JERUSALEM: A new agreement in Israel will put Ben & Jerry’s ice cream back on shelves in annexed east Jerusalem and the occupied West Bank despite the ice cream maker’s protest of Israeli policies, according to Unilever, the company that owns the brand.
But it’s unclear if the product, which would only be sold with Hebrew and Arabic lettering, would still appeal to Ben & Jerry’s fans or have the support of the Vermont company, which has long backed liberal causes.
Israel hailed the move as a victory in its ongoing campaign against the Palestinian-led Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement. BDS aims to bring economic pressure to bear on Israel over its military occupation of lands the Palestinians want for a future state.
Unilever, which acquired Ben & Jerry’s in 2000 but distanced itself from the ice cream maker’s decision last year to halt sales in the territories, said Wednesday that it had sold its business interest in Israel to a local company that would sell Ben & Jerry’s ice cream under its Hebrew and Arabic name throughout Israel and the West Bank.
When Ben & Jerry’s was sold, the companies agreed that the ice cream maker’s independent board would be free to pursue its social mission, including longstanding support for many liberal causes, including racial justice, climate action, LGBTQ rights and campaign finance reform.
But Unilever would have the final word on financial and operational decisions.
Unilever said it has “used the opportunity of the past year to listen to perspectives on this complex and sensitive matter and believes this is the best outcome for Ben & Jerry’s in Israel.”
In its statement, Unilever reiterated that it does not support the BDS movement. It said it was “very proud” of its business in Israel, where it employs around 2,000 people and has four manufacturing plants.
Unilever sold the business to Avi Zinger, the owner of Israel-based American Quality Products Ltd, who had sued Unilever and Ben & Jerry’s in March in a US federal court over the termination of their business relationship, saying it violated US and Israeli law.
Zinger’s legal team said the decision by Unilever was part of a settlement. He thanked Unilever for resolving the matter and for the “strong and principled stand” it has taken against BDS. “There is no place for discrimination in the commercial sale of ice cream,” Zinger said.
There was no immediate comment from Ben & Jerry’s. A spokeswoman pointed to the Unilever announcement.
But reaction to the new agreement arrived quickly.
Omar Shakir, the director of Human Rights Watch for Israel and the Palestinian territories, said Unilever seeks to undermine Ben & Jerry’s “principled decision” to avoid complicity in Israel’s violations of Palestinian rights, which his organization says amount to apartheid, an allegation Israel adamantly rejects.
“It won’t succeed: Ben & Jerry’s won’t be doing business in illegal settlements. 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.”
Israel hailed the decision and thanked governors and other elected officials in the United States and elsewhere for supporting its campaign against BDS. It said Unilever consulted its Foreign Ministry throughout the process.
“Antisemitism will not defeat us, not even when it comes to ice-cream,” Foreign Minister Yair Lapid said. “We will fight delegitimization and the BDS campaign in every arena, whether in the public square, in the economic sphere or in the moral realm.”
BDS, an umbrella group supported by virtually all of Palestinian civil society, presents itself as a non-violent protest movement modeled on the boycott campaign against apartheid South Africa. It does not adopt an official position on how the Israeli-Palestinian conflict should be resolved, and it officially rejects antisemitism.
Israel views BDS as an assault on its very legitimacy, in part because of extreme views held by some of its supporters. Israel also points to the group’s support for a right of return for millions of Palestinian refugees — which would spell the end of Israel as a Jewish-majority state — and BDS leaders’ refusal to endorse a two-state solution to the conflict.
Ben & Jerry’s decision was not a full boycott, and appeared to be aimed at Israel’s settlement enterprise. Some 700,000 Jewish settlers live in the occupied West Bank and east Jerusalem, which Israel annexed and considers part of its capital. Israel captured both territories in the 1967 Mideast war, and the Palestinians want them to be part of their future state.
Most of the international community views the settlements as a violation of international law. The Palestinians consider them the main obstacle to peace because they absorb and divide up the land on which a future Palestinian state would be established. Every Israeli government has expanded settlements, including during the height of the peace process in the 1990s.