On May 18, Ben & Jerry’s posed a simple question on Twitter: “Any mint lovers out there?”
The beloved Vermont ice cream company usually posts to social media daily, a buzzy feed of confectionary quips and political commentary on everything from climate action to police accountability.
This particular query elicited hundreds of responses. Just not the type Ben & Jerry’s probably expected.
At the time, the Israeli government was launching airstrikes in the Gaza Strip while Hamas and other militant groups were firing rockets into Israel. The escalating violence left at least 230 Palestinians dead and more than 1,700 wounded. Twelve people in Israel were killed. Viral social media posts sympathetic to Palestinians and the disparity in victims were snowballing into larger protest campaigns. On Twitter, user after user from across the country flooded the comment section of the mint ice cream post with criticism of Ben & Jerry’s business dealings in the West Bank and East Jerusalem.
Since then, Ben & Jerry’s has stopped posting entirely, letting both LGBTQ Pride Month and Juneteenth — two celebrations closely linked to the company’s social justice mission — pass without a peep. The silence prompted the online protesters to rally behind the hashtag #HasBenAndJerrysTweetedYet, pointing to the company’s sudden and unexplained absence from social media as evidence of the effectiveness of their campaign.
Meanwhile, back in Burlington, Vt., where the company is headquartered, a group of longtime local activists are watching the social media blitz with awe, animated by the prospect that their years of protests against the company are finally having a national impact.
For the past three decades, Ben & Jerry’s has licensed a factory in Israel, which produces and distributes ice cream in the country and also sells in and caters to Israeli settlements in the West Bank and East Jerusalem.
Almost a tenth of Israel’s Jewish citizens live in these settlements. International law deems them illegal, but the Israeli government has maintained it has historical and religious rights to the land.
A group called Vermonters for Justice in Palestine has long criticized that business arrangement — born out of a friendship between Ben & Jerry’s cofounder Ben Cohen and Israeli businessman Avi Zinger in the 1980s. The 20-year-old advocacy group argues the company’s involvement in occupied territories flies in the face of the social justice mission off which they profit.
The Vermont coalition has for years barraged executives with letters and protested outside scoop shops on the company’s “Free Cone Day.” Still, Ben & Jerry’s hasn’t budged on its business practices in Israel. But this spring, amid mounting recognition among progressives of the Palestinian plight, the activists have felt something shift.
“We’ve tried to appeal to them based on their mission of love, peace, equality. But they ignored us,” said Wafic Faour, the driving force behind VTJP’s Ben & Jerry’s campaign. “Now, public opinion is changing, especially due to the younger generations who have taken to social media and protests and come to our aid. They can no longer ignore us.”
Faour spent the first 18 years of his life in a Palestinian refugee camp in Lebanon after his family was displaced from the coastal city of Acre during the war of 1948. (Israelis call it the War of Independence; Palestinians call it the Nakba, or “catastrophe.”) One of his grandfathers died during the conflict and the other was jailed by Israeli authorities for seven years. Faour now lives outside Burlington, where the small-town nature of the area means he regularly runs into Jerry Greenfield — Ben & Jerry’s other cofounder — outside the gym or in the streets.
In the early 2010s, Faour helped research a VTJP investigation documenting Ben & Jerry’s distribution of ice cream within the settlements. According to their report, pints are available in grocery stores in occupied territories and Israeli settlers can order party carts and catering from the factory, which is located in Be’er Tuviya, an Israeli city 30 miles outside of Tel Aviv.
The group presented the findings to Ben & Jerry’s executives in 2013. Though Unilever purchased the company in 2000 in a sweeping corporate takeover, the Burlington executives still maintain oversight over the Israeli license. But none of those executives had visited the Israeli location.
“Somehow the culture at the time allowed things like a licensee to manufacture and distribute Ben & Jerry’s ice cream for two years in a very difficult and charged political environment without anyone checking to see whether it was being done properly,” said Bram Kleppner, then the company’s head of international marketing, in a Globe interview.
Ultimately, executives did visit but said they had little control over where a licensee distributes their product. Months after the 2013 meeting with VTJP, Jeff Furman, the former chair of the board of directors, embarked on a separate, personal trip to the territories with a delegation of American civil rights leaders. He admitted to having a “very limited level of understanding” of the land before visiting.
“When you go over there, these land issues don’t seem as complex as some insist they are,” Furman told the Globe. “You observe what happens at checkpoints. You hear about midnight raids by Israeli soldiers. You hear the stories of people losing their homes. You see and experience the results of who controls the water. You see the apartheid living conditions.”
Furman, who left the company officially in 2018 after four decades, emphasized that the trip was unrelated to his role with Ben & Jerry’s and that he was “not up to date on Ben & Jerry’s current operations” but remains “hopeful that the selling of Ben & Jerry’s ice cream only take place within the original boundaries of Israel and not in any occupied territory or illegal settlements.”
His successor at the helm of the Ben & Jerry’s board of directors, Anuradha Mittal, has also publicly criticized the Israeli occupation in her day job as executive director of the Oakland Institute, a progressive think tank.
Activists within VTJP find both hope and frustration in these personal declarations of sympathy for the Palestinians.
“We know that in these other roles, they are supportive. But when it comes to doing something about it from the positions of power they have within Ben & Jerry’s, they are timid,” said Faour.
Ben & Jerry’s declined to comment on its current Israeli operations, but in 2015 it released a statement announcing its commitment to its Israeli licensee and that “the first phase of sustainably sourcing almonds from a Palestinian farmer cooperative has been realized.”
Should the company now choose to break its social media silence with a message at all critical of Israel, it would make waves in the corporate and political worlds. Airbnb briefly banned listings in the West Bank from its site in 2018 before reversing course after the Israeli tourism board condemned the decision as antisemitic and settlers filed a lawsuit alleging discrimination.
But from its inception, Ben & Jerry’s has differed from other brands by focusing as much on its social mission as its bottom line. Refugee rights are among the many issues listed on the company’s website, accompanied by a call for systematic change to end the “displacement of communities due to war and violence.”
“By putting a standard in place in the first place, we made ourselves vulnerable to criticism largely avoided by other companies,” said Furman.
Much of that criticism is coming from social media. Even as Ben & Jerry’s feeds sit dormant, past posts continue to fill with comments from those calling out what they see as “half-baked activism.”
“I LOVE mint ice cream @benandjerrys, but I don’t like companies that profit off of oppression and illegal settlements in occupied Palestine. So while it looks nice, I won’t be buying,” commented one user days after the May 18 post that marked the beginning of the silence.
VTJP, mostly a delegation of middle-aged Vermonters, joined Instagram last week at the direction of some new 20-something members who joined the organization in the wake of the May violence. It has also joined forces with Decolonize Burlington movement, a decidedly younger local organization that advocates for Black and Indigenous rights
“We realized that this company has been brave in embracing social justice issues that aren’t necessarily palatable to all,” said Hannah Rose, 22, leader of Decolonize Burlington. “But all of these movements are delicately and deliberately intertwined, so if they’re going to speak in favor of Black Lives Matter while operating in occupied territories, their message is futile.”
Both Rose and Faour feel certain the company’s silence on social media is inextricably linked with their efforts. And she is certain it will end with Ben & Jerry’s reckoning with the contradiction between its social mission and its role in occupied territories.
“Maybe once upon a time, they didn’t understand this conflict. But now, this is not lost on them. I think there’s a deep sense of shame. I’m expecting a change very soon,” Rose said.