New York has become the latest state to announce plans to divest from the company that owns Ben & Jerry's over the ice cream manufacturer's decision to restrict sales in the Israeli-occupied West Bank.
In a letter sent on Friday, the state's Office of General Services warned Unilever, the consumer good conglomerate that owns Ben & Jerry's, that they had run afoul of a New York law prohibiting public investments in companies that are engaged in boycotts against Israel.
If the company cannot prove that they are complying with the law within three months, the letter states, New York will cease all investments in Unilever.
New York Comptroller Thomas DiNapoli already announced last month that the state will divest its current holdings in the consumer goods company, which total $111 million. The state's action could go further, placing Unilever on a blacklist that bars all future investments, according to a spokesperson for New York Governor Kathy Hochul.
Ben & Jerry’s announced in July they would cease operations in the West Bank, noting that it would be “inconsistent with our values” to continue doing business within an internationally recognized illegal occupation.
The decision was separate from the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement, the company said, as Ben & Jerry's ice cream will continue to be sold in Israel under a different arrangement.
Still, the announcement touched off a firestorm of controversy, with more than a dozen states vowing to divest in Unilever. Figures as varied as Mayor Bill de Blasio and Alan Dershowitz said they would no longer eat Ben & Jerrys, while some Republican officials went so far as to threaten to ban the ice cream products entirely.
So far, New Jersey and Arizona have gone through with divestments.
Supporters of the boycott, meanwhile, have voiced their own criticisms about the state’s decision to blacklist companies over what amounts to political speech. New York’s controversial anti-BDS law is based on an executive order signed by Governor Andrew Cuomo in 2016, which has drawn comparisons to red-scare tactics deployed by Joseph McCarthy. The order was renewed by Governor Hochul last month.
In an interview on Friday, Ahmed Mohamed, the Legal Director at the Council on American-Islamic Relations, accused of Governor Hochul of “silencing Palestinian voices and actions that humanize Palestinians.”
“New York and the governor should be siding with the constitution, not punishing individuals and companies speaking out about atrocities that occur overseas,” he added.
It’s unclear whether Ben & Jerry’s actions, which do not apply to all of Israel, would fall under the state’s definition of the BDS movement. But an analysis from Human Rights Watch found that the state has previously targeted businesses that elect not to do business in occupied Palestinian territory while continuing operations in other parts of Israel.
New York maintains a list of 11 businesses the state is boycotting over their ties to BDS, including multiple grocers that have declined to sell produce grown in the West Bank.
At a press conference earlier this week, Mayor de Blasio said he would urge Unilever to "make a commitment to invest in Israel," but could move forward with divestment if his demands aren't met.
New York City Comptroller Scott Stringer also said he met with Unilever CEO Alan Jope this week, who "affirmed Unilever's full commitment to Israel and the company's opposition to BDS activity."