New York City Comptroller Scott Stringer is facing criticism from pro-Israel activists for not divesting the city’s pension fund from Unilever stock, after the conglomerate’s ice cream subsidiary Ben & Jerry’s announced last summer it would no longer sell its products in what it deemed “occupied Palestinian territory.” Stringer said that while he opposes the anti-Israel Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement, he cannot unilaterally divest pension funds from a company. Stringer’s first public comments on the matter were made this week — three-and-a-half months after the Ben & Jerry’s announcement — and were prompted by a critical article in the New York Post, and a Hamodia reporter confronting him as to why he and his office had heretofore been silent on the matter.
Ben & Jerry’s announced July 19 that when its agreement with its Israeli licensee expires at the end of next year, it will no longer sell products in Yehudah, Shomron and eastern Yerushalayim. Unilever at the time said it remains “fully committed to our presence in Israel,” but that when it had acquired Ben & Jerry’s in 2000, “as part of the acquisition agreement, we have always recognised the right of the brand and its independent Board to take decisions about its social mission.”
Stringer, however, has been silent on the matter, despite requests from media and elected officials to take a stand. Councilman Eric Dinowitz wrote the comptroller in letter in July, saying that Stringer has “an obligation to review the actions of Ben & Jerry’s and that of Unilever to determine if they are in violation of New York City law, and ensure that if they are participating in the BDS movement, our City’s agencies are complying with the City Administrative Code §6-114, which prohibits city contractors, and substantially owned affiliate companies, from participating in international boycotts.”
City pension funds hold $189.8 million in Unilever securities.
On Sunday, Dinowitz and former Assemblyman Dov Hikind criticized Stringer’s inaction, in a New York Post article headlined, “Critics bash Stringer for not divesting from Ben & Jerry’s over Israel boycott.”“This is a person who doesn’t have the guts to do the right thing,” Hikind told the Post. “What point doesn’t Stringer get? Israel is the only democracy in the Middle East.”
Dinowitz told the Post, “The BDS movement against Israel helps fuel antisemitism,” and, noting that the term-limited Stringer is leaving office at the end of the year, said, “We hope Comptroller Stringer makes a decision that aligns with our laws and values.”
Stringer’s spokesperson told the Post that the comptroller “is opposed to BDS actions and believes them counterproductive to the goal of peace and safety for all peoples in the Middle East,” and that “he believes these tactics ultimately threaten efforts for a peaceful two-state solution, rather than fostering understanding and cooperation.”
“As part of his due diligence as investment advisor to the five New York City systems [municipal retiree pension funds], Comptroller Stringer has reached out to Unilever to request a meeting and further information. The comptroller’s office continues to monitor the situation,” the spokesperson said, and also noted that Stringer has to get approval from representatives with the city’s five retirement pension systems before making any divestment move, as opposed to New York State Comptroller Tom DiNapoli, who is the sole trustee of the state pension fund.
At the time the Post article was published, Stringer still hadn’t responded to Dinowitz’s July letter. And Stringer’s office hadn’t responded to six email queries by Hamodia, made between July and late October, as to whether the comptroller would be divesting from Unilever.
On Sunday, Stringer took to Twitter to slam the Post article, calling it “some of the most offensive, juvenile and misleading attacks I’ve ever come across in 30 years of public service.”
“Let me be perfectly clear — I stand unequivocally against BDS actions,” Stringer wrote in a series of tweets. “As investment advisor to New York City’s pensions funds, I cannot unilaterally divest the funds from any company. That is not how New York City’s pension system works, and anyone claiming to represent the City’s retirees should know that. As I also stated in the article, my office is conducting its due diligence and engaging with Unilever gather more information. I am also monitoring its activity to determine if these actions have any impact on the retirement security of our pensioners.”
Then, addressing Hikind and Dinowitz, the comptroller wrote, “I am horrified by the smears you’ve lobbed against a fellow Jew. And as an elected official, I am appalled by your sheer, willful ignorance about the retirements of the New Yorkers you claim to represent. If our ultimate goal is peace and safety in the Middle East, I seriously question the motives of these so-called public servants. But if the goal is to sow divisiveness and ignorance — well done.”
Assemblyman Daniel Rosenthal tweeted in response, “Since Mr. Stringer is trying to defame a colleague I will just say I have also reached out to his office several times and never received any response.” Stringer replied, “Never called me,” to which Rosenthal wrote, “Tweet said I reached out to your office. Do I need to send screenshots of my call log? Since I have your attention do you care to respond now as to why you won’t divest from BDS supporting company?” Stringer did not respond.
In conversations with Hamodia on Monday, several pro-Israel elected officials criticized the comptroller.
“Mr. Stringer’s silence on the Unilever issue over the past three-and-a-half months has been deafening,” Rosenthal said. “BDS is an antisemitic movement that doesn’t even recognize Israel’s right to exist. It’s time for the New York Comptroller to follow New York State’s lead and take action by divesting from Unilever. Despite his comments about the difficulties of the divestment process, Mr. Stringer has divested in fossil fuels and other groups, so we know he is capable of divesting when an issue truly concerns him.”
