Illinois divests from Unilever over Ben and Jerry’s Israel boycott

Illinois has become at least the fifth American state to divest from Ben and Jerry’s parent company.

 An ice cream assembly line at the Ben & Jerry's factory near Kiryat Malachi, July 2021 (photo credit: FLASH90)
An ice cream assembly line at the Ben & Jerry's factory near Kiryat Malachi, July 2021
(photo credit: FLASH90)

An Illinois board overseeing state employee pension funds voted to bar funds from holding Unilever PLC shares due to the company’s Ben & Jerry’s ice cream brand forbidding sales in Judea and Samaria, joining at least five other US states moving to restrict the stock.

A representative for the Illinois Investment Policy Board (IIPB) said that it voted 7-0 at a meeting on Wednesday “to add Unilever to its prohibited entity list,” following similar moves by other states including New York and New Jersey.

An exact value of Unilever shares that state funds must now sell, if they own them, was not immediately available. Members of the board include representatives of Illinois teachers and university retirement systems and the Illinois State Board of Investment, who did not immediately respond to questions Wednesday evening. Unilever representatives did not immediately respond to questions.

Like other states, Illinois law bars investments in companies that boycott Israel. Ben & Jerry’s moved in July to end a license for its ice cream to be sold in the West Bank and east Jerusalem, saying sales there were “inconsistent with its values.” Unilever had said the decision was made by Ben & Jerry’s independent social mission board, and that it does not support efforts to boycott or isolate Israel, where it employs nearly 2,000 people.

“Israel has always claimed that any solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict must be reached through direct, bilateral negotiations between the two sides,” said Israeli Consul General to the Midwest Yinam Cohen. “Any third party’s attempts to predetermine the parameters of the final status agreement are counterproductive to solving the conflict. Today’s decision by the Illinois Investment Policy Board toward Unilever reaffirms this message.”

 Unilever headquarters in Rotterdam, Netherlands August 21, 2018.  (credit: REUTERS/PIROSCHKA VAN DE WOUW) Unilever headquarters in Rotterdam, Netherlands August 21, 2018. (credit: REUTERS/PIROSCHKA VAN DE WOUW)

Jay Tcath, executive vice president of the Chicago Jewish Federation, said, “This is the highest-profile company and the highest-profile case that this board handled in its six years. The vast majority of the other 39 companies that have been put on the prohibited investment list are mostly obscure European banks or asset management funds.

“The law is very clear, and this board is not a deliberative body, it is not a legislature, there is no debate per se. They are more like regulators. And when Ben & Jerry’s says publicly, ‘we’re not going to sell our ice cream in the West Bank for political reasons,’ the law is black and white here.”

The Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations released a statement saying, “We applaud this decision and advise any corporations considering similar actions to take into account the reputational damage, as well as the legal complications, associated with engaging with the bigoted Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) Movement currently prohibited in a majority of US states in the form of adopted laws, executive orders, and resolutions.

“We call on Unilever to exercise its contractual right to overrule the misguided decision of the Board of Directors of its subsidiary, Ben & Jerry’s. We continue to support legal efforts in over 30 states to hold to account companies that engage in similar boycotts of Israel, and demand that Unilever publicly reject this shameful, discriminatory campaign.”

Mark Wilf, chairman of the board of trustees for the Jewish Federations of North America, said, “Today’s decision on Unilever is an important milestone against attempts to apply double standards and delegitimize the Jewish state.”

The StandWithUs NGO also applauded the decision, saying in a statement, “StandWithUs staff and partners were proud to speak out in favor of divesting from Unilever at the IIPB meeting, prior to the vote. They spoke about how Unilever was clearly in violation of SB1761, because it owns Ben & Jerry’s and has refused to reverse the company’s discriminatory decision to cut ties with its factory in Israel.”