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Anti-BDS Jewish Orgs Back Ben & Jerry’s Ice Cream Sales Ban in Settlements Despite Israeli Pressure

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Israel has launched what has been described as a maximum pressure campaign against Ben & Jerry’s and its parent company, Unilever, after the iconic ice cream brand announced it would halt sales in Israeli settlements in the occupied West Bank. Israel has asked 35 U.S. governors to enforce state laws which make it a crime to support the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement, or BDS. The founders of Ben & Jerry’s, who no longer have operational control of the company, have defended the company’s decision. A number of Jewish groups, including J Street, the New Israel Fund and Americans for Peace Now, all of whom oppose BDS, have defended Ben & Jerry’s decision and rejected accusations that the company’s decision was antisemitic. “What we are seeing is an aggressive, over-the-top, full-court press from senior officials in the Israeli government … to target Ben & Jerry’s simply for the fact that they made a principled decision to respect the distinction between the state of Israel and the territory that it occupies beyond the Green Line,” says Logan Bayroff, vice president of communications of J Street. “These anti-boycott laws aren’t just posing issues under the First Amendment, they’re actually punishing companies that do the right thing by ending their complicity in human rights abuses,” adds Omar Shakir, Israel and Palestine director at Human Rights Watch.

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman.

Israel has launched what has been described as a maximum pressure campaign against Ben & Jerry’s and its parent company, Unilever, after the iconic ice cream brand announced it’s halting sales in Israeli settlements in the occupied West Bank. Israel has asked 35 U.S. governors to enforce state laws which make it a crime to support the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement, or BDS. Last week, the head of the New York State Common Retirement Fund wrote to Unilever saying it was examining whether Ben & Jerry’s had violated state policy on Israeli boycotts.

Meanwhile, Brad Lander, the Democratic nominee for New York City comptroller, criticized the state’s position, saying, quote, “Actions that erase the distinction between Israel and its settlements in occupied territory are effectively endorsing annexation and today’s unjust one-state status quo,” he said.

The founders of Ben & Jerry’s, who no longer have operational control of the company, have defended the company’s decision. Writing in The New York Times in an op-ed, Ben Cohen and Jerry Greenfield describe themselves as “proud Jews” and “supporters of the State of Israel.” They write, quote, “We believe this act can and should be seen as advancing the concepts of justice and human rights, core tenets of Judaism,” they said.

Meanwhile, a number of Jewish groups, including J Street and the New Israel Fund and Americans for Peace Now, all of whom oppose BDS, have defended Ben & Jerry’s decision and rejected accusations that the company’s decision was antisemitic.

We’re joined now by Logan Bayroff, the vice president of communications of J Street. And still with us, Omar Shakir, Israel and Palestine director at Human Rights Watch.

We welcome you both to Democracy Now! Let’s begin with Logan. Talk about this maximum pressure campaign the Israeli government is bringing and the response to it around the United States.

LOGAN BAYROFF: Well, yes, Amy. Thanks for having me on, first of all.

And, I mean, what we’re seeing is an aggressive, over-the-top, full-court press from senior officials in the Israeli government, also from some senior leaders in right-leaning American Jewish and pro-Israel groups in the United States, to target Ben & Jerry’s simply for the fact that they made a principled decision to respect the distinction between the state of Israel and the territory that it occupies beyond the Green Line, and made a principled decision that while they’re going to continue to do business in Israel, they no longer want to sell their ice cream in settlements that are illegal under international law in territory that is occupied and where Palestinians face systemic injustice.

And simply for making that principled decision, they’re now facing calls to have constitutionally dubious anti-boycott laws deployed against them to potentially prevent them from doing business in states across the country, or to impose some sort of legal penalty or sanction on Ben & Jerry’s or their parent company. They’re facing accusations, as you said, that they are somehow antisemitic, that they’re somehow dehumanizing the Jewish people even, or in league with terror — I mean, completely over-the-top, frankly insane accusations that I think are just designed to intimidate Ben & Jerry’s, and not just a major ice cream company, but all those, including many American Jews, who want to protest and speak out against the injustice of occupation, including groups like J Street, that also consider ourselves to be pro-Israel but also support and care about Palestinian rights and understand that the occupation needs to be called out and needs to end if we’re going to end the conflict and create a better future for both peoples.

AMY GOODMAN: This is U.S. State Department spokesperson Ned Price responding to questions on Ben & Jerry’s earlier in the week.

NED PRICE: Well, I don’t have a reaction to offer regarding the actions of a private company. But more broadly, what I will say is that we firmly reject the BDS movement, which unfairly singles out Israel. While the Biden-Harris administration will fully and always respect the First Amendment rights of our citizens, of the American people, the United States will be a strong partner in fighting efforts around the world that potentially seek to delegitimize Israel, and will work tirelessly to support Israel’s further integration into the international community.

AMY GOODMAN: Logan Bayroff, if you can respond to Ned Price and also talk about the letter that your group, that J Street, New Israel Fund and others have written to — what is it? — 35 U.S. governors?

