“Although Ben & Jerry’s will no longer be sold in the OPT, we will stay in Israel through a different arrangement. We will share an update on this as soon as we’re ready.”’
For over 30 years, Ben & Jerry’s has licensed a factory in Israel which produces and distributes ice cream in the region. The brand said it has informed its licensee that it will not renew the license agreement when it expires at the end of next year.
The move was announced in the days after Palestinian media reported that Isreali police forcefully evacuated worshippers from the Al-Aqsa Mosque, Islam’s third holiest site in occupied East Jerusalem, using tear gas and rubber-coated steel bullets.
The BDS Movement, a Palestinian-led movement promoting boycotts, divestments and economic sanctions against Israel, welcomed the decision but called on the brand “to end all operations in apartheid Israel”.
“Following years of #BDS campaigns @benandjerrys has announced it will end sales of its ice cream in Israel’s illegal settlements on stolen Palestinian land,” the organisation tweeted.
Ben & Jerry’s was acquired by Unilever in 2000. The consumer goods giant responded to the move saying the conflict is “a very complex and sensitive situation” and that its priority is to provide essential products that contribute to “health, wellbeing and enjoyment”.
“We remain fully committed to our presence in Israel, where we have invested in our people, brands and business for several decades,” Unilever said in a statement.
“We have always recognised the right of the brand and its independent Board to take decisions about its social mission. We also welcome the fact that Ben & Jerry’s will stay in Israel.”
Boycott and backlash
But the decision to take a side in the long-running Middle East controversy hasn’t been well received by many within the Israeli community.
Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett phoned Unilever CEO Alan Jope to complain about the “glaring anti-Israel measure”, according to a statement from Bennett’s office.
“From Israel’s standpoint, this action has severe consequences, legal and otherwise, and it will move aggressively against any boycott measure targeting civilians,” Bennett told Jope.
Some retailers in the US have boycotted the brand in the wake of the announcement.
Shalom Kosher, a supermarket located in Silver Spring, Maryland, pulled all Ben & Jerry’s product in the wake of the announcement.
A post uploaded to its Facebook page on Tuesday read:
“Shalom Kosher has removed all of the Ben & Jerry’s products from our store and will no longer sell their products effective immediately. We stand with Israel!”
New York supermarket chain Morton Williams has also curbed its sales and marketing of Ben & Jerry’s products.
Following a board meeting on Monday, Morton Williams Supermarkets resolved to reduce the Ben & Jerry’s products it sells in its 16 stores by 70 percent, according to The New York Post.
The supermarket’s board also agreed to stop promoting the ice cream in its weekly circulars, and to demote Ben & Jerry’s to the “least desirable locations” of its freeze aisles.
AviKaner, co-owner of Morton Williams Supermarkets, accused the ice cream company of targeting Jewish communities.
“This action is taken in response to Ben & Jerry’s boycott of Jewish communities that are at the center of a territorial dispute in Israel, including the Jewish Quarter of Jerusalem – inhabited by Jews for over 3,000 years,” Kaner tweeted on Tuesday.
He said Ben & Jerry’s factory in southern Israel “is not even in disputed territory”.
“Nearly 600,000 Jews live in communities along the 1949 armistice line – mostly in areas that will remain in Israel even under a two state solution,” he tweeted.
“Of all the places to boycott, Ben & Jerry’s has chosen to target the one Jewish nation in the world.”
Does risk outweigh reward?
Dr Abas Mirzaei, senior lecturer in marketing at Macquarie Business School, called it one of “the riskiest brand activism moves” seen recently.
“Not only is Ben & Jerry’s getting involved in a very high tension topic, not only are they taking a stand to support one group, they actually go further by explicitly telling the public who they’re not with,” he told Inside Retail.
“This is a direct approach in taking a stand that can have a spillover effect in other parts of the world. So the consequences of such moves can be swift.”
He believes the move is an “emotional” one without clear, constructive outcomes for the conflicts in the region, and “well beyond the general public’s expectations” from a commercial brand.
“There are other ways to take a stand and risk the revenue with a lower risk of alienating the target audience,” he said. “Moves that are more clearly related with the brand’s core business and at the same time aligned with brand values.”
He points to Nike’s decision to drop a sneaker line featuring the Betsy Ross flag after Colin Kapearnick, a former National Football League quarterback and social justice activist, raised concerns about the flag’s associations with racism, as an example.
So, where does a brand’s responsibility end when it comes to addressing social issues?
Twitter users have already been quick to point out other human rights issues that Ben & Jerry’s is yet to address.
User @tedfrank tweeted on Tuesday: “A reminder that Ben & Jerry’s still sells ice cream in China and hasn’t said anything about Hong Kong or the Uyghurs.”
Mirzaei says if a brand chooses to be involved in activism to this extent, they can’t be selective about their moves.
“There are conflicts in other parts of the world, why has Ben & Jerry’s been quiet about Hong Kong or Uyghurs? It has exposed itself by making a radical move, walking into uncharted territories with unclear achievements, and with no clear strategic brand message, and poor communications.”