Florida Prepares To Withdraw Ben & Jerry’s Investments Following Israeli Settlement Boycott

The legal deadline for Florida to part ways with parent company Ben & Jerry’s following the progressive ice cream brand’s decision to stop selling its products in Israeli settlements in the West Bank and East Jerusalem is fast approaching .

Under Florida law, the state pension fund must divest its roughly $ 139 million in investments from British grocery giant Unilever and its subsidiaries, unless Ben & Jerry’s backtracks. decision.

Unilever, which is worth an estimated $ 138 billion and is the 104th most valued company in the world, has shown no signs of backing off from a dispute ultimately involving a small amount of ice cream sold in some shops in West Bank settlements .

Yet the public fury and debate surrounding the decision has served to highlight the anti-boycott laws surrounding the Palestinian-Israeli conflict that at least 35 states have to date.

Florida enacted its anti-boycott legislation in 2018, but Ben & Jerry’s decision marks the first time the state will have to divest from a business under the law.

He nearly divested from Airbnb in 2019 after the company said it would not offer listings in the West Bank.

However, Airbnb caved in and reversed its policy shortly before the three-month deadline for Florida to separate from the company arrived.

Many anti-boycott laws, including that of Florida, apply both to Israel proper and to “Israeli-controlled territories” in the occupied West Bank.

The framing prompted US politicians such as Florida Governor Ron DeSantis to accuse the Vermont-based ice cream company of an anti-Israel boycott, while Israeli UN envoy Gilad Erdan called the move a ‘”Anti-Semitic”.

And Israeli President Isaac Herzog has gone so far as to call Ben & Jerry’s move a “new form of terrorism” and an effort to “undermine the very existence of the State of Israel.”

Ice cream company co-founders Ben Cohen and Jerry Greenfield – both Jews – respectively called the anti-Semitism allegations “absurd” and “painful” in an interview with HBO this month.

Although Mr. Cohen and Mr. Greenfield sold Ben & Jerry’s to Unilever in 2000, the company has retained an independent board of directors whose mission is to uphold its social values.

Mr Cohen and Mr Greenfield reject the idea that they are part of the pro-Palestinian boycott, divestment and sanctions movement against Israel, noting that Ben & Jerry’s has pledged to take action to continue selling its ice cream in Israel proper.

But it’s unclear how Ben & Jerry’s will achieve this, given that Israeli law prohibits companies from selling their products in the country if they refuse to sell their products in the settlements.

“There is nothing accidental about it,” said Lara Friedman, president of the Washington-based Middle East Peace Foundation. The National.

“Israeli law and US laws were designed to get businesses and individuals in the international community to take sides: there is Israel, from river to sea, and you are with it or you are an anti-Semite, bigot. “

The American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), which has joined with other pro-Israel groups in pushing for these anti-boycott laws in recent years, called Ben & Jerry’s decision “discriminatory.” “.

Conversely, Jeremy Ben-Ami – the chairman of AIPAC’s left-wing rival J Street – called Ben & Jerry’s decision “to sell ice cream in Israel but not in the settlements” as “rational and principle, even pro-Israel, position “.

AIPAC and its allies launched the lobbying campaign to pass state-level anti-boycott laws about five years ago, shortly after the EU took action in 2015 to launch a policy distinguishing between products made in Israel proper and those made in the settlements.

The powerful lobby group also pushed for an anti-boycott law at the federal level, known as the Combating BDS Act, which was designed to give legal cover to state-level laws, only to block it in Congress. in 2019 after American civil liberties. The union has raised concerns about freedom of expression.

Some aspects of state-level anti-boycott laws have not stood up to scrutiny by the US judicial system because of constitutional protections for free speech.

For example, a federal court in 2018 prevented Arizona from passing part of its anti-boycott law after the state sought to fire a lawyer for his personal refusal to buy goods from Israeli settlements.

Yet Arizona has already ceded roughly $ 143 million in assets to Unilever, and New Jersey has withdrawn $ 182 million in public funds from the company under different components of their anti-boycott laws.

Texas has also added Ben & Jerry’s and Unilever to its list of companies boycotting Israel or Israeli-controlled territories, paving the way for the state to follow in Arizona’s footsteps.

The New York Pension Fund, which also draws $ 4 billion in assets from the fossil fuel industry, has also threatened to part ways with Unilever under its anti-boycott law.

And while no major legal challenges have developed to remove state assets from large corporations, Friedman said she didn’t expect it to have a significant financial impact on Unilever.

“The result of my research is that divestment campaigns in general are largely performative,” Ms. Friedman said. The National.

“This is just not the way the markets work. The money just goes elsewhere.

Update: October 24, 2021 3:00 a.m.

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