‘It shows that BDS works’: Wafic Faour on how a group of Vermont activists got Ben & Jerry’s to move

‘There’s one direction we’re going in. We are struggling against an apartheid regime and we saw what happened in South Africa. If we continue working and educating the public and these leaders continue with their incoherent messaging, we will win.’

This week Ben & Jerry’s announced that it would stop selling its ice cream in illegal Israeli settlements. The move has been cheered by Palestine activists and condemned by Israeli lawmakers. Wafic Faour is member of Vermonters for Justice in Palestine (VTJP), the group that has led a campaign targeting Ben & Jerry’s for over a decade. Faour was raised in a Palestinian refugee camp in Lebanon, but came to the United States to study and ended up moving to Vermont after.

I spoke with Faour by Zoom about Ben & Jerry’s big announcement, Israel’s hysterical reaction, and what it all means for the BDS movement.

Mondoweiss: I wanted to start by getting your reaction to Ben & Jerry’s announcement. What did you think when you heard the news?

Wafic Faour: To tell you the truth, at the beginning, I was a little bit disappointed. Their statement started very well. They said that doing business in the occupied territories on illegal settlements is against the values of Ben & Jerry’s. That was good, but then later in the statement they tell us they’re going to continue business in Israel in a different form. They’re going to continue operating in Israel in a way that they will announce later.

This is contradictory to two things that Ben & Jerry’s says they stand for. When we met with them in 2014 and asked them to stop selling their products in Jewish-only settlements, they told us they couldn’t really do that because if they sell their product from a factory, they cant really control the middle man going to sell it elsewhere.

Also refusing to sell products in the settlements is against Israel’s anti-BDS law. That’s why you hear Israeli leaders going berserk about it. Including today when you hear the President of Israel calling [Isaac Herzog] calling our campaign a terrorist campaign.

When we started this campaign we were targeting Ben & Jerry’s because their social mission talks about equality, human rights, protecting refugees, protecting the environment, Black Lives Matter, police brutality. We’re talking about Israel because it’s still an apartheid state and the Palestinians who are living over there as Israeli citizens, Israeli Arabs..they are living under different rules and they are facing discrimination on housing, on education, healthcare, police protection. Just name it. So the company is not adhering to its own social mission.

Don’t get me wrong, this is a very positive step but I’m trying to understand how we can imagine the relationship between Ben & Jerry’s and BDS laws in Israel. I’m wondering how they’re going to continue operating in the area. There’s also another issue. We saw a contradictory statement released by Ben & Jerry’s board from Chairwoman [Anuradha] Mittal. They said they had a different kind of a statement in mind and that [the section about continuing business in Israel] came from Unilever, Ben & Jerry’s parent company.

So we have more questions than answers here. We don’t know what will happen.

We saw this campaign permeate the mainstream media a little more before Ben & Jerry’s announcement but VTJP has been working on this for over a decade. I was wondering if you could describe some of the activism that led up to this moment.

The first action we took was a letter we sent to Ben Cohen and Jerry Greenfield [the company’s founders] asking them how they could, in their conscience, accept a relationship with Israel. They told us “We aren’t the right people to talk to because it’s not our company anymore. You can go to South Burlington headquarters and you can ask that question.”

We got that response after we had sent them multiple letters actually. As a matter of fact, Jerry is the one who answered the letter. So then we went to South Burlington and insisted on a meeting. After a lot of effort, we discovered many things.

One of them that is after the sale of Ben & Jerry’s, the Israeli lease stayed with South Burlington and all the other operations were taken over by Unilever. In other words, only the company’s Israel operation continued under the executives here in South Burlington and their independent board. We found that strange.

The second thing they told us is that they’ve never made a penny off the Israeli part of their business. So we are talking about an operation that doesn’t make money and it’s located in a disputed area where you are facing demands from us. So why are you still over there?

After the meeting we started signing petitions. Every time Ben & Jerry’s had a Free Cone Day we were outside their downtown store leafleting and getting petition signatures. We sent the petitions to the company. We called on other Palestine solidarity groups to do the same across twelve different Ben & Jerry’s locations and we sent the petitions to the company.

We also tried to send letters to the people who are operating the Ben & Jerry’s stores in the United States and Canada, asking them to do something. We didn’t hear back. During that period we also met with Jeff Furman [who served on Ben & Jerry’s corporate board for almost 40 years] and then the company answered and said they were going to try to educate themselves on the issue.

They sent a group of board members and executives to that region to learn about the situation. To be frank with you, the only person who came back with a really good statement was Jeff Furman. I think he was also the company’s first lawyer when they began selling ice cream in the United States. He said what he saw over there was apartheid.

I understand all your questions are going to be about Ben & Jerry’s because that’s the subject, but we chose the company over a decade ago because of its locality, it’s a huge part of Vermont, and its factory is the most visited place in the state. We use them to relate the Palestine issue to the population here and the wider United States population. We want to educate people about Palestinian suffering and what Israel is doing in Palestine.

Sometimes when you talk to people about this issue they think it’s just something that’s happening far away. They don’t relate to it. So you open the subject and you talk to people about it, about how it’s against international law to benefit from profit from the occupation. It’s been an educational movement because we talk to people about Palestine, Palestinian lives, Palestinian land, Palestinian water, Palestinian environment while we are doing the campaign. We use the company as an education tool.

Even though we did all this work, a lot of people saw this all as a far-fetched goal to get them out of there because we are a small group in Vermont. A lot of us are middle-aged people and we use the old technique of leafleting. However after the May war on Gaza, and so many children being killed, a younger generation seemed to join us. They know technology, Instagram, Twitter. They took it up to another level where it had a real effect.

My next question connects to what you just said. It did seem like the campaign got more attention after the most recent attack on Gaza and I’m wondering if you think that Ben & Jerry’s finally made this move in response to that. Do you think there’s been a shift in public opinion since Israel’s most recent attack?

Absolutely. Absolutely. It cannot be denied. Without almost 70 children getting killed in Gaza, I’m not sure this massive anger from the American public would happen. I’m pretty sure I recently read in Mondoweiss that the number of our Jewish siblings who think Israel is an apartheid state is growing.

The Israel of today is definitely different than it was twenty years ago, or ten years ago, or even a year ago. I have been an activist on the Palestinian question all my life but I’ve never seen this kind of support, like what we have now.

What do you think about the Israeli reaction to this news and the reaction from the country’s supporters? What does it say about the moment we’re currently in?

It shows that BDS works. We see the Prime Minister, the Foreign Minister, the president all calling for a boycott of Ben & Jerry’s. I believe the Israeli government and politicians are weaker than we think.

If this half-baked statement from Ben & Jerry’s is going to make all these leaders talk about it for more than 48 hours, that means they are not as strong and steadfast as they think, or as strong as the image they like to project to their public. We should take advantage of that. If they’re going to attack BDS in the United States and interfere with Freedom of Speech, bring it on. It’s a lemon but let’s make lemonade out of it. We will bring our organizations and we will bring American supporters from law firms like the ACLU. They should fight it and they should stand with us.

The anti-BDS laws are unconstitutional. We saw what happened in Georgia a few months ago. When a BDS law goes to court, they lose. So if they try to activate it, they’re going to lose.

There’s one direction we’re going in. We are struggling against an apartheid regime and we saw what happened in South Africa. It’s not just the Israeli leaders. I just saw the State Department attacked BDS when asked about this. So it’s not just Israeli leaders, it’s their cohorts here. If we continue working and educating the public and these leaders continue with their incoherent messaging, we will win.