Tuesday, July 23, 2024

NC prohibits investments in Ben & Jerry’s for position on Israel

North Carolina’s State Treasurer divested $40 million in state investments with Unilever, Ben & Jerry’s parent company, due to the ice cream brand’s political boycott of Israeli settlements. (Courtesy Port City Daily)

NORTH CAROLINA — The reverberations of the Israel-Palestine conflict reached North Carolina last week, as State Treasurer Dale Folwell banned state investments and contracts with the country’s leading ice cream brand for its boycott of Israeli settlements.

On Thursday, Folwell announced the divestment of $40 million in assets from Unilever, Ben & Jerry’s parent company. Additionally, he notified local governments and state agencies they are prohibited from contracting with either company.

The move is in accordance with the state’s anti-boycott-divestment-sanctions (BDS) bill signed into law by Gov. Roy Cooper in 2017. BDS is a Palestinian-led movement to apply economic pressure on Israel with the stated goal of forcing Israel to comply with international law and end its oppression of Palestinians. 

Its supporters view it as a non-violent form of resistance akin to the economic boycotts of apartheid South Africa; its opponents argue it unfairly singles out Israel and threatens the country’s status as a Jewish state.

North Carolina is one of 37 states with anti-BDS laws, which differ from state to state but generally require contractors to sign pledges they will not boycott Israel. 

The constitutionality of the laws has been challenged in federal courts in Arkansas, Arizona, Georgia, Kansas and Texas; courts in the five states previously ruled the laws are likely unconstitutional under the First Amendment, but they were upheld after appeals and changes to their provisions to exclude the plaintiffs, rendering them moot. In February, the Supreme Court refused to review Arkansas’ controversial law, leaving a lower court’s ruling in place.

Folwell told PCD he could not comment on the constitutionality of the bill because he is not an expert in the subject. He said he has a duty to abide by state law and strived to give Unilever and Ben & Jerry’s as much advance notice as possible.

The treasurer said his office worked on the enactment of the law for the past year and a half; he said Unilever did not respond to his repeated requests to communicate potential solutions to the impending divestment.

“We waited as long as we possibly could and gave them every benefit of the doubt in that process,” he said, arguing states with similar anti-boycott laws liquidated affected companies’ assets without advanced warning. 

PCD asked Folwell for his view on allegations of Israeli human right abuses against Palestinians; he did not want to comment on details of the conflict.

“I did not ask for this bill,” he said. “We worked with the General Assembly once it was determined that a law was going to be passed.”

North Carolina’s anti-BDS law prohibits businesses and their affiliates from taking actions intending to limit commercial relations specifically with Israel or Israeli-controlled territories; it notes this rule does not apply to “decisions made for ordinary business purposes or for actions with an economic impact less than $20 million in a 12-month period.”

The State Treasurer’s final divestment and do-not-contract list for 2023 consists of ten companies including Ben & Jerry’s, Luxembourg-based supermarket chain Cactus SA, and UK-based wholesaler Co-operative Group Limited.

Critics of anti-BDS state laws argue the restrictions unfairly privilege a foreign country at the expense of Americans’ right to free speech; notably, the Israeli government has launched diplomatic and intelligence initiatives against BDS and set up a nongovernmental body to funnel millions to U.S. lobby groups to push against the boycott effort. 

Alternatively, supporters argue BDS discriminates against Israelis and hurts strategic relations with a U.S. ally.

In a 2021 New York Times op-ed, Ben & Jerry’s co-founders Bennett Cohen and Jerry Greenfield did not affiliate themselves with BDS. Rather, they said their boycott was only directed at the occupied territories external to Israel’s borders established by the United Nations’ 1948 partition. 

“The decision to halt sales outside Israel’s democratic borders is not a boycott of Israel,” they wrote. “The Ben & Jerry’s statement did not endorse the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement.”

Israel has occupied internationally recognized Palestinian territory in the West Bank since its 1967 war against Syria, Jordan, and Egypt. 

It also occupied the Gaza Strip until removing settlements in 2005; however, organizations including Amnesty and Human Rights Watch argue Israel’s military control over Gaza still constitutes occupation.

Multiple UN resolutions define the occupation as illegal under international law; the majority of legal scholarship concurs, as the UN Charter and Fourth Geneva Convention forbid permanent occupations and “de-facto annexation.”

A 1978 US State Department legal opinion similarly found Israeli civilian settlements in the West Bank to be inconsistent with international law. As of 2023, the State Department maintains a critical position on settlements and asserts Israel’s expanding housing in Palestinian territory is an obstacle to peace; in practice, the U.S. almost universally provides diplomatic cover to Israel and has vetoed at least 53 UN Security Council resolutions critical of the country.

The co-founders of Ben & Jerry’s noted they have a history of anti-war advocacy and believe their activism is aligned with Judaic values of justice and human rights.

“As Jewish supporters of the State of Israel, we fundamentally reject the notion that it is anti-Semitic to question the policies of the State of Israel,” they wrote in the 2021 op-ed.

Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, and prominent Jerusalem-based human rights organization B’Tselem define Israel as an apartheid state. The organizations cite land expropriation, restricted movement, and unlawful imprisonment among the examples to support their claim the country’s institutional structure prioritizes one ethnic group above others; South African anti-apartheid leader Desmond Tutu was a notable BDS supporter who compared Israel’s policies to South African racial segregation

Alternatively, Israeli officials have argued its restrictive policies in the West Bank and Gaza are driven by security concerns and do not constitute apartheid.

The Treasurer’s action comes over two months after Hamas’ Oct. 7 attack killed an estimated 1,200 Israelis. Since then, Israel has shut off most food, water, electricity, and medicine shipped to Gaza and killed over 20,000 Palestinians in a military campaign experts describe as one of the most destructive in recent history; the UN warned Thursday 570,000 Gazans are now starving. At least 164 Israeli soldiers have died in the ongoing ground operation in Gaza.

“The company’s stated decision to more fully align its operations with its values is not a rejection of Israel,” B&J co-founders wrote in the 2021 NYT op-ed. “It is a rejection of Israeli policy, which perpetuates an illegal occupation that is a barrier to peace and violates the basic human rights of the Palestinian people who live under the occupation.”

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