June 24, 2024
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Linking Northern and Central NJ, Bronx, Manhattan, Westchester and CT

NJ to Divest $182 Million in Unilever

Jewish leaders hailed the decision by New Jersey’s Division of Investment to divest the state’s pension fund of $182 million in stock from Unilever, the parent company of Ben & Jerry’s ice cream, over its decision not to sell in the Israeli territories.

New Jersey became just the second state after Arizona, which will divest $143 million, to disengage its pension fund, citing a 2016 law that prohibits the investment of such funds in businesses that engage in boycotts of Israel.

However, there are 34 states that have laws on their books that ban them from doing business with companies that participate in the Boycott Divestment Sanctions (BDS) campaign against Israel. Since New Jersey’s decision, Texas has also decided to divest from Unilever and New York, Florida, Illinois, Maryland and Rhode Island have launched formal proceedings to follow suit.

The director of New Jersey’s Division of Investment, Shoaib Khan, said it had determined after a review that Ben & Jerry’s actions “constituted a boycott of Israel or
companies operating in Israel or Israeli-controlled territory.”

Ironically, the British-based Unilever’s American headquarters is in Englewood Cliffs.

Joshua Cohen, director of Government Relations & External Affairs for the Jewish Federations of New Jersey, in a phone interview with The Jewish Link, said he commended the state and its department of treasury.

“This ruling is a rebuke to those who would discriminate against Israel, an ally of the United States and a vibrant economic partner of the state of New Jersey,” he said, adding that immediately after learning of Ben & Jerry’s decision, the state federation and local federation leaders reached out to the division of investment, part of the state Department of the Treasury, and was pleased with both the decisiveness and gravity with which it took action.

“We felt Unilever’s action fell squarely within the prohibited areas that were defined in the law that was passed in 2016,” said Cohen. “We requested the department conduct an immediate investigation, which the Division of Investigation took very seriously and immediately commenced action to ensure compliance with that law.”

He noted the division worked with an independent research consultant to determine whether Unilever should be excluded from its holdings before making the decision that the company was in violation of the law.

“The BDS movement unfairly places pressure and unfairly tries to influence companies’ ability to do business with Israel,” said Cohen. “This ruling demonstrates the success of this anti-boycott law. It is only fitting and appropriate that the state of New Jersey affirm those values by giving a swift response to those who would discriminate against Israel.”

Susan Tuchman, director of the Zionist Organization of America (ZOA) Center for Law and Justice, told The Jewish Link that despite some questioning of the legality of laws similar to New Jersey’s by some supporting the BDS movement, “there is no question of the constitutionality of the law.”

“The state has made it clear that if you discriminate against Israel, the state is not going to work with you,” she said. “I am confident this law will pass constitutional muster.”

Noting any such law would have likely been thoroughly vetted to ensure it could withstand a legal challenge, Tuchman added a personal aside. “As a resident of New Jersey I am very proud of my state for doing this.”

She said much of what has been reported about the action by Ben & Jerry’s has focused on its refusal to sell in the territories, but the ice cream company also plans to boycott East Jerusalem, ”the capital of Israel where all of Judaism’s holiest sites are located.”

“The fact that they are saying Judea and Samaria are occupied is promoting the idea that Jews are stealing the land,” said Tuchman adding the ZOA had sent a letter to Unilever urging the company override the decision, receiving a reply that it is not boycotting Israel, is not engaged in antisemitism and that the company is opposed to BDS.

“They say they don’t support BDS or antisemitism but it has done nothing to stop Ben & Jerry’s, a wholly owned subsidiary,” she said.

The law that triggered the divestiture was co-sponsored by Democratic Sen. Loretta Weinberg and Republican Thomas Kean Jr. and passed with bipartisan support.

Jewish Federation of Northern New Jersey CEO Jason M. Shames said in a statement sent to The Jewish Link that prior to its passage he spent many hours working with elected officials, giving testimony to several different committees in Trenton, and helped draft a small part of the legislation. He noted that collectively Jewish federations throughout the state are always working on critical policy-making decisions, and worked to secure passage of this law to protect the Jewish community locally, globally and in Israel.

“The law,” Shames said, “is meant to discourage such contemptible activity and we anticipated that, in the future, a Jersey-based company might be tempted and misled by those co-opting a false narrative.”

The ice cream company was started in the 1970s in Vermont by Ben Cohen and Jerry Greenfield and has always supported progressive causes. They sold the company to Unilever in 2000, but retained its own board of directors, which made the decision to boycott the territories but continue to sell in Israel.

Its website states, “We have a progressive, nonpartisan social mission that seeks to meet human needs and eliminate injustices in our local, national and international communities by integrating these concerns in our day-to-day business activities.”

Cohen and Greenfield are Jewish and have said they are supporters of Israel but support the action of the company’s board.

New Jersey gave Unilever 90 days to reverse its action, and Shames said, “So now the clock is ticking on Unilever while New Jersey’s pension fund investment in the company melts away like a Ben & Jerry’s ice cream cone on a hot summer day. It’s their move.”

By Debra Rubin

 

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