How Ben & Jerry’s exposed Israel’s failing anti-BDS strategy
Ben & Jerry’s decision to suspend its operations in the West Bank is proving critical to the Palestinian efforts aimed at holding Israel accountable for its military occupation, apartheid and war crimes. By responding to the Palestinian call to boycott apartheid Israel, the ice cream giant has delivered a blow to Tel Aviv’s attempts to criminalize and, ultimately, end the global Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) campaign.
What differentiates Ben & Jerry’s decision to abandon the ever-growing market of illegal settlements in the West Bank from previous decisions by other international corporations is the fact that the ice cream company made it clear that its move was morally motivated. Indeed, Ben & Jerry’s did not attempt to mask its decision in any way. “We believe it is inconsistent with our values for Ben & Jerry’s ice cream to be sold in the Occupied Palestinian Territory,” a July 19 statement by the Vermont, US-based company read.
Expectedly, the Israeli government was infuriated by the decision, especially as it came after years of its well-funded, state-sponsored global campaign to discredit, demonize and even outlaw the BDS movement and any similar initiatives that boycott Israel.
For years, the Israeli government has viewed the boycott movement as a real, tangible threat. Some officials have gone as far as perceiving the “delegitimization” resulting from the boycott campaign as the primary threat Israel currently faces. Well-attended conferences have been held in Las Vegas, Brussels, Jerusalem and elsewhere, hundreds of millions of dollars raised and fiery speeches delivered, while politicians and “philanthropists” lined up, pledging their allegiance to Israel and accusing anyone who dares to criticize the “Jewish state” of being “anti-Semitic.”
However, Israel’s biggest challenge remains its near-complete reliance on the support of self-serving politicians. Admittedly, those “friends of Israel” can be quite helpful in formulating laws that, for example, falsely equate criticisms of Israel with anti-Semitism or render the act of boycott illegal. In fact, many US states and European parliaments have bowed to Israeli pressure and criminalized the BDS movement and its supporters, whether in the realm of business or even at the level of civil society and individuals. However, all of this amounts to very little.
Additionally, Israel has doubled down on its attempts to control the narrative in the mainstream media, in academia and wherever the anti-occupation debate has proved to be consequential. Using Kafkaesque and often bizarre logic, Israel and its supporters deliberately misinterpret the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance’s definition of anti-Semitism, applying it to every platform where criticism of Israel or its Zionist ideology is found. This reckless Israeli approach has, sadly but predictably, been embraced by many of Israel’s Western benefactors, including the US, Canada and Italy.
The more Israel attempts to use its allies to criminalize, delegitimize and suppress dissent, the more it actually fuels it.
However, none of this has ended or even slowed the momentum of the Palestinian boycott movement. This fact should hardly come as a surprise, for boycott movements are fundamentally designed to circumvent governmental control and place pressure on politicians, states and corporate apparatuses so that they may heed the calls of civil society. Thus, the more Israel attempts to use its allies to criminalize, delegitimize and suppress dissent, the more it actually fuels it.
This is the secret of the BDS movement’s success and is Israel’s Achilles’ heel. By ignoring the boycott campaign, the movement grows exponentially; and by fighting it, using traditional means and predictable language, it grows even faster.
In order to appreciate Tel Aviv’s quandary, just marvel at the odd responses offered by top Israeli officials in response to the Ben & Jerry’s decision. Prime Minister Naftali Bennett warned the British company that acquired Ben & Jerry’s in 2000 of “severe consequences,” threatening that Israel would take “strong action,” most likely referring to legal action. What was truly strange was the language used by President Isaac Herzog, who accused Ben & Jerry’s of participating in “a new form of terrorism,” namely “economic terrorism.” He vowed to fight “this boycott and terrorism in any form.”
Note how the Israeli response to the continued success of the Palestinian boycott movement remains confined in terms of options and language. On the legal front, most attempts at indicting BDS activists have failed, as last year’s court rulings in Washington demonstrated. Meanwhile, the act of accusing an ice cream company of “terrorism” deserves some serious examination.
Historically, Israel has used a handful of redundant terms in its anti-Palestinian propaganda war, which is predicated on the claim that Israel is a Jewish and democratic state, the security and very existence of which is constantly being threatened by terrorists and undermined by anti-Semites. This mantra may have previously succeeded in shielding Israel from criticism, while tarnishing its victims, the Palestinians. However, it no longer guarantees international sympathy and solidarity. Not only is the Palestinian struggle for freedom gaining global traction, but the pro-Israeli discourse is finally discovering its limitations. By calling an ice cream company “terrorist” for simply adhering to international law, Herzog has revealed the growing lack of credibility and absurdity in the official Israeli language.
But this is not the end of Israel’s problems. Regardless of whether they are branded successful or unsuccessful, all BDS campaigns are equally beneficial in the sense that each one starts a conversation that often goes global, as we have seen repeatedly in the past. Airbnb, G4S and SodaStream are just a few of the many examples. Any worldwide debate on Israel’s military occupation and apartheid is a BDS success story.
That said, there is one strategy that will surely end the BDS campaign, and that is ending the Israeli occupation, dismantling the racist apartheid system and giving Palestinians their freedom, as enshrined in and protected by international law. Alas, this is the only strategy that Israeli officials are yet to consider.
- Ramzy Baroud has been writing about the Middle East for over 20 years. He is an internationally syndicated columnist, a media consultant, an author of several books, and the founder of PalestineChronicle.com. Twitter: @RamzyBaroud