Ben and Jerry’s investment dropped by PERA over stance on Israeli occupation

Obeying a 2016 state law that declared loyalty to Israel — and opposition to those who would sanction it for the occupation of Palestine — Colorado’s pension fund on Friday initiated divorce proceedings from the ice cream company Ben and Jerry’s.

Roughly eight months ago, Ben and Jerry’s announced it would be pulling its frozen treats from shelves in the occupied West Bank. This triggered action in Colorado because the 2016 law requires that the Colorado Public Employees’ Retirement Association (PERA), which manages a $61 billion public pension fund, divest from any company with economic prohibitions against the state of Israel.

The law applies only to international companies, and only when those companies have displayed explicit political motivations related to business with Israel.

In a statement last summer, Ben and Jerry’s made its politics clear.

“We believe it is inconsistent with our values ​​for Ben & Jerry’s ice cream to be sold in the Occupied Palestinian Territory (OPT),” the statement read, adding, “We’re a values-led company with a long history of advocating for human rights, and economic and social justice. We believe it is inconsistent with our values ​​for our product to be present within an internationally recognized illegal occupation.”

Ben and Jerry’s is American, but it is a subsidiary of London-based Unilever, so it is subject to Colorado’s law. As of Friday, the fund had $42 million invested in Unilever, officials said.

PERA’s governing board voted unanimously Friday morning to proceed with the divestment of $42 million.

“Long story short, Ben and Jerry’s has made comments that are politically motivated, for leaving Israel,” Amy McGarrity, chief investment officer for PERA, told the board ahead of the vote. “What that means is there’s a moratorium … on purchasing Unilever throughout our direct holdings.”

It’s taken many months to get to this point, and the move won’t be complete for a while longer.

Now that the board has voted, McGarrity said, “We will engage with the company for the next 180 days, and if we still continue to believe they are subject to divestment, then we will divest within 12 months.”

This is the first real test of the 2016 law, which to this point has never triggered any divestment. It’s unusual that Colorado’s state legislature would wade into international affairs in this way, but its pro-Israel divestment policy is the product of an ongoing national movement and not of original thought here; 35 states have policies like Colorado’s that stand with Israel and against boycotts, divestments and sanctions of the country, according to the Jewish Virtual Library.

Though this process may end up taking close to two years since the announcement by Ben and Jerry’s before the Unilever divestment is official, PERA can and does move faster on such things when it’s compelled to. Just last month, the fund announced it would pull $7.2 million from a Russian state-owned bank by May, pursuant to a federal dictate resulting from Russia’s assault on Ukraine.

The legislature has expressed interest in doing more to sanction Russia. State Sen. Chris Hansen, a Denver Democrat and state budget official, told The Denver Post that he’s requested information from PERA about any ties the fund has to companies that continue to do business in Russia.

He said he’s exploring several potential actions on that front, and indicated that in a potential Russia divestment bill, he’d want to require a much shorter timeline for action than has applied to the Unilever move.

“We need to look at options for how the state of Colorado is doing businesses with companies that are still supporting the Putin regime,” he said.

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