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March 3, 2022 11:22 am

Ben & Jerry’s Israel Sues Unilever Over ‘Discriminatory’ Ice Cream Boycott

avatar by Shiryn Ghermezian

A refrigerator bearing the Ben & Jerry’s logo is seen at a food store in the Jewish settlement of Efrat in the West Bank July 20, 2021. REUTERS/Ronen Zvulun

Citing a dramatic loss of business and damage to its brand, the Israeli manufacturer and distributor of Ben & Jerry’s is suing the Vermont-based ice cream maker and its parent company Unilever for ending a decades-long agreement with the licensee in order to maintain a boycott of Israel.

American Quality Products (AQP), which became the first and only licensee of Ben & Jerry’s in 1987, and its owner Avi Zinger filed the lawsuit in the US District Court of New Jersey, where Unilever US is headquartered, and is asking the court to declare the conglomerate’s actions in boycotting parts of Israel illegal.

Ben & Jerry’s announced in July 2021 that it will no longer sell its products in the West Bank and eastern Jerusalem, areas it called “Occupied Palestinian Territory.”

“For 34 years I have had a strong and incredibly positive working relationship with Ben & Jerry’s, manufacturing and selling its ice cream in all parts of Israel, to Israelis and Palestinians,” said Zinger, an Israeli citizen, on Thursday. “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.”

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AQP said in the lawsuit that ahead of the announcement, Unilever demanded it comply with Ben & Jerry’s decision to boycott certain parts of Israel while continuing to sell in other parts of the country.

When the AQP refused to accede to Unilever’s demand — which Zinger’s company said violates Israeli law, as well as US anti-boycott policies — Unilever announced that it would not extend its relationship with AQP beyond December 2022. The only reason, the lawsuit said, was AQP’s refusal to carry out Unilever’s “unlawful demand.”

The licensing agreement had been renewed consistently since 1987.

The decision has “caused immediate harm to the plaintiffs’ business operation and reputation,” the lawsuit argued. AQP’s competitors “are taking advantage of the situation to push [the] plaintiffs out of the marketplace. Competitors are poaching plaintiffs employees and pressuring supermarket chains to relinquish to them a portion of plaintiffs’ freezer space … [and] as a direct consequence of defendants’ unlawful action,” AQP’s sales “have dropped precipitously.”

Since Ben & Jerry’s July 2021 announcement there have also been non-stop calls on social media to boycott AQP, and the company has experienced the vandalism of their equipment, including their freezers at stores. “In addition, government bodies, organizations, institutions, and private companies have succumbed to public pressure and are distancing themselves from AQP because they are reluctant to associate with the ostracized Ben & Jerry’s brand,” the lawsuit said.

Unilever’s recent announcement that it will find a “new arrangement” for Ben & Jerry’s ice cream in Israel has also “accelerated, intensified and exacerbated the harm” to AQP’s business,” the lawsuit argued.

AQP and Zinger are seeking an injunction from the US court to prevent Ben & Jerry’s and Unilever from refusing to renew the licensing agreement, and to enable AQP to keep making and distributing Ben & Jerry products throughout all of Israel. AQP is also seeking compensatory and punitive damages.

“Ben & Jerry’s and Unilever’s actions are misguided, unlawful and immoral,” Zinger said Thursday. “Boycotting Israel should come with a heavy price tag, and therefore, we are taking Unilever to court. We expect the court to prevent Unilever from terminating my contract, since the only reason it’s doing so is that I refused to break the law. Shame on Unilever for its wrongful attempt to boycott the state of Israel. There is still time to do the right thing. Renew my license and leave ice cream out of the political debate.”

AQP has asserted that terminating the licensing agreement solely because the company refused to break the law constitutes wrongful termination and breach of the licensing contract between AQP, Ben & Jerry’s and Unilever under US law. It further argued that Unilever’s actions violate Israel’s non-discrimination law and laws prohibiting direct calls for a boycott against Israel or an area under its control.

The lawsuit also outlined AQP’s diverse workforce of 169 employees — noting that it includes Jews, Muslims, new immigrants, people with disabilities, and refugees from Sudan and Ethiopia. The company’s workers, along with Palestinian suppliers and distributors, will lose their jobs when the contract with Unilever expires in December.

Zinger and his company additionally develop and fund programs that foster Palestinian-Israeli coexistence and peace, the suit said, which would be jeopardized by the boycott move.

“Unilever’s unlawful action is detrimental not only to Avi Zinger and his company, but also to Avi’s employees; his Palestinian distributors and suppliers; and the general public,” said Alyza Lewin, president of the Louis D. Brandeis Center for Human Rights Under Law, which is one of the parties representing Zinger.

“By placing this unlawful demand on Avi, Unilever has breached its contract and opened itself up to public ridicule and sanction,” Lewin said. “It is time for Unilever to admit the error of its ways and reverse its discriminatory and self-destructive decision.”

A Unilever spokesperson told The Algemeiner that the company does not comment on legal cases.

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