In danger in Israel’s reaction to Ben and Jerry’s? The right to protest.
Ben and Jerry’s recently announced that it will not renew its agreement with its Israeli licensee when it expires in 2022, stating that it is “incompatible” with the brand’s values ”for sale in the Occupied Palestinian Territories (OPT)” . The move, which created tensions between the brand’s independent board of directors and its British parent company, Unilever, was the culmination of years of pressure from defenders of Palestine and, more recently, the Movement for black lives, which sees the struggle for Palestinian rights as an integral part of the struggle for black freedom.
Much has been written about Israel’s relentless offensive against the ice cream company. But there has been less talk of the consequences for Americans’ right to protest if our constitutional right to boycott is voided by Israel’s demands. As a Palestinian and advocate supporting those who face a cruel backlash for supporting Palestinian rights, I can tell you that these efforts are just the tip of a broader attack on all of our rights to speak out for justice.
Almost as soon as Ben and Jerry’s announced his decision, Israel and its American lobby got to work, threatening the ice cream company for heeding calls to end corporate profits made at the expense of Palestinian human rights. The Israeli prime minister warned Unilever that Israel planned to react “aggressively” to the decision. Its president called it a form of “terrorism”. An ambassador sent a letter to governors of 35 US states calling on them to enforce laws aimed at blocking boycotts against Israel for its violence against Palestinians.
The message to other American companies was clear: support Palestinian human rights and we will make you pay.
The reaction of Israel and its allies is familiar and expected. The pro-Israel lobby has sworn countless times to punish entities that disrupt Israeli apartheid affairs or criticize Israel for denying Palestinians their rights. (Just three years ago, pro-Israel supporters sounded the alarm on Airbnb for delisting properties in illegal Jewish-only settlements, harassing the company with harassing legal threats until it reverse its decision.) And, since 2014, Israel and its allies have attempted to lock down a growing movement for Palestinian rights by pushing for legislation in the United States targeting boycotts, divestments and sanctions that seek to hold Israel back. responsible for its violations of international law.
My organization, Palestine Legal, has tracked how over 30 states have enacted laws prohibiting state contracts and / or investments in entities that boycott or divest from Israel. Some create McCarthyist blacklists of boycotters. Others require vendors in the service of the state to commit in writing not to boycott Israel during the term of the contract. Hundreds of other imitation measures have been proposed across the country by lawmakers who support Israel.
This is why the Israeli prime minister could to inform Unilever and Ben and Jerry’s that “serious consequences, including legal” were in store.
But when these laws are challenged in court, federal judges have determined that a number of them are unconstitutional and have blocked them. The courts have been clear: Politically motivated boycotts remain at the heart of activities protected by the First Amendment. The Supreme Court ruled that boycotts against white-owned businesses in the Jim Crow South were safe. And the courts have recently and repeatedly said that boycotts to protest Israel’s human rights violations are no different. The elected officials, Republicans and Democrats, who have responded to Israel’s call to punish Ben and Jerry’s are showing their pro-Israel good faith to the detriment of all of our First Amendment rights.
These legislative attacks on our right to boycott are at the heart of a broader right-wing attack on social justice movements as a whole. States criminalize protests by indigenous and environmental activists fighting pipelines and Black Lives Matter activists protesting police violence. They introduce similar laws to punish companies that disengage from the fossil fuel industry. If boycotts for Palestinian rights are the first targets, what is the next step? Ultimately what is at stake here is our right to dissent.
Let’s also be clear: Israel’s calls to activate constitutionally suspect laws do more than enlist our government to undermine our rights and remove responsibility. They are part of Israel’s strategy to swallow the West Bank and East Jerusalem.
Israel’s visceral reaction to Ben and Jerry’s announcement to withdraw from the occupied Palestinian territory reveals that it will even attack those who attempt to distinguish Israel within the Green Line from its illegal settlements – a line that Israel itself has physically blurred and economically (and a vagueness in the United States has increased). Israel has passed a law imposing sanctions on boycotters of Israel and areas it controls, including illegal settlements. The settlements themselves are so closely linked to the Israeli market that it is virtually impossible to withdraw from the sale of goods in the occupied territory without completely terminating ties with Israel – an ironic and self-inflicted consequence of trying to to fortify a single state based on supremacy, stretching from the river to the sea.
This racist design – to occupy, empty and annex all of Palestine – requires the forced dispossession of millions of refugees and a brutal and continuing military repression of the Palestinians who remain in the occupied West Bank and East Jerusalem. It requires the continuation of a murderous siege on Gaza, where Palestinians and the infrastructure on which they depend becomes fish in a barrel with every high-tech Israeli bombardment. This requires compliance with nearly 60+ laws that deny Palestinian citizens of Israel equal rights to Jewish citizens.
This is a critical moment. The legacy of last year’s racial justice uprisings has taught us that it is possible to awaken a nation to question systems of oppression at its roots, from white supremacy in the United States to settler colonialism in Palestine. Popular movements welcome new voices and grow accordingly. Attacks on people’s right to claim a freer future – from Standing Rock and Black Lives Matter to Palestinian freedom – underscore the risk to all of our rights to protest for justice.