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One Year On

The Campaign to End Ben & Jerry’s Business with Israeli Settlements

by MARK HAGE

In March 13, 2013, Vermonters for a Just Peace in Palestine/Israel (VTJP) launched a campaign calling on Ben & Jerry’s, a leader of the socially responsible business community, to stop marketing, catering and selling ice cream in Israel’s illegal settlements in the occupied West Bank and East Jerusalem. We also urged the company to issue a statement expressing its opposition to the occupation and Israel’s settlement enterprise, consistent with the principles of its social mission.

Our demands have not been met, but the campaign is strong and growing.

Free Cone Day, 2014: Your ice cream is free today—Palestine is not!

On April 8—this year’s Free Cone Day at participating Ben & Jerry’s scoop shops—solidarity activists in 12 states (CA, CO, CT, NY, MA, MN, NC, NH, OR, NH, VT, and WA) distributed thousands of leaflets prepared by VTJP on Ben & Jerry’s commercial ties to Israel’s settlement regime.

Additionally, over 350 e-mails were sent to the company’s CEO, Jostein Solheim, on April 8, and in the two weeks leading up to Free Cone Day, more than 500 messages were sent.

Ben & Jerry’s, to be fair, is not a corporate predator in Palestine in the vein of Motorola, Hewlitt Packard, Caterpillar or scores of other companies with ties to Israel’s military and police. Nonetheless, the simple, unsavory fact is that Ben & Jerry’s in Israel, like many other businesses, benefits directly from a political, legal and economic system of military occupation, colonization and racial segregation. The commercial ties between the company’s franchise in Israel and Jewish-only settlements cannot be reconciled with Ben & Jerry’s widely touted “social mission” or its record of supporting human rights and progressive causes.

Jewish settlers, ensconced in fortified settlements on stolen land, commit terrible crimes against Palestinians and mock international law. But when their sweet tooth beckons, they can find Ben & Jerry’s Finest in their supermarket freezers.

On Free Cone Day, activists drove this message home with thousands of Americans, whose tax dollars subsidize Israel’s military and occupation forces to the tune of more than $3 billion annually.

Building & Expanding the Campaign

VTJP organizers have met with company officials on two occasions since 2012 and exchanged correspondence several times. Our campaign went public last year, after two years of research, with a petition to the company. Nearly 4,000 individuals signed it.

Since last September, 220 organizations—from the American Friends Service Committee in the U.S. to BDS South Africa—have signed a letter organized by VTJP that calls on Ben & Jerry’s to stop selling ice cream in Israeli settlements. The international signatories to date are based in 16 countries (including Israel) and in the occupied West Bank. Groups in 31 states across the U.S., plus the District of Columbia, have also endorsed the letter.

There have been reactive stirrings to our efforts inside Ben & Jerry’s as well. The chairperson of the company’s Board of Directors, Jeff Furman, a veteran anti-racism activist, traveled to Palestine in 2012 with a delegation of African-American civil rights leaders. In the wake of that trip, Furman, who is Jewish, bluntly characterized Israel’s rule in the occupied Palestinian territory as “apartheid.”

He later told a reporter that he “believes” catering to the settlements had been stopped after our report on the franchise in Israel highlighted the practice. New information, however, from anti-occupation activists in Israel suggests that the Israeli franchise, operating out of a factory near the city of Kiryat Malachi, is still catering to Jewish settlers. We’ll have more to say on this later.

Last summer, Ben & Jerry’s Chief Financial Officer visited the West Bank while on a short business trip to Israel, and a delegation of corporate officers and Board members traveled there this March on a fact-finding mission. We also learned recently, but have no details yet, that earlier in the year the company invited individuals “from both sides of the conflict” to Vermont to hear their perspectives.

In the year to come, VTJP will intensify the Ben & Jerry’s campaign and our engagement with company officials, and lend support to Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) initiatives nationally and internationally.

There is much work that remains to be done.

Mark Hage is a member of Vermonters for a Just Peace in Palestine/Israel, and makes his home in Montpelier, Vermont. You can contact him at icecream@vtjp.org.