Illinois Warns Ben & Jerry's Owner to Walk Back West Bank Decision or Face Divestment

A committee from the Illinois Investment Policy Board plans to warn the owner of Ben & Jerry's to retract its decision to halt ice cream sales in the West Bank and east Jerusalem or face divestment, according to an official.

The board's Israeli Boycott Restrictions Committee will meet on an unspecified date to enact a 90-day deadline for consumer goods company Unilever to reverse the ice cream manufacturer's resolution, the Associated Press reported.

"We'll meet in the next week or so just for this issue, asking the board to send a letter to Unilever giving it 90 days to confirm or deny" Ben & Jerry's stance, Andy Lappin, the committee's chairman, said. "In this case, it was a blatantly open statement made by the chairman of Ben & Jerry's and we need to determine if Unilever deems it appropriate to walk the statement back."

Ben & Jerry's announced on July 19 that it planned to stop selling ice cream in the areas because it was "inconsistent with our values" to do so in the "Occupied Palestinian Territory."

For more reporting from the Associated Press, see below.

Ben & Jerry's Israel Decision
On July 19, Vermont-based Ben & Jerry's announced it would no longer sell its ice cream in the Israeli-occupied Palestinian territories, namely the West Bank and East Jerusalem, which have been under control of the Jewish state since 1967. Motorists drive past a closed "Ben & Jerry's" ice-cream shop in the Israeli city of Yavne, about 30 kilometres south of Tel Aviv, on July 23, 2021. Ahmad Gharabli/AFP via Getty Images

It's considered one of the strongest condemnations by a well-known company of Israel's policy of settling citizens on war-won lands. Lappin said that "the egregious nature of the statement is almost unprecedented."

The Illinois Investment Policy Board monitors compliance with state law prohibiting the investment in certain companies that do business with Iran and Sudan as well as companies that boycott Israel.

A spokeswoman for Democratic Gov. J.B. Pritzker, the state's third Jewish governor, has refused to respond to requests for comment about the legality of Ben & Jerry's plans.

Unilever's chief executive officer said late last week that the company remains "fully committed" to doing business with Israel and tried to put distance between Unilever and Ben & Jerry's announcement. But CEO Alan Jope did not say he would require Ben & Jerry's to back off its plans.

If found non-compliant, Illinois law would requires divestment in Unilever or any of it subsidiaries, Lappin said. State-run pension systems are currently investigating their portfolios for Unilever-related interests.

The founders of Ben & Jerry's, Bennett Cohen and Jerry Greenfield, said in a New York Times op-ed published Wednesday they are no longer in control of the company, but are "proud" of its action.

"We are also proud Jews. It's part of who we are and how we've identified ourselves for our whole lives. As our company began to expand internationally, Israel was one of our first overseas markets. We were then, and remain today, supporters of the State of Israel," the founders said. "But it's possible to support Israel and oppose some of its policies, just as we've opposed policies of the U.S. government."

The Investment Policy Board last took action against Airbnb when in 2018 former Gov. Bruce Rauner called out the online lodging marketplace for its "abhorrent and discriminatory" action in announcing it would remove West Bank listings.

Airbnb avoided Illinois divestment by backing off its decision and certifying to state regulators in August 2019 that it was not violating the restriction on boycotting Israel.

Ben & Jerry's Factory in Israel
A committee from the Illinois Investment Policy Board plans to warn Ben & Jerry’s to retract its decision to halt ice cream sales in the West Bank and east Jerusalem or face divestment, according to an official. A labourer works on a production line filling ice-cream pots at the Ben & Jerry's factory in Be'er Tuvia in southern Israel, on July 21, 2021. Emmanuel Dunand/AFP via Getty Images