The scoop on Ben & Jerry’s in Israel

Ben & Jerry’s Israel founder and CEO talks cookies n’ cream and tikkun olam.

PHISH FOOD: Packaging ice cream in the Be’er Tuviya factory. (photo credit: CARL HOFFMAN)
PHISH FOOD: Packaging ice cream in the Be’er Tuviya factory.
(photo credit: CARL HOFFMAN)
On a Fourth of July weekend in 1947, America’s first motorcycle gang, the Boozefighters, formed just a year before, rolled into Hollister, California, and took over the town. They filled the bars – after driving their motorcycles through the front doors and plate-glass windows – and drank, partied, brawled with the local townsfolk, drank some more, and began racing their Harley-Davidsons up and down the town’s main street.
For the entire weekend, the bikers roared through the streets on their motorcycles, drank beer like there was no tomorrow, terrorized the local citizens and owned the town.
The small Hollister police force, outnumbered and completely intimidated, called in reinforcements from neighboring California communities, who battled the bikers and eventually ran them out of town – but not before they attracted the attention of the media.
As this was the first time anyone had seen anything like this, reporters weren’t sure whether these Boozefighters were some kind of motorcycle club with a drinking problem, or a drinking club with a motorcycle problem.
I was reminded of this recently while visiting the factory and offices of Ben & Jerry’s Israel in Be’er Tuviya, getting both a tour of the place and a summary of their ethics, values and community service projects. I went home thinking that a person could be forgiven for wondering whether Ben & Jerry’s is an ice-cream company that performs charitable activities, or a charitable organization that for some odd reason makes ice cream. “We are a company that wants to make a better world, and is doing ice cream,” says Avi Zinger, founder and CEO of Ben & Jerry’s Israel. “We want to make ice cream the best way you can make ice cream, in terms of quality, technology, supply sourcing, the community, our employees, everything.” Zinger then points to the company’s “mission statement,” which says, “Ben & Jerry’s is not just an ice cream brand. It’s a values-led business grounded in the belief that we can change the world by how we operate our company.”
TO UNDERSTAND this somewhat unusual business model, we need to take a step or two back and take in the larger picture of Ben & Jerry’s itself. The story of how this company came to be and how it operates is now legendary and well known. In broad outlines, it’s the story of two young Jewish guys, Ben Cohen and Jerry Greenfield, friends from childhood in Nassau County, New York. Greenfield finished college and wanted to be a doctor but couldn’t get into medical school. Cohen dropped out of school. The two of them took a correspondence course on how to make ice cream, and opened a small ice-cream parlor – called a “scoop shop” in the ice cream business – in a renovated gas station in Burlington, Vermont, on May 5, 1978.
Lacking skills at bookkeeping, Ben and Jerry closed their little shop for a day a few months later, and hung a sign that read, “We’re closed so we can figure out if we’re making any money.” They weren’t, but they soon turned things around by going wholesale.
Their ice cream soon caught on, with high-quality ingredients, high-quality production techniques, imaginative flavor concoctions, quirky product names like Chunky Monkey, Chubby Hubby, and Cherry Garcia – named in honor of the lead guitarist of Ben and Jerry’s favorite rock-and-roll band. Their signature feature, generous portions of chunks – big pieces of cookies, chocolate, and nearly everything else – was adopted because Ben had been born without the senses of smell and taste. Chunks were added to provide him with a sense of “mouth feel.”
But right along with the ice cream, from the very beginning, Ben & Jerry’s also produced a wide array of social service projects and activities, driven by a desire to “give back to the community.” This began with ecological and ethical product sourcing, evolved with the establishment of the Ben & Jerry’s Foundation – which gives away around $1.1 million a year – and continues with the creation of flavors to financially support causes ranging from the defense of abused children to same-sex marriage to the presidential campaign of Vermont senator Bernie Sanders.
This marriage of premium ice cream and good deeds helped Ben & Jerry’s expand throughout the United States and, 10 years after its founding in Vermont, to Israel as well.
THIS HAPPENED because one Israeli, who had spent years living and working in the United States, returned to Israel and didn’t like the ice cream here. Born in Tel Aviv 67 years ago, Avi Zinger did what many Israelis do after serving in the army. He traveled.
Following his five years serving in army intelligence, Zinger hit the road, which ultimately led to the US, working at the Israeli Consulate in New York. His Israeli girlfriend, later his wife, came with him to New York and got a job with El Al. Zinger worked at the consulate, studied business, bought a house in Larchmont, New York, for his growing family and, at the conclusion of his contract at the consulate, opened what he says was a “very successful” appliance store in New York City.
