Unilever decision spotlights crackdown on US Palestinian activism

Palestinian rights advocates say Unilever’s decision to sell Ben & Jerry’s business to Israeli firm is part of a larger push to punish solidarity with Palestinians.

A sign calling for a boycott against Israel at a rally in New York state in 2015 [File: Mike Groll/AP Photo]

Ben and Jerry’s has sued parent company Unilever over a decision last week to sell the US company’s Israel operations to a subsidiary, clearing the way for the resumed sale of its ice cream in the occupied Palestinian territories.

The ice cream brand had announced in July last year that it would no longer sell its products in areas within an “internationally recognised illegal occupation” – a decision that drew scorn from Israel and prompted a campaign to pressure Unilever to roll back the decision.

Israel’s supporters cheered Unilever’s announcement last Tuesday to sell to an Israeli licensee.

Palestinian rights advocates say the move by Unilever, a multinational consumer goods company, is part of a larger push to punish solidarity with Palestinians, and that laws put in place to penalise economic boycotts of Israel threaten freedom of speech in the United States.

“You wouldn’t be seeing this animated reaction after one ice cream company says they’re going to stop sales in settlements unless Israel was concerned that this could snowball quickly, that one company could become 100,” Amer Zahr, president of the advocacy group New Generation for Palestine, told Al Jazeera.

The year-long campaign against Ben & Jerry’s move relied on laws passed by US states to penalise boycotts of Israeli products. Palestinian activists and civil liberties groups, including the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), say such laws undermine free speech. And Palestinian advocates see such efforts as a sign that the Israeli government is increasingly insecure about its image, under scrutiny as a growing chorus of human rights groups accuses it of apartheid.

“This decision from Unilever followed months of coercive measures by Israel and anti-Palestinian lobby groups,” said Olivia Katbi, a spokesperson for the Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions (BDS) movement. “The original decision made by the Ben & Jerry’s board to end sales in the OPT was an important symbolic victory.”

Ben & Jerry’s said in a statement on Wednesday that under the new arrangement crafted by Unilever, it will no longer profit from business in Israel.

“While our parent company has taken this decision, we do not agree with it,” they said. “We continue to believe it is inconsistent with Ben & Jerry’s values for our ice cream to be sold in the Occupied Palestinian Territory.”

Punishing boycotts

Following the announcement last July, Israel’s ambassador to the US Gilad Erdan released a letter urging action from the governors of 35 US states with laws or executive orders that penalise efforts to boycott Israel.

The letter called for “determined action” that would “send an unequivocal message that this will not be tolerated”.

Israeli President Isaac Herzog also called the move by the ice cream producer part of a “new form of terrorism”, and Yair Lapid, then Israeli foreign minister, described the decision as a “shameful surrender to anti-Semitism”. Lapid said that he would reach out to states with anti-Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions (BDS) laws in response, as well.

The BDS, modelled on the anti-apartheid movement in South Africa, aims to apply nonviolent pressure on Israel to end its abuses against Palestinians.

Several Republican and Democratic-controlled states, including Florida, Arizona, New Jersey and New York followed up with threats to divest from Unilever or took steps in that direction.

In a statement released on Wednesday welcoming Unilever’s decision, New York’s Democratic Governor Kathy Hochul said that the state took “swift action to investigate Unilever and Ben & Jerry’s planned sales boycott and, most recently, gave Unilever a July 6 deadline to prove they were not engaging in BDS activity”. Ben & Jerry’s’ decision to suspend sales only applied to the occupied Palestinian Territories.

Hochul’s office did not respond to questions from Al Jazeera asking whether the governor supported boycotts against countries accused of human rights abuses, or if she considered the occupied Palestinian territories a part of Israel.

Unilever is not the first company to come under such pressure from Israel and its supporters.

After Airbnb announced that it would no longer operate in Israeli settlements in the occupied West Bank, the lodging website faced a fierce backlash, pushing it to reverse course about five months later.

In January 2019, Florida’s Republican Governor Ron DeSantis announced that Airbnb had been added to a list of “scrutinised companies” and banned state employees from receiving reimbursement for lodging with Airbnb on work-related trips.

Artists and cultural figures who cancel shows in Israel, heeding calls from Palestinian activists, also risk potential consequences.

When the Kiwi singer Lorde cancelled a show in Israel, Republican lawmakers in Florida threatened to cancel her concerts in the name of combatting BDS, and a pro-Israel group took out a full-page advertisement in the Washington Post, calling her a “bigot”.

While Republicans and Democrats have jostled over limitations on freedom of speech from different ideological perspectives, both have cracked down on efforts to promote economic boycotts against Israel.

Several federal courts have struck down anti-BDS laws over the past few years as unconstitutional. But a US appeals court ruled last month in favour of an Arkansas law that penalises companies that boycott Israel.

Brian Hauss, a staff lawyer with the ACLU Speech, Privacy and Technology Project, said in a statement that the ruling was a departure from “longstanding traditions” of boycotts as a means of political expression.

Lina Assi, a spokeswoman for Palestine Legal, a watchdog that combats crackdowns on Palestinian rights advocacy, said anti-BDS laws are part of “broader attempts to malign and silence meaningful solidarity with Palestinians”.

To some, the spectacle of a country with one of the world’s most powerful militaries spending time and energy to reverse a decision by an ice cream company became a source of humour.

In response to a tweet from the State of Israel’s official Twitter account condemning the announcement by Ben & Jerry’s, one Twitter user mockingly replied: “You literally have nuclear missiles. This is so embarrassing.”

For his part, Zahr said the meltdown over Ben & Jerry’s decision is a sign of Israel’s “fragility”.

“We know the truth is on our side, and even when there’s a disappointing decision like this one, it’s bringing attention to the occupation and Israel’s denial of basic rights to Palestinians.”

Source: Al Jazeera