Cries of antisemitism as Unilever opts for boycott

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


T3RMD0 LOS ANGELES, CA. November 20, 2002: Ice cream makers BEN COHEN (right) & JERRY GREENFIELD at the 12th Annual Environmental Media Awards in Los Angeles. © Paul Smith / Featureflash

Of all Britain’s companies, Unilever is the most politically correct. It is also among the largest, with a stock market value of £113 billion.

The last chief executive, Paul Polman, was a supporter of the climate change agenda long before it became a fashionable cause.

Current boss Alan Jope went a step further with his mantra that Unilever is not just about selling Dove soap, Hellman’s mayonnaise, Magnum and Ben & Jerry’s ice cream, but is a company with a purpose. The group’s embrace of the so-called Environmental Social and Governance (ESG) agenda makes it an easy target for those with an extreme ‘woke’ worldview.

This could explain why it finds itself in a battle over ice cream supplies to Israeli settlements, which has led to accusations from the Israeli cabinet of antisemitism.

The furious row over the decision of the ‘independent’ Ben & Jerry’s board to withdraw its goods from freezers in Israeli settlements could be a defining test. The Ben & Jerry’s board acted after coming under fierce pressure from pro-Palestinian activist groups in its native state of Vermont, an area known for its radical politics. State capital Burlington has in the past boasted a Communist mayor. It is also the home state of Bernie Sanders, the Jewish firebrand with former White House aspirations and thin support for Israel.

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

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

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

Lisa van der Berg, one of his descendants, is the mother of David Sainsbury, the philanthropist and scion of the supermarket family.

Ben & Jerry’s was founded by childhood Jewish friends Ben Cohen and Jerry Greenfield, who started their ice cream business in a renovated petrol station in downtown Burlington. From its earliest days, it made much of its ethical and natural ingredient origins. When it was sold to Unilever in 2000, a condition was that it would retain its independence and operate with a separate board. That remains the case to this day.

It has always proudly displayed the strictly kosher mark on its tubs, which has made it a favourite among Charedi in Monsey, New York, as well as in strictly kosher communities in Israel. At Pesach, it is renowned in Israel for its matzo and charoset flavoured ice cream. Unilever, which sells into 190 territories and earns 90 per cent of its income outside the UK, could have easily have decided to go the whole hog, follow the recommendation of the Ben & Jerry’s board and boycott Israel altogether.

Jope appears to have 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 on a boycott because of Beijing’s oppression of the Uyghurs, or the clampdown on freedom 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 Minster Naftali Bennett crying foul, might be seen as especially embarrassing given the Jewish antecedents at Unilever and Ben & Jerry’s. The connection to the van den Bergh dynasty was all but severed when Unilever sold its margarine arm, including the distinctive Flora brand, to New York private equity group Kravis Kohlberg Roberts for £6 billion in 2017.

But behind the furore in the United States, Israel and Unilever’s headquarters in London, is a much more insidious development. Social media, including the seemingly innocuous Tiktok, 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 anti-boycott forces.

What activists in Vermont and elsewhere don’t appear to have taken into account that the first steps taken by the Nazis against Jews in the 1930s was to boycott Jewish enterprises. From small beginnings came the Shoah.

Maybe the cries of antisemitism are accurate.

Alex Brummer is City Editor of the 
Daily Mail

Share via

Want more from the JC?

To continue reading, we just need a few details...

Want more from
the JC?

To continue reading, we just
need a few details...

Get the best news and views from across the Jewish world Get subscriber-only offers from our partners Subscribe to get access to our e-paper and archive