Podcast Ep 61: How General Mills divested from apartheid

On episode 61, Nora speaks with Dov Baum from the American Friends Service Committee (AFSC), about a major divestment victory and what activists can learn from the two-year campaign leading up to it.

General Mills, a US-based food corporation, announced on 31 May that it had sold its stake in an Israeli joint venture.

This means that the company has divested completely from its Israeli business.

Campaigners called on General Mills to stop making its Pillsbury products in a factory in the Atarot industrial zone, which is inside an illegal Israeli settlement in the occupied West Bank.

After General Mills was included in a 2020 United Nations list of companies that do business in Israeli settlement colonies, campainers targeted the corporation with pickets, boycotts and protests inside shareholder meetings.

The No Dough for Occupation campaign was led by AFSC and endorsed by members of the Pillsbury family.

Other endorsers include the Palesitnian Boycott National Committee, Jewish Voice for Peace and American Muslims for Palestine.

Although the company portrayed the divestment from Israel as a simple business decision, Baum tells us that “sourcing Pillsbury products from a factory on occupied land is a huge controversy risk for the company.”

Baum adds that “having your name appear on a list published by the UN as a company that breaks human rights law, that is a controversy risk and potentially also a legal risk.”

She explained that the wording in the company’s announcement was a clever way to avoid the kind of retaliation and smear campaigns that Israel lobby groups, US politicians and the Israeli government itself conducted against ice cream maker Ben & Jerry’s last year.

In July 2021, Ben & Jerry’s pulled its products out of businesses in Israeli settlements, explaining that selling their products on stolen Palestinian land was “inconsistent with our values.”

Ben & Jerry’s has stood by that position, even though its parent company Unilever has now taken steps to ensure the ice cream will still be sold in Israel’s settlements.

“General Mills decided to step away from this very controversial business,” Baum notes.

“And they were probably, I’m just guessing, looking for a way to do that without suffering all the consequences that Ben & Jerry’s suffered.”

Articles we discussed

Video production by Tamara Nassar

Theme music by Sharif Zakout

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Full transcript

Lightly edited for clarity.

Nora Barrows-Friedman: Welcome back to The Electronic Intifada Podcast, I’m Nora Barrows-Friedman. On May 31, the General Mills food corporation announced it had sold its joint venture in Israel to a private Israeli company named Bodan Holdings. This comes after a two-year movement organized and led by the American Friends Service Committee which called on General Mills to stop making Pillsbury products on stolen Palestinian land, through their No Dough for Occupation campaign.

The campaign was endorsed by members of the Pillsbury family and included the Palestinian Boycott National Committee, Jewish Voice for Peace, American Muslims for Palestine, SumOfUs, Women Against Military Madness and other local groups.

AFSC says “this campaign targeted General Mills because it manufactured Pillsbury products in the Atarot industrial zone, an illegal Israeli settlement in the occupied West Bank. In 2020, the United Nations included General Mills and its database of companies doing business in illegal Israeli settlements in the occupied Palestinian territory. The company’s announcements indicate that following this divestment, General Mills does not source products from the settlement factory.”

The company makes no reference to the boycott campaign, of course, but rather it announced that this – that this divestment “represents another step in General Mills’ Accelerate strategy, which is centered on strategic choices about where to prioritize our resources to drive superior returns.” Very corporate jargon there. The divestiture, they continue, “follows our earlier announcement of the proposed sale of our European dough business.”

AFSC says that “it is unclear whether following this divestment that the factory would continue making Pillsbury products under a license agreement with General Mills.” Joining us to talk about all of this is Dov Baum, director of the AFSC’s economic activism program. Dov, it’s so good to have you back with us on The Electronic Intifada Podcast.

Dov Baum: Thank you so much, Nora.

Nora Barrows-Friedman: So let’s talk about the announcement that General Mills is pulling out of Israel. Why is this a significant victory for the boycott, divestment and sanctions movement?