LOGAN BAYROFF: Well, what I would say is that it’s — you know, and I’ll take those — they’re sort of related. I think it’s notable that the Israeli government has been writing to governors rather than to the federal government. There has been an effort going on for years, as you know, to pass and push these really insidious, constitutionally dubious anti-BDS laws at the state level. There’s also been efforts at the federal level that groups like J Street and others in the American Jewish community, and some in the pro-Israel community, have advocated to block. You know, we’ve said this legislation does not represent the majority of the American Jewish community who thinks First Amendment rights are very important, who thinks that any form of boycott is protected political free speech that needs to be sacrosanct in this country, and who thinks that these attacks are dangerous and don’t do anything to help American Jews or even in the long run to help Israel.

We’ve succeeded in blocking those at the federal level, but they have passed at the state level. And that’s why you have this effort to the governors to try to sort of go around the power of the president or the power of Congress to conduct foreign policy, and to try to have state governments intervening to punish companies or individuals because they want to speak out against the occupation or support Palestinian rights. And that’s what’s going on here. And, I mean, J Street has joined friend of the court briefs in a number of cases where these laws have been struck down, in places like Arkansas, in places like Georgia. Just this year, courts have found some of these laws unconstitutional, and yet many are still being passed. Many are still on the books. And you have this effort — these legal efforts moving forward to target Ben & Jerry’s, I think, as a test case, again to sort of intimidate and suppress other companies or individuals who might want to come out and say, “We want to find a way to push back against what’s happening in the occupied territory.”

AMY GOODMAN: I want to bring Omar Shakir back into the conversation and get your response, Omar Shakir, with Human Rights Watch, based in Amman, Jordan, the Israel and Palestine director there. Axios had a very interesting piece on this maximum pressure campaign. They wrote, “On July 22, the Israeli Foreign Ministry sent a classified cable to all Israeli diplomatic missions in North America and Europe ordering them to start a pressure campaign against Ben & Jerry’s and Unilever in order to convince them to negotiate. Israeli diplomats were instructed to encourage Jewish organizations, pro-Israel advocacy groups and evangelical communities to organize demonstrations in front of Ben & Jerry’s and Unilever offices and put pressure on investors and distributors for both companies. The Foreign Ministry also asked the diplomats to push for public statements condemning the companies and to 'encourage public protests in the media and directly with key executives in both companies.' The diplomats were also instructed to echo those protests on social media for maximum [visibility].” And this final example: “The Israeli Embassy in Washington and the Israeli Consulates around the U.S. were asked to push for the activation of anti-BDS (Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions) legislation in several states and to engage with governors, mayors, members of Congress and state officials like attorneys general.” Again, I was reading from Axios. Your response, Omar Shakir?

OMAR SHAKIR: Amy, it’s clear that they’re trying to follow the Airbnb model. What I’m referencing here is, when Airbnb made a decision a couple of years ago to stop listing in the occupied West Bank because doing so made them complicit in serious human rights abuses, they undertook a similar strategy, and they eventually bullied Airbnb into caving.

The difference here is that Ben & Jerry’s is a deeply principled company with clearly articulated values and are acting pursuant to this. This is a company that, at its core, takes the principles of human rights and social justice seriously.

The reality here, as Logan mentioned, is that settlements are illegal. They are war crimes under the Fourth Geneva Convention. And when businesses operate in the West Bank, they are directly benefiting from and contributing to the entrenched discriminatory system there. What do I mean? I mean businesses that operate in the West Bank receive permits, access to infrastructure, that are systematically denied to Palestinians. They are operating on or with land that was confiscated from Palestinians. They are providing jobs and revenue that goes into further entrenching these war crime settlements. And they are also operating in a system in which you have dual legal regimes, in which in the very same store that sells Ben & Jerry’s, if a Palestinian and an Israeli happen to work there, they’re governed under different systems, with different rights and protections.

So the reality here is that businesses, under the U.N. Guiding Principles, have a duty not to contribute to human rights abuses. That’s a decision Ben & Jerry’s made. It’s a principled distinction following their international legal obligations. These anti-boycott laws aren’t just posing issues under the First Amendment; they’re actually punishing companies that do the right thing by ending their complicity in human rights abuse. Human Rights Watch does business and human rights work around the world, and we are calling for companies that operate in settlements to do the same thing that companies who are involved in human rights abuses everywhere else do, which is end that complicity and rights abuse.

AMY GOODMAN: So, how exactly will this go down in Israel and the Occupied Territories? It won’t take place for another year because of the contract that Ben & Jerry’s has with the local distributor. Is that right, Omar?

OMAR SHAKIR: That’s correct. In essence, this decision says that they are not going to operate in settlements. And because their current distributor in Israel was not willing to agree to that condition, they will not be renewing their agreement with that distributor beyond the end of 2022. And to the extent that they continue to operate in Israel, they will ensure that they do so without operating in the occupied Palestinian territory, which of course includes occupied East Jerusalem, which the Israeli government has annexed but remains occupied territory under international law, and where the Israeli government every day, routinely, systematically, is abusing the rights of Palestinians and systematically oppressing them.

AMY GOODMAN: Omar Shakir, we want to thank you for being with us, Israel and Palestine director of Human Rights Watch, speaking to us from Amman, Jordan, and Logan Bayroff, vice president of communications for J Street.

Next up, we go to Guatemala, where thousands took to the streets Thursday for a national strike, demanding the resignation of right-wing President Alejandro Giammattei. Stay with us.

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