Ben & Jerry’s decision to stop selling in the West Bank puts Unilever in a difficult position

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Unilever PLC was embroiled in controversy on Tuesday after its ice cream brand Ben & Jerry’s announced that it would no longer sell its products in Jewish settlements in the Israeli-occupied West Bank and around East Jerusalem.

Israel’s government has called on the London-listed company to reverse its brand’s decision, with Prime Minister Naftali Bennett warning Unilever boss Alan Jope in a call for “grave consequences” and calling on other politicians to boycott.

Mr Bennett “made it clear that he viewed Ben & Jerry’s decision to boycott Israel with the utmost seriousness, adding that this is a subsidiary of Unilever that has taken a clearly anti-Israeli move,” the office said Politician.

Israeli ambassador to the United States, Gilad Erdan, said Tuesday that he had sent letters to each of the 35 governors of states that have passed laws against boycotting Israel asking them to sanction Ben & Jerry’s. The laws were passed when the international boycott, divestment, and sanctions movement, or BDS, primarily seeking to force Israel to change its settlement policies through economic pressures, gained momentum in the US

Mr Erdan wrote in his letters that the ice cream brand’s decision not to ship its products to Israeli settlements amounted to a “de facto adoption of anti-Semitic practices and the delegitimization of the Jewish state,” according to a copy of the letter he posted on Twitter published.

State Department spokesman Ned Price said Tuesday that the Biden administration “strongly opposes the BDS movement that is unjustly singling out Israel,” but would not specifically comment on Ben and Jerry’s decision when he responded to the question one reporter replied

A Unilever spokeswoman said the company recognized the brand’s right to make decisions about its social mission but declined to comment on the response in Israel. A spokeswoman for Ben & Jerry’s declined to comment on the backlash and allegations of anti-Semitism.

The tension came after Ben & Jerry’s said Monday that it had signed an agreement with its licensee in Israel, Ben & Jerry’s Israel, which will manufacture the product within the internationally recognized borders of Israel, but also distribute ice cream in the occupied West Bank and parts of Israel , not going to extend controversial East Jerusalem. The company announced that after the agreement expired at the end of next year, it would make a different arrangement for remaining in Israel.

In its own statement on Monday, Unilever described the Israeli-Palestinian conflict as “a very complex and delicate situation” and said it was fully committed to its presence in Israel. It added that it welcomed Ben & Jerry’s plans to stay in Israel.

Unilever bought Ben & Jerry’s in 2000 for $ 326 million. At the time, she promised to allow the brand to retain an independent board that retains the right to make decisions about its social mission.

The chairman of that independent board of directors accused Unilever late Monday of violating its sales contract, saying the brand’s directors wanted to issue a statement that contained no reference to staying in Israel but was prevented from making comments by its parent company reported by NBC News. The chairman of the supervisory board did not respond to a request for comment.

Workers were producing Ben & Jerry’s ice cream in Be’er Tuvia, Israel on Tuesday.


Photo:

Ronen Zvulun / Reuters

Founded in the late 1970s by two self-proclaimed hippies, Ben & Jerry’s has a long history of dealing with social justice issues. The maker of flavors like Chunky Monkey and Cherry Garcia has used part of its marketing budget to promote causes like Black Lives Matter and Occupy Wall Street. She has also dealt with immigration issues for the past few years.

The ice cream maker has faced backlashes before its corporate activism: for example, the company was criticized for its support for the 2017 women’s march because it was partly organized by activists accused of anti-Semitic views. Ben & Jerry’s states on its website that the march is “a dramatic representation of our country at its best”.

Some human rights groups have now attacked Ben & Jerry’s for selling their products in Jewish settlements in the West Bank.

Ben & Jerry’s ice cream will be on display in Jerusalem on Tuesday.


Photo:

ahmad gharabli / Agence France-Presse / Getty Images

In its statement on Monday, the ice cream brand said it “contradicts our values” for its products to be sold in these areas.

Pro-Palestinian activists have long campaigned to get companies to boycott Israeli settlements, but few companies have taken the move recently. In 2018, Airbnb Inc.

said it would remove all entries on its website in Israeli settlements, only to reverse the move a few months later. This reversal followed intense pressure from the Israeli government and a lawsuit in a US federal court – an episode Erdan recalled as a cautionary example in his letter to the US governors.

The Ben & Jerry decision was criticized by other Israeli politicians on social media on Tuesday.

“Now we Israelis know which ice cream we should NOT buy,” tweeted former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who has a widespread following in the country.

Israel’s Economy Minister Orna Barbivay posted a video on TikTok of taking a carton of branded ice cream out of her freezer and throwing it in the trash.

The Israelis celebrated in mid-June when parliament approved a new coalition that ended the twelve-year reign of former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. His supporters gathered to cheer the longest-serving leader in the country as he takes on a new role as a political opponent. Photo: Ariel Schalit / Associated Press (video dated 6/13/21)

Ordinary Israelis also expressed frustration, posting about fake flavors linking the company with Palestinian militants like Mintifada. The word is a game of mint flavor and the Arabic word used to describe two Palestinian uprisings against Israel, Intifada.

Avi Zinger, executive director of Ben and Jerry’s Israel, tried to explain to the Israelis that his company’s products in Israeli stores and his hundreds of employees would be devastated if Israelis stopped buying the ice cream.

Speaking on the phone, Mr. Zinger said his company was losing the contract because it refused to comply with the ice cream brand’s request to stop shipping products to Israeli settlements.

He said his ice cream sales accounted for around 80% of his business, which includes sales of other foods and products. He said he believed the decision would ultimately be reversed because of its strategic importance to the State of Israel.

“If the State of Israel cannot stop this, it will be a great failure for Israel and a great success for BDS,” he said.

Write to Nick Kostov at [email protected]

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