Dov Baum: Well, you know, we’ve been at it for a long time. And it’s been quite a momentous event, when a few years ago, the UN Office of the High Commissioner on Human Rights has published a list of companies that are complicit in settlement business, specifically, because settlements are illegal by international law. And on that list, there were just a handful of US-based companies, and General Mills was one of them. So when we looked at that list, we were like, General Mills, that’s a household name, we all, you know, procure their brands. And it’s a US-based company, we are a US-based organization. We are also invested in General Mills, as an organization, we found out.

So we thought this would be a great target for an educational campaign, trying to get the company to align itself with international law and human rights. So we actually wrote to the company, that was two years ago, trying to educate them about all that. And when we didn’t get any significant response, we launched the campaign, and we started this coalition. I think this is very significant at this time, because it has been a while. I think our movement has been kind of thirsty for success, because things are so bad and getting worse on the ground. And we had the announcement by Ben & Jerry’s that they will stop selling in settlements.

And there was such a backlash on Ben & Jerry’s on legal and legislative levels. And it felt like there is this great company that comes out with a more political statement that seems so, you know, easy, so simple, and they paid such a high price for it, that maybe other companies will not follow suit. That was our fear, because it does have a huge impact on other companies looking at that backlash. And I think this is why the backlash is there. So here is an – another example, you know, General Mills decided to step away from this very controversial business, we have some indications that they have decided to do so already several months ago, as early as in August. And they were probably, I’m just guessing, looking for a way to do that without suffering all the consequences that Ben & Jerry’s suffers.

And I think they’re very clever. I mean, on a corporate side, this is a business decision. Sourcing Pillsbury products from a factory on occupied land is a huge controversy risk for the company. Having your name appear on a, on a list published by the UN as a company that breaks human rights law, that is a controversy risk and potentially also maybe a legal risk. So I think you’re very smart to pull out of these operations. And I think they’ve been really smart in portraying it as a purely business decision. We have some indications that the corporate media department has reached out specifically to Jewish publications, Zionist publications, right-wing publications, trying to appease them and to control the message. We see that in some of these publications as a quote from the company saying, “oh, this is not a boycott.”

And I think that was very cleverly done. Another thing that they have done, which was very clever, is their original statement is, is a little, is a little confusing. I think it managed to confuse us. They said they were selling their stake in the joint venture in Israel, the company called General Mills Israel. So in a way they are divesting from Israel. They didn’t mention the factory, the factory, in the Atarot industrial zone, in the occupied part of East Jerusalem, that factory is not and has never been owned by the company. So selling off their Israeli venture did not necessarily mean selling off, or cutting their ties to that factory. They just – this factory was the factory that manufactures Pillsbury products, for the market in Israel, of Pillsbury products, mostly frozen dough products.

So what does it mean that they sold their Israeli subsidiary? You know, it’s great, thank you very much for doing that. But does it mean that you will stop producing Pillsbury products on occupied land? We don’t know. They didn’t say any word about that. And this is why our original press release stated that we’re not sure what’s going to happen. I’ve written to the company asking them to clarify, but looking at their statements, since then, the statements say things like, we will continue selling in Israel, our other brands, other brands, meaning not Pillsbury, yes? There are other brands in Israel in Nature Valley, you know, the energy bars, and you know, granola bars.

Nora Barrows-Friedman: Very crumbly. Messy.

Dov Baum: Also very sweet. And Häagen-Dazs ice cream, which is in itself kind of a fabulous story. Because imagine if it really was more clear that this is in response to a BDS campaign, then what, what, what kind of ice cream will Israelis eat? No Häagen-Dazs, no Ben & Jerry’s. Leave them a few options but not many.

