Alabama can combat anti-Israel hate by divesting from Unilever

Unilever Canada sign on their head office in Toronto, Canada. Credit: JHVEPhoto/Shutterstock.

By Brandy Gibson

Something is rotten in Vermont. Ben & Jerry’s, perhaps the state’s most iconic global brand, decided in July to embrace and participate in the global discriminatory and antisemitic movement to Boycott, Divest from, and Sanction the State of Israel. Alabama should reject the hatred at the core of Ben & Jerry’s decision and the deceit proffered by Unilever officials, by selling off any and all public holdings in the London-based conglomerate.

The values we hold dear in Alabama demand that we stand up to the BDS movement and companies that are aiding and abetting bigots that reject Israel’s existence as a Jewish state and seek to destroy it through economic warfare. Our state already prohibits state contracts with any companies that boycott Israel, and in October, Senator Tommy Tuberville joined several of his colleagues on the Senate Agriculture Committee urging Unilever’s CEO to “use your authority to reverse Ben & Jerry’s decision.”  Now, public officials responsible for protecting the public pension funds of state employees, state police officers, educators and other public servants must take action.

Under pressure from political extremists, Ben & Jerry’s put its Israeli licensee in a no-win situation: conspire with the company to violate Israeli law by selling to some Israelis but not all, or lose its license. Unilever knows that when Ben & Jerry’s Israeli licensee refused to conspire with the company to discriminate that all sales in Israel would end. It knows that Ben & Jerry’s corporate leadership believes Unilever is being “deceitful” by proclaiming that the ice cream brand will continue to be sold in Israel. Israeli law does not allow for discrimination and Ben & Jerry’s is not above the law. Alabamians won’t stand for that, and statements to the contrary could potentially violate federal regulations on securities as evidenced by a letter signed by several members of the Senate Banking Committee recently sent to Securities and Exchange Commission Chairman Gary Gensler.

Shockingly for a global conglomerate with $61 billion in annual sales across 190 countries, Unilever has not reversed the boycott, nor has it acknowledged that its brand is imperiling contractual relationships with a majority of states — including Alabama. But it can’t hide for much longer.

In just the last four months, New York, Texas, Arizona, Illinois and New Jersey have begun selling off hundreds of millions of dollars in Unilever stock held in each state’s public pension funds. They are among the 33 states which have measures in force allowing for companies to be held accountable for participating in the BDS movement against Israel.

Alabama is invested in Israel through its bond holdings. Alabama law prohibits contracting with entities that boycott Israel. While, like New York, the measure does not prohibit investing in such entities, divesting state funds from Unilever would reflect both the will of the people and would be in the state’s interest because it is far too risky to remain invested in a company that publicly lies to investors to protect its bottom line and damages the Israeli economy, and therefore harms Alabama’s investments. It’s time for our state to take action.

Unilever should face a choice: accept the reputational and financial damage of trafficking in hatred, or reverse the decision of its wayward subsidiary.

Two years ago, and before becoming a publicly traded company, Airbnb flirted with the BDS movement and briefly restricted which Israelis could list their homes for rent and which could not. Ultimately, the company changed course and its corporate reputation has been largely repaired. Unilever can do the same, but first it must acknowledge the problem by ending its public deception. Until it does, the people of Alabama should be assured that its public pension funds are not supporting “deceitful” and anti-Israel corporate policies.

Pastor Brandy Gibson is the Alabama State Director of Christians United for Israel.