Just when you thought the worst that could happen from indulging in Ben & Jerry’s Cherry Garcia or Rocky Road ice cream was a few extra pounds, an obscure Illinois government body has branded this popular treat off-limits.
So far off-limits that on Dec. 22 the seven unelected men and women who comprise the Illinois Policy Investment Board voted unanimously to bar the state’s employee pension funds, representing the diverse interests of hundreds of thousands of people, from investing in Unilever, Ben & Jerry’s parent company.
The company’s crime? Ben & Jerry’s announcement last summer to no longer sell its ice cream in the West Bank, or as it also known by both its residents and rest of the world, the “Occupied Palestinian Territory”—occupied by Israel since 1967. The board’s little-noticed decision derives from an equally obscure (and unnoticed by most) Illinois law passed in 2015 that prohibits state employee pension funds from investing in any company that boycotts Israel.
What’s wrong here? Where to begin? Leaving aside the First Amendment issues involved, there is the fact that Ben & Jerry’s is not boycotting Israel. As Ben & Jerry’s, and its parent company Unilever, have repeatedly stated, their ice cream is still available in Israel, just not in Israeli settlements outside the state of Israel.
This, of course, raises the question, where exactly is Israel? While Israelis have occupied and ruled this territory since 1967 and have created “settlements” (from two trailers to places with 30,000 settlers) on the occupied lands, no nation, including Israel and the United States, has considered the West Bank part of the state of Israel.
While controlled and surrounded by Israel, the Palestinians living in the West Bank (as they have for centuries) are not Israeli citizens, cannot vote in Israel’s elections, cannot travel to Israeli cities (or even to the beaches a few miles from their homes) without permission from Israeli military authorities, are subject to Israeli military (but not civil) courts, and do not have Israeli passports nor access to the Israeli airport. The only persons in the West Bank with full Israeli rights are Jewish and live in the settlements that are considered illegal by all international bodies and treaties, including the Geneva Conventions.
Finally, if the West Bank were part of Israel, then Israel would have to treat all residents equally—from free movement and access to vaccines, to passports and travel protocols, and a singular court system— none of which is the case. By applying the same standard to both the settlements in the occupied territories and the state of Israel, both the board’s action and the underlying Act wrongly ignore the legal and practical distinctions between the two.
Adding insult to injury is that this tiny unelected body has taken this outsized action with little or no input from those most knowledgeable or affected. It failed at the most basic of its responsibilities—to seek knowledgeable testimony to inform its decision. Members or staff did not reach out to any of the dozens of active Jewish organizations in the state or any organization representing Palestinian-Americans, even though Illinois boasts the largest Palestinian community of any state.
While some may find this a tempest in an ice cream cone, the danger the law and board pose to Illinois is real. While this specific decision may have little impact on Illinois or Ben & Jerry’s sales, other upcoming ill-conceived actions might.
For its meeting in March, the board has now trained its sights on Morningstar, the Chicago-based company responsible for thousands of jobs in Illinois (and throughout the nation). In the board’s view, Morningstar’s crime is that it purchased two European companies that do not purchase products produced in the occupied West Bank, which in the eyes of the board makes the company also guilty of “boycotting” Israel.
In a city and state where too many individuals and companies are already reconsidering their location, raising the specter of McCarthy-like scrutiny of legitimate corporate decisions may provide them with yet another reason to find a more welcome clime.
If ever there were a law that needed immediate repeal, it is the 2015 Illinois law that penalizes companies that “boycott Israel.” If ever there were a governing body that needed dismantling, it is this tiny board known by and accountable to virtually no one. If there were ever a time for action, it is now.
Jim Klutznick is a developer and board president of Americans for Peace Now. Bill Singer is an attorney and board member of J Street. Marilyn Katz is president of MK Communications.
This article was originally published in Crain's Chicago Business.