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Ben & Jerry’s Israeli manufacturer sues the brand and Unilever over boycott

The manufacturer and distributor of Ben & Jerry’s in Israel is suing Vermont-based Ben & Jerry’s and its parent company Unilever for its decision last summer to end sales in the Israeli-occupied West Bank.

The lawsuit was filed on Thursday by American Quality Products and its owner Avi Zinger in the U.S. District Court of New Jersey, where Unilever U.S. is headquartered. The company claims the termination was illegal and seeks a judgment that would enable it to continue manufacturing Ben & Jerry’s products throughout Israel and the West Bank. The contract is set to expire in December.

“Leave ice cream out of the political debate,” said Zinger in a statement.

Ben & Jerry’s announced last July that it would end its relationship with the Israeli licensee that manufactures and distributes its products in the West Bank, saying that selling in occupied territory “is inconsistent with our values.” The company’s founders, Ben Cohen and Jerry Greenfield, maintained the move was not a boycott of Israel because the company plans to continue selling ice cream within its 1948 borders. The ice cream company said it will continue to sell its products in East Jerusalem and the West Bank through the end of this year and then will sell its products in Israel under a “different business arrangement.”

The Israeli manufacturer argues that the demand to cease operations in the West Bank violates Israeli laws, including one that prohibits discrimination on the basis of residency and the anti-boycott law that passed in 2011. Several U.S. states have passed similar laws.

“I refused Ben & Jerry’s and Unilever’s illegal demands, and as a result, they are threatening to close my business, affecting hundreds of Israeli and Palestinians workers and distributors,” said Zinger. “Shame on Unilever for its wrongful attempt to boycott the state of Israel.”

Alyza Lewin, one of the lawyers representing the Israeli licensee, said American Quality Products is seeking an injunction before the contract expires, arguing that Ben & Jerry’s decision will lead to irreversible harm. If the contract is not extended, she said Zinger will ask for damages. She added that attorneys will file a motion for a preliminary injunction that will extend the contract as long as the case continues.

“The hope is that Unilever will turn around and say, ‘You’re right. We see now that this was an error, and we can’t do that,’” said Lewin, who serves as president of the Louis D. Brandeis Center for Human Rights Under Law.

Several states have withdrawn or taken steps to withdraw investments in Unilever since Ben & Jerry’s announcement. New Jersey, New York, Arizona, Florida, Illinois and Texas have already divested from Unilever, withdrawing investments and holdings worth upwards of $1 billion. New Jersey, where Unliver’s headquarters are, pulled $182 million in investments.

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