Maryland to review Unilever contracts over Ben & Jerry’s Israeli settlements boycott

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Maryland officials said they will review whether the state has any contracts with Ben & Jerry’s and its parent company, Unilever, and “respond accordingly” over the ice cream maker’s decision not to sell its products in Israeli-controlled West Bank settlements.

The state has a four-year-old policy prohibiting contracts with companies participating in boycotts of Israel, Maryland Secretary of State John B. Wobensmith noted in a letter to two area Jewish community leaders.

Writing to Howard Libit, executive director of the Baltimore Jewish Council, and Ronald Halber, executive director of the Rockville-based Jewish Community Relations Council of Greater Washington, Mr. Wobensmith said the state “ardently opposes” discrimination against “people or entities because of their Israeli national origin, or residence, or incorporation in Israel or its territories.”

Mr. Libit said in an interview that the two Jewish community groups “were pleased to see Gov. [Larry] Hogan’s administration reaffirm its strong commitment to Maryland’s relationship with Israel.”

“This is an important step in upholding Maryland’s commitment to inclusion and tolerance,” Mr. Halber in a statement. “We appreciate Gov. Hogan’s commitment to cooperating with Israel and to his refusal to allow bullies to dictate our business practices.”

Both Jewish groups wrote to Mr. Hogan, a Republican, on July 23 asking the state to investigate the Ben & Jerry’s move in light of the governor’s 2017 executive order.

The ice cream maker’s announcement on July 18 has sparked a global backlash, and about a half-dozen states have triggered measures that restrict government business dealings with companies that boycott Israel. Last week, Illinois threatened Unilever with divestments of any state investments in the Dutch conglomerate. 

Unilever has scrambled to emphasize its commitment to Israel.

CEO Alan Jope said on a July 22 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. He has not said if he would force Ben & Jerry’s to reverse its decision.

Maryland’s budget is $52 billion for the fiscal year that began July 1. Some $19 billion of that is allocated for “contractual services” and another $520 million for “supplies and materials.”

Mr. Libit noted the Maryland-Israel Development Council has facilitated state trade missions to Israel and recruited Israeli companies, notably in the cybersecurity and medical device fields, to open offices in Maryland.

The Baltimore Jewish Council says it represents 50 Jewish congregations and organizations in the state, while the Jewish Community Relations Council of Greater Washington says it represents 100 such groups in Maryland, Virginia, and the District of Columbia.

• Valerie Richardson contributed to this report.

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