Rampy: Ben Cohen is progressive, except for Palestine

Editor’s note: This op-ed is by Nolan Rampy, a member of Vermonters for a Just Peace in Palestine

Activists in Burlington are currently engaged in an exciting campaign against government officials looking to station the F-35 here in Vermont’s largest city. Local citizens have taken a bold and principled stance against the move and Vermonters for a Just Peace in Palestine/Israel (VTJP) supports their efforts.

Recently, the anti-F-35 campaign received an important endorsement from Ben Cohen, co-founder of Ben & Jerry’s. In addition to his personal track record of supporting progressive causes, such as shifting government spending from the military to social welfare programs, Ben & Jerry’s is regarded by many as a model for ethical business practices. Cohen’s prominence, both in business and activist circles, raises the profile of the anti-F-35 campaign. VTJP commends Mr. Cohen for joining the cause.

But given the weight that Ben Cohen carries on the left, it is unfortunate that he seems unwilling to lend his voice to the Palestinians currently living under an illegal military occupation. VTJP learned in 2010 that Ben & Jerry’s franchise in Israel is selling ice cream in illegal, Jewish-only settlements in the occupied West Bank and East Jerusalem.

Doing business in a country engaged in an illegal military occupation raises troubling ethical concerns on its own, but that, together with conducting business within the occupied territory itself, stands in sharp contrast to Ben & Jerry’s well-marketed brand image of a socially responsible business and its strong support for many progressive causes.

Moreover, in 2010, even as conditions for Palestinians under occupation worsened, the company opened a factory in Israel and announced plans to expand the number of scoop shops there.

Doing business in a country engaged in an illegal military occupation raises troubling ethical concerns on its own, but that, together with conducting business within the occupied territory itself, stands in sharp contrast to Ben & Jerry’s well-marketed brand image of a socially responsible business and its strong support for many progressive causes.

In 2011, VTJP brought this issue to the attention of Ben Cohen, Jerry Greenfield, and company executives. Earlier this year, after company executives had refused to end their business in the occupied Palestinian territory, VTJP launched a public campaign urging people of conscience to call on Ben & Jerry’s to end its commercial complicity with Israel’s occupation and settlements. Unfortunately, we cannot speak directly to Ben Cohen’s position because he never responded to our inquiries.

The dissonance between his commendable support for the anti-F-35 campaign and the company’s problematic ties with Israel’s illegal occupation is heightened by the fact that Israel has the second largest fleet of F-16 fighter jets and spends a larger percentage of its GDP on the military than almost any other country in the world. In addition, Israel currently has a contract with Lockheed Martin to purchase the F-35 (with U.S. taxpayer money) that could be worth up to $15.2 billion. And like the other military equipment our government and corporations supply to Israel, this new generation of fighter jets will undoubtedly be used to kill and terrorize Palestinian civilians.

During a recent F-35 citizens hearing at which Ben Cohen was a featured speaker, Rabbi Joshua Chasan spoke eloquently about the F-35’s potential impact on Burlington’s refugee population. He spoke of the callousness of allowing these jets to fly over the heads of those who seek refuge in our community, “raining upon them the powerful engines of war — as if refugees below were homesick for the fearsome sound of these instruments of war.”

That sentiment is one of many reasons why VTJP fully supports the anti-F-35 campaign. We are also thrilled to see prominent, politically active figures such as Ben Cohen lend their support to the campaign.

Our call is for Ben Cohen to now extend his support, in word and in deed, to the Palestinians. To recognize their full humanity and extend to them the same empathy that we do to the refugees right here among us. Ben Cohen no longer owns Ben & Jerry’s, but he is still very involved with the company and, were he to publicly voice his opposition to complicity with Israel’s illegal occupation, he would undoubtedly have a significant influence on the company that bears his name.

Rabbi Chasan is right: No one should have to live under the “sounds of these instruments of war.” This includes Palestinians.

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  • James Maroney

    Ben Cohen and Jerry Greenfield have mastered the art of saying one thing and doing another. Jerry Greenfield’s testimony before the House Agriculture Committee on why consumers deserve to be informed if their food contains GMO ingredients is another installation in a long, successful, public relations campaign to convince the public that Ben & Jerry’s “triple line” capitalism cares as much about consumers, farmers, the community and the environment as it does about its own profits. Ben & Jerry’s has recently launched a web site they call “Caring Dairy,” to proclaim that farmers should use sustainable farming practices like mechanical weed and pest control to guard water quality and the environment. They should take more time off to be with their wives and kids. The company’s slogan is “Happy Cows, Happy Farmers, Happy Planet.” Farmers who score points “get a little something extra for their production.” The B&J cow is dressed in mufti and there are cows frolicking in sunlit meadows dotted with lollipop trees.

    Paying farmers a fair price so they can be good stewards of the land is a superb idea. But this is not B&J’s purpose. “Caring Dairy’s” purpose is to obscure the fact that the company’s profit margin is dependent upon the purchase of Class II milk, which is made according to federal policies that drive over production, low milk prices, farm attrition, rural economic decay and lake pollution.

    In keeping with federal law dating back to the 1930s, raw milk is priced to processors depending upon its use: Class I milk is for beverage milk, priced the highest; class II is for soft products, yogurt, cream, cottage cheese and ice cream; class III is for hard cheese and class IV is for dry milk products and butter; all milk, as it leaves the farm, is Class I. The price for Class I milk is rarely above the farmers’ cost of production; the prices for Class II, III and IV milk are set routinely below the cost of production.

