American Jewish groups support Ben & Jerry’s decision to end sales in Occupied Territories

ATLANTA: Iconic ice-cream maker Ben & Jerry’s decision to stop selling its products in illegal Israeli settlements in the Occupied Territories has reignited the debate over whether international companies should boycott Israeli settlements as part of the effort to end Israel’s occupation of Palestinian land.

Officials from two Republican-controlled states — Texas and Florida — weighed in on the debate on Thursday, issuing statements threatening Ben & Jerry’s parent company Unilever with sanctions if the ice-cream brand does not reverse its decision. Officials also called on their citizens to boycott Ben & Jerry’s.

Texas and Florida are two of the 35 American states to have passed laws, or to have executive orders, that prevent companies from participating in the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement that is designed to negatively impact Israel’s economy as a way of protesting its actions against Palestine.

Israel’s Ambassador to the US Gilad Erdan sent a letter to the governors of those 35 states demanding they take legal action against Ben & Jerry’s. Israeli officials and pro-Israeli groups in the US have called the company’s decision “anti-Semitic,” “anti-Israel,” and “a new form of terrorism.”

Jeremy Ben-Ami, president of J Street — an influential liberal Jewish group based in Washington D.C, issued a statement rejecting those labels, however.  

“When a major ice-cream company founded by two Jewish entrepreneurs decides not to sell its products in occupied Palestinian territory, that isn’t antisemitism. It doesn’t ‘dehumanize Jews.’ It’s not an act of violence or hatred,” he said. “What it does is draw a principled and rational distinction between commercial transactions inside the sovereign State of Israel, and those in the territory it occupies.”

Ben-Ami also decried Erdan for interfering in domestic US politics and for lobbying to pass “constitutionally dubious laws” — a reference to anti-BDS laws — that undermine the First Amendment rights of American citizens, then demanding the use of such laws against Ben & Jerry’s.

Rabbi Les Bronstein, board co-chair of the New York-based Jewish organization T’ruah, which represents more than 2,000 rabbis and their communities in North America, released a similar statement describing the labeling of Ben & Jerry’s decision as anti-Semitic as a “deliberate attempt to distract from the significant human rights violations faced by Palestinians every day.”

Bronstein called on American officials to reject calls to penalize Ben & Jerry’s and also criticized Erdan.

“Asking the US to target the company under unconstitutional anti-BDS laws is political gamesmanship with very real consequences,” he said. “We call on American officials to reject the request to penalize Ben & Jerry’s under anti-BDS laws, which violate the First Amendment and open the door to much broader government control of public discourse.”

Ben & Jerry’s is well-known for its support of various social causes. In a statement early last week, the company said: “We believe it is inconsistent with our values for Ben & Jerry’s ice cream to be sold in the Occupied Palestinian Territory (OPT). We also hear and recognize the concerns shared with us by our fans and trusted partners.”

Vermont-based pro-Palestinian human rights organization Vermonters for Justice in Palestine (VTJP) has, since 2013, called on Ben & Jerry’s to remove its products from illegal Israeli settlements.

The company stressed that its decision only applies to illegal Israeli settlements inside the Occupied Territories, and not to Israel.

The US government does not officially recognize Israeli settlements built in the West Bank and East Jerusalem as part of Israel.

Israel occupied the Palestinian West Bank, East Jerusalem, Gaza and the Syrian Golan Heights during the 1967 war and has since constructed hundreds of settlements for Jewish residents — an action that violates international law, which bans occupying powers from moving their own citizens into occupied territories.

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