OCCUPIED WEST BANK — Last week, U.S. ice cream manufacturer Ben & Jerry’s sued parent company Unilever to stop the sale of its product in the illegal Israeli settlements in the occupied West Bank.
Following Israel’s assault on Gaza and occupied East Jerusalem in May of last year, Ben & Jerry’s announced last year it would stop selling its ice cream brand in Israeli settlements. The ban was set to come into effect at the end of 2022, when its contract with its Israeli subsidiary would expire.
In a move widely viewed as bowing to pro-Israel pressure, Unilever reached an agreement with Avi Zinger, owner of Ben & Jerry’s Israel, and his company American Quality Products (AQP) to continue selling the ice cream in the West Bank under Hebrew and Arabic names.
In a statement on Twitter, Ben & Jerry’s confirmed its company would not profit from sales made by Ben & Jerry’s Israel, writing, “We continue to believe it is inconsistent with Ben & Jerry’s values for our ice cream to be sold in the Occupied Palestinian Territory.”
Ben & Jerry’s filed a civil suit in the U.S. Southern District Court of New York against Conopco, the main U.S. branch of Unilever. The consumer goods conglomerate acquired Ben & Jerry’s in 2000.
In the lawsuit, Ben & Jerry’s argues Unilever breached its acquisition deal with the ice cream maker, which grants Ben & Jerry’s board autonomy on issues related to the brand’s social justice mission. Ben & Jerry’s is seeking damages and an injunction to block the sale.
Unilever caves to anti-BDS lobbying
Unilever’s decision was condemned by a host of pro-Palestininan groups.
“If implemented, Unilever’s decision would appease Israel, further implicating the company in Israel’s decades-old system of oppression against Palestinians,” the Palesinian-led Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement said in a statement cosigned by Jewish Voice for Peace, Adalah Justice Project, Movement for Black Lives, the U.S. Campaign for Palestinian Rights, and Palestine Legal.
For many Palestinian rights advocates, Unilever appears to have “succumbed to bullying” from pro-Israel, anti-BDS forces.
“Since the decision by Ben & Jerry’s, there has been a campaign targeting Unilever,” Lara Friedman, president of the Foundation for Middle East Peace, told MintPress News. “So I read that decision as Unilever trying to make this headache go away.”
The Israeli government was quick to condemn Ben & Jerry’s BDS action last year. Then-Israeli prime minister Naftali Bennett announced he spoke with Unilever CEO, Alan Jope, and told him this boycott decision is an “anti-Israel step.”
“Bennett emphasized that from the perspective of the State of Israel, this is an action that has severe consequences, including legal, and it will take strong action against any boycott directed against its citizens,” the prime minister’s Twitter account wrote.
Then-foreign minister and current prime minister Yair Lapid also weighed in on the matter, vowing to wield pressure on several U.S. states, writing,
Over 30 states in the United States have passed anti-BDS legislation in recent years. I plan on asking each of them to enforce these laws against Ben & Jerry’s. They will not treat the State of Israel like this without a response.”
Along with the Israeli government, corporate activist and CEO of Winthrop Realty Trust, Michael Ashner, also launched similar efforts to pressure Unilever and reverse Ben & Jerry’s decision.
After Ben & Jerry’s announcement, Ashner purchased an undisclosed stake in Unilever and established the Coalition to Hold Unilever Accountable – an organization made up of law firms, lobbying groups, and academics.
The group began lobbying states with anti-BDS legislation to divest from Unilever. Currently, 32 states have anti-BDS laws on the books — legislation that was influenced in no small part through the Israeli government propaganda machine.
Through the coalition’s campaigning, the states of New Jersey, Texas, Illinois, New York, Florida, and Arizona withdrew their investments from Unilever totalling to almost a billion dollars. Colorado pledged to divest from Unilever as well. As a result, Unilever’s value dropped to more than $20 billion in the months after Ben & Jerry’s boycott announcement.
Ashner’s group also persuaded the Securities and Exchange Commission to launch an investigation into Unilever under the claim it did not properly disclose the financial risks regarding the boycott to its investors.
