Commentary

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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