Not long after returning to Israel, Zinger heard about two guys back in the US who would soon change his life. He recalls, “An Israeli friend returned from her brother’s wedding in Vermont and said, ‘Hey, I met two great guys there who make ice cream. Have you heard of Ben & Jerry’s?’ I said no. So I called the brother and asked to be introduced to them. So we got introduced. I went to Ben’s studio apartment in Burlington, Vermont. We talked. At that time you couldn’t find any decent ice cream in Israel.”
They explored the possibilities, talked to lawyers, drew up papers, and before long had a deal. With a license from Ben & Jerry’s, Zinger began to make ice cream, becoming the first to manufacture Ben & Jerry’s outside of the US. He opened a scoop shop on Dizengoff Street in Tel Aviv, which soon became a major attraction for Americans – immigrants, tourists and even the US Embassy’s diplomatic staff. “And then, little by little, it became an attraction for Israelis as well.”
And now, 30 years later, Ben & Jerry’s Israel is by any standard a very successful company, with 140 employees making ice cream, distributing it to supermarkets and stores all over Israel, and changing the way Israelis define “good ice cream.” And they have achieved and improved on their success by operating the Ben & Jerry’s way, right down to having a “flavor graveyard” of ice cream flavors that have been taken off the production line, waiting to be “brought back to life” in “elections” in which customers vote them back into existence. In addition, the company here has emulated the American parent company’s obsession with supporting good causes and doing good deeds. At present, Ben & Jerry’s Israel is actively involved with such programs as the Ethiopian National Project to empower the Ethiopian community in Israel; Middle East Entrepreneurs of Tomorrow, connecting, educating and empowering the next generation of young, socially minded Israeli and Palestinian entrepreneurs; Global Learning and Observation to Benefit the Environment, an international science and education program; Jordan River Village, the only year-round, overnight camp and retreat center in the Middle East for children of all ethnic and religious backgrounds living with serious illnesses; and Kids4Peace, a global movement of Jewish, Christian, and Muslim youth dedicated to ending conflict in divided societies around the world.
THERE IS, however, an old adage reminding us that “no good deed ever goes unpunished,” and Ben & Jerry’s Israel now finds itself embroiled in a heated controversy, thanks to the parent company back in the US.
Ben & Jerry’s in America has never shied away from social and political causes that many people have objected to. Last November, it launched a new flavor called “Pecan Resist!” – a reflection of the company’s left-leaning orientation, and in support of groups against the presidency of Donald Trump. Israelis, especially those from the US, reacted with outrage. First, one of the groups earmarked for money from the sale of this flavor is Women’s March, whose leaders have publicly questioned Israel’s right to exist, have alleged that Jews were in control of the 19th-century slave trade, and have both given support to and received support from the virulently antisemitic Nation of Islam leader, Louis Farrakhan. Second, there is a lot of support here in Israel for an American president who has moved the US Embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, appointed the staunchly pro-Israel Nikki Haley as ambassador to the UN, is running what is perceived to be the most pro-Israel administration of all time and, to top it all off, has a Jewish daughter and son-in-law. Not surprisingly, social media quickly erupted with calls for a boycott, along with numerous previously dedicated customers declaring they would never buy Ben & Jerry’s ice cream again. Ben & Jerry’s Israel immediately responded that the decision to create and market this flavor had nothing to do with it, and that it had no plans to produce or sell Pecan Resist! in Israel.
Says an exasperated Avi Zinger, “People in Israel are saying that Ben & Jerry’s just came out with an ice cream flavor that supports anti-Israeli groups and supporting Hamas. People actually called us to ask why we were supporting Hamas. This is absurd. First of all, we are an Israeli company. We have a license from Ben & Jerry’s. We’re local. We’re independent. Everyone here is Israeli. We love and respect Ben & Jerry’s, we have a social mission like they do, but we never get involved in politics here, and definitely not in the US. “The irony here is that Ben & Jerry’s in the US are under pressure from anti-Israeli groups like BDS. I’m talking about heavy pressure, because Ben & Jerry’s is doing business in Israel. People are protesting in front of Ben & Jerry’s stores and office in the US because the brand is in Israel. At the same time, there are Jewish groups in America boycotting Ben & Jerry’s because of the Pecan Resist! flavor, saying that the company is anti-Israel.”
Zinger pauses, shakes his head, and concludes, “No matter what Ben & Jerry’s does, people get upset. When they support same-sex marriage, for example, there are people getting upset. Listen, whenever you speak out and express an opinion, any opinion, some people will get upset.
“But you have to appreciate Ben & Jerry’s for saying all these years that we’re not just an ice cream company, that it’s not just about the bottom line, and that we want to use our ice cream to make the world better.”