Of all Britain’s top FTSE100 companies, the Marmite-to-Dove group Unilever lays claim to being the most attentive to the environment, social and governance (ESG) agenda. So it is astonishing that a company with such a woke approach should find itself caught in a year-long war with one of its best known offshoots, luxury ice cream maker Ben & Jerry’s.
The dispute, over the manufacture, distribution and sale of Ben & Jerry’s on the West Bank and to settler communities in particular, touches a number of raw nerves. The Vermont-based founders of the ice cream maker, Bennett Cohen and Jerry Greenfield, say they do not support boycotts.
Yet the intensifying battle with Unilever, economic owners of the brand, is something very close to a boycott. It also exposes the rifts emerging in America’s Jewish community, which is vast but increasingly less connected to Israel.
The views of Bennett and Jerry might be considered outliers. Vermont is the most radical state in the union. It is the home of left-wing presidential aspirant Bernie Sanders, a sometime critic of Israel. In living memory, state capital Burlington was the only community in the US to boast an openly communist mayor. And when Unilever bought Ben & Jerry’s in 2000, making its founders very rich people, it signed up to a governance structure which Bennett and Jerry describe as ‘the magic’ of its success.
I would venture to suggest it is not the woke agenda which makes the product so popular but the brilliant range of choice ingredients and flavours. Rising temperatures have made ice cream a great growth category – along with the rabbinical hechsher on every Ben & Jerry’s tub.
When Unilever announced last month it had sold Ben & Jerry’s business in Israel to local franchisee Avi Zinger of American Quality Products, which would sell the product in the West Bank under its Hebrew and Arabic names, it looked to have found a way of circumventing the Vermont board.
Unilever, perhaps conscious of its own Jewish roots and consulting extensively with the Israel government, did not confine itself to announcing a commercial arrangement. It stated in the strongest terms that ‘antisemitism has no place in society’ and the company would have no truck with the Boycott Divestment Sanctions movement.
Unlike some large UK corporations in such areas as cyber warfare, Unilever is unapologetic about its long association. Its history in Israel dates from the pre-mandate era, it employs more than 2,000 people there from all backgrounds and over the past decade has poured €250m into investment.
None of this has satisfied Ben & Jerry’s sanctimonious board. Instead, it has gone to court in Manhattan seeking to block the sale to the Israel franchisee on the grounds it is protecting the ‘social integrity’ of the brand.
The case is being seen as setting a legal precedent which could influence the behaviour of other consumer brands doing business on the West Bank.
Given Unilever’s robust response, one might expect America’s Jewish community to fall in behind its Solomon-like decision. Not so. T’ruach, an organisation describing itself as ‘the rabbinical call for human rights’ has aligned itself with Ben & Jerry’s.
Claiming to represent 2,000 rabbis and cantors across North America, it says although it doesn’t support BDS, Israel’s occupation ‘thwarts’ the two-state solution.
The vehemence of the statement shows how fractured informed Jewish opinion in North America has become on Israel and the disputed territories.
Even in the midst of a heatwave, critics are willing to go to the mat for a tub. Magnum, Wall’s, Popsicle, Carte d’Or and Breyers, all Unilever brands, could be next.