Ben & Jerry in real pickle

Ice cream and international politics? How does that work together?

It doesn’t, and American ice cream makers, Ben & Jerry, have found out the hard way.

About a year ago, they opened the business week (Monday, July 19, 2021) by telling the world they have joined the Palestinian-led movement named rather innocently Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions (BDS for short).

“We believe it is inconsistent with our values for Ben & Jerry’s ice cream to be sold in the Occupied Palestinian Territory (OPT) … We have informed our licensee that we will not renew the [Israeli] license agreement when it expires at the end of next year.”

Not that their parent company, Unilever, were too happy about it, but once the deal was done and announced, it would be out of their hands.

The debate would rage on: is the move a sign of blatant anti-Semitism? Have the ice cream makers decided to re-write history?

To explain, herewith a joke. At a United Nations Security Council meeting gathered to condemn Israel for yet another purported crime against humanity, an Israeli delegate stands up and opens his speech thus: Moses was refreshing himself bathing in a lake (he names an area hotly disputed between today’s Israel and the Palestinians, and the topic of that day’s UN debate). A Palestinian nomad walks by and steals Moses’s clothing …

Not so fast! a Palestinian representative jumps up, there were no Palestinians then!

Thanks, the Israeli replies, and now to the point of who’s lived in that area since time immemorial …

Which is all nice and dandy, but most of the public debate following Ben & Jerry’s decision omitted one minor factor of major consequence: their move was illegal.

As an American private company they forgot that boycotts have played an important role in developing and maintaining freedom of expression and social justice within their country, but they are expressly forbidden to try to dictate foreign policy through such tactics.

Simple and perfectly straightforward: neither U.S. individuals nor U.S. companies are free to meddle in international politics. Period. It’s not a matter of free speech, the principle mentioned in the U.S. Constitution (and boycotted by the politically correct crowd, cancel and woke activists these days).

Money or principle?

Ben & Jerry’s social activism backfired right into their faces.

The company’s founders, Ben Cohen and Jerry Greenfield, sold the company to Unilever in 2000 for $326 million.

And now, Unilever turned around and sold the entire Israeli operation to its current local franchisee, Avi Zinger, and his firm, American Quality Products Inc.

“Unilever has used the opportunity of the past year to listen to perspectives on this complex and sensitive matter and believes this is the best outcome for Ben & Jerry’s in Israel,” the conglomerate said in a statement on the sale. “The review included extensive consultation over several months, including with the Israeli government,” the announcement added.

Why so much commotion over ice cream?

Here’s why: Ben & Jerry’s has 8.6 million followers on Facebook and nearly 525,000 followers on Twitter. Ben & Jerry’s is the world’s fourth top-selling ice cream brand, with operations in some 39 countries. It runs more than 200 dairy farms. Some have calculated that in the year 2020 alone, in the U.S. alone, 3.34 million people consumed four or more of Ben & Jerry’s quarts.

Besides, we live in online age, and companies no longer sell products alone. With that many online observers, they talk to millions of customers. Taking political stands and sharing them with their customers, the clientele hear it. A company that has earned tons of goodwill thanks to their product becomes a credible source in other fields, too.

Ben & Jerry’s weren’t too happy with their parent’s decision. So, they decided to sue them. They don’t want Unilever to sell their Israel business to their former local franchisee.

In a complaint filed in U.S. District Court in Manhattan they said that Unilever’s “unilateral decision” was made without board consent.

The ice cream company said an injunction blocking the sale was “essential to preserve the status quo and protect the brand and social integrity Ben & Jerry’s has spent decades building.”

As they said in their suit, Ben & Jerry’s board of directors voted 5-2 to authorise the action filing against Unilever. Only the two directors appointed by Unilever dissented.

What they want

Ben & Jerry’s kindly request that the court’s decision block the transfer of Ben & Jerry’s trademark and brand rights to any entity that would sell the product or use its logo in the West Bank without prior board approval.

Unilever agreed that Ben & Jerry’s board “retained rights related to its social mission” but noted, too that “Unilever reserved primary responsibility for financial and operational decisions and therefore has the right to enter this arrangement.”

Ben Cohen and Jerry Greenfield have a bit of a problem: that $326 million they received from Unilever for selling their company.

They have two options: buy it back from Unilever (at far more than they had received in 2000) and feel free to continue with their Messianic “save-the-world” mission, or shut up and be happy the cheque from Unilever didn’t bounce.

Should they select the former choice, they may risk steep fines and other inconveniences for breaking their country’s laws. That would make them martyrs, perhaps, but martyrdom doesn’t put bread on the table.

Mazel Tov, guys.

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