    The FMMO milk pricing policy depends for its effect upon oversupply. If milk were scarce and customers sufficiently determined, all milk would clear the markets before noon. Trouble is, and again according to federal policies, milk is not scarce: government policies keep it constantly in surplus to ensure that prices remain low. Federal policy makers arrange this for the benefit of consumers and manufacturers, who comprise 99% of constituents. But for dairy farmers, the rural community and the planet, two thirds of Ben & Jerry’s “triple bottom line,” it is a disaster.

    The prevailing dairy farm business model, i.e., conventional, is chemical, pharmaceutical and capital intensive. Conventional farming was invented after WWII to boost yields and lower costs. The “Miracle of American farming” was predicated upon replacing the high costs of mechanical weed control, crop rotation and labor with chemicals, the residues from which were externalized into the environment. It works: farm yields were soon double what they had been prior to petroleum-based herbicides and fertilizer. But it was no miracle: American farmers soon over produced their markets, lowering prices, driving farms out of business and raising the specter of costly government farm support. Secretary of Agriculture Earl Butz wanted yields to rise dramatically so prices would fall; he exhorted farmers in the 1970s to “plant fence row to fencerow” and to “get big or get out.” Butz was a director on the board’s of America’s largest farm chemical manufacturing companies and their business was booming. But the chemicals they were selling did not dissipate harmlessly. They polluted the nation’s streams and lakes from coast to coast. The Clean Water Act of 1972 left for another day non-point source pollution, which comes largely from conventional farms. The environment is not happy.

    Today, Vermont’s dairy farmers are getting about $16/cwt for their milk, same as they got in the mid 1980s, $5-8/cwt below their cost of production, which is double what it was in the 1980s. That is why Vermont dairy farms are closing at the rate of 5-8%/year; that is why dairy farmers are not happy.

    The modern dairy cow is not happy. She is artificially impregnated as a yearling and after ten months, she will deliver a calf from which she is separated immediately. If the calf is a female, it will be raised and brought into the milking herd; if it is a bull calf, it will be sold for a few dollars that day to be raised in a veal crate. The cow will spend the rest of her life indoors on concrete; she will never go outside to graze or to lie down in the sun or to frolic with other cows under lollipop trees in high meadows. Modern dairy cows are not happy.

    Dairy farm workers are not happy. They are increasingly drawn from the pool of illegal immigrants who work twelve-hour shifts, twelve out of every fourteen days, Sundays and holidays for scant wages, shabby housing and an uncertain path to citizenship. They receive no benefits. Immigrant farm workers are the closest to indentured servants we have in America.

    Ben & Jerry’s is not responsible for federal milk pricing policies. But if we are to believe the message they put out on “Caring Dairy,” we might be inclined to believe the company would despise federal milk pricing policies, working conditions for immigrants, farm attrition and water pollution caused by the conventional farm paradigm. Happy Cows, Happy Farmers, Happy Planet? Please: Ben & Jerry’s buys conventionally made, Class II milk. Jerry Greenfield talks about GMOs before the House Agriculture Committee because he knows that with or without labeling, the price of Class II milk stays below the farmers’ cost of production. “Caring Dairy” cannot achieve any but the last third of their “triple bottom line” —profit—which is exquisitely dependent upon exploiting dairy farmers, dairy workers and the environment. This is the milk Ben & Jerry’s with its purchasing power actively supports. There is no indication on their website that they are anything but happy to continue.

    • Pam Ladds

      Thank you. Very useful information.

  • rosemarie jackowski

    What about Bernie, Pat, and Peter’s position on the Palestinians… and also Elizabeth Warren.

  • Todd Taylor

    Thank you Rabbi Chasan for informing us that the entire refugee population in the Burlington area isn’t clever enough to recognize the sound of freedom when they hear it. Are they aware they’re being used so callously in pursuit of your personal goal?

  • Guy Page

    I am amazed at the Blame Israel attack by the self-styled peace and justice progressives who seem to take their cue from the propaganda mills of violent anti-semitic organizations. If only, if only, everyone in the Middle East showed Israel’s historic respect for democratic process and attempt to live in peace with their neighbors. Israel has been driven to great lengths to simply preserve its existence. Their problem is that they are surrounded by opponents who, consumed by new and ancient hatreds, insist on wiping the Jewish state off the map, one way or the other. I sometimes wonder if the utopians of this world would be happier with Israel’s demise. Not expecting perfection from any country, least of all my own, I respect any country that tries to live by just principles in the face of implacable hatred and the threat of extinction. I stand with Israel, its right to exist, and its right to defend itself.

  • Peter Liston

    Sure, there is democracy in Israel for the people who happen to be born with the correct religion … but not for the 3.4 million people who are denied the right to vote, who have no freedom of movement, who are denied their basic human rights.

    Yes, Israel has the right to exist and to defend itself. It has no right to take other people’s land and to deny them their rights.

  • Townsend Peters

    Apparently there is a litmus test for the left and it’s Israel. It doesn’t matter how “progressive” you are on anything else: There’s a party line on Israel and if you don’t buy it you ain’t “progressive.”

    Please consider this a call to all those who buy that party line to give their land back to the Abenaki.

    • Peter Liston

      Are there millions of Abenaki who are living in Vermont in Refugee camps that are being denied the right to vote, to get to a hospital, to own land?

      It just isn’t the same thing.

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