Ben & Jerry’s decision to pull its products out of Israeli settlements in disputed territories has U.S. state officials threatening to give the ice cream manufacturer the cold shoulder.
At least five states have responded to the liberal company’s move to stop selling ice cream in “Occupied Palestinian Territory” by triggering measures that restrict government business dealings with companies that boycott Israel.
Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, a Republican, asked the State Board of Administration to initiate the process of placing Ben & Jerry’s and Unilever on its list of companies that violate state law against boycotts, divestment and sanctions. The law was designed to put political and financial pressure on companies that target Israel.
“Should the State Board of Administration affirmatively place Unilever and its corporate entities on the Scrutinized Companies List and these companies do not cease the boycott of Israel as required by Florida law, the Board must refrain from acquiring any and all Unilever assets consistent with the law,” Mr. DeSantis said in the Thursday letter.
Other states taking hard looks at their Ben & Jerry’s ties since the company’s July 19 announcement are Illinois, New Jersey, New York and Texas.
Texas Comptroller Glenn Hegar said last week that he had directed his office to examine whether Ben & Jerry’s or Unilever has engaged in activities that violate the state’s statute against boycotts.
“Ben and Jerry’s decision to boycott parts of Israel is disgraceful and an insult to America’s closest ally in the Middle East,” Texas Gov. Greg Abbott, a Republican, said in a statement. “Unilever, Ben and Jerry’s parent company, must reverse this ill-conceived decision.”
An estimated 35 states have enacted laws against boycotts, divestments and sanctions. South Carolina became the first in 2015. The Times of Israel said “21 of those explicitly include West Bank settlement boycotts in their definitions.”
New York has no such law, but the State Common Retirement Fund warned Unilever in a Friday letter that state Comptroller Thomas P. DiNapoli is “troubled and concerned about reports suggesting that Ben & Jerry’s, a Unilever wholly-owned subsidiary, is involved in BDS activities.”
The letter cited the fund’s 2016 policy that “views BDS activities as a potential threat to Israel, its economy, and, as a result, the Fund’s relevant investments.”
“Therefore, pursuant to the requirements of the Fund’s policy, this letter serves as notice that the Fund intends to include Unilever on our list of companies participating in BDS activity if these reports are correct,” Liz Gordon, fund executive director, said in a letter posted by the Jewish Press.
The laws differ but generally fall into two camps: those that ban state contractors from boycotting Israel, and those that forbid state funds from investing in companies that boycott Israel.
Sen. James Lankford, Oklahoma Republican, called for officials in his state to examine the government’s relationship with Unilever and Ben & Jerry’s. He cited Oklahoma’s 2020 law that prohibits the government from entering into public contracts with companies that boycott Israel.
“Ben & Jerry’s is a subsidiary of the Unilever Corporation, and Unilever does have contracts all over the country,” Mr. Lankford said last week in a Facebook video. “I’m just challenging our state to be able to step up and be on the side of Israel in this. If Ben & Jerry’s is going to take it out on Israel, our state has already made the decision of what our response is going to be.”
He emphasized that the state law does not apply to grocery stores and other private entities that sell Ben & Jerry’s.
“It’s not blocking somebody from buying Ben & Jerry’s. If you want to buy it at the grocery store, have at it,” Mr. Lankford said. “I, personally, am going to buy Braum’s ice cream.”
Challenging the state moves was a coalition of seven liberal groups led by J Street, which argued in a Monday letter to governors that opponents of Ben & Jerry’s decision “incorrectly labeled it a boycott of Israel, delegitimization of Israel, or an endorsement of the global BDS movement.”
“None of our organizations endorse boycotts of Israel or support the global BDS movement — and many of us actively advocate against them,” the letter said. “At the same time, like Ben & Jerry’s, we make a clear distinction between the State of Israel and the Palestinian territories it militarily occupies.”
The Palestinian BDS National Committee hailed Ben & Jerry’s decision as a “major #BDSsuccess.” A tweet said it “sent shock waves through apartheid Israel reiterating its fear of the nonviolent BDS movement & its growing, strategic impact worldwide on isolating Israel‘s regime of oppression.”
The J Street letter noted that the American Civil Liberties Union had filed free speech lawsuits claiming the state laws “have the potential to be weaponized against political opponents and to silence Palestinians and human rights advocates.”
“No matter how strongly one might disagree with or oppose the rhetoric or goals of specific movements and efforts, the right to boycott is an important part of our democracy,” the liberal groups said.
The ACLU has won several court victories, and some states have reacted by revising their statutes.
In 2019, Arizona and Texas amended their laws. Courts threw out injunctions after the states limited anti-boycott measures to companies with 10 or more employees and with contracts of more than $100,000.
Roz Rothstein, a co-founder and CEO of the pro-Israel group StandWithUs, said the “anti-BDS laws do not prohibit speech or any other rights. They apply only to discriminatory conduct.”
“There are many nondiscrimination provisions for any state contract,” she said. “Refusing to use taxpayer funds to subsidize discriminatory conduct is not a penalty as there is no inherent right to get the state’s business.”
Unilever has scrambled to emphasize its commitment to Israel after its Vermont-based subsidiary said it is “inconsistent with our values for Ben & Jerry’s ice cream to be sold in the Occupied Palestinian Territory.”
Unilever CEO Alan Jope said on a Thursday conference call that the company “remains fully committed to our business in Israel.”
“This was a decision that was taken by Ben & Jerry’s and its independent board in line with an acquisition agreement that we signed 20 years ago,” Mr. Jope said on CNBC.
Under the 2000 acquisition deal, Unilever said in a Monday statement that “we have always recognized the right of the brand and its independent Board to take decisions about its social mission.”
The Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, which comprises 53 groups, urged governors last week to determine whether Ben & Jerry’s violated state statutes.
“If the state invests in Unilever we ask that you take immediate action to divest,” the Thursday letter said. “Additionally, we ask you to determine whether the state has any contracts with Unilever and its subsidiaries that may be in violation of the state anti-BDS law.”
Ben & Jerry’s said that “we will stay in Israel through a different arrangement. We will share an update on this as soon as we’re ready.”
• Valerie Richardson can be reached at email@example.com.
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