How Ben & Jerry’s got on Israel’s ‘terrorism’ radar, and McDonald’s didn’t

Ben & Jerry's bombshell announcement on July 18, 2021

Jonathan Ofir

Mondoweiss  /  August 2, 2021

The constantly rolling news item is Ben & Jerry’s decision not to sell its ice cream in Occupied Palestinian Territory in the West Bank – not least because of the vociferous Israeli response, with its whopping support of the illegal settlements. This response includes a concerted long-term campaign from the top of the government to coerce Ben & Jerry’s into backtracking on its decision.

Yet the wide international focus on this case is also beginning to bring to the fore other cases. One of these is the case of international restaurant giant McDonald’s. This Wednesday, Times of Israel came out with an article titled “How McDonald’s took the same stance as Ben & Jerry’s but avoided public backlash”.

The title is somewhat misleading, because it brushes upon a critical difference between the two corporates: The Israeli McDonald’s franchise never actually entered the settlements, while Ben & Jerry’s did and is now trying to extract itself from them.

The article explains the McDonald’s history on settlements:

“In 2013, the fast-food chain’s chief executive in Israel refused an offer to open a branch in the northern West Bank settlement of Ariel, sparking anger from settlers and right-wing lawmakers from the Jewish Home party, who called on Israelis to boycott McDonald’s in response… When Samaria Regional Council chairman Yossi Dagan launched a campaign to prevent McDonald’s from participating in a tender to operate at Ben Gurion Airport in 2019, he failed to convince the powers that be, and the Golden Arches were unveiled in the duty-free area the next year.”

So McDonald’s kind of stayed under the radar, without issuing a statement like Ben & Jerry’s did, where it stated that “it is inconsistent with our values for Ben & Jerry’s ice cream to be sold in the Occupied Palestinian Territory (OPT).”

It is perhaps this statement that has made Ben & Jerry’s such a major target for the Israeli campaign – it is a PR issue.

The Times of Israel cites Nitsana Darshan-Leitner from the Israeli lawfare group Shurat Hadin (Israel Law Center), an Israeli propaganda outfit which boasts of its “new way of fighting terrorism” – because boycott of Israel (or anything close) is considered “terrorism”:

“We could not go forward [with claims against them] because they didn’t make any announcement and there wasn’t any proof,” she said, suggesting that the short reply McDonald’s sent to reporters in 2013 was insufficient for discrimination litigation.

Shurat Hadin has recently started a ridiculous campaign claiming that it will start a knockoff Ben & Jerry’s brand, “Judea & Samaria’s Ben & Jerry’s” (using the biblical names for the West Bank), since Ben & Jerry’s supposedly forfeited their trademark rights in those areas by declaring they would not sell there. The group’s campaign includes the prospective product “Frozen Chosen People”, featuring Zionist founder Theodor Herzl with a cow.

The group appears ready to take Ben & Jerry’s on in court if the copycat brand is contested. Shurat Hadin’s speaks of boycotts and terrorism in the same breath. From its description page:

SHURAT HADIN IS AT THE FOREFRONT OF FIGHTING TERRORISM AND SAFEGUARDING JEWISH RIGHTS WORLDWIDE.

“We are dedicated to protecting the State of Israel. By defending against lawfare suits, fighting academic and economic boycotts, and challenging those who seek to delegitimize the Jewish State, Shurat HaDin is utilizing court systems around the world to go on the legal offensive against Israel’s enemies.”

This equating of terrorism and boycotts meant to take Israel to task for its violations, is actually a rather mainstream thought in Israel. The newly instated President Isaac Herzog, who is a former Labor leader, commented on the Ben & Jerry’s decision that it is a “new form of terrorism”. It is therefore an interesting fact that Shurat Hadin’s founder is convicted terrorist Aviel Leitner, Nitsana Darshan Leitner’s husband – who was a member of the Kahanist terror cell TNT which targeted Palestinians in the 1980’s.

So why aren’t McDonald’s being called terrorists?

McDonald’s has been keeping low profile in its public statements on this matter, although it has maintained a consistent policy that it would not open branches beyond the Green Line (1949 ceasefire line crossed in 1967). Times of Israel notes how McDonald’s is observing the differentiation between Occupied Palestinian Territories and Israel, but quietly:

“Corporate McDonald’s based in the US gives each of its franchises abroad specific borders where they can open branches, and in Israel’s case, those borders never extended beyond the Green Line. But McDonald’s and McDonald’s Israel have been careful not to publicize those boundaries, and representatives from the fast-food chain in the US and Israel declined to speak on the record.”

When the 2013 McDonald’s refusal of the Ariel settlement offer was leaked to press, McDonald’s replied dryly saying it had “always been the policy” not to open branches beyond the Green Line.

It would appear that Israel is very interested in the symbolism that such cases provide. If the company is quiet, it is not an attractive case to counter, even if the company is actually avoiding doing business in the settlements. If the company is more noisy about it, it becomes a PR war.

This also brings us back to the major difference between Ben & Jerry’s already selling in the settlements, and McDonald’s not being there in the first place: Ben & Jerry’s need to actively get out of there, McDonald’s just need to stay out. The Ben & Jerry’s situation of needing to make an active move, combined with their statement about values, represents active disengagement, rather than passive non-engagement. The symbolic value of it is simply more active, and may inspire others, who are already invested in the settlements, to move out.

But beyond these differences, there is a common denominator between Ben & Jerry’s and McDonald’s – both are working in Israel, and both have not rejected that prospect. This is despite the fact that Israel’s response to the Ben & Jerry’s decision (which is only a partial boycott) proves clearly that Israel is centrally invested in its settlements. Israel’s response is only confirming that it is an Apartheid state from the river to the sea. Israel is only letting McDonald’s off the hook because it has been quiet. If McDonald’s were more noisy about the settlements, it would no doubt be targeted. If these companies were to really take the state to task for its actions, they would pull out from Israel completely.

There is a logic here that is quite compelling, and Israel is wary of people actually working it out, since it is all too obvious. Israel does not want the idea of boycott to enter the minds of too many people, while it is really the only game in town.

If people get the idea that Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) can serve as a lever towards justice for the Palestinians, then they might not just pull out of Ariel, they might also pull out of Jerusalem and Tel Aviv.

In a recent +972 podcast on the subject, Amjad Iraqi discussed the fear of BDS inside Israel and its lobby, which has led to the wave of anti-BDS legislation in the U.S., seeking to suppress any form of boycott against Israel, even when the boycotters are making that distinction between Israel and the occupation.

Iraqi summarized:

“So it is very alarming that there is an entire infrastructure now designed to ensure not only that people cannot oppose these decisions by the Israeli state, but essentially to encage Palestine and their allies to prevent them from being able to even speak up about not so much Israel’s policies, but to even dare to say there is a distinction between the settlements and the state. This is very alarming.”

This is very true. But it also raises another question: for how long should Israel be afforded the privilege of being separated from its settlements, when it clearly says they are a part of it and that it is a part of them?

Israel’s desperation to avoid backlash against its expansionist criminality is also forcing it to choose its battles, so as to focus where the PR value may be greatest. It managed to bend Airbnb back into the settlements after the company said it would pull out. It is determined to do the same with Ben & Jerry’s.

The Israeli policy is to coerce companies into compliance through threats, or to keep the dissent under the radar. The doomsday weapon is the “antisemitic” label, which foreign minister Yair Lapid has already applied to Ben & Jerry’s. Any opposition to the Chosen People’s settlements needs to be kept frozen.

Johnathan Ofir – Israeli musician, conductor and blogger/writer based in Denmark

Thanks to Bruce Wolman.