An activist investor has taken a stake in Unilever — the parent company of Ben & Jerry’s — and is saying the ice cream maker’s boycott of Israel’s occupied territories is to blame for a sharp drop in the company’s share price, The Post has learned.
Michael Ashner runs activist fund Winthrop Capital Partners and has taken an undisclosed stake in Unilever. He’s agitating for other shareholders to push the company to reverse Ben & Jerry’s decision to stop selling ice cream in the disputed Israeli-Palestinian territories.
He’s launched the Coalition to Hold Unilever Accountable and says he’s meeting with lawmakers and financiers to bring visibility to what he says is Unilever’s abdication of responsibility when it comes to managing Ben & Jerry’s.
Unilever is allowing Ben & Jerry’s to set policy that puts Unilever’s broader business at risk, Ashner contends — and what’s more, the company isn’t acknowledging the financial risks of wading into such a thorny social issue.
“Unilever is knowingly misleading its shareholders by failing to disclose in its regulatory filings the material risks to its business and valuation,” Ashner told The Post.
“The proposed termination of sales of its ice cream in the occupied West Bank and East Jerusalem of Israel has, among other things, directly resulted in the divestment and proposed divestment of more than $325 million of Unilever shares by a number of states, as well as proposed boycotts of Ben & Jerry’s and Unilever products,” Ashner said, based on his calculations.
Ashner declined to disclose the value of his stake in Unilever.
Since Ben & Jerry’s on July 19 announced it would stop selling its products in what it called “occupied Palestinian territory,” Unilever’s stock traded on the New York Stock Exchange has fallen about 13 percent and lost about $20 billion in market value as various funds — including the New York state pension fund — have said they will pull money out of Unilever.
Many of the funds have rules that prohibit the involvement in the “BDS” movement, or the push by some pro-Palestinian activist for the boycott, divestment and sanction of Israel. The New York State Common Retirement Fund, for instance, said it would pull $111 million in investments from Unilever last month.
Ashner, meanwhile, has taken a no-holds-barred approach to his proxy war and has written to the Securities and Exchange Commission, asking the federal regulators to look into alleged disclosure violations. He said he’s also contacted various New York legislators, including Gov. Kathy Hochul, to make sure the state follows through on its promise to pull money out of Unilever.
Other states, including Texas, Arizona, Florida and New Jersey, have also taken steps to pull money out of Unilever.
“The boycott evinces a specific animus towards Israel by the Ben & Jerry’s board,” Ashner claimed. He said the ice cream maker had a history of taking political stands and “designating causes in furtherance of its deemed social agenda.”
A representative for Ashner’s coalition said that Ben & Jerry’s actions are anti-Semitic and are intentionally calculated to support the boycott, divestment, and sanctions (“BDS”) movement, which threatens Israel’s sovereignty and security.
On July 19, Ben and Jerry’s announced it would stop selling ice cream to the occupied Palestinian territories, saying “it is inconsistent with our values” to conduct business there.
Ben and Jerry’s Jewish co-founders, Bennett Cohen and Jerry Greenfield — who sold their namesake company to Unilever in 2000 — defended the company’s decision to end sales in the region in a New York Times editorial in July, writing that Israel was one of the first countries that the company had expanded to internationally as it grew.
The founders, who called themselves “proud Jews,” said it is “possible to support Israel and oppose some of its policies” just as they’ve “opposed policies in the US government.”
In September, for instance, the ice cream maker released a flavor, “Change is Brewing” — and said a portion of the proceeds of its sales will go to support measures aimed at defunding the police.
Ashner has been involved in multiple proxy battles with real estate companies, including CBL Properties, that have led to favorable outcomes.
Unilever did not respond to request for comment.