Ben & Jerry’s settles its lawsuit against parent company over settlement boycott

Unilever says suit filed by Vermont-based company ‘resolved,’ without providing details; US ice cream maker’s independent Israel branch says it will continue its operations

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

Illustrative: An Israeli shops at the Ben & Jerry's ice cream factory in the Be'er Tuvia Industrial area on July 20, 2021. (AP Photo/Tsafrir Abayov, File)
Illustrative: An Israeli shops at the Ben & Jerry's ice cream factory in the Be'er Tuvia Industrial area on July 20, 2021. (AP Photo/Tsafrir Abayov, File)

NEW YORK — Unilever, the parent company of Ben & Jerry’s, said Thursday that it had resolved a lawsuit with the US ice cream maker over its attempt to boycott Israeli settlements last year.

“Unilever is pleased to announce that the litigation with Ben & Jerry’s Independent Board has been resolved,” the UK-based conglomerate said in a terse statement, without providing further detail.

The announcement appeared to finally put an end to a battle that has dragged on for over a year. Ben & Jerry’s sued Unilever through its main US branch, Conopco, earlier this year as part of its boycott attempt, which it first announced in July 2021.

Avi Zinger, the head of Ben & Jerry’s Israel branch and a key player in the fight against the boycott, said he was “pleased” that the litigation had been resolved.

Zinger said there was no change to an agreement he inked with Unilever earlier this year to continue operations.

“I look forward to continuing to produce and sell the great tasting Ben & Jerry’s ice cream under the Hebrew and Arabic trademarks throughout Israel and the West Bank long into the future,” Zinger said.

There was no immediate comment from Ben & Jerry’s or its board.

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 company over the move.

The two sides reached a settlement earlier this year that gave Ben & Jerry’s Israel the right to continue sales independently in Israel and the West Bank under Hebrew and Arabic branding.

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

Ben & Jerry’s then sued Unilever over the decision to spin off its Israel branch in a federal court in New York.

Earlier this month, Unilever had asked a judge to dismiss the lawsuit, arguing that the Ben & Jerry’s board had overstepped its bounds with the attempted boycott.

The Vermont-based company’s “insistence on taking sides in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict created an untenable situation” for all parties, the motion said.

In August, a US federal judge rejected Ben & Jerry’s injunction request to block West Bank sales during the lawsuit. The judge said Ben & Jerry’s failed to show that Unilever’s decision would hurt Ben & Jerry’s social mission or confuse its customers.

The ice cream maker’s decision to boycott settlements sparked uproar in Israel and among some US Jewish groups. Critics of the settlement boycott have argued it is antisemitic because the company has never attempted to boycott any other region of the world.

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 attempted boycott had 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.

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)

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. Months later, 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, arguing that Unilever breached its acquisition deal with Ben & Jerry’s.

“Ben & Jerry’s position is clear: the sale of products bearing any Ben & Jerry’s insignia in the Occupied Palestinian Territory is against our values,” Ben & Jerry’s said in a statement last month.

The Jewish founders of Ben & Jerry’s, who no longer run the company, have said Unilever “usurped their authority” by spinning off the Israel branch.

The case has 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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