Progressive Jewish groups urge US governors not to penalize Ben & Jerry’s

A labourer works on a production line filling ice-cream pots at the Ben & Jerry's factory in Be'er Tuvia in southern Israel (AFP)

MEE Staff

Middle East Eye  /  July 26, 2021

Letter sent to 33 governors rejects allegations that Ben & Jerry’s decision to stop selling ice cream in illegal settlements is a boycott of Israel.

A coalition of progressive Jewish groups is calling on US governors to block efforts to penalize Ben & Jerry’s and its parent company Unilever over its decision to stop selling ice cream in Israeli settlements.

In a letter to 33 governors of states with anti-BDS laws, the groups said that boycotting Israeli settlements is not a form of antisemitism, but rather a way to encourage a two-state solution – a policy long supported by both Democrats and Republicans. 

Since the ice cream company announced plans last week to stop selling its products in Israeli settlements, which are considered illegal under international law, it has been threatened with punitive measures in the US, with critics accusing the company of acting out of anti-Jewish sentiments. 

“Such discourse not only clouds the facts, but is extremely polarizing, deeply painful to many Jews and harms the fight against the growing tide of actual, deadly hatred that our community faces worldwide,” the groups said in the letter.

‘Americans’ fundamental rights’ 

Written and signed by Ameinu; Americans for Peace Now; Habonim Dror North America; J Street; New Israel Fund; Partners for Progressive Israel; and T’ruah: The Rabbinic Call for Human Rights, the groups warned that “moves to penalize those who choose to protest settlements, the occupation or Israeli policy at large violate Americans’ fundamental constitutional rights and dangerously create a false dichotomy between freedom of speech and support for Israel”.

While none of the signatories have officially endorsed the Palestinian-led Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement, which seeks to challenge Israel over its human rights violations, they all stressed the importance of being free to do so. 

“No matter how strongly one might disagree with or oppose the rhetoric or goals of specific movements and efforts, the right to boycott is an important part of our democracy,” the groups continued, stressing their opposition to anti-BDS laws on free speech grounds, as well as their potential weaponization against political opponents.

They also underlined the difference between Israel and its occupied territory – a differentiation that “is rightly recognized and maintained in various ways by official US policy and the constitutionally-protected actions of private individuals and organizations”. 

Penalizing companies for choosing to support a political position “does nothing but generate further attention and sympathy” for the BDS movement “and frames backing Israel as being in opposition to fundamental freedoms in the minds of many Americans”, they said. 

The letter comes after the US ambassador to Israel, Gilad Erdan, sent his own letter to the same set of governors, urging them to utilize their respective states’ anti-BDS laws against Unilever’s Ben & Jerry’s. 

Officials in Florida, Illinois, New Jersey, New York and Texas have already taken the initial steps at examining potential action over the move.

On Wednesday, Israeli President Isaac Herzog called boycotts of Israel over human rights concerns “a new kind of terrorism”, sparking a heated debate over the reaction to the move within Israel.