The Electronic Intifada / July 29, 2022
Ben & Jerry’s and its parent company Unilever reportedly failed to reach a negotiated settlement in their dispute arising from the ice cream maker’s decision to halt sales of its frozen treats in Israeli settlements in the occupied West Bank.
“The talks did not work out because Ben & Jerry’s does not want to ‘cave’ on its social mission and stance on Palestinian human rights,” Reuters reported Friday, citing an unnamed “source with direct knowledge.”
That means the case will be heading back to federal court in New York after a two-week hiatus to give mediation a chance.
Earlier this month Ben & Jerry’s sued Unilever for selling the ice cream maker’s brand and rights in Israel to its local licensee Avi Zinger and his company AQP.
Unilever has admitted in court filings that the move was an effort to relieve pressure from pro-Israel forces.
Under the deal, the Israeli licensee – now the would-be owner of the brand in Israel – would continue to sell Ben & Jerry’s products in settlements despite the objections of the Vermont-based Ben & Jerry’s company.
The agreement was hailed by Israel lobby groups and Yair Lapid, Israel’s prime minister, as a victory over the boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) movement for Palestinian rights.
But Ben & Jerry’s asserts that Unilever had no right to make the deal.
The lawsuit alleges that Unilever violated the agreement it signed when it acquired Ben & Jerry’s in 2001. That agreement gives the ice cream maker’s independent board the ultimate say over its social mission and “brand integrity.”
Ever since Ben & Jerry’s made its July 2021 announcement that it was ending its license agreement in Israel in order to halt settlement sales, the company and its parent have come under intense pressure and threats from Israel and its backers.
Naftali Bennett, the Israeli prime minister at the time, spoke with Unilever CEO Alan Jope, warning him of “severe consequences.”
The Israeli government also wrote to the governors of dozens of US states urging them to punish Ben & Jerry’s for its “anti-Semitic” action.
Israel lobby groups even organized a protest in New York where the ice cream maker was accused of “Jew hatred.”
Caving in to Israeli bullying
Unilever – a multinational that also uses the name Conopco – has now admitted that the Israel-led bullying campaign worked.
Although Unilever had “initially hoped to be able to respect the board’s politically charged decision without having to step in and assert its own rights to protect Ben & Jerry’s and its parents, it became clear earlier this year that it could no longer do so,” Unilever said in a court filing earlier this month.
“The board’s desire to cease Ben & Jerry’s activity in the West Bank in protest of the Israeli government’s policies has subjected Unilever, Conopco and Ben & Jerry’s to multiple lawsuits, claims that they are in violation of Israeli law and the laws or policies of several US states and significant shareholder divestitures,” the filing states.
“Faced with these threats, Unilever and Conopco concluded that a limited sale of Ben & Jerry’s business in Israel” was “the best way for it to balance the competing concerns at play and protect the interests of Unilever, Conopco and Ben & Jerry’s,” the filing adds.
Clearly, the Ben & Jerry’s board disagreed and saw the move as an underhanded effort to undo a decision it had every right to make.
If Unilever’s goal was to appease Israel and make the Ben & Jerry’s issue melt away, that has clearly failed as the controversy escalates.
Unilever’s empty principles
Ben & Jerry’s is also unlikely to be pleased by patronizing comments this week from Unilever CEO Alan Jope.
“There is plenty for Ben & Jerry’s to get their teeth into on their social justice mission without straying into geopolitics,” Jope said Tuesday. “I’m sure the brand will continue to enjoy a very bright future doing just that.”
Jope told Ben & Jerry’s to stick to safer issues like the climate emergency and “social justice” – as if the right of Palestinians to be free from military occupation and brutal settler-colonization is not a matter of social justice.
Like many companies, Unilever claims to follow corporate social responsibility principles.
The firm asserts that “we want to see a society where everyone is treated equally” and that Unilever is “working to create a fairer, more socially inclusive world.”
“Too many people are excluded and under-represented simply because of who they are,” Unilever acknowledges.
But this is all clearly just marketing speak from a company whose only goal – unsurprisingly – is maximizing profits.
With its decision to stop profiting from Israel’s violent theft of Palestinian land and lives, Ben & Jerry’s – at long last – took action to defend exactly the principles Unilever claims to uphold.
But Unilever’s reaction was to move heaven and earth to comfort and appease the oppressors.
Unilever condemns, boycotts Russia
Unilever’s hypocrisy and cravenness is even more apparent considering that it has imposed a major boycott of Russia, halting almost all its business there because of Moscow’s decision to invade Ukraine.
“We continue to condemn the war in Ukraine as a brutal and senseless act by the Russian state,” Jope said in March.
“We join calls for an end to this war and hope that peace, human rights, and the international rule of law will prevail,” the Unilever CEO concluded.
Once again, Unilever is demonstrating that Israel is always the exception to these lofty principles. Not only is Tel Aviv allowed to flout international law and violate human rights with impunity but it is actually rewarded for doing so.
In standing by its principled decision, Ben & Jerry’s is setting a rare example, but one that others will hopefully have the courage to follow.
Ali Abunimah is co-founder of The Electronic Intifada and author of The Battle for Justice in Palestine, now out from Haymarket Books