Why Ben & Jerry’s Gets a GreenBiz “F” in the Holy Land

June 28, 2013 by Frontline Copy

by Faith Attaguile

Ben & Jerry's can't be a Green Biz in Jewish settlements For the most part, Ben & Jerry’s lives up to its sustainable business goals.

On a number of issues – from Occupy Wall Street, to sustainable farming practices, Fair Trade, fair wages and GMO labeling – this company shares leadership with other green businesses trying to walk sustainable paths.

But in Israel, Ben & Jerry’s is leaving some tracks that taint its reputation as a socially responsible company. And the story I’m about to tell reveals why.

Here’s how it all began …

A Scoop Shop in Israel

Back in 1988, a long-time friend of Ben’s, Avi Zinger, asked if he could set up a Ben & Jerry’s ice cream shop in Israel. Ben said yes, so Zinger (B&J Israel) happily opened one in Tel Aviv.

By 2000 he had opened some 16 scoop shops inside Israel. But he closed most of them a few years later when his business took a downturn due, he says, to the unstable events in the Occupied Palestinian Territories. In place of these closed scoop shops, Zinger began selling B&J Israel ice cream directly to supermarkets.

But by 2010, the political situation had improved enough for B&J Israel that it decided to build a new factory and open up some new scoop shops.

However, if B&J Israel’s situation had taken a turn for the better, that wasn’t true for Palestinians living under the daily grind of Israel’s military occupation.

In Gaza, 1400 people were dead, 5,000 injured and 20,000 left homeless after Israel’s 2008/2009 Operation Cast Lead attack. Palestinians in the West Bank and East Jerusalem faced crushing military lockdown and the rise in Jewish settlements on stolen land, built over the rubble of destroyed homes.

Why should this situation concern B&J Israel?

It’s not logical that Ben & Jerry’s would allow a licensee to carry its name in another part of the world without also signing on to Ben & Jerry’s mission statement. Here’s part of what it says:

“We have a progressive, nonpartisan social mission that seeks to meet human needs
and eliminate injustices in our local, national and international communities ….

Obviously, no company can eliminate all injustices where it’s doing business.

But neither does it have to participate in them.

Yet it appears that is exactly what B&J Israel is doing insofar as it is selling ice cream in Jewish settlements in Occupied Palestinian Territories.

It would take much more than a mere blog post to adequately deal with this complex situation. So I’ll discuss just three “facts on the ground” to provide a summary understanding.

I’ve chosen these facts because they directly relate to the controversy now swirling around B&J Israel.

Here they are:

1. Illegal Jewish Settlements on Stolen Palestinian Land

“We must expel the Arabs and take their land.”
- David Ben Gurion, 1st Prime Minister of Israel

Palestinian Loss of Land Examine the map series to the left and you’ll see how Ben Gurion’s words have actually become facts on the ground.

In 1946, Jews were 33% of the population and owned only 7% of the land in Historic Palestine.

But even though a 33% minority, Jews got 55% of the land under the 1947 UN Partition Plan that created the new Israeli state.

By the end of the 1967 war, Israel controlled 80% of the land area.

Today, the people of Gaza live in an open-air prison under a cruel Israeli siege.

And Palestinians control only about 12% of West Bank land. The Israeli military - and some 120 illegal Jewish settlements housing about 500,000 Israeli Jews – control the rest.

For decades, respected international organizations have declared these settlements illegal and called for Israel’s withdrawal from the occupied territories.

But in direct violation of Article 49 of the Geneva Convention, Israelis continue to build these illegal Jewish colonies on stolen Palestinian lands, often with violence.


2. Israeli-Only Roads and Checkpoints in the West Bank

About 170 miles of Israeli-only roads crisscross the West Bank (about the size of Delaware) to service the illegal Jewish settlements rising up on Palestinian lands.

Built for high speeds, these roads allow seamless, comfortable movement for Jewish settlers to and from Israel proper.

No Palestinians may use these “forbidden” roads, even though built on Palestinian land.

Israeli checkpoints prevent free travel for Palestinians

Huwwara, one of the nine permanent checkpoints in the Nablus region. Source: Wikipedia

Palestinians are further hampered by some 90 fixed checkpoints and hundreds of “flying” checkpoints dotting their West Bank home like pockmarks.

