A dozen Attorneys General press Unilever over Ben & Jerry’s boycott

The Attorneys General of Alabama, Mississippi, Florida and Arkansas are among 12 signatories to a letter by Missouri Attorney General Eric Schmitt calling out Unilever for failing to take action against the Ben & Jerry’s boycott of Israel.

Thus far, hundreds of millions of dollars have been withdrawn in pension investments in Unilever by retirement funds in Florida, Arizona, New York and New Jersey, and several other states are looking into following suit.

Currently, at least 33 states have laws prohibiting the state from doing business with entities that participate in economic boycotts of Israel.

The letter to CEO Alan Jope, issued on Nov. 22, expresses “grave concern” to Unilever about its subsidiary’s decision.

In July, the Ben & Jerry’s board announced it would allow the agreement with its current licensee in Israel to lapse at the end of 2022, because selling its products in “Occupied Palestinian Territory” is “inconsistent with our values.”

Unilever, which acquired Ben & Jerry’s in 2001, has allowed the brand known for its social activism to have its own board that set policy, saying they have “always recognized the right of the brand and its independent Board to take decisions in accordance with its social mission.”

Unilever said they would set up a way for Ben & Jerry’s to continue to be sold in Israel through unspecified means, which prompted a rebuke from the Ben & Jerry’s board.

The main supermarket chains in Israel have locations in the territories, and Israeli law forbids them from making distinctions between locations within the pre-1967 lines and the territories, making a Ben & Jerry’s boycott of “just” the territories impossible.

The letter charges Unilever with attempting “to sidestep responsibility for this action by claiming that a comparatively small subsidiary of your giant global conglomerate is actually calling the shots,” and that Unilever’s claim to not be able to do anything about it “stretches credulity.”

Schmitt asked, “If Unilever is so interested in virtue-signaling, why not announce a boycott of countries like China, Russia, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, or especially Iran, who has promised the complete destruction of Israel?”

The letter notes that by not stopping the actions of Ben & Jerry’s, Unilever is on “an unfortunate and financially misguided path of testing our States’ resolve” to invoke the anti-boycott laws, and “respectfully urge(s) you to reconsider the decision.”

In October, Florida began the process of divesting from Unilever after not seeing “any meaningful response” from the company, according to State Board of Administration Executive Director Ash Williams. Florida had around $139 million invested in Unilever.

Among those signing the letter were Alabama’s Steve Marshall, Arkansas’ Leslie Rutledge, Florida’s Ashley Moody and Mississippi’s Lynn Fitch.

Also signing were the Attorneys General of Arizona, Indiana, Kansas, Oklahoma, Texas, Utah and West Virginia. All of the signatories are Republicans.

Unilever has not commented on the letter, but has insisted that its own actions are far from a boycott of Israel. Jope recently told New York officials that they have a “longstanding commitment” to their business in Israel, which employs around 2,000 in four factories and a headquarters, and the company has invested $250 million in Israel in the past decade.

Ben Cohen and Jerry Greenfield, founders of Ben & Jerry’s, have said Israel was one of the first countries that was a market for their ice cream as they expanded beyond the U.S., and said they support Israel but disagree with certain policies.

An activist investor is battling the company, saying the 13 percent drop in Unilever’s share price since July is due to the boycott, and Unilever is abdicating its fiduciary responsibility.

Bassem Eid, a prominent Palestinian human rights activist, filed a complaint against the company in New York, saying the company’s actions are “counterproductive to peace and creates only more hatred, enmity and polarization.”

He notes that he and other Palestinians regularly shop in Gush Etzion, a set of communities with a population of 40,000, and which is regarded by activists as an Israeli settlement in the territories even though it existed pre-1948 and was the site of a massacre of Jewish civilians during the War of Independence. Eid said the area is now “the true realization of coexistence” with Jewish and Muslim shoppers from Israel and the territories enjoying ice cream there.