Florida, Texas among states looking to divest from Unilever

Florida and Texas are among the states calling Unilever to account for its subsidiary, Ben & Jerry’s, launching an Israel boycott.

On July 19, Ben & Jerry’s announced it would stop selling its products in “Occupied Palestinian Territory,” ending its relationship with its Israeli licensee when the current agreement ends in 2022.

The company said it would continue to sell its products in pre-1967 Israel in a “different arrangement” that has not been described. However, most Israeli supermarket chains have locations in the territories, and Israeli law prevents local companies from boycotting Israeli communities in the territories.

Anti-Israel activists hailed the decision as a victory for the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement that seeks to economically isolate Israel, with an ultimate goal of removing Israel from the map.

There are 34 U.S. states that have laws targeting the BDS movement. Israeli Ambassador Gilad Erdan sent letters to the governor of each of those states, urging them to act against Ben & Jerry’s.

“We view this decision very severely as it is the de-facto adoption of antisemitic practices and advancement of the de-legitimization of the Jewish state and the dehumanization of the Jewish people,” he wrote.

He noted that Arab nations that long boycotted Israel are now making peace with the country, and the Ben & Jerry’s decision would affect stores in the territories where “both Israelis and Palestinians work and shop.” He added, “the citizens of Israel are never the only ones who suffer from such boycotts as these significantly harm Palestinians as well.”

Unilever has said that the Israel decision was of the Ben & Jerry’s board, which has a special autonomy on social justice issues dating back to its acquisition in 2000 by Unilever.

After the Ben & Jerry’s announcement, Unilever CEO Alan Jope said the company “remains fully committed to our business in Israel,” which includes a new razor factory, manufacturing facilities that employ 2,000 and support for social programs.

Jope reached out to numerous Jewish organizations as the controversy began, saying “We have never expressed any support for the BDS movement and have no intention of changing that position.”

Anuradha Mittal, chair of the independent Ben & Jerry’s board, insisted their action is not antisemitic, but she was reportedly incensed that Unilever reiterated its commitment to Israel, when the Ben & Jerry’s board had been planning a statement that would not mention a commitment to continue doing business in Israel. She has described Israel’s creation as a “catastrophe.”

The Ben & Jerry’s independent board issued a statement decrying the Unilever statement, saying it “does not reflect the position of the Independent Board, nor was it approved by the Independent Board.”

In late August, there were reports that the Ben & Jerry’s Foundation issued $104,000 in grants to the Oakland Institute, an anti-Israel organization where Mittal is the only paid employee.

Florida announced that Unilever has until Oct. 26 to reverse the boycott decision, or face “economic consequences” from the state.

At a September Cabinet meeting, Ash Williams, executive director of the Florida State Board of Administration said there had not been “any meaningful response from Unilever, period,” and the cabinet approved the state divesting its Unilever stock if the boycott is not reversed.

Florida officials held talks with Unilever on July 28 and reported that “the parent company has no current plan to prevent Ben & Jerry’s from terminating business activities in Israeli-controlled territories.”

“As a matter of law and principle, the state of Florida will not tolerate discrimination against the State of Israel or the Israeli people,” said Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis. “By placing Ben & Jerry’s Fortune 500 parent company Unilever on our ‘List of Scrutinized Companies That Boycott Israel,’ Florida is sending a message to corporate America that we will defend our strong relationship with the Jewish state. I will not stand idly by as woke corporate ideologues seek to boycott and divest from our ally, Israel.”

Currently, the state has about $139 million in Unilever, which the state would not be required to dump under the anti-BDS law, but the state would not make any additional investments in the company. Also, no state agency would be able to buy Unilever products after Oct. 26.

Jimmy Patronis, CFO of the Board of Administrators, said “The second Ben & Jerry’s decided to discriminate against Israel, it affected Florida’s ability to make investments with its parent company.”

In 2019, AirBNB had issued a ban on listings of Jewish-owned properties in the territories, and reversed the decision days before penalties would have begun in Florida.

Mississippi has pension funds invested in Unilever, and is one of 12 states requiring divestment from companies that participate in a boycott of Israel.

There has been no announcement thus far of any action in Alabama, Mississippi, Louisiana or Tennessee, all of which have anti-BDS laws.

On Sept. 23, Texas Comptroller Glenn Hegar announced that Ben & Jerry’s and Unilever had been added to the Texas list of companies that boycott Israel.

Texas has Unilever holdings of about $100 million in state pension funds, and if the company does not change course within 90 days, the state will begin divesting from Unilever.

“As with any of our listing decisions, my office, in cooperation with our research providers, carefully reviewed statements and activities by both Ben & Jerry’s and Unilever before concluding that they are suitable candidates for the Texas list,” Hegar said. “Texas law is clear on this issue, and my office has long supported Israel through our Israel bond holdings as well as our lists of scrutinized companies with ties to Iran and those with ties to foreign terrorist organizations.”

The Texas statute defines a boycott of Israel as “refusing to deal with, terminating business activities with, or otherwise taking any action that is intended to penalize, inflict economic harm on or limit commercial relations specifically with Israel or with a person or entity doing business in Israel or in an Israeli-controlled territory.”

Arizona was the first state to dump its Unilever holdings in response to the boycott. On June 30, the state had $143 million in Unilever investments. By mid-September, that was reduced to $50 million and was expected to be zero by the end of the month.

New Jersey also informed Unilever that it was subject to divestment by the state, giving the company 90 days to reverse Ben & Jerry’s decision. Unilever is headquartered in New Jersey.

In addition to Ben & Jerry’s, Unilever brands include Dove, Hellman’s, Knorr, Lipton, Breyer’s, Klondike, Axe, Q-Tips, Seventh Generation, Noxzema and Tazo.

Some have said the decision by Ben & Jerry’s can not be termed antisemitic, as the company’s founders are Jewish.

Ben Cohen said he has always supported a two state solution, but said the Israeli government is making it harder for that to happen by supporting settlements.

Jerry Greenfield said the action “is not boycotting Israel in any way” and the states are acting on “misinformation.”

Jeremy Ben-Ami, president of the left-wing group J Street, said rather than being antisemitic, the decision “draw(s) a principled and rational distinction between commercial transactions in the state of Israel and those in the territory it occupies.”

Many in the pro-Israel community were already critical of Ben & Jerry’s after the 2018 launch of the flavor “Pecan Resist,” which honored anti-Israel activist Linda Sarsour.