Ben & Jerry’s Israeli settlements boycott prompts states’ backlash

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Ben & Jerry’s decision to protest Israel’s Palestinian policies by halting some sales of its products in that country has state leaders in the U.S. threatening to give the ice cream manufacturer the cold shoulder.

At least five states have responded to the famously liberal company’s decision to stop selling ice cream in “Occupied Palestinian Territory” by moving to restrict how much business their public officials do with Ben & Jerry’s.

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis asked the State Board of Administration to initiate the process of placing Ben & Jerry’s and Unilever on its list of scrutinized companies that violate the state’s anti-Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions [BDS] law, 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,” said Mr. DeSantis in the Thursday letter.

Other states taking a hard look at their Ben & Jerry’s ties since the company’s July 19 announcement include Illinois, New Jersey, New York and Texas.

Texas Comptroller Glenn Hegar said last week he has directed his office to examine whether Ben & Jerry’s or Unilever have engaged in activities that violate the state’s anti-BDS statute.

“Ben and Jerry’s decision to boycott parts of Israel is disgraceful and an insult to America’s closest ally in the Middle East,” said Texas Gov. Greg Abbott in a statement. “Unilever, Ben and Jerry’s parent company, must reverse this ill-conceived decision.”

An estimated 35 states have passed anti-BDS laws since South Carolina became the first in 2015, and “21 of those explicitly include West Bank settlement boycotts in their definitions,” according to the Times of Israel.

New York has no such law, but even so, the State Common Retirement Fund warned Unilever in a Friday letter that state Comptroller Thomas 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,” said Liz Gordon, fund executive director, in a letter posted by the Jewish Press.

The state laws differ but fall generally 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, citing 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,” said Mr. Lankford 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,” said Mr. Lankford, adding, “I personally am going to buy Braum’s ice cream.”

Challenging the state moves was a coalition of seven progressive groups led by J Street, which argued in a Monday letter to governors that foes of Ben & Jerry’s decision had “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,” said the letter. “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,” tweeting that 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 anti-BDS laws have faced free-speech lawsuits filed by the American Civil Liberties Union “because they 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,” said the progressive groups.

The ACLU has won court victories in several states against the anti-BDS laws, with some states reacting by revising their statutes.

For example, both Arizona and Texas amended in 2019 their laws requiring contractors to sign anti-BDS pledges to apply only to companies with 10 or more employees with contracts of more than $100,000, prompting courts to throw out previously issued injunctions.

Roz Rothstein, co-founder and CEO of the pro-Israel group StandWithUs, argued that the “anti-BDS laws do not prohibit speech or any other rights. They apply only to discriminatory conduct.

“There are many non-discrimination 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 was “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,” said Mr. Jope 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 Jewish Organizations, which includes 53 groups, urged governors last week to determine whether Ben & Jerry’s violated state anti-BDS statutes.

“If the state invests in Unilever we ask that you take immediate action to divest,” said the Thursday letter. “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.”

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