive except for Palestine.

ITS NO longer the case, as it long had been, that Palestinian Freedom or End the Occupation groups were excluded from national actions for fear of being labeled "anti-Semitic." World, and with it left, opinion has come around to see the Palestinian struggle as central to the dynamics of world peace.

But many individuals--especially Jews--still have problems "going there." While they may no longer support "my Israel, right or wrong" and don't cater to AIPAC, their conflict shows up as inattention, contradiction or absenteeism. Ben & Jerry's is a case in point.

Vermonters for a Just Peace in Palestine/Israel (VTJP) learned in 2010 that the Ben & Jerry's franchise in Israel is selling ice cream in illegal, Jewish-only settlements in the occupied West Bank and East Jerusalem. Moreover, in 2010, even as conditions for Palestinians under occupation worsened, the company opened a factory in Israel and announced plans to expand the number of scoop shops there.

Doing business in a country engaged in an illegal military occupation raises troubling ethical concerns on its own, but that, together with conducting business within the occupied territory itself, stands in sharp contrast to Ben & Jerry's formative, well-marketed brand image of a socially responsible business, with strong support for many progressive causes.

In 2011, VTJP brought this issue to the attention of Ben Cohen, Jerry Greenfield and company executives. Earlier this year, after they had refused to end their business in the occupied Palestinian territory, VTJP launched a public campaign urging people of conscience to call on Ben & Jerry's to end its commercial complicity with Israel's occupation and settlements.

Unfortunately, we can't speak directly to Ben Cohen's position because he has never responded to our inquiries.


Now come the friend-foe complications: Are Ben and Jerry still our friends if they won't address the contradictions between their mission statement and their behavior in Israel/Palestine?

To the point: Activists in Burlington are currently engaged in an exciting campaign against government officials trying to station the F-35 fighter jet base here in Vermont's largest city. Local citizens have taken a bold and principled stance against the move, and VTJP clearly supports their efforts.

Recently, the anti-F-35 fighter jet campaign received an important public endorsement from Ben. His prominence, both in business and activist circles, raises the profile of the anti-F-35 campaign. VTJP commends him for joining the cause. But given the weight he carries on the left, it's unfortunate that he seems unwilling to lend his voice to the Palestinians currently living under an illegal military occupation.

The dissonance between his commendable support for the anti-F-35 campaign and the company's problematic ties with Israel's illegal occupation is heightened by the fact that Israel has the second largest fleet of F-16 fighter jets and spends a larger percentage of its gross domestic product on the military than almost any other country in the world.

In addition, Israel currently has a contract with Lockheed Martin to purchase the F-35 fighter jet (with U.S. taxpayer money) that could be worth up to $15.2 billion. And like the other military equipment our government and corporations supply to Israel, this new generation of fighter jets will undoubtedly be used to kill and terrorize Palestinian civilians.

During a recent F-35 Citizens' Hearing at which Ben was a featured speaker, Rabbi Joshua Chasan spoke eloquently about the F-35's potential impact on Burlington's refugee population. He spoke of the callousness of allowing these jets to fly over the heads of those who seek refuge in our community, "raining upon them the powerful engines of war--as if refugees below were homesick for the fearsome sound of these instruments of war."

That sentiment is one of many reasons why VTJP fully supports the anti-F-35 campaign and is thrilled to see prominent, politically active figures such as Ben lend their support to the campaign.

Our call is for Ben Cohen to now extend his support, in word and in deed, to the Palestinians, to recognize their full humanity and extend to them the same empathy that Burlington does to the refugees right here among us.

Ben no longer owns Ben & Jerry's, but he is still very involved with the company, and were he to publicly voice his opposition to complicity with Israel's illegal occupation, he would no doubt have a significant influence on the company that bears his name.

Rabbi Chasan is right: No one should have to live under the "sounds of these instruments of war." This includes Palestinians.

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