Florida may divest from Ben & Jerry’s parent over Israel boycott

Florida’s governor said the US state won’t put any money into Unilever unless the company’s Ben & Jerry’s subsidiary reverses a decision to stop selling ice cream in the occupied West Bank.

If Ben & Jerry's position on Israel is not reversed in 90 days, the state of Florida in the United States will not invest in or contract with its parent company Unilever or its subsidiaries [File: Tsafrir Abayov/AP]

Florida won’t put any state money into the parent company of Ben & Jerry’s unless it reverses a decision to stop selling ice cream in the occupied West Bank and contested East Jerusalem, Governor Ron DeSantis said Tuesday.

The Republican governor said the State Board of Administration (SBA) added London-based Unilever to its list of “scrutinized companies” that boycott Israel. This means that if Ben & Jerry’s position on Israel is not reversed in 90 days, Florida will not invest in or contract with Unilever or its subsidiaries.

“As a matter of law and principle, the state of Florida will not tolerate discrimination against the state of Israel or the Israeli people,” DeSantis said in a news release. “I will not stand idly by as woke corporate ideologues seek to boycott and divest from our ally, Israel.”

The decision, similar to those in other states, comes after Vermont-based Ben & Jerry’s announced last month that it will stop selling its products in territories sought by the Palestinians.

The company’s founders, Bennett Cohen and Jerry Greenfield, said in a recent New York Times opinion piece that they no longer control the company but approve of the action in Israel as reflecting their progressive values. The company has a long history of advocating for social justice.

“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.”

Unilever’s 400 brands include a wide variety of familiar consumer goods such as Dove personal care products, Lipton tea, Hellmann’s mayonnaise, Sunlight soap and, of course, Ben & Jerry’s ice cream.

Unilever CEO Alan Jope said last week that Unilever is “fully committed” to doing business with Israel despite Ben & Jerry’s decision on the West Bank and East Jerusalem.

In an email Tuesday, Unilever said it employs more than 2,000 people in Israel and the company “rejects completely and repudiates unequivocally any form of discrimination or intolerance”.

“Anti-Semitism has no place in any society,” the company said, adding that Ben & Jerry’s will continue selling ice cream in parts of Israel “through a different business arrangement”.

Florida officials say the company told them in a call Wednesday that there are no plans to change Ben & Jerry’s stance on Israel. It wasn’t immediately clear what kinds of investments or contracts Florida currently has with Unilever or its subsidiaries.

“We’ll continue working with the SBA to ensure Florida law is upheld for those who target our friends in Israel,” said Jimmy Patronis, Florida’s chief financial officer.

Israel does not differentiate between the West Bank settlements and the rest of its territory. When home-rental company Airbnb announced in 2018 that it would no longer list properties in the West Bank, Israel harshly condemned the move and eventually pressured the company into cancelling the decision.

Israel’s ambassador to the United States and United Nations, Gilad Erdan, recently sent a letter to the governors of 35 US states urging them to punish Unilever under anti-boycott laws such as that in Florida.

Source: AP