Ben & Jerry’s was making news again recently, as a federal judge rejected their attempt to prevent their parent company, Unilever, from allowing their ice cream from being sold in Judea and Samaria — or as Ben & Jerry’s prefers to call it: “Occupied Palestinian Territory.”
Just a little over a year ago, they formally joined the BDS movement when the company announced they would no longer sell their ice cream in the West Bank.
Just last month, Ben & Jerry’s found themselves accused of being hypocrites for claiming it was inconsistent with their values for their ice cream to be sold “on occupied land” while they themselves based their headquarters on tribal Indian land — according to a letter signed by over a thousand Israeli students and academics affiliated with Students for Justice in America, with the support of Shurat HaDin.
The New York Post covered the story: Israeli students accuse Ben & Jerry’s of occupying tribal land:
Israeli students claim that ice cream maker Ben & Jerry’s is “illegally” occupying land in Vermont that once belonged to a Abenaki native American tribe and should practice what it preaches and immediately evacuate the properties.
…“We have concluded that your company’s occupation of the Abenaki lands is illegal and we believe it is wholly inconsistent with the stated values that Ben & Jerry’s purports to maintain. Ironically, in July of the last year you announced that you would discontinue the sale of your products in Israel because you object to the Jewish State allegedly occupying Palestinian territories,” the letter to B&J’s chairperson, Anuradha Mittal said.
This double standard had already been noticed just a few days after Ben & Jerry’s original announcement last year, by lawyer Stephen Flatow:
Ever hear of the Abenaki Tribe?
Neither did I, until the Ben & Jerry’s ice cream company this week started accusing Jews of illegally occupying other people’s territory, and I got curious about whose territory Ben & Jerry’s is occupying.
After all, if you’re going to go around calling other people “occupiers,” well, you better not be an “occupier” yourself, right? I mean, wouldn’t that be just the height of hypocrisy?
Ben Cohen and Jerry Greenfield launched their business empire in 1978 by setting up an ice cream parlor in Burlington, Vermont. Today, the headquarters of their multi-billion-dollar enterprise is located in South Burlington.
It’s a safe bet that neither Ben nor Jerry ever asked permission from the territory’s original inhabitants. Like most white, imperialist, colonialist settlers, they just moved in and did what they wanted, the natives be damned.
The natives, in this case, were the Abenakis, a proud, peaceful group of indigenous tribes who had been living in that part of the country since forever… [emphasis added]
Yet not everyone had ignored the issue of the Abenaki’s rightful place on the land. Legal Insurrection notes that just 3 miles from the Ben & Jerry’s headquarters in Burlington, Vermont, the University of Vermont features a land acknowledgment on their site that — unlike Ben & Jerry’s — formally recognizes the history of the Abenaki and their historical connection to the land:
The UVM HESA Program acknowledges that the University of Vermont rests upon the traditional territory of the original inhabitants of this land – the Abenaki people – and the State of Vermont now occupies the lands of the Mahican and Pennacook tribes. We acknowledge that Indigenous Peoples were forced to leave Vermont during the 1600’s, and eastern tribes were displaced by colonial expansion.
The University goes on to note records indicating that in addition to efforts to force them off their land, during the early 20th century, the Abenaki were also subjected to forced pregnancy terminations and more than 3,400 of them were sterilized. They faced attempts to physically reduce their numbers, the kind of physical threats that Jews too have faced in their history.
As Jeff Benay testified in 2010, during testimony for recognition of the Abenaki by the state of Vermont:
As noted by the National Trust for Historic Preservation, “The Vermont Eugenics Survey of 1925 and the sterilization law of 1931, which were intended to anglicize the state’s population, identified the Abenaki as undesirable – along with Catholics, such as French Canadians, Irish, and Italians; Jews, the poor; the mentally ill; and criminals.”
Interestingly, Benay notes that while the tribe was recognized by the state governor in 1976, it was rescinded the following year by the next governor.
The new governor said that he could not give recognition to a “sovereign nation within a sovereign state” — a problem that Jews are very familiar with over the centuries, having been told that they could not be fully accepted because they constituted “a people within a people.”
Another parallel between the Abenaki and Jews is the attempt to rob each of their history. One of the hurdles placed in the way of the Abenaki was meeting the Federal definition of “tribe” before they could be recognized as indigenous. According to the Federal government, they had to prove that they were an autonomous and existing entity since colonial times — a test that the Abenaki could not pass to the government’s satisfaction.
As Abenaki activist Fred Wiseman put it:
They said the Abenakis were genetic, political, and cultural fakes.
How often have we seen antisemitic attacks accusing Jews of something similar — of being descended from Khazars or of having no historical and cultural connection to the land Israel?
Apparently, during the American Revolution, the Abenaki retreated north into Quebec, to the extent that 2 centuries later they “were indistinguishable from the general population in Vermont.” In other words, their skin color was white. Not only could they not be visibly identifiable as Indians, they also hid their Indian identity from the Census Bureau.
It’s happened before. In 15th Century Spain, Jews converted to avoid getting burned at the stake, lived outwardly Christian lives, but secretly observed Jewish rituals at home.
Wiseman sums up the situation that the Abenaki face:
Whatever happens, the Abenaki will once again be defined by others. Indians don’t have the right to self-identify. We have to be recognized by white people.
This again is a situation that Jews are very familiar with, where others get to define what can be considered antisemitism, antisemites lecture us about what Zionism is and international agencies assume the authority to give our cultural heritage away to others.
Ultimately, what ties the Abenaki and Jews together is that they are both indigenous peoples, born in their respective lands with historical and cultural ties to it.
And both have struggled to return to their land and have their connection to it recognized.
In this, the Jews have been extraordinarily successful after thousands of years. And that is a problem for some.
According to the UNHCR Resettlement Handbook:
Indigenous groups are descendants of the peoples who inhabited land or territory prior to colonization or the establishment of state borders. They often have strong attachment to their ancestral lands and natural resources, an attribute that can distinguish them from other minority groups. They may also have distinct social, economic and political systems, languages, cultures and beliefs. Their right to self-determination has frequently been impeded by subsequent migration of other ethnic groups into the territory where they reside.
Indigeneity is defined, in part, in the context of colonization. That may be helpful to the Abenaki, but in the case of the re-establishment of Israel, enemies of the Jewish State accuse Jews of being the colonists. Yet the distinct social, political, language, culture and belief systems of the Palestinian Arabs originate in Arabia — and are not indigenous to Judea.
But because the definition of indigeneity is made in the context of being a victim of colonialism, the history of the Arab invasion and conquest of the land is forgotten and they are held up as the native population in the face of the return of Jews to their home.
The world is just not ready for indigenous populations that successfully re-establish their home.
Ben & Jerry’s can glibly explain to an interviewer the rightness of their refusing to sell their ice cream in Judea and Samaria, but when challenged as to why they sell their ice cream to areas in the US where there are problems with human rights issues — the 2 men are totally dumbfounded:
It seems likely that Ben & Jerry’s will not be recognizing the indigenous rights of either the Abenaki nor of Jews in the near future.