New York Representatives Ritchie Torres and Andrew Garbarino, New Jersey Rep. Josh Gottheimer, and Pennsylvania Rep. Brian Fitzpatrick sent a separate but similar letter to the SEC regarding Unilever.
“In the interests of shareholders, consumers, and public policy, we believe it is appropriate for the SEC to take steps to ensure the full disclosure of all information necessary to make Unilever’s filings in compliance with the rules and regulations of the United States’ SEC,” the letter said.
Other pro-Israel entities also lobbied against Unilever. U.S. non-profit StandWithUs launched the “Corporate Anti-Semitism” website, with Unilever as its main target. The pro-Israel organization encouraged individuals to send a letter to Unilever executives, pressuring them to reverse the BDS decision. StandWithUs — along with the Israeli-American Coalition for Action — also sent a letter to Unilever CEO Alan Jope, pressuring him to overturn Ben & Jerry’s decision.
The Israel lobby group, Brandeis Center, sued Unilever in a New Jersey federal court on behalf of AQP owner, Zinger for, “unlawfully terminating its multi-decade business relationship in order to boycott Israel.” That lawsuit was settled given Unilever’s recent decision.
With Ben & Jerry’s settlement ban undone, Ashner believes this may prevent other multinational corporations from taking a BDS stance.
“Somebody had to confront Unilever, not just because what Unilever was doing was wrong, but to send a message to all the other multinationals that this is not a good idea,” Ashner told The Times of Israel. “Other multinational companies will think twice before they engage in BDS activities in the future. That’s the lesson from this.”
A victory against BDS?
The Israeli government, Ashner, and Zinger all welcomed Unilever’s decision as a victory against the BDS movement.
“I thank Unilever for resolving this matter and for the strong and principled stand it has taken against the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement,” Zinger said in a statement. “BDS lost.”
“Today’s victory is a victory for all those who know that the struggle against BDS is, first and foremost, a struggle for partnership and dialogue, and against discrimination and hate,” Lapid said on Twitter.
But for Palestinian rights organizations, Ben & Jerry’s lawsuit demonstrates the strength BDS holds.
“This testifies to the power of BDS organizing and growing support for Palestinian freedom,” Jewish Voice for Peace wrote on Twitter, emphasizing how other companies like Airbnb reversed their settlement ban following pressure from Israel and its supporters.
Friedman understands why the anti-BDS movement would spin Unilever’s sale as a victory, however, but says what happened is actually the opposite of that.
“The purpose of the anti-BDS stuff was to compel Unilever to treat settlements as part of Israel and operate in both,” Friedman said. “And the outcome of Unilever’s action, in effect, is to create an Israeli company that operates in Israel and the West Bank and nowhere else and Unilever and Ben & Jerry’s are out of Israel and the West Bank entirely with ice cream.”
Israeli law dictates companies cannot boycott the settlements while continuing their operations in Israel. Describing this policy as a conscious effort by Israel to push the world into recognizing the occupied territories as sovereign Israeli land, Friedman said this simply turns international companies into solely Israeli brands.
“At that point, Israel is even more isolated. It’s a really odd way to see victory,” Friedman said.
She added that this isn’t about BDS, but rather Israel’s attempts to shape the public narrative into believing the settlements and Israel are indistinguishable. “What really is an issue here is an effort to quash any public statement that says the settlements are not part of Israel,” she said.
Whether a victory against BDS or a win for the movement, Palestinian rights advocates assert the fight is not over until corporations’ social justice principles are applied across all of Palestine.
“Although this is a BDS win, B&J’s stance still leaves a lot to be desired. As Palestinians have been saying for decades, Israel is a colonial apartheid state from river to sea, and its oppression of Palestinians is not contained within the ‘occupied territories,’” Jewish Voice for Peace said. “We continue to advocate for them to apply their values throughout all areas where Palestinians need freedom.”
Feature photo | Demonstrators rally against Ben & Jerry’s Ice Cream at the New York Public Library on August 12, 2021 in New York City. John Lamparski | NurPhoto via AP
Jessica Buxbaum is a Jerusalem-based journalist for MintPress News covering Palestine, Israel, and Syria. Her work has been featured in Middle East Eye, The New Arab and Gulf News.