Ben & Jerry's and parent company Unilever "effectively concede" that they cut ties with an Israeli contractor because he refused to participate in an illegal boycott of Israel, the contractor's lawyers argued in federal court on Thursday.
In a brief filed last week, Ben & Jerry's called a claim from Israeli ice cream distributor Avi Zinger that he was pressured to break the law a "side show"—but didn't deny that it cut ties with him due to his refusal to participate in the boycott.
Ben & Jerry's and Unilever "effectively concede that the only reason for not renewing [Zinger's] license is [his] refusal to engage in illegal conduct. They do not dispute [Zinger's] understanding of the Israeli and American laws and policies that Defendants' demand would have forced [him] to violate," Zinger's lawyers argued in a rebuttal brief on Thursday.
Zinger's lawyers said this bolstered their client's allegation that the company was retaliating against him for refusing to commit an illegal action—an argument they say is "central" to their lawsuit.
The ice cream maker and Unilever are being sued by Zinger, who was Ben & Jerry's sole distributor in Israel for 35 years before the company told him last summer it would not renew his contract. Zinger said Ben & Jerry's cut him off after he declined to boycott sales in Israeli neighborhoods in the West Bank due to his concerns that doing so would violate U.S. and Israeli anti-boycott and anti-discrimination laws.
The lawsuit is the latest in a string of legal and public relations challenges for Ben & Jerry's and Unilever, following the ice cream company's decision last year to boycott Israeli neighborhoods in the West Bank and its objections to U.S. military support for Ukraine. Multiple U.S. states have withdrawn pension fund investments from Unilever due to the boycott.
Attorneys for Ben & Jerry's and Unilever have argued that the company had "an absolute right not to renew" its contract with Zinger, calling the lawsuit a "contract dispute and nothing more." One of Zinger's attorneys, Brandeis Center president Alyza Lewin, said the issue of whether Ben & Jerry's asked Zinger to break the law is part of the "central legal doctrine of the case."
"Unilever's unlawful demand that Avi Zinger and [his company American Quality Products] discriminate against customers based on their residence isn't a ‘side show'—it's the main show," said Lewin in a statement on Thursday.
"By insisting Zinger violate Israel and U.S. anti-discrimination and anti-boycott laws and public policy, Unilever violated the Consent Decree and License Agreement it signed and unlawfully attempted to coerce [American Quality Products] to violate laws both parties agreed to obey."
Zinger told the Washington Free Beacon last month that he was in "shock" when the company told him last summer that it would not renew his contract. He said the company had buckled to a decade-long pressure campaign from anti-Israel activists to boycott the Jewish state.
"I was with Ben & Jerry's for over 35 years. … We always got compliments," he said. "Because [the company] had this situation, they had so much pressure, they just dumped me. People who were friends of mine for so many years."
The court could call a hearing on the lawsuit as early as April 12, according to the Brandeis Center.