What a Cluster indeed: A Vermont organization that advocates for the rights of the Palestinian people has called on Ben & Jerry's ice cream to live up to its socially progressive values and stop doing business in Israel until the Israeli government "ends its occupation and colonization of Palestinian lands."
The 20-page white paper — the name is a play on Ben & Jerry's marketing slogan, "Peace, Love and Ice Cream"— accuses the company of not remaining true to its social mission because it manufactures ice cream in Israel, then sells it in Jewish settlements in East Jerusalem and the West Bank.
The organization is calling on the South Burlington-based ice cream giant — owned by British-Dutch conglomerate Unilever — to stop manufacturing, marketing, catering and selling "Vermont's Finest" in Israel and Jewish-only settlements. VTJP is also asking Ben & Jerry's to issue a statement "calling for an end to Israel’s occupation and settlement enterprise" and to appeal to other socially responsible companies to do the same.
Friday morning, a Ben & Jerry's spokesman issued a statement indicating that that's not going to happen anytime soon.
VTJP, a small, Burlington-based grassroots organization, emphasizes that it's not asking the public to boycott Ben & Jerry's products. Instead, it simply wants to persuade the company to put pressure on the Israeli government to change its policies toward the Palestinian people and the occupied territories.
"We don’t want to hurt the company. We certainly respect Ben & Jerry's. They do a lot of good work," notes VTJP spokesperson Mark Hage. "But we think that if you’re going to have a social mission like theirs, you have to be consistent and honor it in Israel/Palestine as you do here."
Ben & Jerry's, founded in 1978 by a pair of nice, Jewish boys from Long Island, has had a long and storied history of promoting social activism. Each year since 1985, the Ben & Jerry's Foundation has donated more than a million dollars to grassroots causes in Vermont and around the country.
Though the company was bought by Unilever in 2001, Ben & Jerry's branding and social mission have remained inextricably linked to promoting social change. According to the company's mission statement, "We seek and support nonviolent ways to achieve peace and justice. We believe government resources are more productively used in meeting human needs than in building and maintaining weapons systems...We strive to show a deep respect for human beings inside and outside our company and for the communities in which they live."
Representatives from VTJP say they first approached B&J executives back in 2011 after learning that one year earlier, the company had opened a manufacturing plant in Israel that sells its products in the Jewish settlements. Then, following a series of emails and phone calls, company execs agreed to a meeting in April 2012 to discuss those concerns. Hage describes that meeting as "cordial" and "frank."
Wafiq Faour of Richmond is a Palestinian American and VTJP member who was born in a refugee camp in Baalbeck, northeast of Beirut, Lebanon. Faour, whose parents were both raised in Shaab, an Arab village in the Galilee, says they were kicked off their land by the Israeli government in 1950.
According to Faour, who attended the April 2012 meeting, Ben & Jerry's CEO Jostein Solheim didn't dispute that the company sells and markets its products in the Jewish settlements. However, he asked for time to reflect on VTJP's concerns and to consider how to best deal with them. In fact, Faour says, VTJP postponed releasing yesterday's report for more than a year because the group felt that discussions were on the right track and progressing nicely.
In October and November, Jeff Furman, board of directors president and a longtime anti-racism activist, traveled to the West Bank and East Jerusalem with a delegation of American civil rights leaders. There, he reportedly met with Palestinian and anti-occupation Israeli activists. Faour says he was encouraged by Furman’s trip and impressed by his desire to learn more about the occupation.
Since then, however, he and other members of VTJP have been dismayed that there's been no further action by Ben & Jerry's to meet a second time to follow up on their emails and phone calls. According to Hage, the company never made any commitments to take any action except to take VTJP's concerns to their board of directors.
Ben & Jerry's declined a Seven Days request to be interviewed for this story and instead issued the following statement Friday morning:
After being contacted by VTJP, Ben & Jerry’s Global Director of Social Mission and B&J’s CEO agreed to meet to discuss VTJP’s concerns. It became clear from these meetings that VTJP and Ben & Jerry’s would have a fundamental difference: VTJP feeling that nothing short of ceasing operations in Israel would be acceptable, while Ben & Jerry’s remains fully committed to the notion that its Israeli licensee provides great value as a deeply-rooted, community-based Israeli business while it operates in alignment with Ben & Jerry’s mission statement. Because of that fundamental difference, Ben & Jerry’s doesn’t feel that it is constructive to debate each individual issue raised by VTJP. Ben & Jerry’s recognizes the complexity of the many issues and challenges in operating a business in Israel. The company feels that there should be shared responsibility for governments, NGOs and businesses to support peace in the Middle East and respects that Vermonters for a Just Peace in Palestine/Israel are actively seeking solutions. In Israel, a master licensee owns and manufactures Ben & Jerry’s locally, employing 80 individuals, with its operations outside of the occupied territories. Ben & Jerry’s licensee has operated in Israel since 1988 working to stay true to Ben & Jerry’s mission and values. Ben & Jerry’s remains steadfast in its commitment to discover innovative ways to contribute to a just peace process through its business practices both in Israel and around the globe.
VTJP has appealed Vermonters on behalf of the Palestinians before, most notably in 2007 when the group sponsored a South End Art Hop exhibit depicting the Palestinians' plight, accompanied by a controversial talk on Zionism and Israel’s future. That exhibit unleashed a torrent of accusations and countercharges of intolerance, historical revisionism and Nazi-like bullying tactics.