Winners and Losers in the Boycott Wars

By | Jan 31, 2022
Israel, Jewish Politics & Power, Latest
Ben & Jerry's pints with BDS logo

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1. Did the Ben & Jerry’s boycott backfire?

Over the last few weeks, pro-Israel activists shared a fair amount of Schadenfreude as they followed the news of Unilever’s financial troubles. The giant conglomerate, which owns dozens of food, healthcare and cosmetic brands, has seen its stocks tumble and its value significantly cut, forcing the corporation’s leaders to announce a dramatic restructuring and significant layoffs.

Those gloating pointed to Ben & Jerry’s, one of the companies owned by Unilever, as a key source of the group’s financial difficulties—and more specifically, to the ice cream maker’s decision to stop selling its products in the West Bank and the string of counter-divestment measures taken against Unilever in retaliation.

Here’s how it played out:

When Ben & Jerry’s announced last July its intention to end sales of its ice cream products in the West Bank, stating that doing so would be “inconsistent” with its values, parent company Unilever remained silent, largely because its contract with Ben & Jerry’s allows the Vermont-based ice cream maker to maintain independence on issues relating to social values.

But this did not shield Unilever from the wrath of anti-boycott boycotters, hoping to prove that there’s a hefty price to pay for depriving Israeli settlers of their favorite ice cream.

At least six states, including New York, New Jersey, Florida and Texas, followed their already-passed anti-BDS laws and, with the active encouragement of pro-Israel activists and of the Israeli government, withdrew their state-owned pension fund investments from Unilever. This meant hundreds of millions of dollars worth of Unilever stocks being dropped by the states.

Unilever’s financial hit and its subsequent restructuring, which would put ice cream products in a separate branch of the conglomerate, seem to indicate that the anti-boycotters emerged victorious. Preemptive actions taken by state houses across America turned out to be an effective tool in the war against boycotting Israel. 

But there’s at least one caveat:

While states’ divestment from Unilever stocks undoubtedly contributed to the company’s dismal bottom line, it was not the only factor and likely not the biggest one. Much of the company’s financial trouble stems from shareholders turning their back on Unilever after it failed to complete its most ambitious business expansion plan to date: the purchase of GlaxoSmithKline’s consumer health unit. In addition, Unilever did not reach its stated profit goals last year, raising even more concerns about the company’s value.

2. The problem with anti-BDS legislation

This could be a great moment for proponents of anti-BDS legislation. Their initiative, which began in the right-wing circles of pro-Israel activism and successfuly harnessed the political power of pro-Israel Christian evangelicals in many states, led to real change on the ground and set in place an array of laws prepared to counter the Ben & Jerrys of the world. (And to their credit, these activists did much of their work without support of the mainstream pro-Israel community, which initially viewed anti-BDS laws as either unnecessary or as too divisive.)

But even now, the battle over the future of this legislation is ongoing. While bills forbidding states to invest their funds in companies that boycott Israel are less controversial, there is a real debate over anti-BDS legislation that requires suppliers to pledge they will not boycott Israel as a condition for signing a contract with the state.  

These measures have been challenged time and again in courts, suffering many defeats due to their infringement on the contractors’ freedom of speech. (Just last week, a Texas court sided with a contractor who refused to sign a statement regarding not boycotting Israel.)

By now, there’s a clear pattern that has emerged from these rulings:

Measures intending to prevent individuals or small businesses from boycotting Israel won’t work. There’s no real way of knowing if an individual boycotts Israel, and it’s hard to see how supporting or taking part in such a boycott is not an expression of free political speech. On the other hand, measures aimed at large corporations that benefit from the investment of state pension funds are kosher.

3. So who won?

Here’s the scoreboard:

Pro-Israel activists and anti-BDS legislation clearly made a difference. They succeeded in demonstrating that any company considering following in Ben & Jerry’s footsteps should brace for impact. There will be real-world financial consequences.

