Ben & Jerry’s decision to stop West Bank sales puts Unilever in dire straits

Unilever PLC was embroiled in controversy on Tuesday after its ice cream brand Ben & Jerry’s said it would no longer sell its products in Jewish settlements in the Israeli-occupied West Bank and disputed East Jerusalem.

The Israeli government has called on the London-listed company to reverse its brand’s decision, with Prime Minister Naftali Bennett warning Unilever chief executive Alan Jope in a call of “grave consequences” and other politicians calling for the boycott.

Mr. Bennett “made it clear that he viewed with the greatest seriousness Ben & Jerry’s decision to boycott Israel and added that it is a subsidiary of Unilever, which has taken a clearly anti- Israeli, ”the politician’s office said.

On Tuesday, Israel’s Ambassador to the United States Gilad Erdan said he sent a letter to each of the 35 state governors that have passed anti-boycott of Israel laws, urging them to sanction Ben & Jerry’s. The laws were passed as the international Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions, or BDS, movement, which largely seeks to force Israel to change its settlement policies through economic pressure, gained momentum in the United States.

Mr Erdan wrote in his letters that the ice cream brand’s decision not to supply its product to Israeli settlements amounted to “the de facto adoption of anti-Semitic practices and the delegitimization of the Jewish state,” according to one. copy of the letter he posted on Twitter.

State Department spokesman Ned Price said on Tuesday that the Biden administration “strongly rejects the BDS movement, which unfairly singles out Israel,” but would not specifically comment on Ben and Jerry’s decision as he responded. to a journalist’s question.

A spokeswoman for Unilever said the company recognizes the brand’s right to make decisions about its social mission, but declined to comment on the reaction in Israel. A spokeswoman for Ben & Jerry’s declined to comment on the backlash and accusations of anti-Semitism.

The tension arose after Ben & Jerry’s said on Monday it would not renew its agreement with its licensee in Israel, Ben & Jerry’s Israel, which manufactures the product within Israel’s internationally recognized borders but also distributes ice cream in the occupied West Bank and parts of disputed East Jerusalem. The company said it plans to make another arrangement to stay in Israel after the deal expires at the end of next year.

In his own statement on Monday, Unilever called the Israeli-Palestinian conflict “a very complex and sensitive situation,” and said he was fully committed to his presence in Israel. He added that he welcomed Ben & Jerry’s plan to stay in Israel.

Unilever bought Ben & Jerry’s in 2000 for $ 326 million. At that time, he was committed to allowing the brand to retain an independent board of directors that would retain the right to make decisions regarding its social mission.

The chairman of this independent board on Monday accused Unilever of violating its purchase contract, saying the directors of the brand had wanted to issue a statement that made no reference to staying in Israel but did. been prevented by its parent company, according to remarks reported by NBC News. The chairman of the board did not respond to a request for comment.

Workers produced Ben & Jerry’s ice cream on Tuesday in Be’er Tuvia, Israel.


Photo:

ronen zvulun / Reuters

Founded by two self-styled hippies in the late 1970s, Ben & Jerry’s has a long tradition of addressing issues of social justice. The flavor maker, including Chunky Monkey and Cherry Garcia, spent part of its marketing budget promoting causes like Black Lives Matter and Occupy Wall Street. In recent years, he has also focused on immigration issues.

Its flavor of corporate activism has already exposed the ice cream maker to backlash: the company has been criticized for its support for the 2017 Women’s March, for example, because it was partly organized by activists who were accused of anti-Semitic views. Ben & Jerry’s says on its website that the walk is “a spectacular show of our country at its best”.

Meanwhile, some human rights groups have attacked Ben & Jerry’s for selling its products in Jewish settlements in the West Bank.

Ben & Jerry’s ice cream on display in Jerusalem on Tuesday.


Photo:

ahmad gharabli / Agence France-Presse / Getty Images

In its statement Monday, the ice cream brand said it was “inconsistent with our values” for its products to be sold in those regions.

Pro-Palestinian activists have long campaigned to get companies to boycott Israeli settlements, but few companies have recently made this move. In 2018, Airbnb Inc.

said it would remove all listings on its website in Israeli settlements, only to reverse the decision a few months later. The reversal followed intense pressure from the Israeli government and a trial in a US federal court – an episode Mr Erdan recalled as a warning in his letter to US governors.

Ben & Jerry’s decision was criticized by other Israeli politicians on social media on Tuesday.

“Now we Israelis know what ice cream NOT to buy,” tweeted former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who has many followers in the country.

Orna Barbivay, Israel’s Minister of the Economy, posted a video on TikTok showing herself taking a carton of branded ice cream out of her freezer and throwing it in the trash.

The Israelis celebrated parliament’s approval of a new coalition in mid-June, ending the 12-year reign of former prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu. His supporters have come together to cheer on the country’s longest-serving leader as he takes on a new role as political opponent. Photo: Ariel Schalit / Associated Press (Video of 06/13/21)

Ordinary Israelis have also expressed frustration, posting articles on fake flavors that associated the company with Palestinian activists, such as Mintifada. The word is a play on the mint flavor and the Arabic word used to describe two Palestinian uprisings against Israel, the Intifada.

Avi Zinger, managing director of Ben and Jerry’s Israel, sought to explain to Israelis that it is his company’s products in Israeli stores, and his hundreds of employees who would be devastated if Israelis stop buying ice cream .

During a phone call, Zinger said his company was losing the contract because it refused to comply with the ice cream brand’s request to stop supplying products to Israeli settlements.

He said his ice cream sales made up about 80% of his business, which includes the sale of other foods and products. He said he believed the decision would ultimately be overturned due to its strategic importance to the State of Israel.

“If the State of Israel cannot stop this, it is a major failure for Israel and a major success for BDS,” he said.

Write to Nick Kostov at Nick.Kostov@wsj.com

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