But really these other other brands, meaning Pillsbury is not going to be sold anymore there. And that’s what I understand from their statements. Another statement that can give you a hint about that is a statement from the CEO of General Mills Israel, the Israeli company that was just now sold to its minority shareholder. And he was quoted in the Israeli press saying that this is part of a bigger divestiture, of General Mills from the dough business outside of the US. In other words, they’re not going to continue selling frozen dough products in Israel.

So the frozen dough products made in the occupied West Bank will not be marketed by the company anymore, but this is just trying to read between the lines. That’s why I’m saying this is very clever messaging. What I understand from all of this is that they were looking for a good way out and they found it. I congratulate them. I’m very, very happy that they have aligned with international law in this way. You know, I’m also happy that they are showing the way to other companies, the way it can be done cleverly, and still avoiding the wrath of anti-BDS legislation, and Zionist hate groups.

Nora Barrows-Friedman: Wow. Well, let’s talk a little bit more about that. I mean, you mentioned Häagen-Dazs and Nature Valley. Do you think there’s a possibility that now we can take that, you know, the boycott Pillsbury campaign and kind of pivot to those other brands that General Mills still owns and sells in, you know, in occupied Palestine?

Dov Baum: Yeah, great question. So I’m waiting for the response of the company and the clarifications about their connections with the factory in Atarot, because that was the cause of our campaign. And that was what the call for boycott was based on. If indeed we are convinced that they are cutting all ties to that factory, this campaign is over. This campaign is over, our call for boycott will be withdrawn. People can do whatever they want with the company statement and their politics. And if they like them or not, I know that, make your own decision about it. They obviously didn’t take a moral stance here. So we’re not going to endorse them. And then we go on to the next campaign.

And just recently, a few months ago, the AFSC has taken, I think, a breakthrough stance on our own investments. And we have changed our investment policy statement to clearly call for divestment from apartheid in Palestine/Israel. So the burden is on us to understand what that means. What does it mean to divest from apartheid, when it comes to Israel/Palestine, it goes well beyond the very legalistic framework that we have used in campaigns such as, you know, the illegality of settlements, which is endorsed by the UN and so on.

So, what would be a good teaching moment for us when we pick the next campaign? What do we ask companies to do? So it would be great if we reached a South Africa moment with Israel, and we demanded that companies doing business in Israel would oppose apartheid in other operations. What would that mean? What would that look like? It’s the question. But I think there are some obvious candidates and some obvious asks we can already make – asking companies not to work with the Israeli military at all, asking companies not to participate in discriminatory practices and structures inside Israel. Looking at the dispossession of people and taking away people’s land and resources, all around the country, not just in the occupied territories, but also inside ‘48. All of that goes without saying, so I think this will be our next campaign.

Nora Barrows-Friedman: I want to get back to, you know, kind of the like, not to get too much into the weeds, but, you know, other companies, including Ben & Jerry’s, but also Orange, the French-owned telecommunications corporation, when, you know, they were faced with these pressure campaigns from human rights activists to boycott from Israeli apartheid, they did, and then they also canceled their license agreements with Israeli licensees.

It’s not clear that this is what General Mills will do, as I mentioned in the intro, is this – Could this be a way that General Mills or other companies that do this is able to circumvent the pressure to completely divest? What could happen if General Mills decides to keep its license agreements and, you know, kind of back away, but still, you know, somewhat profit off of this?

Dov Baum: So first, a clarification of what we think is going on right now, and as I said, it’s not totally clear – we’re waiting for information, is that the company will stop sourcing from the Pillsbury plant on occupied land, so they will cut their ties to the settlement factory. And they clearly announced that they will keep selling in Israel their other brands, that’s Nature’s Valley and Häagen-Dazs. So they are not cutting their sales in Israel. It’s just that they will not have their own subsidiary marketing their products in Israel. They will do that with a marketing agent or some other company as other companies do. As most companies do.