But Ben & Jerry’s is also a winner here. The company stood up for its principles, took a lot of fire for its actions and survived. There is no sign that sales have dropped, and its parent company did not take any measures to limit Ben & Jerry’s ability to make decisions.

Unilever is clearly on the losing side. The anti-boycott movement may not have been its biggest problem this year, but it did take a toll. 

There are, however, a couple of other considerations to keep in mind:

First, Ben & Jerry’s is unique. There aren’t that many companies out there that base their business decisions on the owners’ progressive values and that are willing to state publicly that they are boycotting Israel (or boycotting West Bank settlements.) There might be, however, many other companies that choose a “soft boycott,” by simply avoiding doing business with Israel in order not to  provoke liberal-minded investors or customers.

The other issue is how far anti-BDS legislation can go. The limits have become clear, and while measures aimed at divesting from companies that boycott Israel remain effective, most of the legislation targeting individuals is of little value.

4. Pulling the UN’s purse strings

Back in May 2021, the United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHCR) established an inquiry commission to look into “violations in occupied Palestinian territory.” The commission came to life following the latest round of fighting between Israel and Hamas in the Gaza Strip, but its mandate is not limited to these events. In fact, the commission is permanent, and it is likely to serve as an ongoing platform for criticizing Israel’s actions.

Now, a bipartisan group of U.S. lawmakers is seeking to take action against the commission, which they describe as “outrageous” and note that it “ought to be canceled.”

In a letter to Secretary of State Antony Blinken, the group, led by Democrat Josh Gottheimer and Republican Vicky Hartzler, calls on the administration to defund the commission.

The letter is signed by 42 members.

The United States has no veto power in the UNHCR, but, as the top funder of United Nations activities, it carries a lot of weight.

Will this congressional initiative kill the inquiry commission?

Probably not. But it could help Washington show its opposition to the idea, and perhaps make it harder for the human rights body to proceed in work that is critical of Israel.

5. Mixing Torah and politics

Everyone can agree on the Torah, right?

Not so fast.

The newly founded “Torah caucus” in the U.S. House of Representatives is now another arena for communal infighting.

The Torah caucus, chaired by Republican Don Bacon and Democrat Henry Cuellar, was launched last month in order to “advance Torah values,” combat antisemitism and maintain freedom of religion in the United States.

Shortly after the launch, nine Jewish groups, including J Street, Americans for Peace Now, and the Reform movement, among others, sent a letter to Bacon and Cuellar expressing their opposition to what they described as a “misguided” effort.” In the letter, they argue that it should not be up to Congress to define “Torah values” and that the establishment of a caucus based on religious values runs counter to the separation of church and state. “This might have been avoided if you had consulted with rabbis and Jewish leaders from many of the major institutions in American Jewish life,” the letter adds.

Needless to say, Israel-related politics also play a key role in this dispute.

Leaders of the caucus have said that it will combat “anti-Israel bigotry,” while the groups opposing the caucus argue that criticism of Israel should not be conflated with antisemitism or bigotry.

2 thoughts on “Winners and Losers in the Boycott Wars

  1. Davida Brown says:

    To begin with, “Torah values” refer to God Almighty, and not the so-called misconception of “separation of church and state” (not in the constitution) that has no bearing on this issue at all. J Street, etc., are definitely on the wrong path with this one. The 14th amendment establishment clause has to do with the “state” or federal government forming a state religion.
    I would like to inject at this time a familiar verse in the Judeo/Christian Bible: “Pray for the peace of Jerusalem! ‘May they prosper who love you!’ ” (Emphasis God’s…Psalm 122:6) I would assume that the reverse is also true. Poor Unilever! Poor Ben & Jerry’s! In the immortal words of Sabina Wurmbrand: “…I can deliver you from the Communists, but I can’t deliver you from the wrath of God.” This applies to Jew and Gentile alike. The UNHCR is clearly antisemitic. And that’s all she wrote!

  2. hag says:

    I started to buy only B and jerry’s after the boycott

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