Illinois Seeks Ben & Jerry’s Divestment over Israel Stance

SPRINGFIELD, Ill. -
A sign of Ben & Jerry’s, a Unilever brand, is seen in London, Britain. (REUTERS/Hannah McKay/File Photo)

Illinois regulators plan to warn the owner of Ben & Jerry’s to reverse the company’s decision to stop selling ice cream in Yehuda and Shomron and east Yerushalayim or face divestment by the state, an official said Wednesday.

The Israeli Boycott Restrictions Committee of the Illinois Investment Policy Board will meet to approve setting a 90-day deadline for Unilever to reverse the decision by Ben & Jerry’s, committee chairman Andy Lappin said.

There is no date set for the meeting but it will be called specifically to address the July 19 announcement by the Vermont-based confection-maker that continuing to market its product in Palestinian-sought territories is “inconsistent with our values.”

It’s considered one of the strongest condemnations by a well-known company of Israel’s policies in the region. Lappin said that “the egregious nature of the statement is almost unprecedented.”

The Illinois Investment Policy Board monitors compliance with state law prohibiting the investment in certain companies that do business with Iran and Sudan as well as companies that boycott Israel.

“We’ll meet in the next week or so just for this issue, asking the board to send a letter to Unilever giving it 90 days to confirm or deny” Ben & Jerry’s stance, Lappin said. “In this case, it was a blatantly open statement made by the chairman of Ben & Jerry’s and we need to determine if Unilever deems it appropriate to walk the statement back.”

A spokeswoman for Democratic Gov. J.B. Pritzker, the state’s third Jewish governor, has refused to respond to requests for comment about the legality of Ben & Jerry’s plans.

Unilever’s chief executive officer said late last week that the company remains “fully committed” to doing business with Israel and tried to put distance between Unilever and Ben & Jerry’s announcement. But CEO Alan Jope did not say he would require Ben & Jerry’s to back off its plans.

If found non-compliant, Illinois law would requires divestment in Unilever or any of its subsidiaries, Lappin said. State-run pension systems are currently investigating their portfolios for Unilever-related interests.

The founders of Ben & Jerry’s, Bennett Cohen and Jerry Greenfield, said in a New York Times op-ed published Wednesday they are no longer in control of the company, but are “proud” of its action.

“We are also proud Jews. It’s part of who we are and how we’ve identified ourselves for our whole lives. As our company began to expand internationally, Israel was one of our first overseas markets. We were then, and remain today, supporters of the State of Israel,” the founders said. “But it’s possible to support Israel and oppose some of its policies, just as we’ve opposed policies of the U.S. government.”

The Investment Policy Board last took action against Airbnb when in 2018 former Gov. Bruce Rauner called out the online lodging marketplace for its “abhorrent and discriminatory” action in announcing it would remove West Bank listings.

Airbnb avoided Illinois divestment by backing off its decision and certifying to state regulators in August 2019 that it was not violating the restriction on boycotting Israel.

Reporting by the Associated Press.