In October, just before the US midterm elections, Ben & Jerry's launched a new ice cream flavor - Pecan Resist - chocolate and fudge mixed with pecans. The company said that it was part of a campaign to "lick injustice and celebrate those fighting to create a more just and equal country for all of us."
And who is creating the injustice and inequality, you might ask? Well, President Donald Trump of course. The company said, we cannot remain silent over the President's policies that are attacking and pushing back decades of progress on issues like racial and sexual equality, climate change, LGBT rights and immigrant and refugees rights - all issues that have always been at the core of our social mission for 40 years."
Pecan Resist was mainly launched to raised awareness among US voters and encourage them to vote. But the launch was also accompanies by announcement that Ben & Jerry's was donating $25,000 to each of four organizations spearheading the opposition to Trump. While many on the right in the US called for a boycott of Ben & Jerry's, Israeli ire was focused on women's rights organization Women's March, one of the four NGO's receiving Ben & Jerry's philanthropic bucks. One of the founders and co-chairs of Women's March is Linda Sarsour, a Palestinian-American liberal activist who has become a divisive figure in the Jewish community due to her anti-Israel activism and support of BDS.
In the age of social media, the right wing antagonism to Ben & Jerry's spread swiftly to Israel, even though the company here is owned by its CEO Avi Zinger and is a completely separate firm the global company owned by Unilever. Michael Nussbaum, a US-born lawyer from Ramat Hasharon who immigrated to Israel 30 years ago to serve in the IDF is one of the leaders of the Boycott Ben & Jerry's campaign in Israel. "For many years Ben & Jerry's as a company and Ben Cohen and Jerry Greenfield as individuals have been giving lots of money to all sorts of extreme left movements," he says.
He adds, "I don't agree with them but that's the world we live in. Not everyone has to agree with me. But this time in my opinion they crossed several lines. First of all they took a flavor that I really liked and changed the name from New York Super Fudge Crunch to Resist. Secondly, from my point of view the entire Resist movement in the US is a fascist movement that wants to replace democratic elections with the rule of the angry masses in the street."
"And now out of this movement, they are promoting Women's March headed by Sarsour who in my opinion is an outspoken anti-Semite. It's disgraceful. In addition, they are supporting another movement, one of whose activists persecutes conservative peple everywhere and makes their lives miserable. In my opinion, they've gone over the limit and legitimized people that shouldn't be legitimized and so now when I look in the fridge I no longer see the ice cream that I love but those Jewish collaborators that are helping anti-Semitism."
Nussbaum knows that the offensive flavor won't be sold in Israel and that the decision was not made here but from his point of view the boycott is anyway justified. According to Nussbaum, Ben & Jerry's receives royalties from all ice cream sold in Israel and he is no longer interested in supporting the company any more.
Sugar, cream and ideology
The protest and the boycott has put Ben & Jerry's Israel owner Avi Zinger in an uncomfortable position. 30 years have gone by since Ben & Jerry's set up its first production plant outside of the US, and Zinger has always adi that he has adopted the values and the beliefs of the American company. He has not compromised on quality, has always been careful about business fairness and has always sought and found a range of worthwhile social aims to help, and three years ago even became the first company in Israel (and remains the only one today) to comply with the world standard for fair trade.
That step by the way, has not earned him anything. The move to fair trade substantially put up his production costs but won him no recognition from indifferent Israeli consumers nor did it persuade other Israeli companies to change or have any impact on the market. But he did it because he still believes in the unique and beautiful ways of the two Jewish founders from Vermont. But for the first time these values are causing him problems in Israel.
"From the outset we were on the same page as the US," says Zinger of the relationship he has had with Ben & Jerry's head office since 1987. "Not only in terms of the quality of the ingredients and being strict about them - the fruits, nuts, amount of cream in the milk, and the egg yolks that come from the free-range hens - but also in terms of social issues. From the start, we said that you can't be Ben & Jerry's without being Ben & Jerry's the whole way. It's a company that does everything it can to make the best product in the best way."
Zinger enjoys mentioning previous occasions when Ben & Jerry's was able to use sugar and cream to change reality. He recalls the Baked Alaska flavor, which was devised in order to protest plans to drill for oil in Alaska. He remembers how the company bought pastry to put into its ice cream from a bakery that employed people with special needs. He tells with pride how the company invested $2 million so that its egg suppliers could enlarge their chicken coops. He is proud of the fact that Ben & Jerry's was the only commercial company in the world that was party to the G7 Paris summit global warming agreement.
In Israel, he says that the company's social involvement policy has always been greeted with raised eyebrows. "Everybody here is cynical and people think that if you give them free ice cream at some event that you have a certain interest and if you put up a sign saying save paper to save trees, they accuse you of miserliness. That hasn't changed us. We have social projects and collaborations all the time with residential youth villages, the Schneider Children's Medical Center, the Ethiopian community in Israel, and many others."
When I ask Zinger if he understands why creating the Pecan Resist flavor has provoked Israelis into calling a boycott of the company's ice cream, even here, he remains calm but it is clear that he is upset. "I understand how sad it is that people don't understand a thing and come up out with declarations and announcements. We are an Israeli company. I am an Israeli. All the employees are Israeli. We are located in the south within range of missiles. We have no connection to politics, neither in Israel nor the US."
He added, "Ben & Jerry's in the US went with a campaign for their reasons but what's my connection to that? It's crazy. To come and say that Ben & Jerry's in Israel is supporting Hamas, which is what some people and journalists have claimed. People say that the income from this flavor is going to Hamas.to say that Ben & Jerry's is an anti-Semitic company that supports Hamas is absolutely crazy."
Zinger blames his rivals in the Israeli ice cream market for stoking up the protests against Ben & Jerry's Israel but adds that the protests have not hit sales. "There was a wave of interest in the matter about a month ago but it has disappeared. People tell you that 'I'm not buying Ben & Jerry's because it supports Hamas.' But it's a company that people admire. The product, the values, and the way it operates and then suddenly people come up to you and say things that you don't know how to cope with."
"The height of absurdity is that for eight years Ben & Jerry's has been under incessant attack by BDS activists - demonstrations outside its offices, and branches - calling for the company to be boycotted because it operates in Israel."
He continues, "Ben & Jerry's has always said that it supports Israel and me and won't move away from here. They've never even asked me once not to sell in the (Palestinian) territories or anything like that. They only express support for me and for Israel. Every time that I come to meet them in Vermont, I feel a sense of discomfort as if Ben & Jerry's is suffering because of me and because of Israel. And after all that Israeli Jews come along and accuse the company of being anti-Israel. These people should go and see these (BDS) people demonstrating against Ben & Jerry's and against Israel."
Despite repeated requests, Zinger has until now refused to be interviewed about calls for a boycott of Ben & Jerry's in Israel, preferring to let the crisis quietly fade away. "Maybe I'm making a mistake talking about it now. I don't know. But it's something personal that bothers me. My employees come and ask me what it's all about and I haven't got an intelligent answer to give them."
Published by Globes, Israel business news - en.globes.co.il - on December 25, 2018
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