The Cold, Hard Truth About Ben & Jerry’s
Almost a year after their “excruciating, car crash” interview with Axios on HBO went viral on social media, Bennett Cohen and Jerry Greenfield — the progressive co-founders and former owners of Ben & Jerry’s — returned to television this month to once again defend their namesake company’s attempts to freeze out Israel.
Speaking with MSNBC’s Mehdi Hasan, a long-time detractor of the Jewish state in his own right, the 71-year-old duo first commented on Ben & Jerry’s protracted legal battle with parent company Unilever, prompted by the rebellious ice cream brand’s July 2021 announcement it would stop selling in Jewish communities beyond Israel’s pre-1967 boundaries.
Unilever CEO Alan Jope has come out against the move, saying that “there is plenty for Ben & Jerry’s to get their teeth into in their social justice mission without straying into geopolitics.”
Accordingly, and following a separate lawsuit in US Federal court earlier this year, Unilever acted to thwart its subsidiary’s boycott plan by selling off Ben & Jerry’s Israeli business interests to local franchisee Avi Zinger. The arrangement allows American Quality Products Ltd. to continue selling frozen treats in all territories under Jerusalem’s control using Hebrew and Arabic branding.
In response, the Vermont-based maker of Chunky Monkey and Chubby Hubby filed the ongoing civil suit against Unilever in the US Southern District Court of New York, claiming that the deal with Zinger violated their 2000 merger agreement.
As Cohen argued on the September 18 broadcast of “The Mehdi Hasan Show:”
Unilever signed a legally binding agreement at [the time of] acquisition of the company, and that agreement gave authority over the social mission to the independent board of Ben & Jerry’s. Unilever has usurped their authority and reversed a decision that was made. We can’t allow that to happen, we can’t sit idly by while that happens.
Despite multimillionaires Cohen and Greenfield having lost control of Ben & Jerry’s over 20 years ago, their indictment of Unilever instantly made headlines around the world. Indeed, The Daily Mail, The Financial Times, The Guardian, The Irish Times, The New York Post, and Reuters, among other mainstream outlets, all published reports that amplified their comments.
Yet Cohen and Greenfield seem to be suffering from convenient memory loss — and, conspicuously, not one journalist cited the actual text of the agreement negotiated in April 2000.
Unilever’s $326 million acquisition of Ben & Jerry’s Homemade Inc. was the subject of complex negotiations, resulting in a lengthy document regulating both companies’ rights and obligations, down to the last detail. In point of fact, Richard Goldstein — who, as then-president of Unilever USA, served as the global organization’s chief negotiator — once called it “by far the most unique deal” he was ever involved in.
Under the terms of the sales contract, as published by the US Securities and Exchange Commission, Unilever was given control over the “financial and operational aspects” of Ben & Jerry’s. Meanwhile, the independent board only retained responsibility “with respect to the enhancement of the Social Mission Priorities … of the Company, as they may evolve, and the preservation of the essential integrity of the Ben & Jerry’s brand-name.”
The agreement does not grant the independent board the explicit authority to withdraw Ben & Jerry’s from countries it disagrees with. Schedule 6.14, an addendum to the merger deal that clarifies some of the firm’s social objectives, lists everything from promoting “sustainable agriculture efforts” to continuing “the purchase of non-rBGH milk and cream primarily from Vermont farms,” but — crucially — does not mention geopolitics.
Moreover, the contract limits the board’s discretion within the bounds of “commercial reasonableness.” And one can hardly deny that effectively boycotting a market of 9.2 million consumers impacts the financial and operational aspects of Ben & Jerry’s, especially in light of the massive monetary repercussions Unilever has faced due to counter-boycotts.
At the same time, it is imperative to note that Cohen and Greenfield explicitly agreed to “use commercially reasonable efforts to obtain (at [Ben & Jerry’s] expense) for [Unilever] the right to conduct all facets of the Business in Israel.” Legal experts have pointed out that, “as a matter of contract law, a highly generalized contractual provision giving Ben and Jerry’s board the final say on amorphous ‘social mission priorities’ cannot override a specific and tangible legal commitment to conduct business in Israel.”
This prompts the question: did MSNBC and Mehdi Hasan fail to do their due diligence, or are they letting Cohen and Greenfield actively mislead the show’s 443,00 viewers about the Ben & Jerry’s “cone-undrum”?
As HonestReporting detailed in a July 31 piece, Ben & Jerry’s refusal to back down on this issue is indicative of how its board views Israel as uniquely bad, even as the famously “woke” company continues to sell ice cream in the disputed territories of Cyprus and Gibraltar.
In a May 2000 interview, Bennett Cohen explained to The New York Times that his brainchild was “in the process of becoming … an entity inside a larger business, trying to infuse those values in that larger business,” adding: “We expect that it will be a long and winding road.” Fast forward three years later, and business experts already observed that “Ben & Jerry’s has seen its social mission begin to seep away — Unilever has laid off one in five B&J employees, stopped donating 7.5% of profits to the Ben & Jerry’s Foundation, and hired a CEO Cohen didn’t approve of. ”
Then, in a 2007 article published by Harvard Business School, board member Jeff Furman complained about Unilever’s prohibition against company-sponsored political partisanship. “When issues around the Iraq war came up, if it had been the company 10 years ago, Ben & Jerry’s would have had a position on it, would not have been afraid to take a public position on it,” he stated. “Unilever would never permit a political position like that.”
However, Ben & Jerry’s has never gone so far as to sue its parent company, prompting accusations of antisemitism.
In the recent broadcast, Mehdi Hasan gave Ben Cohen a second chance to demonstrate that the boycott decision was not motivated by Jew hatred. “If I care about the people in Palestine [sic] just as much as I care about the people in Israel, is that antisemitic? I don’t know,” he answered. “I mean, they’re people. I mean, they’re families; there are mothers, fathers, sisters, and brothers in Israel that I care about. I care about their human rights. And there are mothers, fathers, sisters, brothers in Palestine that I care about, I care about their human rights.”
As was the case with last year’s interview, Ben & Jerry’s failed to convince MSNBC’s audience of the “good intentions” behind their apparent double standards against the only Jewish state. So why are the media letting them off the hook?
The author is a contributor to HonestReporting, a Jerusalem-based media watchdog with a focus on antisemitism and anti-Israel bias — where a version of this article first appeared.