NJ says Ben & Jerry’s boycotted Israel, divests funds from parent company

This week, New Jersey became the second U.S. state to divest from Vermont-based ice cream company Ben and Jerry’s—and its parent company, Unilever—saying that the company’s decision no longer sell ice cream in occupied Palestinian territories (OPT) constitutes a boycott of Israel.

New Jersey, along with some three dozen other states, has anti-BDS (boycotts, divestment and sanctions) legislation, a controversial framework that gives states tools to punish individuals and organizations if they do something that is determined to be a boycott of Israel. NJ’s laws require divestment of any stocks and bonds the state holds in companies that violate its anti-BDS laws.

On Sept. 14, the state Division of Investment determined that Ben and Jerry’s announcement earlier this summer that it will cease selling its ice cream in the OPT, like the West Bank and the Gaza Strip, amounted to a boycott of Israel. Unilever has said it will not divest itself from Ben and Jerry’s, nor it will force the company to change its position on selling in the OPT. 

“We remain fully committed to our presence in Israel, where we have invested in our people, brands and business for several decades,” wrote the company in a statement regarding its subsidiary’s OPT decision. “Ben & Jerry’s was acquired by Unilever in 2000. As part of the acquisition agreement, we have always recognized the right of the brand and its independent Board to take decisions about its social mission. We also welcome the fact that Ben & Jerry’s will stay in Israel.”

Thus, the state of New Jersey ruled to divest over $180 million in Unilever stocks and bonds it holds in its pension fund. The action follows similar divestment from Arizona, which also recently determined that Unilever violated its anti-BDS laws.

Ben and Jerry’s, meanwhile, has defended its decision on various fronts; it said the contract it has with an Israeli company to distribute its products will not be renewed next year and “a different business arrangement,” will be made to keep its products in other parts of Israel in the future. 

Wrote the eponymous co-founders of the ice cream company in a New York Times op-ed this summer defending their decision: “The company’s stated decision to more fully align its operations with its values is not a rejection of Israel. It is a rejection of Israeli policy, which perpetuates an illegal occupation that is a barrier to peace and violates the basic human rights of the Palestinian people who live under the occupation. As Jewish supporters of the State of Israel, we fundamentally reject the notion that it is antisemitic to question the policies of the State of Israel.”

Tweeted the pro-Israel nonprofit J Street in response to NJ’s decision this week: “Reminder: @benandjerrys is not boycotting Israel. They are no longer doing business in the occupied West Bank. Calling this a ‘bigoted boycott’ is untrue and undermines the fight against real antisemitic bigotry.”

But for as many groups, activists and concerned community members that support Ben and Jerry’s decision, there are at least as many heralding NJ’s action. It’s a thorny, complicated issue, after all, with decades of history and competing politics and personal beliefs mixed in. The Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, for instance, commended the state’s decision and called on Unilever “to exercise its contractual right to overrule the discriminatory decision of the Board of its Ben & Jerry’s subsidiary.”

Ben and Jerry’s decision to leave the OPT this summer—which aligns with other initiatives it believes furthers social and human justice—came after a progressive campaign led by Decolonize Burlington asking the company to stop selling in the area.

Unilever has 90 days to come into compliance with the law, based on the state’s recommendations, or appeal the decision. 

Editor’s Note: Look, you don’t need our opinion on Middle Eastern politics, but insofar as this story sheds some light on NJ politics and governance, we’ll say this: If there is legislation in this state to automatically trigger divestment from an ice cream company that doesn’t want to sell ice cream in another country… is it too much of a leap to ask for legislation that divests from fossil fuel companies that 1) don’t make money and 2) have hastened climate change for decades?