One of Ben & Jerry’s best-selling flavours is called “half-baked ice cream”. But as its parent company Unilever held its London board meeting on Wednesday, protesters suggested “half baked” also applied to its “hypocritical” statements on foreign affairs and Israel —under a poster bearing the slogan “ice cream and politics don’t mix”.
For its owner, Unilever, the fact that it does indeed mingle has proved expensive. Since Ben & Jerry’s announced last July that it was cancelling a contract to distribute its products in East Jerusalem and the West Bank, its share price has fallen 15 per cent, wiping billions from its value.
The protest’s organisers, the Campaign for Common Sense, pointed out that Unilever subsidiaries still trade in countries with horrific human rights records, such as Saudi Arabia and Iran, without anyone appearing to notice.
The multinational giant is selling ice cream in Russia, despite pledging to supply only “essential” items following the Ukraine invasion, and is spending $112m (£89m) on a new ice-cream plant in China, in spite of the genocide of its Uyghur minority. Ben & Jerry’s — whose marketing suggests it is run by ageing Jewish hippies — retained its own board after Unilever bought it out in 2000.
The firm has also railed against US support for Ukraine, claiming that President Biden should “de-escalate tensions” and that he was “fann[ing] the flames of war”.
But it is its attempt to withdraw from the Occupied Territories on the grounds that to sell ice cream there was “inconsistent with its values” that has sparked controversy — and a lawsuit from its Israeli distributor, which has accused its board of “unlawfully terminating a 34-year business relationship in order to boycott Israel”.
Ben & Jerry’s is also facing divestment in America, where several states have already sold shares. Terry Smith, Unilever’s tenth biggest shareholder, says the firm has “lost the plot”.
A Campaign for Common Sense spokesman told the JC: “Most investors don’t want their ice cream to have a foreign policy.” Campaign supporter Lord Austin, the former Labour MP, added in an article for the JC website: “Banning sales in the West Bank is so counterproductive. Food should be a way of bringing people together, not driving them apart, which is what boycotting Israel always does.”