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Illinois Should Avoid the Ice Cream War

Ben & Jerry's move to stop selling its products in Israeli settlements in the West Bank shouldn't take up the state's time and resources.

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There is a certain irony that, just as the U.S. is trying to extricate itself from unseemly and unproductive foreign entanglements, there are those working to embroil Illinois and other states in a ridiculous and potentially costly conflict.

Last month, the ice cream company Ben & Jerry's Homemade announced its decision to discontinue selling its products in Israeli settlements in the West Bank, the Palestinian land that has been under Israeli occupation since 1967.

The Israeli government, in a response that would seem outsized and absurd if it were not so dangerous, through its ambassador to the U.S. wrote to 35 American governors urging them to punish Ben & Jerry's and its parent company, household-products giant Unilever, by terminating all business and investment relations.

Those states include Illinois, which in 2015 passed a law, SB 1761, prohibiting state pension funds from investing in foreign companies that boycott Israel.

That Gov. J. B. Pritzker, the state Legislature or any executive bodies would act to punish any company at the behest of a foreign power—imagine a request by China or Putin—would normally draw a laugh. But these are not normal times, and the issue is out of the hands of the Legislature and the governor and in the hands of the Illinois Boycott Restrictions Committee of the Illinois Investment Policy Board, which includes representatives of three state pension funds and four other individuals, all appointed by former Gov. Bruce Rauner.

So, as the Associated Press reported on July 28, rather than being laughed off, Israel's demand is being parroted and their water carried by at least one member of a little-known entity:

"Illinois regulators plan to warn the owner of Ben & Jerry's to reverse the company's decision to stop selling ice cream in the West Bank and east Jerusalem or face divestment by the state, an official said Wednesday. The Israeli Boycott Restrictions Committee of the Illinois Investment Policy Board will meet to approve setting a 90-day deadline for Unilever to reverse the decision by Ben & Jerry's, committee chairman Andy Lappin said."

As disturbing as it is to have a judge also act as the leading advocate for prosecution, consider the equally disturbing overreach of both Israel and the committee.

First, as passed, the state law reserves punishment for those who boycott Israel. Ben & Jerry's are not boycotting Israel. In fact, the company made it very clear that it will continue to do business in and with Israel, just not in the settlements in the Israeli-occupied West Bank. This is hardly a hardship for the Israeli "settlers" who, with a quick 15-minute drive, get their ice cream in Israel itself, which is of course a luxury Palestinians do not have since they cannot enter Israel without a pass.

Second, the company was acting in accordance with international law, which, as the United States did until the Trump administration, deems all Israeli settlements in occupied Palestine to be illegal.

Third, there is the issue of Israeli duplicity. For the past six months, Israel has refused to share or administer COVID vaccines in the West Bank, asserting that it was not part of Israel and therefore not their responsibility. How, then, is a withdrawal of a product from an area that they claim is not theirs a boycott of Israel?

Finally, Ben & Jerry's is a company, and the original founders, who stand behind the decision, are Americans with First Amendment rights to free speech. Israel, and some Americans, may not like what they have to say, but boycotts, opinions and other actions are free speech.

At any time, the idea that Illinois would invite derision—to say nothing of lawsuits—by officially demanding that a company sell a product anywhere, let alone in illegal places in a land occupied by an army, would usually be laughable. At a moment when the state, like the city and country, are rightly consumed with real life-and-death issues, the demand is outrageous.

However, beyond right and wrong, beyond free speech and morality, the question that is raised is: Israel, can you have your illegal settlements and your ice cream, too?

Interesting as that debate may be, it is not one that should take up the time or the resources of the state of Illinois. While Israel is a nation which many support, it is still a foreign power, and acting on behalf of one is a slippery slope that our state should avoid.

Marilyn Katz is president of MK Communications.

Thanks to the author for sending this to Portside.