Israel’s claim it defeated Ben & Jerry’s melts under scrutiny

A labourer works on a production line filling ice-cream pots at the Ben & Jerry's factory in Be'er Tuvia in southern Israel (AFP)

Ali Abunimah

The Electronic Intifada  /  June 29, 2022

This story has been updated with a statement from Ben & Jerry’s rejecting move by its parent company Unilever.

Israel claims it has forced a reversal of the principled decision last year by Ben & Jerry’s to stop selling its ice cream in illegal settlement colonies in the occupied West Bank.

Unilever, the parent company of Ben & Jerry’s, announced Tuesday that it has sold the Ben & Jerry’s brand in Israel to its Israeli licensee, AQP.

AQP has vowed to keep selling the ice cream in the occupied West Bank with the Ben & Jerry’s name in Hebrew and Arabic, prompting cries of victory from Israeli officials.

However, the ice cream will be sold against the explicit wishes of Ben & Jerry’s, which will earn no income from sales in Israel.

“We are aware of the Unilever announcement. While our parent company has taken this decision, we do not agree with it,” Ben & Jerry’s wrote to The Electronic Intifada on Wednesday.

“Unilever’s arrangement means Ben & Jerry’s in Israel will be owned and operated by AQP. Our company will no longer profit from Ben & Jerry’s in Israel,” the Vermont-based firm added.

“We continue to believe it is inconsistent with Ben & Jerry’s values for our ice cream to be sold in the Occupied Palestinian Territory.”

What appears to have happened is that Unilever went over the ice cream maker’s head in an effort to appease Israel and its lobby.

When Unilever acquired Ben & Jerry’s in 2000 it was under an agreement that the ice cream maker would have the autonomy to continue pursuing the socially conscious principles of its founders.

Ben & Jerry’s retained an independent board. According to the firm’s website, the board is “empowered to protect and defend Ben & Jerry’s brand equity and integrity.”

It appears that Unilever has violated at least in spirit the 2000 acquisition agreement.

“Same look and feel”

Unilever announced on Tuesday that it had “sold its Ben & Jerry’s business interests in Israel to Avi Zinger, the owner of American Quality Products Ltd (AQP),” the current Israeli licensee for Ben & Jerry’s.

“The new arrangement means Ben & Jerry’s will be sold under its Hebrew and Arabic names throughout Israel and the West Bank under the full ownership of its current licensee,” Unilever added.

Unilever’s London press office confirmed to The Electronic Intifada that “the brand in Israel will continue to have the same design look and feel as today.”

“The brand name will be in Hebrew and Arabic. It will be exactly the same ice cream as consumers enjoy today,” the company added.

But the multinational refused to say if Ben & Jerry’s itself supports the deal and the continued use of its name by the Israeli company – albeit not in English.

“In answer to your question on Ben and Jerry’s and whether they support this decision, we wouldn’t comment on internal conversations so again, you are best placed asking Ben & Jerry’s directly for their response,” Unilever wrote to The Electronic Intifada.

Unilever also did not respond about whether the Israeli company will have continued contact with Ben & Jerry’s related, say, to marketing or product development.

Notably, the Unilever press statement contains no quotation from any Ben & Jerry’s spokesperson indicating support for the parent company’s decision.

The parent company acknowledges that “Ben & Jerry’s and its independent board were granted rights to take decisions about its social mission, but Unilever reserved primary responsibility for financial and operational decisions and therefore has the right to enter this arrangement.”

As noted, Ben & Jerry’s has now confirmed that it opposes the move.

Israeli meltdown

In July last year, after years of grassroots campaigning, Ben & Jerry’s announced it would pull its products from settlements.

“We believe it is inconsistent with our values for Ben & Jerry’s ice cream to be sold in the occupied Palestinian territory,” the firm said at the time.

Israel’s leadership and lobby groups had a major meltdown in response.

Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett spoke to Alan Jope, CEO of Unilever, warning him of “severe consequences.”

“Ben & Jerry’s has decided to brand itself as the anti-Israel ice cream,” Bennett asserted.

Israel and its lobby then went into full gear in an effort to reverse a decision they feared would encourage other companies to follow suit.

In March, the Brandeis Center, an Israel lobby group that uses lawfare – legal harassment – against supporters of Palestinian rights, filed a lawsuit in US federal court on behalf of the Israeli licensee against Unilever and Ben & Jerry’s.

The lawsuit accused Unilever of “unlawfully terminating its multi-decade business relationship in order to boycott Israel.”

The Brandeis Center said Wednesday that Unilever’s decision to sell its interests in Israel to Avi Zinger settles that lawsuit and marks a “major victory” against the Palestinian led BDS – boycott, divestment and sanctions – movement.

“The settlement prevents Ben & Jerry’s from boycotting Israel and ensures that Zinger will continue selling Ben & Jerry’s ice cream throughout Israel and the West Bank,” the Brandeis Center claimed.

But that’s a stretch, since there is no indication that Ben & Jerry’s independent board reversed its decision. This looks simply like a strong-arm tactic by Unilever, which never expressed support for Ben & Jerry’s move in the first place.

Hypocrisy over Ukraine, Palestine

“Unilever rejects completely and repudiates unequivocally any form of discrimination or intolerance. Anti-Semitism has no place in any society,” the multinational said in its statement Tuesday, effectively endorsing Israel’s smears that campaigning for Palestinian rights is tantamount to anti-Jewish bigotry.

“We have never expressed any support for the boycott divestment and sanctions (BDS) movement and have no intention of changing that position,” Unilever added.

Declaring itself “very proud of our business in Israel,” Unilever offered no condemnation whatsoever of Israel’s systematic violations of Palestinian rights, which major human rights groups describe as apartheid – a crime against humanity.

But the company does not oppose boycotts in principle.

In March, Unilever, which owns dozens of well-known consumer brands, condemned the war in Ukraine “as a brutal and senseless act by the Russian state.”

“We have suspended all imports and exports of our products into and out of Russia, and we will stop all media and advertising spend,” Unilever added. “We will not invest any further capital into the country nor will we profit from our presence in Russia.”

Given this context, Unilever’s effort to circumvent Ben & Jerry’s decision can only be interpreted as an emphatic endorsement of Israel’s illegal colonization of occupied Palestinian land – a war crime that is under investigation by the International Criminal Court.

Yair Lapid, Israel’s foreign minister who is taking over as caretaker prime minister in the run up to new elections in September, painted Unilever’s move as a “victory” for Israel.

“The anti-Semites will not defeat us,” Lapid asserted. “Today’s victory is for all those who know that the struggle against BDS is first and foremost for advancing partnership, conversation and an ongoing struggle against discrimination and hate.”

That isn’t how human rights defenders see it.

“Ben & Jerry’s decision last year to end sales of its ice cream into Israeli settlements in the occupied West Bank avoids complicity in grave human rights abuses and contributing to a veneer of normalcy over Israeli authorities’ crimes of apartheid and persecution of millions of Palestinians,” Omar Shakir, Israel and Palestine director for Human Rights Watch, said Wednesday.

Shakir added that Unilever’s plan to sell Ben & Jerry’s operations in Israel to Zinger, “amid significant Israeli government pressure,” seeks to undermine that decision.

“But it won’t succeed: Ben & Jerry’s won’t be doing business in illegal settlements,” Shakir added. “What comes next may look and taste similar, but, without Ben & Jerry’s recognized social justice values, it’s just a pint of ice cream.”

Ali Abuninah is co-founder of The Electronic Intifada and author of The Battle for Justice in Palestine (Haymarket Books)