To make matters worse, the Israeli military even blocks Palestinian access roads with hundreds of physical obstructions like dirt piles and concrete.

All this causes many hours delay, every day, to Palestinians simply trying to go about their daily lives. Travel to work, to a doctor’s appointment, or to family and friends can stretch into hours because of these checkpoints.

Heavily-armed Israeli soldiers often make arbitrary decisions as to whether or not a person may pass through. Ambulances are stopped, searched, and often prevented from going through checkpoints on their way to a hospital. And IfAmericansKnew.org reports:

In addition numerous pregnant women have not been allowed to pass through checkpoints – in many cases the mother or baby has died as a result. Between June 2003 and February 2004, 46 women delivered their babies at checkpoints – 24 of the women and 27 newborns died as a result.

These military occupation checkpoints don’t just cause personal devastation to Palestinians. They also cause economic devastation, where food can’t get to market, people can’t get to work, and products can’t be sold.


3. Separation Barrier

Separation Barrier on the road to Bethlehem in the West Bank Photo: Marc Venezia . Source: Wikipedia

Separation Barrier on the road to Bethlehem in the West Bank Photo: Marc Venezia . Source: Wikipedia

West Bank Separation Barrier http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Westbank_barrier.png.  Green line=pre-June 1967 border. Red line=Separation Wall

West Bank Separation Barrier.  Green line=pre-June 1967 border. Red line=Separation Wall. Photo source: Wikipedia

In 2002 the Israeli government decided to further “ghettoize” Palestinians in the West Bank by building a massive Separation Wall along the border between Israel and the West Bank.

When finished, it will be about 400 miles long and 25 feet high.

But the Separation Barrier, rather than running along the pre-June 1967 borders as announced, often undulates in large sweeps on the Palestinian side of the border.

This places substantial swatches of land that should be part of the West Bank, inside Israel proper. Palestinian villages are divided. Farmers are separated from their land. And some Palestinian towns are completely surrounded by the wall.

Getting to the other side of the Separation Barrier to go to work or visit your family means – once again – long waits and humiliation at the hands of Israeli soldiers.

This video describes how the Separation Barrier cuts family from village:

The Ice Cream Cows Come Home to "Roost"

It was in this context that, in 2010, B&J Israel decided to invest some $2 million in a new factory near Kiryat Malachi, a city of about 22,000 people in Southern Israel.

Soon after this announcement, some groups working on the Israel/Palestine issue began to question the apparent conflict between Ben & Jerry’s mission statement and their very presence in Israel. Objections were based on the fact that Israel had been occupying and building Jewish settlements on Palestinian lands since 1967 -- contrary to international law.

Vermonters for a Just Peace in Palestine/Israel  (VTJ P) was one of these groups.

But the discussion took an even more serious turn when, in 2011, VTJP became aware that B&J Israel was selling ice cream in West Bank Jewish settlements.

If true, VTJP felt, this was in serious violation of Ben & Jerry’s mission statement. So in 2011 they contacted Ben & Jerry’s to open up a discussion.

B&J Israel: Caught with its hand in the cookie jar

Five letters and one year later (April 2012) a meeting finally took place. At that meeting, according to VTJP,

“The company did not dispute it was selling, marketing and catering to illegal Israeli settlements, but asked for time to consider our information and their future options, including potential ramifications under Israel’s recent anti-boycott law if it decided to terminate sales in Israeli settlements.”

Indeed, the 2011 Anti-Boycott Law was something to consider. B&J Israel had its hand in the cookie jar of illegal Jewish settlements. This law meant that it may not be able to withdraw without repercussions from the Israeli government.

VTJP understood this. So when Ben & Jerry’s asked for time to figure things out and suggested another meeting in two months to give VTJP an update on the situation, VTJP readily agreed.

Unfortunately, Ben & Jerry’s canceled that meeting and since then has not responded to VTJP’s attempts to reschedule one.

Actions speak louder than words

While sympathetic to Ben & Jerry’s situation, by the end of 2012 VTJP could wait no longer.

So in March – just about a year after their one and only meeting with Ben & Jerry’s -- VTMP published its report on the situation.

The Burlington Free Press, learning about the issue from this report, emailed Ben & Jerry’s with their own questions.

