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Unilever overturns Ben & Jerry’s Israeli settlement boycott

The decision to keep selling ice cream in Israeli settlements, taken by parent company Unilever, goes against the wishes of Ben & Jerry’s.

Jerusalem24 – Sales of Ben & Jerry’s ice cream will continue uninterrupted in illegal Israeli settlements despite a 2021 decision by the ice cream company to boycott the occupied territories.

Parent company Unilever announced yesterday it had sold its Israeli Ben & Jerry’s business to local licensee Avi Zinger, owner of American Quality Products Ltd (AQP), which will continue to sell Ben & Jerry’s products under its Hebrew and Arabic name across occupied Palestine.

What happened in 2021?

Ben & Jerry’s made headlines in July last year when the company announced its ice cream would no longer be sold in Israeli settlements in occupied Palestine after its current license agreement expired at the end of 2022.

A statement on its website announcing the boycott explained that the company, which is known for promoting ethical causes, considered it was “inconsistent with our values for our product to be present within an internationally recognised illegal occupation.”

The announcement triggered immediate and vehement backlash from Israel and its supporters.

In response, the founders of the world-renowned ice cream company penned an op-ed in the New York Times in which they gave full backing to the company decision, saying they had expected a “swift and powerful” response.

They further clarified that the decision did not constitute a boycott or “a rejection” of Israel itself: “It is a rejection of Israeli policy, which perpetuates an illegal occupation that is a barrier to peace and violates the basic human rights of the Palestinian people who live under the occupation. As Jewish supporters of the State of Israel, we fundamentally reject the notion that it is anti-Semitic to question the polices of the State of Israel.”

A two-pronged judicial and PR campaign

In the week following the 19 July settlement boycott announcement, Axios reported that the Israeli government had formed “a special task force” to pressure Unilever, which deferred to Ben & Jerry’s ethical and social decisions as per their acquisition agreement in 2000, to reverse their decision.

On July 22, the Israeli Foreign Ministry sent a classified cable to all Israeli diplomatic missions in North America and Europe ordering them to start a pressure campaign against Ben & Jerry’s and Unilever in order to convince them to negotiate.

  • Israeli diplomats were instructed to encourage Jewish organizations, pro-Israel advocacy groups and evangelical communities to organize demonstrations in front of Ben & Jerry’s and Unilever offices and put pressure on investors and distributors for both companies.
  • The Foreign Ministry also asked the diplomats to push for public statements condemning the companies and to “encourage public protests in the media and directly with key executives in both companies.” The diplomats were also instructed to echo those protests on social media for maximum visibility.
  • The Israeli Embassy in Washington and the Israeli Consulates around the U.S. were asked to push for the activation of anti-BDS (Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions) legislation in several states and to engage with governors, mayors, members of Congress and state officials like attorneys general.

Source: Axios

In a phone call on 20 July with Unilever’s Alan Jope, Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett personally warned the CEO of “serious repercussions, legal and otherwise.”

Over the last 12 months, several US states have divested funds from Unilever, including New York, Illinois, New Jersey, Florida and Texas, and several private investors in Unilever have publicly castigated the company.

The company was also hit with several lawsuits, the latest of which came earlier this month on 15 June on the grounds that Unilever lied to its investors by covering up the impending move to boycott by Ben & Jerry’s.

Ben & Jerry’s independent board sidestepped by Unilever

The year-long campaign culminated yesterday in Unilever’s announcement of the sale of Ben & Jerry’s Israel branch, after engaging in “extensive consultations over several months, including with the Israeli Government.”

Unilever has invested over NIS 1 billion in its Israel operations in the last decade.

Israeli proponents of the campaign against Unilever and Ben & Jerry’s promptly claimed victory yesterday. Incumbent Prime Minister Yair Lapid took to Twitter to say, “Today’s victory is a victory for all those who know that the struggle against BDS is, first and foremost, a struggle for partnership and dialogue, and against discrimination and hate.”

Avi Zinger, the new owner of Ben & Jerry’s in Israel, said in a statement: “BDS lost. I now have the right to sell Ben & Jerry’s using its Hebrew and Arabic name…forever.”

Ben & Jerry’s have not commented on whether they would review their arrangement with Unilever following the latter’s decision to sidestep the will of Ben & Jerry’s independent board.

They have however released a statement on Twitter, stressing their position concerning the boycott remains unchanged.

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