US: Florida and Texas threaten sanctions against Ben & Jerry’s

Ben & Jerry's had faced criticism for operating in illegal settlements in the occupied Palestinian territories (AFP)

MEE Staff

Middle East Eye  /  July 23, 2021

Two US states say ice cream brand is in violation of anti-boycott legislation after it announced plans to end sale of products in illegal Israeli settlements.

The US states of Florida and Texas have both threatened sanctions against Ben & Jerry’s following the ice cream brand’s announcement that it would end sales in Israeli settlements in the occupied territories of the West Bank and East Jerusalem.

Florida’s Republican Governor Ron DeSantis wrote a letter to the executive director of the state’s administrative board on Thursday, saying that if the ice cream maker continued with its plans to halt sales in the occupied territories, the board will have to stop acquiring “any and all Unilever assets” in order to comply with the state’s anti-Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) laws.

The BDS campaign is a Palestinian-led, non-violent initiative that encourages individuals, nations and organizations to censure Israel’s consistent violations of international law and human rights standards through various boycotts.

“These actions taken by Ben & Jerry’s fall squarely within the prohibited activities defined by Section 215.4725(1)(a), Florida Statutes. Ben & Jerry’s is a wholly owned subsidiary of Unilever, a publicly traded company in which Florida holds multiple investments,” DeSantis wrote.

“Therefore, I am requesting the State Board of Administration (SBA) immediately place Ben & Jerry’s and Unilever on the Continued Examination Companies that Boycott Israel List, and initiate the process to place Ben & Jerry’s, and by extension Unilever, on the Scrutinized Companies that Boycott Israel List.”

In its announcement on Monday, Ben & Jerry’s explicitly stated that it was not boycotting Israel but only ceasing sales in Palestinian territories occupied illegally under international law. 

Similarly, Texas’ Republican Comptroller Glenn Hegar said his office was also investigating whether Ben & Jerry’s had violated laws that prohibit the state from contracting with entities that boycott Israel.

Texas has blacklisted nine companies allegedly involved in the BDS movement. However, a search of state records conducted by The Houston Chronicle did not find any existing contracts with the ice cream brand.

In a statement, Hegar claimed that Texans had “made it very clear that they stand with Israel and its people”.

“It is worth noting that thankfully Texans have much better options for a sweet treat this summer,” he added. “Blue Bell was founded in Brenham, Texas and tastes much better than the overpriced, stuck-up stuff made by a foreign-owned company started in Vermont.”

Ben & Jerry’s needs to go further

Since its founding in 1978 in St Albans, Vermont, Ben & Jerry’s has championed a number of liberal causes. But it has faced criticism from pro-Palestinian groups for selling ice cream produced in Israel.

In a statement on Tuesday, Vermonters for Justice in Palestine declared that Ben & Jerry’s needed to go further, calling on the brand to push other firms to leave the country and insisting that “by maintaining a presence in Israel, Ben & Jerry’s continues to be complicit in the killing, imprisonment and dispossession of Palestinian people and the flaunting of international law.”

Still, Ben & Jerry’s announcement is one of the strongest steps by a well-known company against Israel’s illegal settlements.

The Israeli government has condemned the decision, and earlier this week, the country’s ambassador to the US, Gilad Erdan, called on 35 states with anti-BDS laws to take action against Ben & Jerry’s.

“We must stand united and send an unequivocal message that this will not be tolerated,” he wrote.

Foreign Minister Yair Lapid called it a “shameful surrender to antisemitism”, while former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu implicitly called for a boycott of the ice cream brand.

“Now we Israelis know which ice cream NOT to buy,” he wrote on Twitter.

On Tuesday, US State Department spokesperson Ned Price said he had no reaction to the company’s decision but added that White House officials “firmly reject the BDS movement, which unfairly singles out Israel”.

Florida and Texas are two of 35 states in the country that have passed laws or have executive orders that forbid companies and entities from participating in the BDS movement.

While more than two dozen US states have adopted anti-boycott measures over the past several years, five states have since had their legislation struck down by the court system. Georgia became the fifth state to have its anti-BDS law struck down in May.