De Blasio to Unilever: Show Opposition to Ben & Jerry’s by Investing in Israel

NEW YORK -
New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio hosts a virtual media availability from City Hall, Wednesday. (Ed Reed/Mayoral Photography Office)

New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio is calling on Unilever to “invest in Israel” as a means of demonstrating its opposition to the anti-Israel Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement, after the conglomerate’s ice cream subsidiary Ben & Jerry’s said it would no longer sell products in what it considers “occupied Palestinian territory.” De Blasio indicated that were Unilever to make such investments, he wouldn’t push the city pension funds to divest its Unilever holdings.

Unilever “should get one more chance to put their money where their mouth is, and announce investments they will make for Israelis and Palestinians,” the mayor told a Hamodia reporter at his press conference Wednesday. “If they make that kind of commitment, I’d be very receptive. If they refuse, then divestment becomes a much more necessary option.”

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.”

Since Ben & Jerry’s announcement, New York State, as well as Arizona, New Jersey, Florida and Texas, have either divested or begun the process of divesting their Unilever securities. In an August letter to the New York State Comptroller’s Office, Unilever CEO Alan Jope said that the Ben & Jerry’s issue “is a complex matter” because Ben & Jerry’s had retained the right to engage in social activism, but he reiterated that Unilever doesn’t support BDS and “has a strong and longstanding commitment to our business in Israel.”

Asked about the subject in the past by a Hamodia reporter, de Blasio, a BDS opponent, criticized Ben & Jerry’s and suggested he may personally boycott their ice cream, but said he’d “like to see [Unilever] fix the problem” rather than have New York City divest its securities.

The New York City pension funds hold $189.8 million in Unilever securities, according to the office of Comptroller Scott Stringer.

Stringer, who oversees the funds along with several trustees, has been silent on the Unilever issue — despite a letter on the subject from Councilman Eric Dinowitz in July and multiple media requests for comment — until this week, when he tweeted in response to a critical article in the New York Post, and was confronted regarding his silence by a Hamodia reporter outside an event in Lower Manhattan. Stringer said he is “unequivocally against BDS actions” but that “I cannot unilaterally divest the funds from any company.”

“My office is conducting its due diligence and engaging with Unilever gather more information,” Stringer said. “I am also monitoring its activity to determine if these actions have any impact on the retirement security of our pensioners.”

At de Blasio’s daily press conference Wednesday, a Hamodia reporter asked the mayor if, since Unilever has made it clear it would not force Ben & Jerry’s hand, “Are you moving toward calling for divestment, or do you still think that’s not a good idea?”

“I think there’s a solution still possible that would be better and ideal,” the mayor replied. “If there’s no willingness on Unilever’s part, then that’s a different discussion. So this is what I say simply: I’ve looked at their statement. They have condemned BDS — that’s crucial to me, I oppose BDS across the board. And I think we have to be very clear about the dangers of the BDS movement, the fact that it undermines the possibilities of peace for Israelis and Palestinians. Anyone who wants to see a peace process actually work should oppose BDS. Anyone who believes in the State of Israel and its historic place in the world should oppose BDS. I oppose BDS. Unliever says they oppose BDS. That’s good. Now, what I would say before divestment is they should get one more chance to put their money where their mouth is, and announce investments they will make for Israelis and Palestinians, to help move forward the peace process, which really will have a huge economic component. If we’re going to have peace, it will be, I think, largely through addressing a lot of the underlying economic challenges for everyone in the area. And international companies investing more in Israel is part of the answer. If they make that kind of commitment, I’d be very receptive. If they refuse, then divestment becomes a much more necessary option.”

Both de Blasio’s and Stringer’s terms end in January. Comptroller-elect Brad Lander, a progressive, has praised Ben & Jerry’s and indicated he would not divest Unilever stock.

The Hamodia reporter asked de Blasio in a follow-up question Wednesday whether he would be satisfied with Unilever investment in Israel even if Ben & Jerry’s sticks by its July decision, and if the mayor felt any urgency to act before Lander took office.

“I think it’s a good time to push Unilever, to put pressure on them to invest in Israel, to invest in Israelis and Palestinians alike, for the good of everyone in the region, and the good of the peace process.” De Blasio replied. “I think they’re feeling tremendous pressure. I’m proud to be one of the people who helped to create that pressure. Now, the demand should be [to] invest — the opposite of BDS. BDS takes money away from the people of a region that desperately needs investment and peace and economic progress. I think we should all use this as a moment, and I feel urgency about it, and I’ll put my voice in and I’ll talk to Unilever about it: Make a commitment to invest in Israel. Move us forward. Take a positive stance. Don’t just say you’re against BDS, do something about it, invest in Israel. That’s what I’ll push. If they refuse, then again, that divestment tool becomes a necessary option.”

rborchardt@hamodia.com