Ben & Jerry’s filed suit against parent company Unilever on Tuesday in an attempt to stop the discharge of its business in Israel to a local distributor.
Last summer, the ice cream maker revealed that it would stop sales in parts of the Near East purportedly occupied by Israelis — leading to action from lawmakers and legal nonprofits. Last week, Unilever announced the discharge of Ben & Jerry’s business in the region to American Quality Products owner Avi Zinger, the current Israel-based license holder, who will sell the ice cream products under both Hebrew and Arabic brand names.
Ben & Jerry’s said in the lawsuit that its independent board of directors did not approve Unilever’s decision, according to CNBC. The suit argued that Ben & Jerry’s brand image is “synonymous with social activism,” noting that it reserves the “primary responsibility for safeguarding the integrity” of the brand under the acquisition deal. Indeed, Ben & Jerry’s sells flavors oriented around social causes such as climate change and racial equity, often donating proceeds to related nonprofits.
Though a judge did not grant Ben & Jerry’s requested temporary restraining order, Unilever was ordered to demonstrate by July 14 why a preliminary injunction against the sale of the Israeli business should not be issued.
Last week, Unilever said in a statement that it has “never expressed any support” for the Boycott Divestment Sanctions (BDS) movement, which argues that companies around the world should refrain from doing business with Israel due to the country’s alleged occupation of territory held by Palestinian Arabs.
“Unilever rejects completely and repudiates unequivocally any form of discrimination or intolerance,” the company explained. “We look forward to continuing to make a positive contribution to Israel’s economy and society for many decades to come, and hope that Israelis and Palestinians can reach a peaceful resolution of their conflict.”
Last summer, Gilad Erdan — who serves as Permanent Representative of Israel to the United Nations — exhorted state governments to oppose the move. “I ask that you consider speaking out against the company’s decision, and taking any other relevant steps, including in relation to your state laws and the commercial dealings between Ben and Jerry’s and your state,” he wrote in a letter to American governors, requesting the activation of laws meant to oppose the BDS movement.
Governor Ron DeSantis (R-FL), for example, agreed last summer that the ice cream maker had violated his state’s statutes through the boycott. “As you know, Florida has long had a strong relationship with the State of Israel,” DeSantis remarked. “As a matter of law and principle, the State of Florida does not tolerate discrimination against the State of Israel or the Israeli people, including boycotts and divestments targeting Israel.”
Last month, Governor Kathy Hochul (D-NY) gave Ben & Jerry’s a July 6 deadline to explain why its actions did not constitute boycott activity. Hochul’s Press Secretary Hazel Crampton-Hays remarked that an earlier response from Unilever “did not include important clarifying information central to formulating a determination under the Executive Order.”
In an October 2021 interview, Ben & Jerry’s co-founders Ben Cohen and Jerry Greenfield were pressed by Axios reporter Alexi McCammond about their boycott decision.
“You guys are big proponents of voting rights. Why do you still sell ice cream in Georgia? Texas — abortion bans. Why are you still selling there?” McCammond asked. After a six-second pause, a frazzled Cohen replied, “I don’t know.”
“It’s an interesting question,” he attempted to answer. “I don’t know what that would accomplish. We’re working on those issues, of voting rights, and — I don’t know. You know, I mean, I think you ask a really good question. And I think I’d have to sit down and think about it for a bit.”