As states such as North Carolina consider withdrawing public pension funds from Unilever and its subsidiaries over its de facto boycott of Israel, it is time to review the story of Unilever’s divestment from Israel.
On July 19, 2021, Ben & Jerry’s abruptly informed its Israeli distributor and manufacturer of nearly 35 years, American Quality Products, by letter that they would not continue the agreement past December 31, 2022, effectively ending their presence in the State of Israel.
Ben & Jerry’s and parent company, Unilever, took this action at the behest of antisemitic activists who seek to denormalize Israel.
Until recently, though, Ben & Jerry’s continued to do business in Russia; they continue to sell in the occupied Crimean peninsula, which Russia invaded and annexed in 2014. In fact, on February 6, on the eve of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, Ben and Jerry’s pushed out a bizarre tweet blaming the United States for inflaming tensions with Russia by sending peacekeeping troops to Europe. On March 8, 2022, Unilever announced that it would halt all operations in Ukraine, while only halting imports and exports into Russia, but “will continue to supply our everyday essential food and hygiene products made in Russia to people in the country.”
Other nations with atrocious human rights records where Ben and Jerry’s continues to do business include Syria, Iran and China. The company also sells in other disputed and heavily oppressed territories, including Tibet, Western Sahara and Kashmir. Only the Jewish state has been singled out for boycott.
While Unilever couched its pressure campaign in terms of attempting to restrict sales only to Israeli territory from before the 1967 Six Day War, they did so in perfect awareness that this would violate their commitments. The move violates Unilever’s operating agreement with Avi Zinger, Israeli and US law, including the US Export Control Reform Act of 2018, which prohibits companies and individuals from refusing or agreeing to refuse to do business for boycott-related reasons.
Many Palestinians shop at the supermarkets and mini-markets to which Zinger distributes Ben & Jerry’s ice cream in the West Bank and East Jerusalem. This is why Palestinian human rights activist Bassam Eid has filed an action with the New York State Division of Human Rights, explaining that Unilever’s decision will harm Palestinians.
There is a great irony in Unilever’s decision to target Zinger, who over many years has initiated and supported projects that promote coexistence between Israelis and Palestinians and provide educational and occupational opportunities to disadvantaged communities, including Palestinians. Zinger’s social mission projects include Fruits of Peace, a project initiated by Zinger to strengthen economic cooperation between Israelis and Palestinians by developing new Ben & Jerry’s ice cream flavors using ingredients sourced from Palestinian farmers.
He has also sponsored Jordan River Village, an overnight camp and retreat center in the Middle East where Israeli and Palestinian children living with serious illnesses participate together. Other programs supported by Zinger include Kids4Peace, a global movement of Jewish, Christian, and Muslim youth dedicated to ending conflict and inspiring hope in divided societies worldwide, and Seeds of Peace, an organization that promotes coexistence between Israeli and Palestinian students.
Zinger and his company, AQP, employ newly arrived immigrants struggling to learn Hebrew, refugees from African countries like Sudan, LGBTQ+ refugees and disabled individuals. These workers will be unemployed if the business shuts down. Because of their circumstances, they will be hard-pressed or unable to find new jobs adequate to support themselves and their families.
The costs of Unilever’s destructive campaign must be maximized so that other companies do not follow suit. Zinger has filed for an injunction against Unilever and its subsidiaries in federal court in New Jersey, where Unilever’s US affiliate is based. Furthermore, several US states, including New York, New Jersey, Illinois, Florida and Texas, have divested hundreds of millions of dollars from Unilever because the move violated state anti-boycott laws. The company’s stock has dropped 25% since the announcement of their boycott, while the broader market is at nearly the same level. In March, Colorado became the latest state to divest shares of Unilever from its pension funds, in this case over $42 million.
Now, North Carolina is considering invoking its own state BDS legislation passed by overwhelming bipartisan majorities in both chambers in 2017. For the time being, the State Treasurer Dale Folwell has determined that the time for withdrawing pension funds – valued at $62.9 million - is not yet ripe. Instead, North Carolina will wait until the end of the year to see whether Ben and Jerry’s follows through with ending Zinger’s contract or whether other events intervene; Treasurer Folwell has promised to reevaluate at the end of the year.
As he considers events over the coming months, he should heed the words of North Carolina’s Senator Thom Tillis, who noted that “while Ben & Jerry’s boycotts our ally Israel, the only democracy in the Middle East, its parent company Unilever recently invested $112 million in an ice cream factory in Communist China, where the regime forces Uighur Muslims into concentration camps.”
If the capture of Unilever by antisemitic radicals is allowed to stand, we can assume that many similarly placed companies will bow to pressure and attempt to join in the economic strangulation of the world’s only Jewish state. Supporters of Israel and democracy must stand firm and insist that Unilever stop using ice cream as a cruel means of economic warfare that punishes the very people this boycott purports to help.
The writer is chief executive officer of the Israel on Campus Coalition.