Israel’s ice cream battle heats up

A man buys Ben & Jerry's ice cream in Jerusalem on July 20, 2021. (Ahmad Gharabli/AFP via Getty Images/TNS)
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Eli Lake Bloomberg Opinion (TNS)

Since Ben & Jerry’s announced in July that it would no longer sell its ice cream in Gaza and the West Bank, its British owner, Unilever PLC, has sought to do damage control. Now Unilever faces an unlikely player in international statecraft: U.S. state attorneys general.

Unilever Chief Executive Officer Alan Jope has said it rejects the Boycott, Divest and Sanctions (BDS) movement against Israel. Unilever has also announced that it would find a new arrangement for Ben & Jerry’s to remain in Israel, but not in the occupied territories, after the contract with its current Ben & Jerry’s distributor expires next year. Unilever more recently has promised to continue to sell its many supermarket brands in Israel.

None of this has satisfied U.S. state attorneys general. In Washington last week, representatives of 11 Republican state attorney general offices gathered on the sidelines of the Federalist Society conference to discuss strategies for using their powers to target Iranian banks, Chinese corporations — and the participation of a Unilever subsidiary in the BDS movement.

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U.S. states are increasingly asserting themselves in foreign policy. They can target banks in their states that have corresponding relationships with banks that do business with Iran, for example. Or they can divest their multibillion-dollar pension funds from funds that invest in Chinese companies that are not subject to U.S. laws.

This strategy is now being used to target Unilever.

Richard Goldberg helped draft one of the first anti-BDS laws, in Illinois in 2015, when he was the legislative affairs director for former Gov. Bruce Rauner. He told the meeting of AGs that 33 states now have laws that either require pension funds to divest from or deny contracts to companies that boycott Israel.

Goldberg also said that the attorneys general should demand straight answers from Unilever on its relationship with the independent board that oversees Ben & Jerry’s. “They have pledged that Ben & Jerry’s has said they will find a way to still work in Israel, even though its independent board chair has said it won’t,” he told me in an interview. “It opens up a lot of questions as to the truthfulness about their statements to the market.”

The movement to target Unilever is already gaining momentum. The New York state comptroller’s office announced last month that the state’s common retirement fund would restrict its holdings of Unilever. It owned $111 million worth of Unilever stock at the time of the announcement. The pension funds of Arizona, Florida and New Jersey have also begun selling Unilever stock.

And other states are considering doing so. “Unilever is on our radar,” said Todd Rokita, the attorney general of Indiana, who was at last week’s meeting. He also told me, without going into specifics, that he appreciated how state government actions can affect the share prices of companies that “do not share our values.”

In many ways the momentum to punish corporations that participate in BDS is a mirror of the woke capital movement, which targets corporations that harm the environment or have unfair labor practices. Both movements generate a lot of praise and criticism on social media. But they also show that, when activists and officials are organized, they can have an impact on corporate America that goes beyond Twitter or Facebook.

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(Eli Lake is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering national security and foreign policy. He was the senior national security correspondent for the Daily Beast and covered national security and intelligence for the Washington Times, the New York Sun and UPI.)

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