It’s been 58 days since Ben & Jerry’s posted on social media. Here’s how his silence can be linked to the Middle East
At the time, the Israeli government launched airstrikes in the Gaza Strip while Hamas and other militant groups fired rockets at Israel. Escalating violence has left at least 230 Palestinians dead and more than 1,700 injured. Twelve people in Israel were killed. Viral social media posts sympathetic to Palestinians and disparity in casualties were snowballing in wider protest campaigns. On Twitter, user after user from across the country flooded the comments section of the mint ice cream post with criticism of Ben & Jerry’s business dealings in the West Bank and East Jerusalem.
Since then, Ben & Jerry’s has stopped publishing altogether, letting both LGBTQ Pride Month and Juneteenth – two celebrations closely tied to the company’s social justice mission – pass without a glance. The silence prompted online protesters to rally behind the hashtag #HasBenAndJerrysTweetedYet, pointing to the company’s sudden and unexplained absence from social media as proof of their campaign’s effectiveness.
Meanwhile, back in Burlington, Vermont, where the company’s headquarters are located, a group of longtime local activists watch the social media blitz in awe, fired with the prospect that their years of protests against the company finally have a national impact.
For the past three decades, Ben & Jerry’s has licensed a factory in Israel, which produces and distributes ice cream in the country and also sells and supplies Israeli settlements in the West Bank and East Jerusalem.
Almost a tenth of Israel’s Jewish citizens live in these settlements. International law considers them illegal, but the Israeli government has maintained that it has historical and religious rights to the land.
A group called Vermonters for Justice in Palestine has a long history of criticized the business arrangement – born out of a friendship between Ben & Jerry’s co-founder Ben Cohen and Israeli businessman Avi Zinger in the 1980s. The 20-year-old advocacy group argues that the involvement of the enterprise in the occupied territories goes against the mission of social justice from which it benefits.
The Vermont coalition has for years bombarded letter executives and protested outside scoop stores on the company’s “Free Cone Day”. Yet Ben & Jerry’s has not budged on its business practices in Israel. But this spring, as progressives increasingly recognize the plight of Palestinians, activists have sensed something changing.
“We tried to challenge them according to their mission of love, peace, equality. But they ignored us, ”said Wafic Faour, the driving force behind VTJP’s Ben & Jerry’s campaign. “Now public opinion is changing, especially because of the younger generations who have taken to social media and protests and come to our aid. They can no longer ignore us.
Faour spent the first 18 years of his life in a Palestinian refugee camp in Lebanon after his family was displaced from the coastal city of Acre during the 1948 war. (The Israelis call it the War of Independence; Palestinians call it the Nakba, or “catastrophe.”) One of his grandfathers died during the conflict and the other was imprisoned by Israeli authorities for seven years. Faour now lives outside of Israel. Burlington, where the area’s small-town nature means he regularly meets Jerry Greenfield – the other co-founder of Ben & Jerry – outside the gym or on the street.
In the early 2010s, Faour participated in the research of a VTJP investigation documenting the distribution of Ben & Jerry’s ice cream in the colonies. According to their report, pints are available in grocery stores in the occupied territories and Israeli settlers can order party carts and food at the factory, located in Be’er Tuviya, an Israeli town 48 km from Tel Aviv.
The group presented the results to Ben & Jerry’s executives in 2013. Unilever bought the company in 2000 as part of a large corporate takeover, Burlington executives continue to monitor the Israeli license. But none of these executives had visited the Israeli site.
“Somehow the culture of the day allowed things like a licensee to make and distribute Ben & Jerry’s ice cream for two years in a very difficult and busy political environment without nobody checks to see if it was done correctly, “Bram Kleppner, then the company’s head of international marketing, said in an interview with The Globe.
In the end, executives visited, but said they had little control over where a licensee distributed their product. Months after 2013 Meeting with VTJP, Jeff Furman, the former chairman of the board, undertook a separate personal trip to the territories with a delegation of US civil rights leaders. He admitted to having a “very limited level of understanding” of the land before visiting.
“When you go there, these land issues don’t seem as complex as some people claim,” Furman told The Globe. “You observe what happens at the checkpoints. You hear about night raids by Israeli soldiers. You hear the stories of people losing their homes. You see and experience the results of who controls the water. You see the living conditions of apartheid.
Furman, who officially left the company in 2018 after four decades, pointed out that the trip had nothing to do with his role at Ben & Jerry’s and that he was “unaware of the current operations of Ben & Jerry’s” but remains “hopeful that the sale of Ben & Jerry’s ice cream will only take place within the original limits of Israel and not in occupied territory or illegal settlements “.
His successor as head of Ben & Jerry’s board, Anuradha Mittal, has also publicly criticized the Israeli occupation in her daily work as executive director of the Oakland Institute, a progressive think tank.
VTJP activists find both hope and frustration in these personal statements of sympathy for Palestinians.
“We know that in these other roles, they are united. But when it comes to doing something from the positions of power they have within Ben & Jerry’s, they’re shy, ”Faour said.
Ben & Jerry’s declined to comment on its current Israeli operations, but in 2015 it released a statement announcing its commitment to its Israeli licensee and that “the first phase of sustainable almond sourcing from a Palestinian farmers’ cooperative has been carried out ”.
If the company now chooses to break its silence on social media with a message critical of Israel, it would make waves in business and politics. Airbnb briefly banned West Bank ads on its site in 2018 before changing course after Israel’s tourist board condemned the decision as anti-Semitic and settlers filed a discrimination complaint.
But since its inception, Ben & Jerry’s has differentiated itself from other brands by focusing as much on its social mission as on its results. Refugee rights are among many issues listed on the company’s website, along with a call for systematic change to end “displacement of communities due to war and violence”.
“By putting a standard in place in the first place, we’ve made ourselves vulnerable to criticism largely avoided by other companies,” Furman said.
Much of this criticism comes from social media. Even though Ben & Jerry’s feeds remain dormant, past posts continue to fill with comments from those calling what they see as “half-baked activism.”
“I LOVE mint ice cream @benandjerrys, but I don’t like companies that profit from oppression and illegal settlements in occupied Palestine. So even if it looks nice, I won’t buy ”, commented a user a few days after the May 18 post which marked the beginning of the silence.
VTJP, mostly a delegation of middle-aged Vermonters, joined Instagram last week under the leadership of a few new members in their 20s who joined the organization following the violence in May. He has also partnered with the Decolonize Burlington movement, a decidedly younger local organization that advocates for black and Indigenous rights.
“We have realized that this company has been courageous in embracing social justice issues that are not necessarily acceptable to everyone,” said Hannah Rose, 22, chief of Decolonize Burlington. “But all of these movements are delicately and deliberately intertwined, so if they are going to speak out for Black Lives Matter while operating in occupied territories, their message is futile.”
Rose and Faour are convinced that the company’s silence on social media is inextricably linked to their efforts. And she is certain that will end with Ben & Jerry’s taking into account the contradiction between its social mission and its role in the occupied territories.
“Maybe once upon a time they didn’t understand this conflict. But now it’s not lost on them. I think there is a deep sense of shame. I expect a change very soon, ”said Rose.