North Carolina closed out last year by becoming the most recent state to divest its public employee pension from the corporate parent of Ben & Jerry’s over the ice cream company’s boycott of Israel.
North Carolina is a swing state in politics. Other states to pull retirement funds over Ben & Jerry’s boycott of Israel span the traditional political boundaries and include Arizona, Florida, Illinois, New Jersey, New York and Texas.
“We are where we are. We don’t pick which laws to apply and who to apply them to,” North Carolina State Treasurer Dale Folwell, a Republican, told FOX Business in an interview this week. “I wish I never heard of this subject and wish we didn’t have to do what we had to do.”
Folwell announced last month that the North Carolina Retirement Systems — which provides retirement benefits for more than 1 million members, including teachers, firefighters, police officers and government employees — is withdrawing $40 million from Ben & Jerry’s and affiliates. This includes its parent company, Unilever PLC, a U.K.-based company.
The North Carolina Department of State Treasurer manages the pension plans’ investments, currently totaling $117.9 billion.
Ben & Jerry’s, a company long known for its left-leaning advocacy, maintained an independent board of directors to continue its activism even after it sold to Unilever.
It’s not likely Unilever anticipated allowing the popular ice cream brand to have its own board would lead to so many problems, Folwell said.
“I don’t know the people at Ben & Jerry’s. I respect their entrepreneurship. I think when they signed the contract, Ben & Jerry’s anticipated something like this,” said Folwell, also a 2024 candidate for governor. “Unilever didn’t anticipate anything like this. Generally, when a parent tells a kid not to do something, they expect them to listen.”
In the face of the BDS movement — short for boycott, divest and sanction — the North Carolina legislature passed a law in 2017 that prohibits “the North Carolina Retirement Systems or the Department of State Treasurer from investing in any company engaged in a boycott of Israel.”
Although several states acted earlier, Folwell said North Carolina had to follow a procedure ahead of divesting.
He noted sponsors of the 2017 legislation were supportive of his office’s procedures. His office reached out to Unilever, Folwell said, without success, before making the final decision to divest.
When announcing the decision last month, Folwell noted the Oct. 7 atrocities in Israel after the Hamas attack, and said it’s important to be clear antisemitism has no place in North Carolina.
But he said that international events didn’t influence the timing of the divestment.
Neither the press offices of Unilever nor Ben & Jerry’s responded to inquiries from FOX Business for this story.
In July 2021, Ben & Jerry’s announced it would no longer sell its product to Israelis in the West Bank. Although a subsidiary itself, Ben & Jerry’s maintains its board of directors.
In June 2022, Unilever sold the Ben & Jerry’s ice cream operations in Israel in an attempt to stem the controversy. But the Ben & Jerry’s board was still free to maintain its position on Israel.
“The new business arrangement follows a Unilever review of Ben & Jerry’s in Israel after the brand and its independent Board announced last year its decision to discontinue sales of its ice cream in the West Bank,” Unilever explained in a June 2022 press release.
The parent company said it spent a year listening to perspectives, including from the Israeli government.
“Unilever rejects completely and repudiates unequivocally any form of discrimination or intolerance. Antisemitism has no place in any society,” the company said in its June 2022 press release.
“We have never expressed any support for the Boycott Divestment Sanctions (BDS) movement and have no intention of changing that position,” it continued.