Business & Economy

Ben & Jerry’s sues Unilever over sale of Israel business

Ben & Jerry's Cherry Garcia ice cream
The Ben & Jerry's independent board filed a complaint on Tuesday in the U.S. District Court in New York, seeking to prevent the sale of its ice cream in the occupied West Bank. File photo by Kevin O’Connor/VTDigger

Ben & Jerry’s is suing its parent company, Unilever, in an attempt to stop the sale of its Israel business to a regional partner.

The Vermont-based ice cream giant’s independent board filed a complaint on Tuesday in the U.S. District Court in New York, seeking to prevent the sale and ensure that ice cream is not sold under its name in the occupied West Bank.

In this latest spurt of controversy surrounding Ben & Jerry’s, the independent board requested an injunction “to protect the brand and social integrity Ben & Jerry’s has spent decades building.”

A federal judge denied the request for a temporary restraining order but ordered Unilever to show why a preliminary injunction should not be issued by July 14.

When Unilever acquired the ice cream company in 2000, an independent board was created to safeguard the liberal values of Ben & Jerry’s.

“An Independent Board of Directors was created and expressly authorized to protect against actions that, in its discretion, pose a risk to the integrity of the essential elements of the Ben & Jerry’s brand name,” the board states in its lawsuit.

Unilever has declined to comment on the pending litigation but said in a statement Wednesday that “the deal has already closed.”

It announced the sale to American Quality Products, a longtime distributor of the ice cream in the region, on June 29. The agreement allows AQP to sell the ice cream throughout Israel and the West Bank using only its Hebrew and Arabic names and with no ties to Unilever.

Ben & Jerry’s began business in Israel in 1987, but faced public backlash in recent years for remaining in the West Bank — an occupied area where Israel has established settlements deemed by the United Nations to be illegal under international law. There were some 300 illegal Israeli settlements in the West Bank as of March, according to the U.N.

The lawsuit filed Tuesday states that the ice cream brand has become “synonymous with social activism.” Last summer the brand pulled out of the West Bank but defended its decision to continue to sell ice cream in Israel. Jewish founders Ben Cohen and Jerry Greenfield publicly announced their support for the board’s decision at that time.

In response, Israel’s Prime Minister Naftali Bennett said last year that the country would “act aggressively” against Ben & Jerry’s decision to pull out of occupied territories, calling the action an “anti-Israel step” and a direct attack against Israeli citizens. The Israeli government considers occupied territories as a leg of the Israeli economy and urged U.S. state governors to punish Ben & Jerry’s for committing to its boycott.

The action also spurred contention between Ben & Jerry’s and American Quality Products. AQP filed suit against the company in March, citing a breach of contract after a 34-year business relationship.

Last week Unilever, a worldwide consumer goods manufacturer, attempted to mitigate harm by selling its Ben & Jerry’s business in Israel to AQP for an undisclosed amount in hopes of allowing the ice cream to be sold in Israel and its occupied territories without any connection to the Ben & Jerry’s brand. However, according to the suit filed Tuesday, news of the sale came as a shock to the Ben & Jerry’s board of directors.

The board opted to sue after five members voted to pursue legal action and two, appointed by Unilever, dissented, Ben & Jerry’s told CNN.

The sale of other Unilever products continues in Israel.

Clarification: This story was updated to clarify that the United Nations has deemed settlements in the West Bank illegal.

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Kori Skillman

About Kori

Kori Skillman recently earned a master’s degree from the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism, with a focus on visual craft and short documentary. She also holds degrees in journalism and international business from San Diego State University. Kori worked this year as a press intern at the New York County District Attorney’s Office.

Email: [email protected]

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