Ben & Jerry’s allege Unilever ‘usurped’ company’s board in Israel dispute

Ice cream brand’s co-founders say sales in occupied Palestinian territories not aligned with social mission

The co-founders of Ben & Jerry’s have accused parent company Unilever of usurping its independent board as the ice cream brand fights a court case in the US over sales in occupied Palestinian territories.

Speaking publicly for the first time about the lawsuit, Ben & Jerry’s founders Ben Cohen and Jerry Greenfield said the UK consumer goods giant broke an acquisition clause that gives the ice cream company independent control of its social mission.

“Unilever has usurped their authority and reversed a decision that was made. And we can’t allow that to happen,” Mr Cohen said on Sunday in an interview with MSNBC. “That is essentially saying, ‘well, the independent board does not matter.’”

The comments escalated a fight between Vermont-based Ben & Jerry’s and Unilever that is playing out in a US district court. In June, Unilever sold the Israeli business of the ice cream maker to a local licensee.


The sale was designed to quell a controversy that engulfed the company when Ben & Jerry’s said last year it would halt ice cream sales in the West Bank and East Jerusalem in apparent protest at Israel’s occupation.

This July, Ben & Jerry’s filed a lawsuit alleging the licence sale violated the terms of Unilever’s 2000 takeover, which allowed the ice cream maker to retain an independent board in a unique arrangement that gave it autonomy to focus on social issues.

“The independent board has authority over the social mission of the company,” Mr Greenfield said on MSNBC. “In order for us to sell the company, it was essential that we have this unique agreement in place... The agreement lasts in perpetuity. And so it must be respected.”

Neither Mr Cohen nor Mr Greenfield is on the Ben & Jerry’s board. In August, Ben & Jerry’s lost a request for a preliminary injunction to block Unilever’s sale to allow its products to be sold or distributed in the West Bank. Ben & Jerry’s must file an amended complaint by September 27th, the court said.

Asked about allegations of anti-Semitism following Ben & Jerry’s announcement last year, Mr Cohen, who said he is Jewish, replied: “If I care about the people in Palestine just as much as I care about the people in Israel, is that anti-Semitic?”

“There are mothers, fathers, sisters and brothers in Palestine that I care about,” he said. “I care about their human rights.”

Unilever did not immediately respond to a request for comment outside normal business hours.

— Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2022