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Unilever sells Ben & Jerry’s Israeli operations, allowing West Bank sales to continue

The parent company had come under severe criticism from pro-Israel groups who said it was antisemitic to boycott Israeli settlements

Unilever said Tuesday that it would sell its Israeli Ben & Jerry’s operations to an Israeli businessman who plans to continue distributing the brand in the the Israeli-occupied West Bank. The move effectively ends a massive pressure campaign launched by pro-Israel organizations last summer after the Vermont-based subsidiary of Unilever declared that it would stop selling its ice cream in the West Bank over human rights concerns.

The buyer, Avi Zinger, owns American Quality Products Ltd., which currently distributes Ben & Jerry’s in the country.

The sale comes a year after Ben & Jerry’s — which is partly governed by an independent board — announced last summer that it would stop sales in West Bank settlements. That announcement ignited a furor against international conglomerate Unilever. State officials across the United States followed the calls of pro-Israel activists to punish the company under laws and regulations meant to target the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement aimed at Israel.

New York Gov.Kathy Hochul told the Forward Wednesday that Unilever had fulfilled her request to prove that it was not “engaging in BDS activity” by July 6, after which the state was planning to divest public funds invested in the company.

Unilever has said that it did not support the BDS movement — which calls for companies to boycott Israel entirely, something that Ben & Jerry’s did not plan to do — and referenced that position again in announcing the sale of its Israeli business.

“Unilever rejects completely and repudiates unequivocally any form of discrimination or intolerance,” the company said in a statement. “We have never expressed any support for the Boycott Divestment Sanctions (BDS) movement and have no intention of changing that position.”

The deal is complicated, allowing American Quality Products to sell Ben & Jerry’s ice cream with Hebrew and Arabic branding, but not use the English logo, the Times of Israel reported. This appeared to be a method of getting around Ben & Jerry’s independent board, which was created to preserve the company’s tradition of supporting social justice causes when it was acquired by Unilever in 2000.

In a Twitter thread Wednesday afternoon, Ben & Jerry’s official account, @benandjerrys, said it disagreed with its parent company’s move. “We continue to believe it is inconsistent with Ben & Jerry’s values for our ice cream to be sold in the Occupied Palestinian Territory,” it said.

Unilever said that it made the sale after consulting with the Israeli government, which released a statement praising the decision Wednesday.

“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,” said Israeli Foreign Minister Yair Lapid.

The Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations in a statement called the move “a victory against discrimination and for dialogue and inclusion” and said that Alan Jope, Unilever’s chief executive, had been in touch with the group Wednesday morning.

Jonathan Greenblatt, chief of the Anti-Defamation League, said on social media that the news “is as welcome as a scoop of Cherry Garcia on a hot summer day.”

“Today is yet another demonstration of the ineffectiveness of trying to boycott and ostracize Israel — and proves that healing can happen when all sides work together,” Greenblatt said.

A win for BDS opponents?

But others argued that the successful campaign to convince Unilever to continue selling ice cream in Israeli settlements, which are illegal under international law, was a pyrrhic victory for the pro-Israel movement. Ben & Jerry’s decision last July to cease selling its products in the “Occupied Palestinian Territory” stopped well short of the BDS movement’s official call for companies not to do any business with Israel.

The BDS campaign calls for this total boycott with the ultimate goal of forcing Israel to allow Palestinian refugees and their descendants to return to Israel, which would effectively end Israel’s status as a Jewish-majority nation. The sweeping nature of BDS, and its absolutist demands, has largely relegated support for it to the fringes of American politics. In contrast, Ben & Jerry’s attempt to end operations in the West Bank — which has been occupied by Israel since 1967, but never annexed — was far more limited.

“It’s possible to support Israel and oppose some of its policies,” Ben Cohen and Jerry Greenfield, the company’s founders, wrote in a New York Times op-ed last year. “As such, we unequivocally support the decision of the company to end business in the occupied territories, which a majority of the international community, including the United Nations, has deemed an illegal occupation.”

This position echoes calls from some other liberal American Jews to specifically shun Israeli settlements. Peter Beinart called for a settlement boycott in 2012, referring to it as “Zionist B.D.S.” He said that maintaining the distinction between Israel, which is a liberal democracy, and the West Bank — where Jewish settlers enjoy significantly more civil rights than Palestinians — would keep “alive the hope of a Jewish democratic state alongside a Palestinian one.”

Sixty-six percent of American Jews believe Israel should dismantle at least some of its West Bank settlements as part of a peace agreement with the Palestinians, according to a 2019 poll by the American Jewish Committee.

Some critics Wednesday lambasted the American Jewish establishment for launching a campaign that collapsed the distinction between boycotting Israel and refusing to do business in West Bank settlements.

“The One State Solution. Brought to you by the ADL and Unilever,” Yair Wallach, a lecturer at SOAS University of London, said on Twitter, referring to the alternative to the two-state solution where Israel exists alongside a sovereign Palestinian state. The one-state solution refers to a binational Israeli-Palestinian nation — either an Israeli-Palestinian democracy or a Jewish-dominated state that annexes the occupied territories.

The antisemitism question

Both the Israeli government and Jewish organizations opposed to Ben & Jerry’s original announcement described it as antisemitic. “Antisemitism will not defeat us, not even when it comes to ice-cream,” Lapid said in his statement. Unilever also echoed these concerns in the announcement of its sale: “Unilever rejects completely and repudiates unequivocally any form of discrimination or intolerance. Antisemitism has no place in any society.”

Yet there is little evidence that most Jewish Americans thought that Ben & Jerry’s was discriminating against Jews by refusing to sell ice cream in Israeli settlements. There does not appear to have been any public polling done about the company’s decision, but the Jewish Electorate Institute found last summer that less than one-third of Jewish voters found a wide swath of political attacks on Israel to be antisemitic. Forty-three percent of American Jews “strongly oppose” BDS, according to the Pew Research Center, while 10% support it.

The announcement comes after the Financial Mail on Sunday, a British publication, reported Saturday that Unilever was considering selling off its ice cream businesses as part of a larger shake up. “Sources said this would slim down the group, letting it focus on faster-growing health and beauty brands,” according to the article.

It also follows an announcement a May 31 announcement by General Mills that it would shut down a Pillsbury dough factory in East Jerusalem after years of Palestinian activism targeting the plant. General Mills said that decision was purely economic.

Alyza Lewin, president of the Louis D. Brandeis Center for Human Rights Under Law, commended Unilever for selling off its Israeli operations. Lewin has sued the company on behalf of Zinger, the Israeli licensee, and credited the case with pressuring Unilever to sell.

“BDS is bad for business and discrimination doesn’t pay,” Lewin said in an interview.

Jacob Kornbluh, the Forward’s senior political reporter, contributed to this article.

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