(August 10, 2021 / Israel Hayom) The colorful exterior of the Ben & Jerry’s factory in Be’er Tuvia stands out in the gray industrial zone. Freezer trucks stand waiting to transport the cold product nationwide, including Judea and Samaria. Inside, the pipes of the production line are covered in a layer of ice. Up front, a shop sells ice cream and branded merchandise—a brand that is now in the eye of a storm.
On July 19, Ben & Jerry’s International, owned by the Unilever corporation, announced that it opposed Ben & Jerry’s ice cream being sold in what it called the “Occupied Palestinian Territories.”
Avi Zinger, CEO of Ben & Jerry’s Israel, sees the declaration as an attack on the country, as well as on him personally.
“They take the most fun, tastiest thing there is, and bring in politics. What does one have to do with the other? You shouldn’t mix politics and ice cream,” said Zinger.
Zinger, 69, brought the Ben & Jerry’s brand to Israel and started manufacturing ice cream 35 years ago. He has refused to comply with the global company’s demand that he stop selling over the Green Line. In response, Ben & Jerry’s International decided not to renew its franchise license, as it has done automatically every 10 years since it was first granted. His current license expires at the end of 2022. The company has also announced it will seek other “arrangements” for its continued operation in Israel.
It’s a prospect keeping Zinger up at night.
“Let’s say that since [the crisis began] I haven’t been sleeping too well,” he said. “A month before the company’s announcement, we put in sleepless nights to try to prevent it, and since then we’ve been in an ongoing news cycle,” he added.
“This is a business we built with our own two hands over the course of three-and-a-half decades. When it started, you could have counted the employees on one hand, and today we employ over 160,” he said.
“The entire family is emotionally connected to the factory and the brand. My daughters were born into it. We all know the founders, Ben Cohen and Jerry Greenfield, personally. They’ve visited our home in Ramat Aviv a few times,” he said.
Standing next to the machine that pours the sweet product into the pint cartons, Zinger says, “We’re a family company, and this has landed on all of us. I was really worried about how the employees would respond.”
Once the employees digested what was happening, they showed up to work “ready for battle,” said Zinger. “They realized it was actually an act against Israel.”
And it isn’t not only the employees: Zinger said it was “unbelievable” how many supporters of Israel have reached out to him.
“From Florida and Minnesota, Europe and Australia, Jews and non-Jews, who feel that this is their fight, too. People say they’ve sold their Unilever stocks and send letters to Congress,” he said.
Zinger isn’t the only one who has taken the matter personally. So has his family, especially his two daughters, who work with him in the business, he said. At first, he tried to hide the pressure he was under, but his wife, Debbie, noticed that he was holding tense phone conversations late into the night. He tried to explain them away as “problems at the factory.”
He was still doing battle with the management of Ben & Jerry’s International just a month before the controversial statement came out, he said. When he realized he had failed, he reached out to the Israeli Foreign Ministry. He also held meetings with Israeli Ambassador to Britain Tzipi Hotovely because Unilever is British-owned.
His lengthy late-night phone conversations with the directors of the U.S. company, during which he attempted to convince them that the announcement would hurt everyone living over the Green Line and would do nothing to help the Palestinians, proved fruitless.
“They didn’t understand what we were talking about, and dug in, partly because of the massive pressure from anti-Israeli entities and BDS, which were spreading lies, ” he said. “They simply caved under the pressure.”
Meanwhile, small business owners in Israel have also been trying to help however they can. Even Tel Aviv event planners are buying Ben & Jerry’s in a show of support, and hi-tech companies are organizing Ben & Jerry’s “happy hours” for their workers.
“It really moved me,” said Zinger. “We’re a special people, a warm and loyal people.”
However, he said, people’s initial reaction to the July announcement was quite different.
“People threw away their ice cream. They broke one of our refrigerators in Eilat. We were treated as if we were public enemy No. 1. After we started to explain, ‘Wait, guys, we’re on your side,’ everything turned around,” he said.
Some are still confused about the distinction between the parent company and the Israeli franchise, he said.
“We have a license to use their formulas, the same knowledge, the same graphics, but everything is manufactured here,” he explained. “We use milk, cream and eggs from all the farmers around here. We’re completely Israeli. We don’t even pay royalties to the international company. Ben & Jerry’s contributes to the Israeli economy and society, and is fighting to sell ice cream in all of Israel,” he added.
The “cold war,” he said, began years ago.
