History of the (now ended) Boycott of Ben & Jerry’s
What was there not to love about Ben & Jerry’s? Vermonters are enamoured of Ben & Jerry’s – the “Peace and Love and Ice Cream” Company. But in 2011 Vermonters for Justice in Palestine (VTJP) documented that Ben & Jerry’s Israeli franchise was selling its ice cream in illegal settlements in the occupied west bank (Palestine). Any commercial activity in the Settlements ‘normalizes’ the Apartheid actions and policies of the Israeli government. After meeting with senior company management and members of their Board, appealing with them to stop those sales, VTJP declared a boycott in 2013 and then coordinated actions with several other groups that included leafleting at scoop shops across the country, emails and messaging by thousands of supporters to Company management, writing to franchise owners in the U.S., and extensive media coverage. Eventually, in July 2021, Ben & Jerry’s announced that doing business in the settlements was ‘inconsistent with their values’. However, somewhat disparate announcements by their Board of Directors and by Unilever indicated that there was trouble ahead.
Unilever’s actions over Ben & Jerry’s is very significant and precedent-setting.
Unilever has owned Ben & Jerry’s since 2001. It is a huge multinational company with numerous other products that are no doubt sold in the illegal West Bank settlements. A key factor here is that Israeli law insists that any company in Israel cannot ‘boycott’ the settlements. This is well-known, but it appears that while Unilever were aware of the implications, Ben & Jerry’s were not – their initial statement (July 2021) implied they could continue to operate in Israel in some way, but not provide ice cream to the illegal settlements in the West Bank. Since restricting sales in settlements would provide a precedent for all their other businesses, Unilever would not want to take the step of withdrawing one of their companies from Israel.
The New arrangement: Ben & Jerry’s, Unilever and the Israeli company Blue and White
The new arrangement, pushed through by Unilever in 2022 despite legal action by the Board, apparently provides a legal settlement giving the owner of the franchise, Avi Zinger, full access to the name, branding, artwork, etc. of Ben & Jerry’s, except that he will use Hebrew or Arabic text, instead of Roman. (Details of the settlement were not made not public.) He clearly intends to continue selling in the illegal settlements. There were several ‘players’ involved: Ben & Jerry’s in Vermont, their Board of Directors, Unilever, and the Israeli company. On the face of it, the franchise owner, Avi Zinger, got everything he wanted. In fact, it appears that he had a very advantageous arrangement with Ben & Jerry’s founders since being awarded the franchise in 1987.
VTJP now no longer calling for a boycott
VTJP considers that Ben & Jerry’s in Vermont eventually did the right thing, after our 10-year campaign. Unilever did not. Since the Unilever acquisition, Ben & Jerry’s retains its independent Board of Directors whose responsibilities include maintaining the company’s ‘Social Mission’, and it was the Board that evidently persuaded management to take its action in 2021, and then the Board pursued its case against Unilever in the courts. So boycotting Ben & Jerry’s would no longer be appropriate or desirable. The boycott, and the awareness it helped raise about the oppression and dispossession of Palestinian people will be a lasting legacy.