N. Hempstead ban on Ben & Jerry’s sparks backlash

Samuele Petruccelli
The Vermont-based ice cream company Ben & Jerry's announced it will not sell its product in the West Bank, a move received with strong condemnation by local politicians. (Photo by Samuele Petruccelli.)

Local elected officials expressed strong opinions against Ben & Jerry’s recent decision to stop selling its ice cream in the West Bank, calling the move dangerous and anti-Israel. An independent Palestinian organization criticized the officials’ reaction, saying their stance infringed on the group’s First Amendment rights.

Town of North Hempstead Supervisor Judi Bosworth, along with Town of Hempstead Supervisor Don Clavin and Nassau County Executive Laura Curran, voiced harsh condemnations of the Vermont-based ice cream company’s decision.

“North Hempstead’s Anti-BDS legislation ensures that taxpayer money is never used to do business with or support any company that engages in a boycott of Israel,” Bosworth said. “North Hempstead is a community of unity and inclusion. We remain committed in the fight against intolerance and we are unwavering in our condemnation of this BDS movement.”

The Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement calls on governments and businesses to sever ties with Israel until three demands are met. Those include ending colonization of Arab lands, ending a system of racial discrimination against Arab-Palestinians and the return of Palestinian refugees to their homes, according to its website.

North Hempstead Council members had unanimously passed legislation prohibiting the town from working with companies participating in the Boycott Divestment and Sanctions movement in 2017, calling it a damaging and discriminatory policy against the state of Israel being perpetrated by a mounting number of entities. Now, according to Bosworth, those entities include Ben & Jerry’s.

Curran also released a statement on the ice cream maker’s move, pointing to her voting record in the county Legislature against the “discriminatory” efforts.

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“I am disappointed by Ben & Jerry’s decision to align itself with the anti-Israel BDS movement, which unfairly and dangerously singles out the world’s only Jewish state,” Curran said. “I strongly oppose the BDS movement and have worked hard to strengthen the relationship between Israel and Nassau during my time as county executive.”

Clavin cited the move as evidence of the company’s anti-Israeli stance supported by the BDS movement, which he called antisemitic. He said his boycott of Unilever, the parent company of Ben & Jerry’s, was in hopes of sending a message for other states to do the same.

“A message that we are tired of companies like Ben & Jerry’s taking actions that are clearly anti-Israel,” Clavin said.

On their website, Ben & Jerry’s released a statement explaining their rational for ending sales in the West Bank.

“We believe it is inconsistent with our values for Ben & Jerry’s ice cream to be sold in the Occupied Palestinian Territory,” it said. “We also hear and recognize the concerns shared with us by our fans and trusted partners.”

Ben & Jerry’s will not renew its contract with its distributor for the region which expires at the end of next year, according to the statement. The company says it plans to stay in Israel through a different arrangement though not in the West Bank.

Though its decision received international attention, the intended message of the progressive company may have been lost, said Kristian Bailey, communications manager at Palestine Legal. His non-profit organization supports Palestinian activists with legal advice.

“Palestine is a human rights issue,” said Bailey, who grew up in North Hempstead. “These boycotts that the Town of North Hempstead is attacking are about human rights for Palestinians.”

“Palestine is being singled out as somehow undeserving of human rights or undeserving of the ability to protest for those human rights,” Bailey said. Participating in boycotts or aligning with the BDS movement is what helps “putting pressure on a big world power that refuses to acknowledge human rights of an oppressed population.”

Excluding Ben & Jerry’s from doing business with North Hempstead may be based on a hazy definition of a boycott against Israel, according to Bailey. The company decided against selling its product in the West Bank but said it will continue to sell its product in Israel. Israeli settlements in the West Bank are recognized as violating the Fourth Geneva Convention by the United Nations General Assembly, the United Nations Security Council, and the International Court of Justice.

“Is the Town of North Hempstead now saying that affirming international law is something it stands against?” Bailey said. “That’s what the message we’re getting from its statements are.”

A proper response from localities would acknowledge how boycotts for civil and human rights are one of the most cherished acts of protest in the United States, Bailey said.

“We still have a right to speak out and boycott for justice for that population,” Bailey said. “It’s OK to have different opinions on the issue, but what’s not OK is infringing on our free speech and political rights.”

“These boycotts are also protected speech and political activity under the First Amendment,” Bailey said. “So, it seems that the Town of North Hempstead is both standing in opposition to human rights and to our First Amendment rights.”

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