Even before Susannah Levin’s resignation from Ben & Jerry’s over its decision to halt sales in what the company terms Occupied Palestinian Territory, the graphic designer found herself at odds with the ice-cream maker’s high-profile social activism. Some three years earlier, a project manager in the Social Mission Department approached her with an assignment intended to promote the narrative “A incarcerates more people than any other country per capita in the world."
Wanting to secure the statistics behind that premise, she asked the manager for its source. Surprised by Levin’s push for documentation, he inquired, “Oh, do you think we need a source on that?” The source he gave was CNN, but Levin probed further and discovered the data CNN used were derived from a study noting in its fine print that China, Venezuela, Iran and North Korea – arguably some the world’s biggest human rights violators, she proceeded to point out – were excluded due to lack of information.
The campaign ultimately was changed to “America incarcerates too many people.” But Levin, a contractor with Ben & Jerry’s for 21 years, whose artwork is ubiquitous in the company’s branding materials, also noticed a change in the nature of her assignments. “I don’t think I got many social mission jobs after that,” she said. “I think I got a reputation.”
Similarly, the ice-cream maker’s decision to effectively pull out of Israel appeared to be a foregone conclusion, she said, bolstered by yet another skewed source that reinforced the company’s preconceived premise. That source was Omar Shakir, a well-known activist for the Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions (BDS) movement whose co-founder, Omar Barghouti, has advocated for “euthanasia for the Zionist experiment.”
Shakir is the lead researcher and author of a scathing Human Rights Watch report published in April, which lists him as HRW’s Director of Israel and Palestine. The report’s allegations about Israel have been refuted by numerous authorities and HRW’s own founder, the late Robert Bernstein, slammed the organization for having “lost critical perspective on a conflict in which Israel has been repeatedly attacked.”
But Ben & Jerry’s executives told Levin they had invited Shakir for a briefing prior to the company’s announcement. And there was no response to Levin’s call for a deeper dive and an accompanying offer to connect management with Bassem Eid, a Palestinian from Jericho who condemns the BDS movement as being harmful to Palestinians (and has since filed suit over the company’s decision to boycott). Management’s silence signaled the inevitability of its move and a turning point in Levin’s career.
“A company that chooses to appease an interest group by making a political statement is really selling their company’s name and reputation in exchange for what they think will win points with activists and they are altering the workplace for their own employees,” Levin told me, speaking as well for others who shared with her their trials in the business world. “It feels threatening to work for a company that makes strong public statements for a cause with which you disagree. The result is that people just ‘self-censor’ – or shut up.”
Most workers don’t put their principles over paychecks as Levin did when she quit in July after telling CEO Matthew McCarthy and other leaders their decision demonstrated cowardice, and topped off her resignation with an email to scores of colleagues stating that “antisemitism is back and our company is now feeding the beast.” But many struggle with challenges, including antisemitism, laid bare by a transformed corporate landscape in which social activism drives their work cultures, albeit not with public pronouncements on the order of Ben & Jerry’s.
As their executive leadership obsesses over burnishing and trumpeting their social-justice bona fides, these employees are afraid to contradict the prevailing corporate echo chamber on those matters or have been derided for expressing unease with certain platforms – feeling the chill of exclusion in a supposedly more inclusive workplace. And significantly, they are skeptical about their company’s level of commitment to its core business mission, seemingly eclipsed by the frenzy over social impact.
An employee of a large company is among them, insisting on complete anonymity for fear of retribution – bolder nevertheless than others who said they were simply too worried about their positions to speak even under those conditions. The worker described the inconsistency in top brass’s zeal to promote certain causes that are far astray from its particular business interests, yet are “willing to sell out seemingly obvious political problems for profit” when it suits them.
“There’s pretty much something daily that is promotion of a left-wing political agenda,” the worker told me. “I don’t think uniformly… all… of us… hold those political values, and also I think it just diverts our attention from doing well as a company… actually being a business of integrity.”
Instead of being singularly absorbed with a corrective for the company’s unimpressive stock performance, the employee explains, C-suite executives pour energy into a plethora of social-justice causes (skyrocketing antisemitism didn’t make the list).