You know, the international market is very centralized. And almost all Western brands are sold in Israel through some thing. So it’s not just General Mills, yes, it’s almost everybody. But what you’re describing is actually a fascinating phenomenon. That is, I think, beneficial to our cause, which is when we target companies, and this has been going on for at least 10 years, when we target companies and ask them to cut their ties to the settlements, just to the settlements, and to remind you that the settlements are not a big economic entity. They – they don’t produce much, they don’t consume much, you know, Ben & Jerry’s announced that they will stop selling in the settlements. It’s not – it’s not a big market. It’s a small market.

But when companies are faced with this legal dilemma, because settlements are illegal, and they’re under a military occupation, you know, just like parts of the Ukraine are, yes, today. So if you have a stance on the Ukraine, why not use it in Palestine, if they want to stop selling in settlements, or stop producing in settlements, they face a tremendous dilemma. And that is that settlements have become so mainstream in Israel, and so legally cushioned and protected by the Israeli political leadership, that any such act that distinguishes between Israel and the settlements, is penalized almost immediately on all sorts of levels in Israel and outside of Israel. So in fact, it is easier for these companies to step away from the Israeli market altogether than it is for them to just step away from the settlements.

And this is striking because this is one of the results of anti-BDS legislation, and lobbying groups of settler leadership, that’s the result of their fear of a settlement boycott. The result is that whenever you distinguish between Israel and settlements, you get penalized. In fact, so much so that I remember Danny Danon, who was the Israeli ambassador to the UN, once said that the biggest BDS activist in the world is the UN high commissioner on human rights – because of that list of companies that – so that’s, that’s what they are fighting: that idea of boycotting settlements.

So we see how companies and Orange is – is an example in the past. We had Dexia bank from Belgium, but other examples. Veolia. Yeah, Veolia decided to step away from Israeli business altogether. The Israeli businesses also, you know, it’s also a small market, instead of dealing with the internal politics of just stepping away from the settlements, and also from the supply chains and distribution chains in Israel that are all so well coordinated with settlements. So we didn’t ask General Mills to sell off its Israeli subsidiary, but they did. So. I congratulate them for that.

Nora Barrows-Friedman: And we’re still waiting on whether the licensing agreement will maintain …

Dov Baum: As I said, there is going to be licensing because they are going to continue selling their other brands. But the fact is, if they’re not going to continue selling Pillsbury in Israel, that’s a clear indication that they’re cutting their ties to the Atarot factory, which was the ask of the campaign. This is what the campaign asked for. It doesn’t mean that the factory will close or stop producing such products or similar products. They have produced different products before their agreement with Pillsbury. And it might be that they will continue selling the exact same products under another brand name. But for General Mills, this is a step forward.

Nora Barrows-Friedman: Yeah. Thank you. Thanks for that clarification. Members of the Pillsbury family also joined the campaign to call on General Mills to boycott Israel. What impact did this have, if you can gauge it on General Mills itself? You know, if the Pillsbury family hadn’t been involved, you know, might it have – I mean, that’s speculative, but like, you know, would the impact of this have been this big? And, you know, maybe give us a sense of the scope of this campaign over the last two years and what it can teach us about launching similar campaigns against other companies that profit from Israeli apartheid.

Dov Baum: Yeah, thank you. This is a lot of what I do in my day job, you know, trying to encourage people to take on big corporations, and that is because, surprisingly, big corporations are very, very risk averse. That’s a polite way of putting it, they really cannot handle controversy very well. And with Israel/Palestine, we have a huge controversy and a small market. So weighing the cost and the benefits, I think any large corporation that tries to sell to, you know, to everyday people, household items, or food items like General Mills, they would decide to withdraw. The only question for them would be how to do that without creating more controversy for themselves.

So we see time and again, all we need to do is to expose the company’s complicity, and to hope that the company will understand this is not going away. Because this controversy is not going away. In the case of General Mills, we were so fortunate to have Charles Pillsbury and some of his other family members, join us in such a conscientious way and go public in an op-ed in the local Star Tribune in Minneapolis and just come out and call for a boycott of Pillsbury products, coming from the heirs to the Pillsbury name. I thought that was a beautiful act on their part. And I think it helped drive the message that this is not going away. And this is not something that a company like General Mills wants to be associated with in its brands.