Councilman Kalman Yeger said, “BDS is a viciously antisemitic propaganda machine. Comptroller Stringer claims to oppose BDS, but by continuing to invest in the profits of Ben & Jerry’s, he forces the city’s pensioners to effectively subsidize antisemitism. When Comptroller Stringer wanted to divest from the fossil-fuel industry, he knew exactly how to get that done and he did. The Comptroller should immediately bring this to a vote of the city’s pension boards and divest from our profiteering off antisemitism. That the city’s pension funds are invested in antisemitic enterprises is morally repugnant and should disgust every New Yorker.
“The Comptroller can call for a trustees’ vote whenever he wishes. He chooses not to, and that’s his choice. But it is disingenuous for the Comptroller to suggest that he has no options and that there is no action he can take to address the heinous antisemitism he continues to subsidize.”
Stringer has in the past been a moderate Democrat, and has always stated his opposition to BDS. But with the rise of the democratic-socialist wing of his party in recent years, Stringer has moved left and endorsed a number of progressive candidates in Democratic primaries. Critics accuse him of cynically straddling the fence.
“The Comptroller is trying to have it both ways, by claiming to oppose BDS and, at the same time, refusing to divest our holdings in companies which engage in BDS,” Yeger said. “No one is fooled.”
The councilman said that BDS isn’t the only reason the city should get rid of its Unilever shares.
“Unilever is down around 8% in the past 3 months, and about 15% in the last 12 months,” Yeger said. “The longer we wait to dump this bad stock, particularly as other jurisdictions are divesting their holdings, the worse it will be for the pension funds. It almost seems like the Comptroller is deliberately holding on to a bad stock for bizarre political reasons.”
New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio, who is also term-limited, has expressed his disappointment with the Ben & Jerry’s decision and suggested he may personally boycott their ice cream, but didn’t directly call for Stringer to divest from Unilever.
If Stringer doesn’t divest from Unilever, New York City will likely not do so for at least the next four years. Brad Lander, the city Comptroller-elect, has praised Ben & Jerry’s announcement and criticized New York State for divesting from Unilever. “Companies that decide not to operate in the settlements do not pose a risk to New York’s pension funds,” Lander said. “If anything, continuation of the occupation poses grave ongoing risks to Palestinians, Israelis, and to those who care about them.”
Stringer finished fifth in the Democratic mayoral primary last June, garnering 6% of the vote. Once his term as comptroller ends in January, it appears Stringer will not have a political job for the first time in decades. But Stringer, 61, is rumored to be eyeing Rep. Jerrold Nadler’s Congressional seat (which includes neighborhoods like the Upper West Side, Boro Park and Bensonhurst) whenever the 74-year-old Nadler retires. Stringer’s own political career began in 1983 as an aide to then-Assemblyman Jerrold Nadler; he won election to Nadler’s Upper West Side Assembly seat in 1992 after Nadler went to Congress.
On Monday, Stringer’s office did not respond to Hamodia’s seventh request for comment on whether he will divest from Unilever.
On Tuesday, a Hamodia reporter confronted Stringer outside City Hall, where he had participated in a rally with taxi drivers. The conversation is below:
Since the Ben and Jerry’s announcement in July, I don’t believe you’ve said a word publicly about whether or not you will divest from it. Why is that?
Well, I did make a statement.
Until the tweet [about the Post article] Sunday, I mean.
That’s not what you asked me. You said, Did I make a statement? So first correct yourself.
Okay. From July, till the tweet Sunday.
Let me finish. You misspoke. So now let’s do it again. I have made a statement. Now, would you like to talk about that statement or not?
Why didn’t you say anything until [after] the Post article on Sunday?
We get a lot of requests. We’re following the situation, I’m in discussion with Unilever, and this plays out. As you know, because you’ve done your homework, because that’s the kind of reporter you are, you know that I’m not the sole trustee. So any divestment or any discussion about this issue has to be with the entire group of trustees. That’s the difference — and I’m going to give you a lesson 101 — that’s the difference between being a fiduciary, as city comptroller, and a sole trustee as state comptroller. And I think you know that.
Why were you able to do it with the fossil fuels, though?
Because it was years of work, and hiring consultants. This does not get done like this. And if you would take time to look at what the role of the comptroller is, how we did that divestment, you would see that it’s very complicated and takes a very long time. And we are now engaging, first with Unilever. That’s step one. And over time, we will do that. So, what I would suggest you do is take a moment, learn the function of government, learn exactly what our role is, and then do some accurate reporting. And you will see the whole story.
Is there a reason your press team didn’t respond to emails for three-and a-half-months, from us? Because we’ve asked them. And you didn’t respond to the Dinowitz letter, either. Last question — is there a reason they didn’t respond for all this time?
I get hundreds of requests, as you know. we try to answer all the requests, and of course, I look forward to you continuing to reach out and try to accommodate you in any way.
Updated Tuesday, November 9, 2021 at 3:40 pm .