Divestment Trauma Hinders Jewish Climate Change Action

The environment took center stage this week as 120 global leaders gathered for the United Nations’ Climate Summit, and 300,000 people participated in the People’s Climate March in New York City. The goal of both events is to encourage action that addresses climate change including a curb on greenhouse gas emissions, investment in renewable energy, and divestment from fossil fuel companies.

One effort that resulted from this week’s focus on climate change is the Divest-Invest Initiative created by the Wallace Global Fund. The Initiative released a list of 181 environmentally aware investors, including 47 religious institutions, representing over $50 billion in assets. Signatories to the list have agreed to consider the environment in their investment process, to explore divestment from coal, oil and/or natural gas stocks, and to invest in green energy.

Jewish institutions were noticeably absent from the Divest-Invest Initiative, despite the fact that environmental stewardship is a core tenant of Judaism, and more than 100 Jewish organizations participated in the People’s Climate March earlier this week. The absence has little to do with the environment, and much more to do with skepticism of divestment as a strategy given the trauma that divestment efforts have inflicted on the Jewish people.

Divestment has been used as a weapon against the Jewish people and Israel since the United Nations formed the modern nation of Israel in 1948. The Arab Boycott of Israel began upon Israel’s establishment and has been more recently rebranded as the Boycott, Divestment, Sanction (BDS) campaign. This movement is not about fostering compromise or a peaceful two state solution to the current conflict.  Rather, BDS seeks to delegitimize Israel’s right to exist and calls for the return of all land to Arab hands.

When investors, under the banner of “responsible investment,” divest from Israel alone among all nations in the world, the Jewish community reels in anguish given the historical scapegoating of the Jewish people. Punitive one-sided divestment targeting Israel alone when there are two parties in the conflict goes beyond responsible investing and is more accurately viewed as anti-semitism. Frustration over the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is understandable, but biased divestment campaigns only further the conflict by discouraging compromise instead of laying the groundwork for peace.

Some of the investors that support divestment from fossil fuels are the same investors that promote divestment from Israel. The organizer of the Divest-Invest Initiative, the Wallace Global Fund, is a perfect example.  According to NGO Monitor, the Wallace Global Fund has provided significant philanthropic grant funding to the BDS movement.

Understandably, the Jewish community has remained on the sidelines with a deep distrust of the responsible investment field. By not participating however, the Jewish community misses the opportunity to engage with faith groups and activists to work together on many issues of mutual concern including climate change. Without a seat at the table for the Jewish community in the responsible investment field, when the issue of divestment in Israel arises, there is no fair investor voice to counter the misleading information on Israel presented by BDS activists disguised as responsible investors.

There are significant benefits from engagement in responsible investing far beyond providing a fair voice on Israel. The responsible investing field provides an excellent opportunity to incorporate Jewish values in daily life. The fundamental Jewish values of gemilut hasadim (acts of loving kindness), tikkun olam (repair of the world), tzedek (social justice), and b’tzelem elohim (everyone is created in the image of God) all have an important role in investment and business discussions. The responsible investment field would benefit as well from this uniquely Jewish perspective.

About the Author
JLens is a network of nearly 10,000 individual and institutional investors exploring investing through a Jewish lens. The organization serves as the bridge between the Jewish community and the responsible/impact investing field.
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