Unilever decision highlights crackdown on US Palestinian activism | Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions

Ben and Jerry’s has sued parent Unilever over its decision last week to sell the US company’s Israeli operations to a subsidiary, paving the way for the resumption of sales of its ice cream in the occupied Palestinian territories.

The ice cream brand announced in July last year that it would no longer sell its products in areas under “internationally recognized illegal occupation” – a move that drew scorn from Israel and prompted a campaign to pressure Unilever to reverse the decision.

Supporters of Israel applauded Unilever’s announcement last Tuesday to sell to an Israeli licensee.

Palestinian rights advocates say the move by multinational consumer goods company Unilever is part of a wider campaign to punish solidarity with Palestinians, and that laws put in place to criminalize economic boycotts of Israel threaten free speech in the United States.

“You wouldn’t see this heated reaction after an ice cream company said it was going to stop sales in the settlements unless Israel was concerned that it would quickly snowball, that a company would become 100,” said Amer Zahr, Advocacy Chair. New Generation for Palestine group, told Al Jazeera.

The year-long campaign against Ben & Jerry’s decision relied on laws passed by US states to penalize boycotts of Israeli products. Palestinian activists and civil liberties groups, including the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), say such laws undermine free speech. And Palestinian advocates see such efforts as a sign that the Israeli government is increasingly uncertain about its image, under scrutiny as a growing chorus of human rights groups accuses it of apartheid. .

“This move by Unilever follows months of coercive action by Israel and anti-Palestinian pressure groups,” said Olivia Katbi, spokesperson for the Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions (BDS) movement. “The initial decision by the Ben & Jerry’s Board of Directors to end sales in the OPT was an important symbolic victory.”

Ben & Jerry’s said in a statement Wednesday that under the new deal worked out by Unilever, it will no longer profit from business in Israel.

“Although our parent company made this decision, we do not approve of it,” they said. “We continue to believe that it is inconsistent with Ben & Jerry’s values ​​for our ice cream to be sold in the Occupied Palestinian Territory.”

Punish boycotts

Following the announcement last July, Israel’s Ambassador to the United States, Gilad Erdan, issued a letter urging the governors of 35 U.S. states to act with laws or executive orders that penalize boycott efforts. Israel.

The letter called for “determined action” which would “send an unequivocal message that this will not be tolerated”.

Israeli President Isaac Herzog also called the ice cream producer’s decision a “new form of terrorism”, and Yair Lapid, then Israeli foreign minister, called the decision a “shameful surrender to anti-Semitism”. Lapid said he would also contact states with anti-Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions (BDS) laws in response.

BDS, modeled on the anti-apartheid movement in South Africa, aims to exert nonviolent pressure on Israel to end its abuses against Palestinians.

Several states controlled by Republicans and Democrats, including Florida, Arizona, New Jersey and New York, have threatened to divest from Unilever or have taken steps to do so.

In a statement released on Wednesday welcoming Unilever’s decision, New York Democratic Governor Kathy Hochul said the state had taken “swift action to investigate the planned sales boycott by Unilever and Ben & Jerry’s and, most recently, gave Unilever a July 6 deadline to prove it was not engaging in BDS.” activity.” Ben & Jerry’s decision to suspend sales only applied to the occupied Palestinian territories.

Hochul’s office did not respond to questions from Al Jazeera asking whether the governor supports boycotts against countries accused of human rights abuses, or whether she considers the occupied Palestinian territories part of Israel.

Unilever is not the first company to come under such pressure from Israel and its supporters.

After Airbnb announced it would no longer operate in Israeli settlements in the occupied West Bank, the accommodation website faced a backlash, prompting it to back down some five months later.

In January 2019, Republican Florida Governor Ron DeSantis announced that Airbnb had been added to a list of “companies examined” and banned government employees to receive accommodation reimbursement with Airbnb on work-related trips.

Artists and cultural figures who cancel shows in Israel, responding to calls from Palestinian activists, also risk potential consequences.

When Kiwi singer Lorde canceled a show in Israel, Florida Republican lawmakers threatened to cancel her concerts in the name of fighting BDS, and a pro-Israel group ran a full-page ad in the Washington Post, calling her a “bigot”. ”.

While Republicans and Democrats have sparred over limits on free speech from different ideological perspectives, both have cracked down on efforts to promote economic boycotts against Israel.

Several federal courts have declared anti-BDS laws unconstitutional in recent years. But a US appeals court ruled last month in favor of an Arkansas law that penalizes companies that boycott Israel.

Brian Hauss, a staff attorney with the ACLU Speech, Privacy and Technology Project, said in a statement that the decision departs from “longstanding traditions” of boycotting as a form of political expression.

Lina Assi, spokesperson for Palestine Legal, a watchdog that fights repression in defense of Palestinian rights, said the anti-BDS laws are part of “wider attempts to slander and silence a meaningful solidarity with the Palestinians”.

For some, the sight of a country with one of the strongest armies in the world devoting time and energy to overturning a decision by an ice cream company has become a source of humor.

In response to a tweet from the official State of Israel Twitter account condemning Ben & Jerry’s announcement, a Twitter user replied mockingly“You literally have nuclear missiles. It’s so embarrassing.”

For his part, Zahr said the collapse of the Ben & Jerry’s decision is a sign of Israel’s “fragility”.

“We know the truth is on our side, and even when there is a disappointing decision like this, it draws attention to Israel’s occupation and denial of basic Palestinian rights.”

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