Michigan pension fund sues Ben & Jerry’s owner over Israeli ice cream maker policy

A Ben & Jerry’s truck parked in Jerusalem. (Flickr Commons)

The lawsuit alleges the policy was improperly disclosed to shareholders and is the latest in a new series of Israel-related developments for the ice cream maker.

(JTA) – Ben & Jerry’s announcement nearly a year ago that it would no longer sell ice cream in the ‘occupied Palestinian territories’ continues to draw ire as it finds itself the target of a new trial, alleged fake news and threats of further divestments.

This week, a Michigan police and fire pension fund sued the parent company of ice cream maker Unilever, where the fund holds stock, claiming the conglomerate improperly concealed Ben & Jerry’s announcement from shareholders. .

The fund in St. Clair Shores, a Detroit suburb of about 60,000 with no synagogues, alleges Unilever should have alerted shareholders before its subsidiary moved, knowing it could cause the company to lose value. company. The lawsuit seeks to become a class action.

Ben & Jerry’s initial announcement prompted several public pension funds and other sources to divest from the company, devaluing its investment potential. According to some estimates, Unilever lost around 8% of its value of more than $4 billion in six days after Israel’s announcement.

It is unclear whether the argument will carry weight in court. Unilever acquired Ben & Jerry’s in 2000 from the company’s Jewish owners, Ben Cohen and Jerry Greenfield, under a unique ownership arrangement that allows Ben & Jerry’s to maintain a separate, semi- autonomous to make decisions based on social justice in accordance with the decisions of its founders. assignment. The British conglomerate has long maintained that it has no formal control over board decisions.

However, there are signs that Unilever was informed at least in advance of Ben & Jerry’s board’s decision and took some action without the advice of the board. Board chair Anuradha Mittal told NBC News last year that Unilever had amended the original draft board statement, adding a passage pledging to continue selling ice cream inside Israel’s borders in 1967 – a commitment that Ben & Jerry’s board of directors had not approved.

Unilever then released the amended statement itself. A separate statement from Ben & Jerry’s Board of Directors said the final wording “does not reflect the position of the Independent Board of Directors, nor has it been approved by the Independent Board of Directors.”

Ben & Jerry’s said its 2021 decision to stop selling in the West Bank, which came following the violent clash between Israel and Hamas in which Israeli forces killed hundreds of Palestinians and Hamas killed more than a dozen Israelis, did not constitute a boycott.

Yet that hasn’t stopped outside figures from pressuring Unilever to somehow change Ben & Jerry’s policy. Last week, New York Governor Kathy Hochul issued a final warning to Unilever that the state planned to divest its own funds to the company following Israel’s decision if it did not take more decisive action. against its subsidiary. This followed the lead of Illinois, Arizona and several other states that divested pension funds and other Unilever investments, often citing state laws restricting business with companies. who support the boycott of Israel.

Also this week, the Jewish Insider news site, citing a surreptitiously recorded cellphone video, reported that Ben & Jerry’s is requiring all new employees to watch training videos on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict featuring the director. of Human Rights Watch, Omar Shakir, who was expelled from Israel in 2019 because of his alleged support for boycott Israel initiatives.

The Forward later challenged Jewish Insider’s story, reporting that although the company offered a video luncheon on the dispute featuring Shakir, viewing the video was optional and new hires are not required to look at anything about Israel. After Forward’s report, Jewish Insider reporter Melissa Weiss tweeted that the organization sticks to its reports.

A separate lawsuit, filed earlier this year by the Israeli subsidiary of Ben & Jerry’s American Quality Products, Ltd. against Unilever, alleges that the territories’ policy violates US laws that restrict doing business with any company that boycotts Israel. The parties to that lawsuit entered arbitration last week, according to Reuters.

By Andrew Rabbit

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