What we did in the campaign – there were a lot of different actions. Some of them were just pickets outside of grocery stores that were very fun. You know, wearing the costume of the Pillsbury doughboy. And if people want to follow on Twitter Woke Doughboy, this is a good account to follow on Twitter, because this, yeah, this is – this is just the doughboy realizing what’s happening in Palestine and coming to his senses and asking General Mills to help him out of that bind. So I’m curious to see what Woke Doughboy will say next. And we had, we had a 120,000,-strong petition to the company, we have a letter to the CEO that has been running and a few thousand letters that were sent over the last few months, we had a coalition of faith investors, who contacted the company as well and wrote to the company with their concerns about its complicity in conflict zones in general and occupied areas in particular.

There were – there were local groups, there’s a local coalition of groups around the area where General Mills is headquartered, that were kind of creating all these creative protests outside the shareholder meetings every year. And, you know, oh, there was a bake-off. American Muslims for Palestine announced a bake-off, you know, to, to tell people about the fact that they can actually bake without Pillsbury products, and let’s give prizes to the best, I don’t know, pie, that is baked without Pillsbury. So that was fun. You know, we are mostly in COVID times, so social media campaigns are what people were looking for. So the thing that bake-off was, was one of the good examples. The main thing is, I think, I don’t know what influenced the company most. I know that it has been a while since they’ve decided to divest.

And I know that they did care about the UN list, because this is not going away. Another reason why I think they cared about the UN list is because the list that the UN published is very partial. And it’s not a very great list. I think we publish better lists on our own website, investigate.info, check it out. But they did publish the list of companies that they have corresponded with. So we know that they have responded to the UN and had some correspondence with the UN, otherwise the UN has not – would not have published their name. And they felt the need to respond to these allegations. And their response was always “oh, we’re doing something good for the people on the ground. We’re providing jobs.”

And the more and more you answer these company claims with the facts about what does it mean to actually employ people under occupation? What does it mean to employ people in a, in a settlement industrial zone where people have no freedom of movement and definitely not freedom of employment, and what does it mean to your own workers or to the workers of the plants that, you know, you source from? It was clear that this is a general human rights issue that has to do with their supply chain management, has to do with labor rights all across their supply chain that connects to other issues, that General Mills tries to present themselves as, you know, progressive on and that this was not going away, because there’s no way they can solve it as a company headquartered in the US, the only way they can solve it is by stepping away from it from themselves – for themselves, sorry.

Nora Barrows-Friedman: Dov, you mentioned investigate.info, can you give us a couple more social media handles where people can go to learn more about the Pillsbury campaign and AFSC?

Dov Baum: Yeah, so the easy one is our campaign website, boycottpillsbury.org. This is where we put all the updates and once we learn more about what the company does or doesn’t do, we will definitely update that with the website, boycottpillsbury.org. As I said, we might withdraw the call for boycott once we know exactly where the company stands on its settlement production. And handles, @WokeDoughboy, I don’t know who that person is, but hey, there he is, you can also follow investigate tool, @investigatetool, that’s our Twitter handle for Investigate. And, you know, follow Electronic Intifada.

Nora Barrows-Friedman: Thank you for that plug. And we’ll have all the links to all the things on the podcast post that accompanies this episode. Dov Baum, you are the economic activism director at the American Friends Service Committee, AFSC, thank you as always, for your work and for being with us again on The Electronic Intifada Podcast.

Dov Baum: Thank you so much, Nora.


Nora Barrows-Friedman

Nora Barrows-Friedman's picture

Nora Barrows-Friedman is a staff writer and associate editor at The Electronic Intifada, and is the author of In Our Power: US Students Organize for Justice in Palestine (Just World Books, 2014).