Ben & Jerry’s sues Unilever to block sale of Israeli business

Company said lawsuit was necessary to protect ‘the brand and social integrity Ben & Jerry’s has spent decades building’.

A Ben & Jerry's Ice Cream storefront.
A Ben & Jerry's Ice Cream shop in Burlington, Vermont, in the United States [Charles Krupa/AP]

American ice cream brand Ben & Jerry’s has sued its parent company Unilever Plc to block the sale of its Israeli business to a local licensee, saying it was inconsistent with its values to sell its ice cream brand in the occupied West Bank.

The company, known for its political activism, took the unusual step to seek an injunction on Tuesday after London-based Unilever said last week that it had sold its interest in the ice cream to Israeli license-holder Avi Zinger.

Under the new arrangement announced last week, Ben & Jerry’s ice cream would be available to all consumers in Israel and the occupied West Bank, including in Israeli settlements.

The complaint filed in the US District Court in Manhattan said the sale announced on June 29 threatened to undermine the integrity of the Ben & Jerry’s brand, which its board retained independence to protect when Unilever acquired the company in 2000.

An injunction against transferring the business and related trademarks to Avi Zinger, who runs American Quality Products Ltd, was essential to “protect the brand and social integrity Ben & Jerry’s has spent decades building,” the complaint said.

Ben & Jerry’s said its board voted 5-2 to sue, with the two Unilever appointees dissenting.

In a statement, Unilever said it does not discuss pending litigation but that it had the right to sell the disputed business and “the deal has already closed”.

Lawyers for Zinger did not immediately respond to requests for comment. Last week, Zinger settled his own lawsuit against Ben & Jerry’s for refusing to renew his license.

The dispute highlights challenges facing consumer brands taking a stand on Israeli settlements in the occupied West Bank, which are regarded as illegal settlements under international law and by much of the international community.

Last July, Ben & Jerry’s said it would end sales of its brand in the occupied West Bank and parts of occupied East Jerusalem, and sever its three-decade relationship with Zinger.

Israel condemned the move, and some Jewish groups accused Ben & Jerry’s of anti-Semitism.

Ben & Jerry’s was founded in a renovated gas station in 1978 by Ben Cohen and Jerry Greenfield. No longer involved in Ben & Jerry’s operations, they wrote in the New York Times last July that they supported Israel but opposed its “illegal occupation” of the West Bank.

Source: News Agencies