Ben & Jerry’s Israel, parent company Unilever reach deal to end settlement boycott
Israeli firm wins right to produce, sell its ice cream in Israel and West Bank under Hebrew and Arabic names; Israel and supporters hail ‘victory’ over BDS; Ben & Jerry’s unhappy
Luke Tress is an editor and a reporter in New York for The Times of Israel.
Ben & Jerry’s will continue to be sold in Israel and the West Bank, after the Israeli franchise came to an agreement with the ice cream maker’s parent company Unilever following a year of legal battling over a settlement boycott, the two sides announced on Wednesday.
Israel and its supporters hailed the decision as a major victory against the anti-Israel Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement.
Unilever has sold its Ben & Jerry’s business interests in Israel to Avi Zinger, the Israeli manufacturer and distributor of the brand, who will now be independent.
Zinger and his company, American Quality Products (AQP), has also acquired the exclusive rights to the Ben & Jerry’s logo in Hebrew and Arabic, but will cease using the English branding.
“Avi Zinger is able to and has the right to continue selling the same Ben & Jerry’s ice cream he’s been selling for 35 years in those areas forever, in perpetuity. It’s his,” said Alyza Lewin, president of the Louis D. Brandeis Center for Human Rights Under Law, which represented Zinger.
“Ben & Jerry’s in Vermont no longer has any authority over Avi. They can’t stop him from selling Ben & Jerry’s ice cream,” Lewin told The Times of Israel.
The monetary terms of the arrangement were kept confidential.
Zinger told Army Radio on Wednesday afternoon that the new arrangement gave him “a wonderful feeling.”
Unilever realized “it had to find a way out of the mess it was in” and “found a way to bypass Ben & Jerry’s,” he said.
He said he had been overwhelmed by support during the battle, with “literally thousands of people” contacting him to offer support.
Without asking to, he said, he had “long since stopped being an ice-cream maker in Be’er Tuvia” — where his factory is located in southern Israel — and instead become the face of the struggle against BDS. Now, though, he said, “We get to go back to what we love doing — making and selling good ice cream.”
“I gathered the workers today to tell them the news,” he said, and the delight on their faces “made it all worthwhile.”
Ben & Jerry’s said in response to the deal, “While our parent company has taken this decision, we do not agree with it.”
“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,” Ben & Jerry’s said. “We continue to believe it is inconsistent with Ben & Jerry’s values for our ice cream to be sold in the Occupied Palestinian Territory.”
Following last year’s May war between Israel and Gaza terror groups, Ben & Jerry’s said it would no longer allow its ice cream to be sold in Israeli settlements, setting off a firestorm of criticism and a series of major divestments in Unilever as multiple US states obeyed laws against the anti-Israel BDS movement.
Zinger then sued Ben & Jerry’s and Unilever in US federal court in March, claiming the companies had unlawfully terminated their business relationship with him.
Unilever and the Brandeis Center announced Wednesday that they had reached a deal to settle that case.
The UK-based conglomerate said it has “listened to perspectives on this complex and sensitive matter” and had consulted with the Israeli government.
The company said it rejects antisemitism and employs around 2,000 people in Israel at four manufacturing plants. Besides Ben & Jerry’s, the company sells a range of other products, including Strauss ice cream, in Israel and the West Bank.
“This is a victory for those who seek cooperation and coexistence, and a resounding defeat for discrimination. It is particularly significant for those who have stood united against BDS,” Zinger said in a statement.
Foreign Minister Yair Lapid welcomed the decision and thanked Unilever.
“The antisemites will not defeat us,” Lapid said. “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.”
“We will fight against the delegitimization and boycott movement in all places,” Lapid said.
Foreign Ministry spokesperson Lior Haiat said the decision “sends a message to other companies, that will undoubtedly resonate around the world.”
Haiat applauded Unilever and said both sides were eager to find a solution, but stressed that the deal was between two private companies, and that Israel was not a part of the agreement.
The boycott announcement last year came after a heavy pressure campaign from anti-Israel and progressive activists. The decision sparked 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.
Ben & Jerry’s board announced in July it would stop selling ice cream in “Occupied Palestinian Territory” independently of Unilever, which was against the move. Under the terms of Unilever’s 2000 acquisition agreement with the ice cream brand, the Ben & Jerry’s board maintained the freedom to make such decisions.
There was no immediate response from the BDS movement to Wednesday’s agreement.
Human Rights Watch accused Unilever of “complicity in grave human rights abuses.”
“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,” said Omar Shakir, Israel and Palestine Director at Human Rights Watch.
Lewin, from the Brandeis Center, said the agreement was a win for consumers, and for Zinger’s diverse staff of 170 employees in Israel, plus the thousands of Israelis and Palestinians involved in the company’s supply and distribution chain. All had been left in limbo by the court case, and now had job security, she said.
In an interview last year, Ben & Jerry’s founders, Ben Cohen and Jerry Greenfield, said they were against a boycott of Israel, but were in favor of boycotting settlements.
“I don’t view it as withholding money. We just don’t want our ice cream sold in the Occupied Territories,” Cohen said, adding that he supported a two-state solution.
The pair, both Jewish, sold the company decades ago and maintain no control over its operations, though they remain involved.
Zinger’s lawsuit against Unilever had argued 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 amounted to an illegal boycott of the entire Jewish state.
He and his company refused to comply. Their license to sell the ice cream was set to expire at the end of 2022, meaning the boycott had not yet come into effect.
The lawsuit filed requested that the US federal court deem Unilever’s move illegal, and enable AQP to keep selling Ben & Jerry’s products throughout Israel and the West Bank. It also sought a jury trial and damages. The company also violated several US laws that block anti-Israel boycotts, plus numerous state laws, the lawsuit claimed.
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.
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. New York was expected to make a determination on divesting its massive pension fund from Unilever soon.
New York State Governor Kathy Hochul, a staunch supporter of Israel who is close to the state’s Jewish communities, said she was “pleased” to hear of Wednesday’s agreement.
“New York has no tolerance for discrimination or hate, and I will continue to champion the powerful bond between our state and Israel,” Hochul said in response to the announcement.
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.
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.
Zinger and AQP were represented by attorneys from the Louis D. Brandeis Center for Human Rights Under Law; Greenberg, Dauber, Epstein and Tucker; Lewin and Lewin, LLP; and Zell, Aron & Co.