Israeli leaders are furious over Ben & Jerry’s decision to stop selling its ice cream in the occupied Palestinian territories when its contract terminates at the end of 2022, and the reactions from Israeli officials bordered on the ludicrous. As the company’s statement seared across social media in mid-July and made news headlines, Israel embarked on the only strategy it knows – intimidation. The end result, however, will backfire against the settler-colonial state’s intentions.

Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett’s response was to brand Ben & Jerry’s as “an anti-Israel ice cream,” despite the company stating it will continue to sell its products in Israel based upon the 1967 borders. Fuming over the latest success of the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) movement, Bennet added, “The boycott does not work and will not work, and we will fight it with full force.”

But if boycotts do not work, why is Israel working itself into a frenzy?

Not to be outdone, Israeli President Isaac Herzog defined the boycott as “a new kind of terrorism, economic terrorism.” Speaking during a ceremony commemorating Israeli statespersons who passed away, Herzog declared, “Terrorism tries to harm the citizens of Israel and the economy of Israel. We must oppose this boycott and terrorism in any form.”

But if boycotts do not work, why is Israel working itself into a frenzy?

Israel has been persistent in expanding its settlements across the occupied Palestinian territories, an action which has only earned it repetitive political chiding rather than sanctions for violating international law. Still, there is growing scrutiny over Israel’s colonial intent, which is no longer under wraps, but instead flaunted for all to see since the US-Israeli partnership under the Trump administration brought annexation to the fore.

In line with the international community’s stance on Israel, Ben & Jerry’s decision to boycott Israel’s settlements does not extend to the earlier colonization which created the state of Israel upon ethnically cleansed and destroyed Palestinian towns and villages. Unilever – under which Ben and Jerry’s is a subsidiary – declared to be “fully committed to our business in Israel,” although it refrained from saying it would require the same from the ice cream company. In fact, one condition upon which Unilever bought Ben & Jerry’s in 2000 stipulated allowing the company to engage in social justice activism.

Ben & Jerry's Israel

Ben & Jerry’s co-founders Jerry Greenfield, left, and Ben Cohen following a press conference announcing a new flavor in Washington, DC, Sept. 3 2019. (Win McNamee/Getty Images via JTA)

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[B’Tselem’s Apartheid Designation is a Challenge to Zionist Narratives]

The last time that a boycott created such furore in Israel was when Airbnb decided to withdraw listings from the occupied Palestinian territories in 2018 – a decision it swiftly withdrew when Israel unleashed legal warfare against the company. In a conspicuous U-turn, Airbnb dissociated itself from the BDS movement and declared it would donate any profits from Israeli listings to humanitarian aid projects.

To put it succinctly, Airbnb has no qualms about using profits from Israeli settlements which oppress Palestinians, to donate to non-governmental organizations. The politicization of humanitarian aid by companies like Airbnb is similar to that of international institutions, which accept funding for Palestinians from donors heavily invested in Israel, such as the US, for example.

Airbnb has no qualms about using profits from Israeli settlements which oppress Palestinians, to donate to non-governmental organizations.

One of Israel’s possible weapons against Ben & Jerry’s decision to boycott the Israeli settlements is through the US’ anti-BDS laws. Israeli Foreign Minister Yair Lapid tweeted his decision to ask states which adopted anti-BDS legislation “to enforce these laws against Ben & Jerry’s.” He further declared, “They will not treat the State of Israel like this without a response.”

Israeli Ambassador to the US Gilad Erdan posted a copy of the letter sent to state governors in the US, urging them to consider action against Ben & Jerry’s at a time when Arab states are normalizing ties with Israel.

In response to Ben & Jerry’s boycott decision, US State Department spokesman Ned Price affirmed the Biden administration’s rejection of the BDS movement, which in his words, “unfairly singles out Israel.” With the US government invested in aiding Israel, it is clear that Ben & Jerry’s will face a tough battle ahead, and one that could go either way in terms of persisting with the decision or retracting it due to possible losses.

Anti-BDS legislation in US states can prohibit business deals with companies involved in BDS; Florida and Texas have already communicated their decision to take possible action against Ben & Jerry’s and Unilever.

On the other hand, it is important to consider the political context in which Ben & Jerry’s boycott decision is taking place, and why Israel is frantically attempting to bully the company into accepting its colonial terms.

Earlier this year, the Israeli human rights organization B’Tselem set the scene for altering Israel’s image from within the settler-colonial state with its apartheid designation – a practice which Palestinians have been calling out for decades, to no avail.

While the case for the international community intentionally failing to heed Palestinians’ designation of Israel as an apartheid state can and should be made, B’Tselem set a precedent which gained ground globally. Israel’s response to unrestrained freedom of speech within its society did not bode well for the settler-colonial state’s self-depictions as a purported democracy.

Human Rights Watch reiterated B’Tselem’s designation in its April 2021 report titled “A Threshold Crossed: Israeli Authorities and the Crimes of Apartheid.” A month later, Israel decided it was time to prove its colonial and apartheid agenda further, by slating Sheikh Jarrah for forced displacement and bombing Gaza.

The outrage created by B’Tselem’s designation means that Israel is now openly discussed as an apartheid state in its entirety. Ben & Jerry’s decision to boycott Israeli settlements will be in the midst of two opposing parameters. On one hand, the company’s boycott will be seen as a beginning to an all-encompassing rejection of colonial Israel – a move which only last year would have been seen as far-fetched. On the other hand, Israel’s fully fledged retribution against Ben & Jerry’s will be portrayed by Israeli officials as protecting the settler-colonial state’s interests, and the US, as usual, will pledge its support.

Yet, regardless of what Ben & Jerry’s ultimately decide, BDS has achieved a big win, and some credit must go to Israel, although it will be reticent to admit its role.

Israel’s de-facto annexation of Palestinian territory validated B’Tselem’s apartheid designation.

Israel’s de-facto annexation of Palestinian territory validated B’Tselem’s apartheid designation. Annexation relies on settlement expansion and formalizing colonization, hence the BDS call for companies to stop participating in Israel’s violation of international law is now seen in a more comprehensive light. Settlements are no longer just settlements, even to newcomers of the Palestinian anti-colonial struggle.

Israel’s battle, therefore, is not with Ben & Jerry’s, but with itself. Scapegoating companies for taking a stance against international law violations only asserts the fact that Israel is cornered, albeit not yet politically, because the companies boycotting Israel are not supported by their respective governments. Some human rights activists have even pointed out that boycotting Israeli settlements is not enough, because Israel is entirely colonial and apartheid.

Nevertheless, Ben & Jerry’s boycott has opened a can of worms for Israel. Now, any action taken against the company will prove Israel to be a ruthless bullying power that will destroy entities that stand between it and annexation.