Boycott of Israeli settlements puts Ben & Jerry’s at odds with Unilever

Food fight over Ben & Jerry’s: Boycott of Israeli settlements puts ice-cream brand at odds with owner Unilever

Of all Britain’s companies Unilever, among the largest of them all with a stock market value of £107billion, is the most politically correct. 

The previous chief executive, Paul Polman, was a supporter of the climate change agenda long before it was fashionable. Current boss, Alan Jope, went a step further with his mantra that Unilever is not just about selling Dove soap, Hellmann’s mayonnaise, Magnum and Ben & Jerry’s ice cream, but is a firm with a purpose. 

The group’s embrace of the environmental, social and governance (ESG) agenda makes it an easy target for those with an extreme ‘woke’ agenda. 

Cold war: Palestinian artists paint a mural in support of a boycott of Israeli products

This could well explain why it finds itself in the cross-hairs of a battle over ice cream supplies to Israeli settlements, which has members of that country’s cabinet yelling anti-Semitism and prime minister Naftali Bennett up in arms. 

The row over the decision of the ‘independent’ Ben & Jerry’s board to withdraw its goods from freezers in Israeli settlements is proving a defining test for Jope’s diplomatic skills. 

The Ben & Jerry’s board acted after coming under fierce pressure from pro-Palestinian activist groups in its native Vermont, known for its radical politics and the home state of senator Bernie Sanders, the Jewish firebrand with White House aspirations and thin support for Israel. 

Fearing a backlash in the US, Unilever’s biggest market, Jope wrote to major Jewish organisations this week making it clear that his company ‘does not support’ the boycott movement. He added the company ‘repudiates unequivocally any forms of discrimination or intolerance’. He said: ‘Anti-Semitism has no place in society.’ 

What gives the current row an edge is that both Anglo-Dutch Unilever and Ben & Jerry’s have strong Jewish roots. 

Unilever was formed almost a century ago when Liverpool-based Lever Brothers merged with the Dutch firm Margarine Unie, a continental giant forged by the Jewish entrepreneur Samuel van den Bergh. 

Samuel, the younger van den Bergh, became general director of his father’s margarine company in 1907 and built it into a colossus through a series of mergers and takeovers.

There is no secret about Ben & Jerry’s origins. It was founded by childhood Jewish friends Ben Cohen and Jerry Greenfield. 

A condition of the sale to Unilever in 2000 was that it would retain its independence and operate with a separate board. That remains true to this day. 

It has always proudly displayed the kosher mark on its tubs. And Ben & Jerry’s founders Cohen and Greenfield wrote in the New York Times that ‘it is possible to support Israel and oppose some of its policies’. 

Unilever could easily have decided to go the whole hog and follow the independent recommendation of the Ben & Jerry’s board and boycott Israel altogether. But chief executive Jope has stood firm and recognised that such a decision could be devastating, way beyond Israel. 

What, for instance, would be the impact in China, one of the fastest-growing markets, for its Lifebuoy sanitary products, should activists decide to boycott because of Beijing’s oppression of the Uighurs, or the clampdown on freedoms in Hong Kong? 

Even companies with a purpose, under company law, have a fiduciary duty to their shareholders above all others. 

Being sucked into Israeli politics, with prime minister Bennett, a settlement supporter, crying foul, is not ideal.

Behind the furore in the United States, Israel and Unilever’s headquarters in London, there is a much more insidious development. Social media, including the TikTok app, has embraced the Palestinian cause, leading to an outbreak of boycott activism across the US. So the Ben & Jerry’s imbroglio may not be the last commercial battle for antiboycott forces. 

Boycotts can do amazing things and contributed greatly to the fall of the apartheid regime in South Africa.

But it is also the case that among the first steps taken by the Nazis in the 1930s was to boycott Jewish enterprises. 

From small beginnings in Germany – stirring up hate against Jewish businesses – came the Nuremberg laws in 1935 and the Holocaust. That’s why boycotts matter so much to Israel.