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Ben & Jerry's and Unilever dispute over sale of ice cream in apartheid sale breaks down

Palestinians stand up in support of Ben & Jerry's in Gaza on 29 July 2021 [Mohammed Asad/Middle East Monitor]
Palestinians stand up in support of Ben & Jerry's in Gaza on 29 July 2021 [Mohammed Asad/Middle East Monitor]

Ben & Jerry's and its parent company, Unilever, have failed to reach a settlement in the dispute over the sale of the ice cream maker's Israeli business to a local licensee. Both sides had agreed in mid-July to try to reach an out of court settlement by 28 July.

The talks have failed because Ben & Jerry's has refused to cave in on its social mission and stance on Palestinian human rights, a source told Reuters. Ben & Jerry's sued, on 5 July, to block the sale of the Israeli business to the licensee, Avi Zinger, saying Unilever had guaranteed its founders the right to protect its brand when buying the company in 2000.

The complaint filed in the US District Court in Manhattan said the sale of the business to the Israeli firm threatened to undermine the integrity of the Ben & Jerry's brand. The brand has a "purpose" and mission to "do good." The lawsuit alleges that Unilever violated the agreement it signed when it acquired Ben & Jerry's in 2001. That agreement gives the ice cream maker's independent board the ultimate say over its social mission and "brand integrity".

Rejecting the claim by Ben & Jerry that it still maintains control over the firm's independence on moral issues, Unilever's Chief Executive, Alan Jope, is reported saying this week on the company's quarterly earnings call that Ben & Jerry's "long-term future" is "squarely as part of Unilever".

In comments that suggest that Jope has a grim view of Palestinians, he said: "There is plenty for Ben & Jerry's to get their teeth into in their social justice mission without straying into geopolitics." Jope further told Ben & Jerry's to stick to safer issues like the climate emergency and "social justice".

READ: Ben & Jerry's doubles down on Israel boycott after anti-Palestinian Unilever decision

Jope's latest remark has been slammed by critics, who have accused the Unilever Executive of double standards and hypocrisy for suggesting that Palestinians trying to be free from military occupation and brutal settler-colonisation is not a matter of social justice.

Like many companies, Unilever claims to follow corporate social responsibility principles. The firm asserts that "we want to see a society where everyone is treated equally" and that Unilever is "working to create a fairer, more socially inclusive world." Unilever further acknowledges that "Too many people are excluded and under-represented simply because of who they are."

Unilever's stated position should put the firm squarely on the side of Palestinian resistance against Israeli apartheid, but the firm seems to be selective over which human beings are entitled to justice and equality as the Electronic Intifada (EI) has argued.

Israel reportedly bullied Unilever into its immoral and unethical position, according to the EI.

Ben & Jerry's to freeze ice-cream sales in West Bank settlements - Cartoon [Sabaaneh/MiddleEastMonitor]

Ben & Jerry's to freeze ice-cream sales in West Bank settlements – Cartoon [Sabaaneh/MiddleEastMonitor]

Although Unilever had "initially hoped to be able to respect the Board's politically charged decision without having to step in and assert its own rights to protect Ben & Jerry's and its parent, it became clear earlier this year that it could no longer do so," Unilever said in a court filing earlier this month.

The court filings reveal that Unilever had expressed concern for the damage to its business. Since Ben & Jerry's announced its boycott of illegal Israeli settlements, the company and its parent came under intense pressure and threats from Israel and its backers.

Naftali Bennett, the Israeli Prime Minister at the time, spoke with Jope, warning him of "severe consequences". The Israeli government also wrote to the governors of dozens of US states urging them to punish Ben & Jerry's for its "anti-Semitic" action. Dozens of US states have banned the boycott of Israel and adopted a definition of anti-Semitism that conflates criticism of Israel with anti-Jewish racism.

The dispute is expected to head back to federal court in New York after a two-week hiatus to give mediation a chance.

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