Florida prepares to pull Ben & Jerry’s investments over Israeli settlement boycott

Ben & Jerry’s and parent company Unilever would be first entity that state divests from over law pushing back against boycotts of Israel and its settlements

A truck parked at the Ben & Jerry's ice-cream factory in the Be'er Tuvia Industrial area in Israel. AP

The legal deadline for Florida to divest from Ben & Jerry’s parent company over the progressive ice cream brand’s decision to cease selling its products in Israeli settlements in the West Bank and East Jerusalem is fast approaching.

Under Florida law, the state’s pension fund must divest its roughly $139 million in investments from the UK-based food behemoth Unilever and its subsidiaries unless Ben & Jerry’s reverses its decision.

Unilever, which is worth approximately $138 billion and is the world’s 104th most-valuable company, has shown no sign that it will back down over a dispute that ultimately involves a small amount of ice cream sold in select stores throughout West Bank settlements.

Still, the public furor and debate surrounding the decision has served to highlight the anti-boycott laws surrounding the Palestinian-Israeli conflict that at least 35 states have on the books to date.

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

It came close to divesting from Airbnb in 2019 after the company said it would not offer listings in the West Bank.

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

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

This framing has prompted US politicians such as Florida Governor Ron DeSantis to accuse the Vermont-based ice cream company of an anti-Israel boycott, while Israel’s UN envoy Gilad Erdan has called the decision “anti-Semitic”.

Ice cream is for sale in a Ben & Jerry's store in Miami, Florida. Getty Images / AFP

And Israeli President Isaac Herzog went so far as to call the Ben & Jerry’s decision “a new form of terrorism” and an effort to “undermine the very existence of the state of Israel".

The ice cream company’s co-founders, Ben Cohen and Jerry Greenfield — both of whom are Jewish — respectively called the allegations of anti-Semitism “absurd” and “painful” in an HBO interview that aired this month.

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

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

But it is unclear how Ben & Jerry’s will manage to do so, given that Israeli law prevents companies from selling their products in the country if they refuse to sell their products in settlements.

“There’s nothing accidental about this,” Lara Friedman, president of the Washington-based Foundation for Middle East Peace, told The National.

“The Israel law and the US laws were designed to corner companies and individuals in the international community into taking a side: there is Israel, river to the sea, and you stand with it or you’re an anti-Semitic, anti-Israel bigot.”

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

Conversely, Jeremy Ben-Ami — the president of AIPAC’s left-leaning rival, J Street — has called the Ben & Jerry’s decision “to sell ice cream in Israel but not in the settlements” a “rational and principled, even pro-Israel, position".

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

The powerful lobby group also pushed a federal-level anti-boycott law, known as the Combating BDS Act, which was designed to give legal cover to the state-level laws, only to have it stall in Congress in 2019 after the American Civil Liberties Union raised free speech concerns.

Some aspects of the state-level anti-boycott laws have not withstood scrutiny in the US court system because of constitutional free speech protections.

For instance, a federal court in 2018 blocked Arizona from enacting part of its anti-boycott law after the state sought to fire a lawyer over his personal refusal to purchase products from Israeli settlements.

Still, Arizona has already divested roughly $143m in assets from Unilever, and New Jersey has pulled out $182m 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 that boycott Israel or Israeli-controlled territories, setting the stage for the state to follow in Arizona’s footsteps.

New York’s pension fund, which is also pulling $4bn in assets from the fossil fuel industry, has also threatened to divest from Unilever under its anti-boycott law.

And while no major legal challenges have developed to withdraw state assets from major corporations, Ms Friedman said she does not expect it to have much of a financial impact on Unilever.

“The bottom line from my research is divestment campaigns in general are largely performative,” Ms Friedman told The National.

“That’s just not how markets work. Money just moves elsewhere.”

Updated: October 24th 2021, 7:05 AM