Unilever and State Anti-Boycott Laws

This summer, Ben & Jerry’s announced its intention to cease sales of its products in the occupied territories. Despite repeatedly stating that the company’s policy is limited to territory that is under Israeli military occupation, and it would not impact sales of Ben & Jerry’s products within the state of Israel, the decision triggered enormous backlash from conservative voices within the American Jewish community and from politicians at both the state and federal level.

APN strongly supports Ben & Jerry’s and has repeatedly pushed back against efforts to paint their decision as anything other than a targeted and principled response to the continued Israeli occupation of the West Bank.

Elected officials in both the House and Senate have attempted to score political points by finding ways to punish Ben & Jerry’s and its parent company, Unilever. In August, Senator Rick Scott (R-FL) sent a letter to Secretary Gina Raimondo requesting that the Commerce Department investigate whether Ben & Jerry's policy violates the 1969 Export Administration Act (EAA) while also conflating Israel with the settlements and referring to boycotts as antisemitic. (You can read APN’s counter letter to Secretary Raimondo here). And just in the past week, Representative Ritchie Torres (D-NY) led three of his colleagues in a letter to the Chairman of the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) feigning concern over the regulatory implications of Ben & Jerry’s decision.

Still, the most notable opposition has been in the form of states with anti-boycott laws putting Unilever under review. As their mandated review periods closed, multiple states have found Unilever in violation of their anti-boycott laws –decisions to which APN has repeatedly objected.

APN has mounted its most extensive opposition to the state of New York’s recent determination that Ben & Jerry’s decision to cease sales in West Bank settlements constitutes BDS (boycotts, divestment and sanctions) against Israel. In addition to privately sending a letter to New York’s Executive Director of Corporate Governance, Liz Gordon, Americans for Peace Now organized a sign-on letter of over 150 New York Jewish leaders to Governor Hochul protesting the recent decision to restrict New York pension funds from Unilever. 

Unlike other states, whose laws explicitly give equal treatment to the settlements and Israel, New York is unique in that the relevant Executive Order (157) makes no mention of Israeli-controlled territories as part of Israel. Instead, it clearly defines BDS targeting Israel as engaging in or promoting any activity that is “intended to penalize, inflict economic harm on, or otherwise limit commercial relations with Israel or persons doing business in Israel.”

The decision to restrict pension fund holdings is not only wrong on the policy level, it is also an overreach beyond the specific territorial boundaries defined in E.O. 157 and is a clear attempt to conflate West Bank Israeli settlements with sovereign Israel.

It is vital that the United States maintain the distinction between Israel and the occupied territories. By wrongly applying the same standard of treatment to both the settlements in the occupied territories and the sovereign state of Israel, the State of New York’s decision conflates the two – undermining longstanding US policy and contributing to the erasure of the Green Line.

For a future two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and, indeed, for the future of Israel as a democracy and a Jewish state, it is vital that the distinction between sovereign Israel and the settlements be maintained. APN will continue pushing back against these harmful efforts, because we know this is not just about ice cream: conflation of Israel proper and West Bank settlements is a barrier to peace.

By Madeleine Cereghino, Director of Government Affairs