Ben & Jerry’s demanded that Zinger adopt their social view and donate 7.5 percent of his profits to social causes, as they do. Then questions arose regarding what organizations the money should support. The Ben & Jerry’s Foundation favored organizations like the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA), while Zinger did not (“I always checked to see if an organization was pro-Israeli”). Eventually, they allowed him the freedom to choose.
Along with supporting children with cancer and youth at risk, Ben & Jerry’s Israel is involved in a project to improve intergenerational relations in the Ethiopian-Israeli community. They also support a joint curriculum for Jews and Arabs, Israelis and Palestinians.
“We used to be involved in the Seeds of Peace project, in which Arab and Jewish children attend camp together in the United States. Everyone used to arrive fearful and full of hate, and leave the best of friends. Unfortunately, the founder died and the program took on a different political angle, so we pulled out,” he said.
Zinger first encountered Ben & Jerry’s ice cream in New York in 1983, when he was studying business administration. He approached them and signed a contract. In 1988 he returned to Israel, license and recipes in hand. It took him a year to set up the business. In September 1989 he launched the first store on Dizengoff Street in Tel Aviv. In the early years, he focused on opening stores, arriving at 16 branches. The Second Intifada, with its bloody suicide bombings, prompted him to take a different direction.
“I was so afraid something would happen to my workers, or that kids would get blown up, God forbid, while they were eating ice cream at our places, so I closed the stores and focused on making ice cream. As the years went by, we succeeded, and today 49 percent of the homemade ice cream sold in Israel is ours.”
On July 28, Cohen and Greenfield published an op-ed in The New York Times, explaining that stopping activity in the “occupied territories” was not a boycott of Israel. They expressed absolute support for the global parent company’s decision and noted that they saw it as one of the most important in the company’s history.
Q: Have you talked to them since the piece was published?
A: No, I haven’t. I don’t feel a need to. … Ultimately, they weren’t the ones who made the decision, and can’t cancel it, so I don’t see any point in talking to them right now. Maybe in the future.
Q: Are you hurt?
A: Very much. I’m in favor of freedom of opinion. There’s nothing wrong with criticizing Israel or its policies. But attacking us directly? Put the big picture aside for a moment. We here, at the factory, fight to make a living … suddenly, to take action that supposedly fits with your values, but tramples us on the way, without realizing what your values have to do with that step? I’m very disappointed.
Q: Cohen and Greenfield appear to represent the zeitgeist of American Jewry. How did U.S. Jewry become so detached from mainstream Israel, which mostly supports the settlements?
A: Things are changing. Progressives in the U.S. are gaining power, and the whole narrative about [race] is changing. … Somehow Israel has become the evil “white,” while the Palestinians have managed to brand themselves as the wronged side, the exploited “blacks.”
Q: Do you intend to keep fighting?
A: We’re on the front line. We didn’t choose this, we were roped in, but we’ll fight. We’re looking at a long battle, both public and legal. If we don’t go into it with our heads high, we might not win. If we know that everyone is with us, and we have backing, I’m certain we can win, and they’ll have to change their decision. [Israel’s political echelon] need to understand that this isn’t a fight over a little factory in Kiryat Malachi. This is a diplomatic, national battle. If they don’t intervene and put all their weight on decision-makers at the highest level, the decision won’t change.
Q: Have you gotten responses from Palestinians?
A: I haven’t gotten a response from Palestinians, but I have from Arab Israelis. They’re pretty confused, but on the whole, they know us as a company and support us as suppliers.
Q: What have your sales looked like since July 18?
A: The first day or two there was a drop-off. People were throwing the ice cream away. But after we reached out to the public, there was a change, and then a peak. A lot of people have come to the store and bought ice cream. The peak made up for the damage at the beginning, so we haven’t lost anything. Ben & Jerry’s ice cream is unusually beloved in the Israeli market, far beyond other markets abroad; I have data from all over the world. We make a product everyone loves, and do so the best way, with raw materials and fair trade, with concern for the environment and social activity. Our workers also earn 25 percent to 35 percent more than the average in other factories.
Q: You could manufacture ice cream with different recipes and a different brand. Even [Israeli supermarket magnate] Rami Levy proposed that. You’d be a success.
A: I’m not opting for that, because the way I see it, it would be knuckling under to an anti-Israel decision.
Q: You have another year-and-a-half [before your license expires].
A: If the license expires and we’re in the same situation we are today, it will be a huge failure of our politics. There will be a snowball that can’t be stopped. If Ben & Jerry’s doesn’t reverse the decision, I think that we’ll see other international companies, which are also subject to pressure, go in the same direction. That has to be a red line for the government.
This is an edited version of an article that first appeared in Israel Hayom.
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