Michigan Pension Fund Sues Ben & Jerry’s Owner Over Ice Cream Maker’s Israel Policy

JTA – The announcement by Ben & Jerry’s, almost a year ago, that it would no longer sell ice cream in “occupied Palestinian territories” continues to attract ire, as it finds itself the target of a new lawsuit, an alleged story of fake news and threats of more divestments.

This week, a Michigan police and fire pension fund sued the parent company of ice cream maker Unilever, where the fund owns shares, alleging that the conglomerate had improperly withheld the Ben & Jerry’s announcement from shareholders.

The background of St. Clair Shores, a Detroit suburb of about 60,000 and no synagogues, claims Unilever should have warned its shareholders before its subsidiary’s move, knowing that doing so could cause the company to lose value. Action seeks to become a collective action.

Ben & Jerry’s initial announcement caused several state pension funds and other sources to divest from the company, devaluing its investment potential. According to some estimates, Unilever lost about 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 an exclusive ownership agreement that allows Ben & Jerry’s to maintain a separate, semi-autonomous board to make social justice-oriented decisions according to its founders. mission. The British conglomerate has long maintained that it has no formal control over board decisions.

However, there are signs that Unilever had at least some advance notice of the Ben & Jerry’s board decision and took some action without the board’s participation. Chairman of the board, Anuradha Mittal, told NBC News last year that Unilever amended the board’s initial statement, adding a passage promising to continue selling ice cream within Israel’s borders in 1967 – a promise that the Ben & Jerry’s board did not. had approved.

Trucks are parked at the Ben & Jerry’s ice cream factory in the industrial area of ​​Be’er Tuvia, July 20, 2021. (AP Photo/Tsafrir Abayov)

Unilever then released its amended statement. A separate statement from the Ben & Jerry’s board said the final wording “does not reflect the position of the independent board, nor was it approved by the independent board.”

Ben & Jerry’s said its 2021 decision to stop selling in the West Bank, which came after Israel’s war with the terrorist group Hamas, did not amount to a boycott.

Still, that hasn’t stopped outside figures from lobbying Unilever to somehow change Ben & Jerry’s policy. Last week, New York Governor Kathy Hochul issued a final warning to Unilever saying the state plans to divest its own funds from the company over Israel’s decision if it doesn’t take more decisive action against its subsidiary. This followed the example of Illinois, Arizona and several other states that sold pension funds and other Unilever investments, often invoking state laws that limit business with companies that support boycotts of Israel.

Also this week, Jewish Insider, citing a clandestinely recorded cellphone video, reported that Ben & Jerry’s requires all new employees to watch training videos on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict with the director of Human Rights Watch, Omar Shakir, who was deported from Israel in 2019 due to his alleged support of Israel boycott initiatives.

The Forward later disputed the Jewish Insider story, reporting that while the company offered a lunch and learning video about the conflict with Shakir, viewing the video was optional and new employees are not required to watch anything about Israel. After the Forward report, Jewish Insider reporter Melissa Weiss tweeted that the organization defends its reports.

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

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