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Illinois divests from Unilever over Ben & Jerry’s Israel move

Jewish American groups welcomed on Wednesday a decision by the state of Illinois to divest its pension funds of investments in Unilever, the parent company of Ben & Jerry’s, over the ice cream maker’s decision early this summer to end sales in the occupied West Bank.

The unanimous vote by the Illinois Investment Policy Board, a seven-member panel tasked with ensuring the state doesn’t not invest in entities that are prohibited from investment by Illinois law, came after a 90-day review that determined that Ben & Jerry’s violated the state’s policy against companies involved in the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions movement.

Mark Wilf, chair of the Jewish Federations of North America, called the decision “an important milestone against attempts to apply double standards and delegitimize the Jewish state.” The Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations lauded the move and called on Unilever “to exercise its contractual right to overrule the misguided decision” of Ben & Jerry’s.

IIllinois joins a growing list of governments to consider such a move. New Jersey, New York, Arizona, and Florida have sold millions in Unilever bonds. In 2015, Illinois became the first of 35 states, in a bipartisan vote by the state’s legislature, to take action against companies that boycott Israel or support the BDS movement. Unilever has maintained that Ben & Jerry’s decision to pull out of the West Bank was made by the ice-cream maker’s independent social-mission board. Unilever itself has expressed its opposition to the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement against Israel in a letter to Jewish groups in July.

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Ahead of the vote, a group of 21 local Jewish activists affiliated with American for Peace Now and J Street sent a letter to the board to refrain from taking action.

Hadar Susskind, chief executive of Americans for Peace Now, told the Forward on Wednesday evening that while the board was guided by Illinois’ anti-BDS law, that policy “is misguided and unjust.” He maintained that Ben & Jerry’s was “clear and unequivocal” that they were boycotting the occupied territories, not Israel. “If you support peace, if you support a two-state solution, that means ending, not defending, the occupation,” Susskind said.

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