Ice cream manufacturer Ben & Jerry’s announcement of its intention to boycott Israel by not allowing its products to be sold in the “Occupied Territories” set off one of the most significant battles ever against the global boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) movement. That battle ended with a tremendous victory for Israel just days ago. The implications of this battle are far more significant than any one contract or one company; it wasn’t about ice cream at all. By winning this battle, a new and powerful deterrent was created against any company that might consider giving in to BDS.
The BDS movement has grown exponentially over the past two decades, and has created major power bases worldwide. The movement includes hundreds of organizations advancing its agenda, and thousands of activists. They influence local and international politics, culture, academia and companies. This BDS activity is less known to the public, and can potentially cause significant harm.
BDS will initially mark a commercial target. From that moment on, organizations and activists will intensively and consistently attack the company and try to influence it from within. Their activities often border on harassment and intimidation and can escalate to vandalism, threats and actual violence.
Ben & Jerry’s was not the first success for the BDS movement, but is undoubtedly the most important one to date. There are a variety of instances where companies either adopted or were in the process of adopting a decision to boycott Israel. In each of those cases, countermeasures successfully prevented the decision, reversed it, or restricted it in a way that prevented it from setting a precedent.
The battle was longer and more challenging this time, as it was clear from the start that the fight wasn’t against Ben & Jerry’s but against its parent company, Unilever. Unilever is a gigantic multinational corporation operating in some 190 countries, with a wide range of household name products and an estimated worth of several dozen billion dollars.
Unilever’s size, the stubborn ideology of Ben & Jerry’s, the very public announcement and a clause in the legal agreement between Ben & Jerry’s and Unilever arguably allow for decisions regarding their “social policy” to be made independently. In addition, Unilever’s vast resources and fleet of attorneys gave the story a sense of a modern-day David and Goliath.
The main concern was to avoid creating a precedent. The Unilever case was a test for the entire global market. Cost/benefit analyses are the central issue in the business world. In business, finance often trumps morals.
The threat of financial harm to companies by the BDS movement can be significant. Vast pressure is applied against them and, at times, other means are also employed. Undoubtedly, some key figures in certain companies might share the idea of BDS, but if there is no financial justification for making such a decision, it is tough to lead a company down that path.
The struggle against Unilever can be compared with the case of Airbnb, which adopted BDS and retracted its boycott policy a few months later. Like Ben & Jerry’s, the win against Airbnb was also achieved with a creative and persistent counterattack.
The measures taken included lawsuits against Airbnb, lobbying and other legal efforts to activate anti-boycott laws in over 30 U.S. states. These created significant risks for Airbnb’s reputation and financial well-being and caused the company to rescind the boycott.
Airbnb’s U-turn was announced in April 2019 and undoubtedly left a significant mark on the international market. It is reasonable to assume that it is essentially why, for a long time and despite countless and tireless efforts by the BDS movement, no other major company had tried to follow in Airbnb’s footsteps until Ben & Jerry’s.
As early as January this year, some staggering data regarding Unilever came to light. Within about six months since the announcement of the boycott, it appeared that this mega-company had lost over 20% of its share value. This loss was translated into a sum of approximately 20 billion dollars.
State anti-BDS legal maneuvers meant ending or preventing contracts or pulling state pension funds’ investments from Unilever stocks. The financial and reputational damage was increasing along with the pressure to come up with a solution.
Hasbara—the Hebrew term for public relations—is undoubtedly valuable; without it, there may not have been many good, intelligent and determined people fighting this critical war. However, this victory is not one of words but actions.
This victory sends a loud and clear message. Whoever tries to boycott the Jewish state will pay a hefty price. With that, compelling deterrence was achieved.
It is likely to assume that the people of Unilever and Ben & Jerry’s were hoping that after the first wave of criticism, resistance would die down, that interest would begin to fade. Several additional lawsuits were being prepared that would have added additional risk for the company. Other campaigns of various sorts exposed embarrassing information about the company. There were also international petitions and political pressure.
The bottom line is that Ben & Jerry’s will continue to be manufactured in Israel and sold throughout the country, including in Jerusalem, Judea, and Samaria. The balance of terror created with the battle is unprecedented and will likely resonate in the business world for a long time.
Yifa Segal is the former chair and CEO of the International Legal Forum (ILF) and served as chief of staff to Israel’s Ambassador to the United States.
This article was first published by the Jerusalem Institute for Strategy and Security.