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US Judge blocks Ben & Jerry’s freedom to boycott Israel

August 25, 2022 at 1:18 pm

Israeli and American flags on March 21, 2013 in Jerusalem, Israel [Uriel Sinai/Getty Images]

A US judge has denied the founders of Ben & Jerry’s ice cream company the right to prevent the sale of their products in the Israeli-occupied Palestinian Territories. Earlier this month the global brand sought to prevent parent company Unilever Plc from transferring intellectual property and branding to an Israeli firm. Ben & Jerry’s argued that the sale of ice cream in the occupied territories, which major human rights groups, including Amnesty International, say is subjected to an apartheid regime by Israel, is “inconsistent with [our] values”. A US judge dismissed the claim and ruled that the company had not shown that it would suffer irreparable harm by Unilever’s move.

The row between the founders of Ben & Jerry’s and Unilever erupted last July after the Vermont-based company announced its boycott of Israel. Ben & Jerry’s has a history of political activism, and when the company was bought by UK-based consumer goods giant Unilever in 2000 it was allowed to retain an independent board to oversee its social activism.

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Ben & Jerry’s decision, which followed the publication of a series of high-profile reports by B’Tselem and Human Rights Watch, as well as Amnesty International, labelling Israel as an apartheid state, was seen as a major boost for the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement. The boycott by Ben & Jerry’s, however, was exclusive to the Israeli-occupied Palestinian territories,  and not Israel per se.

Although the company did not proclaim its support for BDS specifically, it sought an injunction following Unilever’s decision to sell the licence to an Israeli firm. It argued that Unilever’s decision was “made without the consent of Ben & Jerry’s Independent Board” and went against the merger agreement that gave the board the ability to protect the founders’ values and reputation. On Monday, though, District Judge Andrew Carter ruled that the Ben & Jerry’s board had “failed to demonstrate” that it would suffer “irreparable harm” and rejected the argument about reputational damage as “too speculative.”

Founded in the US in 1978, Ben & Jerry’s is known for championing progressive causes, including protecting the environment and promoting human rights. It has frequently released special ice-cream flavours to support various causes.

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Confirming the claim by critics that Palestine exposes the limits of free speech, Ben & Jerry’s faced no criticism for its moral stances until its decision to boycott the apartheid state. Unilever’s Chief Executive Alan Jope himself exposed the double-standards at play. “There is plenty for Ben & Jerry’s to get their teeth into in their social justice mission without straying into geopolitics,” said Jope. He told Ben & Jerry’s to stick to safer issues such as climate change and “social justice”. His comment was slammed by critics, who accused him of hypocrisy for suggesting that Palestinians trying to free themselves from military occupation and brutal settler-colonialism 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.” It acknowledges further, without a hint of irony, that, “Too many people are excluded and under-represented simply because of who they are.”