Unilever said Tuesday it would sell its Israeli Ben & Jerry’s business to Avi Zinger. American Quality Products Ltd. de Zinger currently distributes its ice cream in the country.
The sale comes after Ben & Jerry’s – which is partly governed by an independent board of directors – announced last summer that it would stop selling its products in the Israeli-occupied West Bank. This announcement sparked a furor against the international conglomerate Unilever. State officials across the United States have followed calls from pro-Israel activists to punish the company under laws and regulations intended to target the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement targeting Israel.
New York Governor Kathy Hochul told The Forward on Wednesday that Unilever had responded to her request to prove that it was not “engaging in BDS activity” until July 6, after which the state planned to dispose of public funds invested in the company.
Unilever said it does not support the BDS movement – which calls on businesses to boycott Israel entirely, something Ben & Jerry’s had no plans to do – and again referenced that position when announcing the sale of its Israeli activities.
“Unilever completely rejects and unequivocally repudiates any form of discrimination or intolerance,” the company said in a statement. “We have never expressed support for the Boycott Divestment Sanctions (BDS) movement and have no intention of changing that position.”
The company said it made the sale after consulting with the Israeli government, which issued a statement on Wednesday praising the decision.
“We will fight delegitimization and the BDS campaign in all areas, be it in the public square, in the economic sphere or in the moral realm,” Israeli Foreign Minister Yair Lapid said.
The deal is complicated, allowing American Quality Products to sell Ben & Jerry’s ice cream with both Hebrew and Arabic branding. It is not permitted to use the logo in English, according to The Times of Israel. It appeared to be a method of circumventing Ben & Jerry’s independent board of directors, which was created to uphold the company’s tradition of supporting social justice causes when it was acquired by Unilever in 2000.
The Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, in a statement, called the decision “a victory against discrimination and for dialogue and inclusion” and that Alan Jope, chief executive of Unilever, had been in contact with the group this morning.
Jonathan Greenblatt, head 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 parties work together,” Greenblatt said.
A victory for opponents of BDS?
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 stop selling its products in the “Occupied Palestinian Territory” came to a halt long before the BDS movement’s official call on companies not to do 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 majority Jewish nation. The radical nature of BDS and its absolutist demands have largely relegated its support to the margins 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 much more limited.
“It is 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 company’s decision to end its operations in the occupied territories, which a majority of the international community, including the United Nations, has deemed an illegal occupation. “
This stance echoes calls from some other liberal American Jews to specifically avoid Israeli settlements. Peter Beinart called for a boycott of the settlements in 2012, calling it “Zionist BDS.” He said maintaining the distinction between Israel, which is a liberal democracy, and the West Bank – where Jewish settlers enjoy far more civil rights than Palestinians – would keep “hopes for a democratic Jewish state alive.” alongside a Palestinian state.
Sixty-six percent of American Jews believe Israel should dismantle at least some of its West Bank settlements as part of a peace deal with the Palestinians, according to a 2019 poll by the American Jewish Committee.
Some critics on Wednesday lambasted the American Jewish establishment for launching a campaign that abolished 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,” said Yair Wallach, senior lecturer at SOAS University of London. Twitter, referring to the alternative to the two-state solution where Israel coexists with a sovereign Palestinian state. The one-state solution refers to a bi-national Israeli-Palestinian nation – either an Israeli-Palestinian democracy or a Jewish-dominated state that annexes the occupied territories.
The Israeli government and Jewish organizations opposed to the original Ben & Jerry’s ad called it anti-Semitic. “Anti-Semitism 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 completely rejects and unequivocally repudiates any form of discrimination or intolerance. Anti-Semitism has no place in any society.
Yet there is little evidence that most American Jews believed that Ben & Jerry’s discriminated against Jews by refusing to sell ice cream in Israeli settlements. There doesn’t appear to have been a public poll on the company’s decision, but the Institute for the Jewish Voters found last summer that less than a third of Jewish voters considered a wide range of political attacks on Israel were anti-Semitic. According to the Pew Research Center, 43% of American Jews “strongly oppose” BDS, while 10% support it.
The announcement comes after the Financial Mail on Sunday, a British publication, reported on Saturday that Unilever was considering selling its ice cream business as part of a wider shake-up. “Sources said this would shrink the group, allowing it to focus on faster-growing health and beauty brands,” according to the article.
It also follows a May 31 announcement by General Mills that it would close a Pillsbury pulp mill in East Jerusalem after years of Palestinian activism targeting the factory. General Mills said the decision was purely economic.
Alyza Lewin, president of the Louis D. Brandeis Center for Human Rights Under Law, congratulated Unilever on the sale of its Israeli operations. Lewin 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, senior political reporter for the Forward, contributed to this article.