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August 10, 2022 3:27 pm
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US Judge Sees No ‘Imminent’ Threat to Ben & Jerry’s After Unilever Sale of Israeli Business to Local Licensee

avatar by Shiryn Ghermezian

Ben & Jerry’s ice-cream in an Israeli shop. Photo: Wikimedia Commons.

A US judge said at a court hearing in Manhattan on Monday that he remained unsure whether Ben & Jerry’s should receive an injunction against its parent company Unilever that would restrict the selling of its ice cream products in Israel’s West Bank and eastern Jerusalem, Reuters reported.

US District Judge Andrew Carter Jr. was not convinced that Ben & Jerry’s faces “imminent” harm following Unilever’s sale in June of the ice cream maker’s business in Israel to local licensee Avi Zinger. He told a lawyer representing Ben & Jerry’s, “I don’t hear anything saying that there is anything imminent.”

The judge gave no final verdict.

Ben & Jerry’s announced in July 2021 that it would stop selling its ice cream in areas it deemed “Occupied Palestinian Territory” because it was “inconsistent” with its company values. The Vermont-based ice cream manufacturer filed a lawsuit against Unilever in July of this year to block the sale of its company to Zinger. Monday’s hearing focused on whether Ben & Jerry’s deserves a temporary injunction that halts Zinger from selling new or rebranded products using its trademark, according to Reuters. 

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Zinger told Haaretz in July “I can do what I want” with the brand, and even proposed changing the name of the Ben & Jerry’s flavor “Chunky Monkey” to “Judea and Samaria.”

Ben & Jerry’s lawyer Shahmeer Halepota cited Zinger’s comments to Haaretz in court on Monday, and expressed concern that Zinger could sell “the exact same quality product with the exact opposite social stance” that the company has had for years. Halepota said, “Instead of Peace Pops, you could make ‘Tank Pops.’ This is an American institution that for the last 40 years has built its credibility on this authenticity of social mission.” He also argued that the change would be a breach of Ben & Jerry’s agreement with Unilever that allows its board to made decisions regards its social mission, according to Reuters.

However, Unilever argued that as a parent company, it has the right to make operational decisions for Ben & Jerry’s, and that the sale is closed and cannot be undone, the news agency noted. “There is just no reason to believe … that the continued sale of ice cream could cause irreparable harm,” Unilever’s lawyer David Marriott said.

The two companies unsuccessfully engaged in two weeks of mediation, with the hopes of reaching an out-of-court agreement, before Monday’s hearing. Ben & Jerry’s said last week Unilever had also frozen the salaries of its independent board of directors.

Meanwhile, more than 1,000 Israeli students and academics supporting the group Students for Justice in America recently sent a letter to Ben & Jerry’s chairperson Anuradha Mittal that says the company is hypocritical to accuse Israel of engaging in occupation, the New York Post reported. The group claimed Ben & Jerry’s is “illegally” occupying land in Vermont that once belonged to the Abenaki Native American tribe, which Vermont officially recognized in 2012.

They told Ben & Jerry’s to immediately leave the area “it occupies” in South Burlington, Waterbury and Saint Albans, and “return them to the Abenaki people,” because “your company has no right to these stolen territories.”

“We have concluded that your company’s occupation of the Abenaki lands is illegal and we believe it is wholly inconsistent with the stated values that Ben & Jerry’s purports to maintain,” the group added. “Ironically, in July of the last year you announced that you would discontinue the sale of your products in Israel because you object to the Jewish State allegedly occupying Palestinian territories … Justice, morality and boycotts are not just slogans and antisemitic weapons for your food company to point at the Jewish community in Israel. Justice and morality must begin at home.”

The letter was supported by Israel’s Shurat HaDin – Israel Law Center, whose president, Nitsana Darshan Leitner, said, “Ben & Jerry’s blatant hypocrisy has now been revealed by these Israeli students.”

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