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Ben & Jerry’s Israel distributor sues ice cream maker, parent company over boycott

Israeli licensee says the company unlawfully terminated business relationship by making demands that are illegal in Israel and the US, and then ended contract

Luke Tress is an editor and a reporter in New York for The Times of Israel.

Pro-Israel demonstrators protest against Ben and Jerry's over its boycott of the West Bank, and against antisemitism, in Manhattan, New York City, on August 12, 2021. (Luke Tress/Flash90)
Pro-Israel demonstrators protest against Ben and Jerry's over its boycott of the West Bank, and against antisemitism, in Manhattan, New York City, on August 12, 2021. (Luke Tress/Flash90)

The Israeli manufacturer and distributor for Ben & Jerry’s said Thursday that it is suing the ice cream maker, and its parent company Unilever, for unlawfully terminating their business relationship.

Last summer, Ben & Jerry’s announced that it will no longer sell its products in the “Occupied Palestinian Territory,” apparently referring to West Bank settlements and East Jerusalem.

Its Israeli distributor refused to comply, saying the move was illegal in Israel and the US, so Ben & Jerry’s said it will not renew the Israeli licensee’s agreement at the end of 2022 — effectively ending the business relationship.

The boycott announcement came after a heavy pressure campaign from anti-Israel and progressive activists. The decision sparked an uproar in Israel and among some US Jewish groups, many of whom called it antisemitic, since the company has no boycotts against any other area of the world.

The new lawsuit requests a US federal court deem Unilever’s move illegal, and enable the Israeli company American Quality Products (AQP), and owner Avi Zinger, to keep selling Ben & Jerry’s products throughout Israel and the West Bank. It also seeks a jury trial and damages.

The lawsuit argues that the boycott of the West Bank violates US and Israeli law, and since there is no legal mechanism to continue business while violating those laws, the move amounts to an illegal boycott of the entire Jewish state.

“I refused Ben & Jerry’s and Unilever’s illegal demands, and as a result, they are threatening to close my business, affecting hundreds of Israeli and Palestinian workers and distributors,” Zinger said in a statement.

The lawsuit was filed over the defendants’ “unlawful demand that plaintiffs violate Israeli law by boycotting parts of Israel,” the lawsuit reads.

“The demand was in and of itself a violation by defendants of Israeli law, US anti-boycott policy” and the laws and policies of many US states, it says.

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

The firm filed the lawsuit in the US District Court of New Jersey, the state where Unilever’s American branch is headquartered. It was also filed against Conopco, Inc., another US branch of Unilever, a UK-based multinational.

AQP and its owner Zinger are requesting an injunction from the US court to let AQP continue its Ben & Jerry’s operations in all of Israel.

The lawsuit alleges Unilever directed AQP to violate two Israeli laws — Israel’s non-discrimination law, which includes a ban on discrimination based on residence and place of origin; and an Israeli law prohibiting a boycott against Israel, or an area under Israeli control.

The company also violated several US laws that block anti-Israel boycotts, plus numerous state laws, the lawsuit claims.

“We expect the court to prevent Unilever from terminating my contract, since the only reason it’s doing so is that I refused to break the law,” Zinger said.

Pro-Israel demonstrators protest against Ben and Jerry’s over its boycott of the West Bank, and against antisemitism, in Manhattan, New York City, on August 12, 2021. (Luke Tress/Flash90)

The lawsuit says that a party in a contract, especially the larger one, “cannot lawfully or in good faith coerce the weaker party into violating the law as a condition of maintaining the contract.”

The lawsuit also says the boycott hurt AQP’s business and reputation in numerous ways.

It says AQP employs 170 people, and works with Palestinian suppliers and distributors, who will all lose out when the contract expires, according to the Louis D. Brandeis Center, a US legal advocacy group that supports Jewish causes. Two lawyers from the center are representing Zinger and AQP, along with attorneys from several other firms.

The center also said ending the contract will harm coexistence programs sponsored by AQP and deny Palestinians access to Ben & Jerry’s products.

The center noted that after Unilever said it would not sell in “occupied Palestinian territory” but continue to sell in Israel “through a different arrangement,” Ben & Jerry’s board rejected the statement, implying that the board aims for a full boycott of Israel.

Unilever has said that owing to its unique ownership arrangement with the Ben & Jerry’s board, the conglomerate has no ability to influence the ice cream maker’s “independent” business decisions.

Unilever CEO Alan Jope said his company had agreed to “recognize the right of the brand and its independent Board to take decisions in accordance with its social mission. On this decision it was no different.”

He has distanced Unilever from the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement against Israel and said he supports doing business in Israel proper.

Pedestrians walk on Church St., past the Ben & Jerry’s shop, in Burlington, VT, on Wednesday, March 11, 2020. (AP Photo/Charles Krupa)

The Ben & Jerry’s West Bank boycott has caused a headache for Unilever and heavy repercussions. At least six US states divested a total of hundreds of millions of dollars from Unilever because the move violated anti-boycott laws. The company’s stock has dropped close to 20% since the announcement, while the broader market has not moved much.

Critics of the West Bank boycott note that Ben & Jerry’s sells products to states with atrocious human rights records, including Russia, Saudi Arabia, Syria, Iran, and China. The company also sells in other disputed territories including Tibet, Crimea, Western Sahara, and Kashmir. Unilever continues to sell other products in the West Bank.

The company has not criticized Russia’s invasion of Ukraine or taken any action against Russia, although it criticized the US for sending troops to NATO allies ahead of the war.

BDS supporters 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 or destroy the Jewish state.

Zinger, an Israeli, is Israel’s first and only licensee for Ben & Jerry’s. He found out about Ben & Jerry’s in the mid-1980s, when it was a small company, and visited founder Ben Cohen at home in Vermont to strike a business deal. Zinger spent time in Vermont to learn how to make the ice cream, and started his business in Israel with an ice cream parlor in Tel Aviv in 1987. His firm now sells to supermarket chains, mini-markets and operates two parlors.

Ben & Jerry’s merged with Unilever in 2000. AQP, Ben & Jerry’s, and Unilever signed an agreement in 2004 granting the Israeli firm the license to manufacture, sell and distribute the ice cream in Israel and the West Bank.

Ben & Jerry’s and Unilever had promised to extend the agreement after it expired at the end of this year. The company had long been under pressure from the BDS movement to halt sales to Israel, which intensified during Israel’s May 2021 war with the Hamas terror group. Ben & Jerry’s abruptly broke its assurances on July 19, 2021, after the war, with its announcement that it would stop selling in the disputed territories.

Bennett Cohen and Jerry Greenfield, the Jewish founders of the company, maintain no control over its operations, but said last year they support Israel but oppose its “illegal occupation” of the West Bank.

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