“I think to be a business of integrity – we have shareholders and we’re supposed to deliver business results – so we have to produce something that people want to purchase…,” the staffer said. “But instead of focusing on doing all those things in an honest and forthright way with integrity, we get this sort of constant drip of other things that we’re supposed to be doing to save the world… It lessens our effectiveness as a business.”
The heightened prioritization of corporate social activism is driven by pressure campaigns from numerous stakeholders and is emblematic of a generational change touching the business world. Millennials and GenZs in particular now expect their employers to speak out on issues that matter to them, regardless of whether they are directly related to their line of business. Ditto for companies’ youthful consumers. And increasingly, investors are seeking portfolios that align with certain values.
During Israel’s war with Hamas in May, an alliance of employees asked the Google executive team to terminate all business contracts “that support Israeli violations of Palestinian rights, such as the Israeli Defense Forces.” Using similar language, Amazon staffers put forth essentially the same while also rejecting “both sides’ statements” on the events. And a coalition of Apple employees requested, among other things, that the company not refer to the Palestinian situation as a conflict or use similar words that imply a power symmetry.
Underscoring the influence of this newly empowered workforce, Coinbase CEO Brian Armstrong faced employee backlash after he published a blog post pushing back against the corporate social-activism trend and pledging not to take a stand on issues outside its business goals, because “they have the potential to destroy a lot of value at most companies, both by being a distraction and by creating internal division.” Some 60 employees, or five percent of the workforce, reportedly took an exit package the San-Francisco-based cryptocurrency exchange offered to staffers disagreeing with that policy.
Whereas decades ago, employee agitation likely would have been met with swift termination, over the last five or so years corporate leaders increasingly have become more sensitive – even hostage – to their young employees, says Alex Joffe of Scholars for Peace in the Middle East, who is editor of its BDS Monitor. Joffe is an archaeologist and historian specializing in the Middle East and contemporary international affairs.
“There is a change in the reputational environments created by social media,” he explains. “Presumably, employers are calculating that disaffected employees can damage the brand by being mean to it on social media… This is a generation nobody’s ever said no to.”
Boycotting Israel is part of this equation, Joffe notes, and the challenges in that sphere will be compounded as these young recruits climb the corporate ladder and accumulate more power.
“The problem will grow as western society becomes more polarized, and Israel, Jews and those who support them are increasingly categorized,” he said.
Such categorization already has seeped into workspaces via required trainings, seminars and policies that can sometimes unleash a hostile work environment, and was an issue raised during a recent webinar on combating antisemitism in the workplace. It was sponsored by the Louis D. Brandeis Center for Human Rights Under Law, which represents two Jewish Stanford University employees alleging persistent anti-Jewish harassment in a training program for staff.
“What we have found is that, disturbingly, some of the bias and hate incidents are appearing in the very institutions that are intended to address hate and bias. That is to say, the Diversity, Equity and Inclusion programs that are mushrooming throughout higher education and throughout the workplace as a whole,” said Kenneth L. Marcus, the Brandeis Center’s founder and chairman. “What we’re finding is that sometimes, even in the DEI programs, we’re seeing anti-Jewish stereotypes, biases, defamations, separation of Jews from other groups, and so-called “erasive antisemitism,” which is to say denial of what it means to have a Jewish identity.”
As well, the use of age-old tropes within these trainings classifying Jews as a group with more power and privilege naturally creates opportunities for antisemitism to enter the workplace, said Andrea Lucas, a commissioner on the US Equal Employment Opportunity Commission and a webinar panelist.
“Lots of times, antisemitism arises because you are viewing Jews as a collective and deindividualizing people, and that frankly is true of a lot of racism and discrimination in general,” Lucas said. “When you engage in any kind of focus of someone on a collective, whoever they are, it can breed problematic content, but it can be really stark when we’re talking about antisemitism.”
The writer is an award-winning journalist, including recognition for business and economic reporting. She was a correspondent for The Boston Globe, reported for The Associated Press, and has been published in The Wall Street Journal, as well as working for other news organizations as a writer and editor.