NJ pension fund to divest from Ben & Jerry’s over Israel boycott
TRENTON – New Jersey has informed Unilever it intends to divest its $182 million in pension fund investments in the company over a decision by its Ben & Jerry’s ice cream subsidiary not to sell any products in Palestinian territories occupied by Israel.
The move by Ben & Jerry’s, announced in July but not effective until the end of 2022, has been determined by the state Treasury Department and an independent consultant, ISS, to violate a 2016 state law that prevents the state from investing in companies that boycott Israel or Israeli-controlled territory.
“The division reached a preliminarily determination that Unilever’s actions did in fact constitute such a boycott and sent a letter to Unilever notifying the company of its provisional determination,” said Shoaib Khan, director of the state Division of Investment. “Upon final determination, no pension fund assets may be invested in the company, and DOI shall take appropriate action to sell or divest any existing pension fund investments.”
That letter, dated Sept. 2, gives Unilever until the start of December to appeal the findings and give reasons, documents and other written evidence of why they should be modified.
Unilever is based in London, and its United States headquarters is in Englewood Cliffs in Bergen County. Its brands include Breyers, Hellmann’s, Lipton, Axe, Dove and more.
Treasury Department spokeswoman Jennifer Sciortino said that as of Tuesday, the pension funds’ holdings in Unilever were approximately $182 million in common stocks, corporate bonds and short-term paper.
Arizona late last week reportedly sold $93 million in Unilever bonds under a similar law and has another $50 million to divest. Two-thirds of states have such laws and are reviewing their investments.
Leaders of the Jewish Federations of New Jersey had pushed for the Treasury Department to act and welcomed the preliminary determination.
“I think that all people of goodwill should welcome the ruling by the Treasury Department,” said Dov Ben-Shimon, chief executive officer of the Jewish Federation of Greater MetroWest New Jersey. “We think it is a very positive step in expressing the values of what makes us proud to live in Jersey.”
The territory in question includes the West Bank and Gaza Strip.
“We’re a values-led company with a long history of advocating for human rights, and economic and social justice,” said a Ben & Jerry’s statement in July. “We believe it is inconsistent with our values for our product to be present within an internationally recognized illegal occupation.”
Ben-Shimon said the company’s statement was “incredibly unfair and biased” and “smacks of deep discrimination and hypocrisy” because Ben & Jerry’s doesn’t impose the same standard in other countries where it has human-rights or peace concerns.
“What really upset so many of us in the New Jersey Jewish federation movement was the blatant shabbiness of this decision by Ben & Jerry’s,” Ben-Shimon said. “This was a terrible decision that Unilever and Ben & Jerry’s made by irresponsible board members with no understanding of what they were saying and what their actions were.”
“I’m just therefore deeply proud that New Jersey is a state that can stand up to this hypocrisy and say no to it,” he said. “It makes me very proud to live in New Jersey, very proud of the Treasury Department for their ruling.”
Senate Minority Leader Tom Kean Jr., R-Union, said the Treasury Department announcement demonstrates the success of the 2016 law, which was intended to counter the pro-Palestinian 'boycott, divestment and sanction,' or BDS, movement.
"Our law sends the clear message that New Jersey will not tolerate anti-Semitism and we won’t financially support businesses that target Israel,” Kean said. “There are plenty of businesses that don’t engage in BDS activities where New Jersey’s $90 billion pension fund can be invested to the benefit of our public workers.”
Kean said a review by the state in 2019 resulted in the prohibition of state investments in Airbnb after the home rental service refused listings in Israeli settlements. Airbnb changed its policy after the decision by New Jersey and other states, he said.
Michael Symons is State House bureau chief for New Jersey 101.5. Contact him at email@example.com.