Florida ceases investments in Ben & Jerry’s parent company over Israeli settlement boycott

Law also forbids parent company Unilever from entering into new contracts with state government or its localities

Florida’s pension fund will no longer invest in Ben & Jerry’s parent company Unilever over the ice cream brand’s decision to cease selling its products in Israeli settlements in the West Bank and East Jerusalem.

The Florida State Board of Administration confirmed to The National on Wednesday that it is now legally barred from investing in the UK-based food behemoth Unilever after the statutory three-month review period initiated by Governor Ron DeSantis ended this week.

However, Florida is legally allowed to retain the roughly $139 million in investments it had already purchased from Unilever before Tuesday. Unilever is worth about $138 billion and ranks as the world’s 104th most valuable company.

Ben & Jerry's will not cease selling its ice cream in Israeli settlements until next year, and although it sells only a limited quantity of ice cream in those locations, Unilever’s 2000 purchase of the company has placed it at the centre of a US political maelstrom.

Florida enacted its anti-boycott legislation in 2018, but the Ben & Jerry’s decision marks the first time it has banned investments in a company under that law.

Another little-noticed provision of the law also bars the state and local governments from entering into or renewing contracts with Unilever because of Ben & Jerry’s decision.

However, it remains unclear whether Unilever has any existing contracts with Florida as the state’s Department of Management Services did not reply to The National’s request for comment.

At least 35 states have similar anti-boycott laws relating to Israel and the occupied territories.

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.

When Ben Cohen and Jerry Greenfield sold their ice cream company to Unilever, the brand retained an independent board of directors that has the task of preserving the co-founders’ social values.

Mr Cohen and Mr Greenfield — both of whom are Jewish — 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.

That did not stop Gilad Erdan, Israel’s envoy to the UN, from accusing the ice cream company of “anti-Semitism”.

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".

Mr Cohen and Mr Greenfield called these allegations “absurd” and “painful” during an interview with HBO this month.

Updated: October 28th 2021, 6:53 AM