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Ben & Jerry’s founders say Unilever ‘usurped’ its authority with Israel spin off

Speaking to MSNBC, ice cream makers, who no longer run company, vow to keep independent board’s control over their social mission

Ben & Jerry's ice cream on sale at a shop in Jerusalem, on July 19, 2021. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)
Ben & Jerry's ice cream on sale at a shop in Jerusalem, on July 19, 2021. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

The founders of Ben & Jerry’s ice cream said Sunday that parent company Unilever violated their original social justice-focused merger agreement by allowing the sale of the company’s products in West Bank settlements.

Unilever, one of the world’s largest consumer goods conglomerates, acquired Ben & Jerry’s in 2000 under a unique merger agreement that gave the ice cream maker’s board the authority to protect the company’s “social mission,” which it sees as key to its financial success.

Using that authority, the Ben & Jerry’s board announced a boycott of West Bank settlements last year, without coordinating with Unilever. The boycott triggered massive financial blowback for Unilever, and Ben & Jerry’s Israel sued the UK-based international over the move.

The two sides reached a settlement earlier this year that gave Ben & Jerry’s Israel the independence to continue sales in Israel and the West Bank under Hebrew and Arabic branding. Ben & Jerry’s is now suing Unilever over the decision to spin off its Israel branch.

“The independent board has authority over the social mission of the company and the essential integrity of the brand,” Jerry Greenfield said. “The company uses its power to address social and environmental problems around the world and that social mission is part and parcel to the success of the company.”

“Unilever has usurped their authority and reversed the decision that was made and we can’t allow that to happen,” Ben Cohen told MSNBC’s Mehdi Hasan, a harsh critic of Israel. “We can’t sit idly by while that happens because that’s essentially saying the independent board doesn’t matter and they want regarding the social mission but Unilever is going to just overturn it.”

Cohen and Greenfield, both Jewish, no longer run the company and infrequently speak publicly about its operation.

Critics of the settlement boycott have argued it is antisemitic because the company has never attempted to boycott any other region of the world.

“If I care about the people in Palestine just as much as I care about the people in Israel, is that antisemitic?” Cohen said.

“The decision by the company not to sell ice cream in the occupied Palestinian territories is consistent with the values that the company has had throughout its history of fighting for human rights and dignity,” Greenfield said.

The attempted boycott has been a thorn in Unilever’s side for over a year.

In July 2021, after Israel’s war with Gaza terrorists and a heavy social media campaign against the company, Ben & Jerry’s announced a boycott of “occupied Palestinian territory.” The decision sparked heavy repercussions for Unilever, as US states enacted anti-BDS divestment laws, pulling hundreds of millions of dollars in investments from the conglomerate.

Israeli franchise owner Avi Zinger and his company refused to comply with the settlement boycott, arguing it was illegal under Israeli and US law. Their license to sell the ice cream was only set to expire at the end of 2022, meaning the boycott never came into effect.

Ben & Jerry’s Israel sued Unilever over the dispute in the US in March, claiming Unilever unlawfully terminated their business contract.

In June, Unilever settled with Ben & Jerry’s Israel, granting the Israeli branch independence to sell its products indefinitely in Israel and the West Bank, using Hebrew and Arabic branding. Under the agreement, Ben & Jerry’s has no authority over the Israeli franchise.

Shortly after that agreement was announced, Ben & Jerry’s sought to block the deal by suing Conopco, the main US branch of Unilever, in US federal court, arguing that Unilever breached its acquisition deal with Ben & Jerry’s, which gave the ice cream maker’s board some independence.

The lawsuit against Conopco and Unilever focuses on the autonomy of the Ben & Jerry’s board and its commitment to its “core values” and social mission, which the company says is integral to its identity and business success. Ben & Jerry’s says its owners violated agreements related to its board and social commitments by transferring the brand to the Israeli branch.

When Unilever acquired Ben & Jerry’s in 2000, it granted the board autonomy “for safeguarding the integrity of the essential elements of the Ben & Jerry’s brand-name,” the lawsuit said.

Ben Cohen (L) and Jerry Greenfield (R) speak with Axios in an interview released on October 10, 2021 (Screen grab used in accordance with Clause 27a of the Copyright Law))

The decision to boycott settlements sparked uproar in Israel and among some US Jewish groups. Critics of the attempted West Bank boycott note that Ben & Jerry’s allows its products to be sold in states with atrocious human rights records, including Russia, Saudi Arabia, Syria, Iran, and China. The company has not taken action regarding other disputed territories including Tibet, Crimea, Western Sahara, and Kashmir.

Supporters of the Boycott Israel movement say that in urging businesses, artists, and universities to sever ties with Israel, they are using nonviolent means to oppose unjust policies toward Palestinians. Israel says the movement masks its motives to delegitimize and destroy the Jewish state.

The case has also illustrated the pitfalls of progressive corporate activism, the risks for companies attempting to boycott Israel and the growing role of corporate investing in the Israeli-Palestinian dispute in the US.

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