Ben & Jerry’s responded with a statement from CEO Jostein Solheim:

“Ben & Jerry’s licensee has operated in Israel since 1988 working to stay true to Ben & Jerry’s mission and values. Throughout its history, the business has supported initiatives that advocate peace through understanding…. Ben & Jerry’s remains steadfast in its commitment to discover innovative ways to contribute to the peace process through its business practices.” (Ben & Jerry’s business in Israel scrutinized, by Tom Johnson, Burlington Free Press)

The "Walmart Response"

When the Free Press pushed again with specific questions about  B&J Israel’s marketing and catering activities in Israeli settlements, Ben & Jerry’s Communications Director Sean Greenwood replied. Washing his hand of the situation, Greenwood said B&J Israel:

  1. has no control over its product once sold to independent distributors
  2. has sole control over business development decisions, and
  3. operates independently of any “political agenda”


That sounds just like something Walmart would say to cover its dirty tracks in third world factories after they collapse, or burn down.

Today, even Unilever, parent company to Ben & Jerry’s, is ahead of them on this score.

Unilever was operating a snack food factory in an illegal Jewish West Bank settlement in January 2013. That same month a UN Factfinding Mission issued a report finding these settlements to be illegal, calling on Israel to dismantle them and advising private businesses to terminate any commercial activities in the settlements. Soon thereafter, Unilever moved its factory from the West Bank settlement into Israel proper.

Where is B&J Israel on this issue?

Currently, it is selling ice cream within these illegal settlements, rather than taking a stand against them.

How Ben & Jerry’s can learn from Dr. Bronner’s

Clearly, Ben & Jerry’s continued silence on this issue has burned a hole in the good grades it has received as a sustainable company elsewhere in the world.

This is a controversial issue. But a company riding on green credentials must be ready to take controversial stands from time to time.

One company that is not afraid to do this is Dr. Bronner’s Magic Soaps.

Since 2007 Dr. Bronner’s has been getting 90% of the olive oil used in its soaps from three sources in the Holy Land: Palestinian farmers in the West Bank, an Israeli farm, and a Jewish/Arab-Israeli organization.

This 3-way partnership operates by one rule: Commitment to peaceful coexistence.

Dr. Bronner’s concern for social justice informs its business decisions from top to bottom. The idea of sourcing their olive oil from a Jewish settlement farm in the West Bank would be anathema to the company.

Gero Leson, Director of Operations, explains why Dr. Bronner’s is engaged in the area in this way:

"I think blending olive oil from Palestine and Israel is a symbolic but significant contribution to promoting the concept of coexistence and cooperation in this area. We feel that supporting these farmers is particularly important also, because it is quite obvious that a lack of a decent living for many of people in the West Bank is one of the causes of the vicious cycle of violence…in the area. And we’re not thinking that by purchasing some hundreds of tons of oil per year from this area will solve all the economic problems…but…we feel very strongly we can make a little bit of a difference in this area and help create critical mass …."

Here’s the full story of Dr. Bronner’s in the Holy Land:

In a statement provided to the Burlington Free Press regarding this issue, Ben & Jerry’s says it is “steadfast in its commitment to discover innovative ways to the peace process through its business practices.”

The company would be smart to consider how they might learn from Dr. Bronner’s example. If Dr. Bronner’s can blend their oil sources, maybe B&J Israel should consider blending their milk sources.

Of course, B&J Israel is a different company with a different product. But where there’s a will, there’s a way.

Just ask Dr. Bronner’s.

How you can help Ben & Jerry’s do the right thing

These days, companies riding the Green wave can no longer wax innocent on global issues with statements like “We didn’t know” or “We can’t control.…”

That little maneuver no longer works. A socially responsible company will at times have to take controversial stands. There’s just no way around it.

There are two steps you can take to help Ben & Jerry’s do the right thing:

  1. Sign a petition to end the Israeli occupation here
  2. Write a letter to Ben & Jerry’s CEO Jostein Solheim here

Tell Ben & Jerry’s you want them to turn their “F” into an “A” in the Holy Land!

Want some good sources for further reading on this subject?

Vermonters for a Just Peace in Israel/Palestine

Who Profits: The Israeli Occupation Industry

If Americans Knew


BDS Movement

My article titled 4,000 Miles to Gaza

For a more complete discussion of Dr. Bronner’s in the Holy Land, see my post, How Dr. Bronner’s Walks Green for People and the Planet

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