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Five US states take aim at Ben & Jerry’s over settlement boycott

Officials in Florida, Texas, New York, New Jersey and Illinois reviewing whether move requires divestment from parent company Unilever under their various state laws

Pedestrians walk on Church St., past the Ben & Jerry's shop, in Burlington, Vermont, March 11, 2020. (AP Photo/Charles Krupa)
Pedestrians walk on Church St., past the Ben & Jerry's shop, in Burlington, Vermont, March 11, 2020. (AP Photo/Charles Krupa)

Five US states have begun examining whether Ben & Jerry’s decision to stop selling its ice cream in Israeli settlements triggered laws passed in recent years to combat the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement targeting Israel.

Officials in Florida, Texas, New York, New Jersey and Illinois are reviewing whether the move will require divestment from Ben & Jerry’s parent company Unilever under their various state laws.

There are 34 states in total that require their governments to stop doing business with companies that boycott Israel — and 21 of those explicitly include West Bank settlement boycotts in their definitions.

Of those 21 states, 12 are required to remove companies that engage in boycotts from state employee retirement investment funds — an action that experts say is far more damaging than simply ending contracts with a company for its goods and services.

Here’s a look at the five states that have launched actions so far:

Florida

Gov. Ron DeSantis, a Republican, on Thursday wrote to the State Board of Administration, which manages the state’s retirement funds, asking that it place Ben & Jerry’s and Unilever on the “Continued Examination Companies that Boycott Israel List.”

“Continued Examination,” under Florida law, means that at least one piece of evidence has come to light that a company is taking an action that would, according to Florida law, cut it off from state business. Should it determine that the company is indeed in conflict with Florida requirements, it would go on the Scrutinize Company List, which would mandate that Florida divest its funds from the company.

Florida law explicitly extends to companies that boycott West Bank settlements, and it extends its purview to the state retirement funds.

Texas

On Thursday, Texas state comptroller Glenn Hegar announced that he had launched an inquiry to determine if Unilever meets the standard for being delisted from companies with which the state does business.

“I’ve directed my staff to determine whether any specific action has been taken by Ben & Jerry’s or Unilever would trigger a listing under Chapter 808 of the Texas Government Code,” he said.

Texas law also includes West Bank settlements in its Israel boycott definition and also applies its law to the restriction of state retirement funds.

New York

Liz Gordon, the executive director of Corporate Governance for the New York State Common Retirement Fund, on Friday wrote to Unilever saying 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.”

“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,” the letter says.

New York has yet to pass any BDS-related laws, although some are under consideration. However, in 2016, Gov. Andrew Cuomo issued an executive order still in effect that bars the state from doing business with companies that participate in the BDS movement, and extended it to investment funds as well. The executive order does not explicitly address whether more targeted boycotts of settlements are included.

Illinois

Illinois law requires that state employee retirement funds divest from companies that promote BDS, including firms that restrict their actions to Israel’s settlements.

Daniel Goldwin, the executive director of public affairs at Chicago’s Jewish United Fund/Jewish Federation of Metropolitan Chicago, told the Jewish Telegraphic Agency that the process of review by the independent Illinois Investment Policy Board was underway. The board wrote to Unilever, giving them 90 days to “explain why their reported actions are not a violation of Illinois law.”

“At the next quarterly meeting, the board will review the company’s response and/or invite them to testify and answer questions. Then, if it’s determined that state pension divestment is warranted, the actual divestment will occur in a ‘timely way that does not lead to a material loss of value,’” Goldwin said.

New Jersey

New Jersey law also requires state employee retirement funds to divest from companies backing BDS, also including companies who only boycott Israel’s settlements.

Jewish Insider on Friday quoted an official in the State Treasurer’s office as saying that “the Division of Investment is aware of the situation and is working to determine whether any actions must be taken to ensure continued compliance with the State’s anti-BDS law.”

Gov. Phil Murphy, a Democrat, was “disappointed” in the decision, a spokeswoman said.

“The governor believes we must continue working toward the shared goal of peace and mutual respect,” the spokeswoman told USA Today.

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