Lessons of Ben & Jerry's: Boycotting Israel isn't low-risk - opinion

Businesses should follow a similar model to ensure they aren’t hijacked by antisemitic actors such as what occurred with Ben & Jerry’s.

 ICE CREAM is on display at the Ben & Jerry’s factory near Kiryat Malachi. (photo credit: FLASH90)
ICE CREAM is on display at the Ben & Jerry’s factory near Kiryat Malachi.
(photo credit: FLASH90)

This past week the parent company of Ben & Jerry’s, Unilever, made a major announcement effectively nullifying the 2021 decision by the board of Ben & Jerry’s to boycott Israel (and Palestinians) in the West Bank. But while this was absolutely the right economic and moral decision by Unilever, and really should have happened much sooner, it doesn’t mean the war, even over ice cream, is won. 

The official response of Ben & Jerry’s again confirmed its opposition to its parent company’s decision, in a stunning display of hypocrisy. The ice cream brand wrote in a tweet, “We are aware of the Unilever announcement. While our parent company has taken this decision, we do not agree with it.... We continue to believe it is inconsistent with Ben & Jerry’s values for our ice cream to be sold in the Occupied Palestinian Territory.”


Ben & Jerry’s sells ice cream, not defense technology. Its self-righteous statement also neglects the fact that both Israelis and Palestinians pay the price for the ridiculous policy of boycotting the West Bank. Even more absurd, Unilever operates in Iran, heavily in China, and as of April 2022 was still selling ice cream in Russia while Putin’s forces were committing war crimes on a daily basis. 

Ben & Jerry’s has always presented itself as a progressive company, taking positions on many issues within the US, such as police conduct. But Ben & Jerry’s also openly supported the Iran deal – while being silent on the violent oppression of Iranian dissidents.

The company hasn’t issued any statement of condemnation or boycott of China for its ethnic cleansing of Uighur Muslims, its illegal organ harvesting, its oppression of journalists, or its antidemocratic takeover of territories such as Hong Kong. In fact, the company sells ice cream in China. Most recently, Unilever even invested $112 million in a new ice cream factory in China.


Because Unilever cannot risk upsetting the Chinese Communist Party with how deeply entangled they are. But Israel? Low risk, high social reward – at least in some progressive circles that believe Israel is the be-all and end-all of everything wrong with society. 

What Unilever and Ben & Jerry’s have now learned, however, is that attempts to boycott Israel are not as low-risk as they may have thought.

In the months following Ben & Jerry’s announcement to boycott selling ice cream over the Green Line, lawsuits were filed over the illegal termination of their contract with Ben & Jerry’s Israel. Additionally, multiple US states, including New York and Illinois (where boycotting Israel is illegal), began divesting pension funds from Unilever in response. Unilever’s stock also paid a heavy price, dropping 25%. 

And that is the most important lesson for companies considering taking similar steps to selectively target Israel: It is no longer low-risk to promote antisemitic ideologies in the name of social justice, nor should it be. The economic pressure on Unilever worked because it was forced to, literally, pay the price. 

Unfortunately, this won’t be enough to stamp out the antisemitic sentiment behind the BDS movement and the attempts to sanitize and repackage Jew hatred by companies like Ben & Jerry’s. The ice cream manufacturer’s response to the entire ordeal demonstrates that it has learned nothing, and will continue to promote misleading ideas of what’s happening in Israel. 

This is the toxic ideology we must continue to work against, because to be for social justice and human rights is to stand up to rising antisemitism, not whitewash it. To be liberal should mean you are morally consistent on all human rights issues – yes, China too, not just the ones you think won’t have economic consequences. Unilever and even more so Ben & Jerry’s have been exposed for the immoral sanctimonious hypocrites that they are.

THE ECONOMIC battle defeated BDS in this case, but to defeat the movement to boycott Israel, which at its core seeks to end Israel completely, is ultimately to win hearts and minds and expose the true nature of the movement as well as its motivations.

The fact that anti-BDS laws are on the books in over 30 US states is an example of how the shared values between the US and Israel have led to protections of the special relationship between the two countries, and is furthermore an example of how the people of the US ideologically stands with Israel.

Businesses should follow a similar model to ensure they aren’t hijacked by antisemitic actors such as what occurred with Ben & Jerry’s.

We must continue to push back against the double standards used by companies like Ben & Jerry’s to justify singling out Israel for criticism – in the economic sphere but also in the marketplace of ideas.

The writer is the CEO of Social Lite Creative and a human rights activist.