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The next BDS battlefield

'Socially Responsible Investing' is being used to block funding of Israel-linked companies

It’s what has been lurking below the iceberg’s tip that presents the next, looming challenge.


With apologies to the climate change debate, the good news is that the proverbial tip of the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) iceberg is melting. The bad news is that we are just now beginning to see the much larger, even more dangerous part that has been lurking beneath the surface.

November marks a decade since the inaugural BDS Conference, convened in Ramallah, launched the global movement. The effort has snowballed, taking on various nefarious forms in six of the world’s seven continents. (Presumably one can find refuge from BDS among Antarctica’s 5,000 shivering inhabitants.) In the US BDS has been adopted by some entertainers, shareholder activists, Mainline Protestant denominations and small labor unions. The biggest impact has been on college campuses where the array of pro-BDS activity can be dizzying: provocative speaker programs, petitions, leafletting, chalking, and BDS votes among academic associations, student government and student body referendums.

While those activities will continue, and some BDS votes will “succeed,” not one US university has taken even the first substantive step to initiate an actual divestment action. Moreover, most universities have criticized pro-BDS votes, refusing to even process the student recommendation. Similarly, following academic groups voting to end joint research projects with Israeli professors, American university leaders have reiterated their commitment to politics-neutral scholarship. Indeed, the past decade has seen a dramatic expansion of student exchanges and joint research projects between US and Israeli universities.

So, rather than success — via financial divestment or boycotting academic exchanges — BDS has been an utter failure, on its own terms, on US campuses.

But this story doesn’t end happily. Not yet. At least not in this column. First, because campus BDS is an effective anti-Israel marketing — if not economic — campaign. Second, because a new BDS battlefield has emerged, one threatening substantial negative economic impact on Israel and those doing business with the Jewish State. Third, BDS supporters are linking their campus battles to this new one.

That new battlefield is the quickly expanding investment sector called Socially Responsible Investing (SRI).

SRI takes both financial returns and “social good” into account when choosing among investment options. Of course, social good can be subjective. To paraphrase a well-known idiom: one person’s social good is another’s social evil. Frequent SRI “screens” include environmentalism, human rights, diversity, tobacco, weapons, fossil fuels, and military-related industries. Increasingly, BDS supporters are trying to add their anti-Israel agenda to SRI screens.

The stakes are indeed high. BDS-supporting church and union pensions have billions available to invest in SRI. Trillions of dollars are already held in U.S.-based SRI portfolios. The total is skyrocketing globally. Over half of the world’s $22 trillion SRI investments reside in BDS-inclined Europe.

The SRI field is still developing. There is no recognized authority defining what constitutes a “kosher” SRI screen. It is akin to the anarchic days of the wild, wild west. Sometimes, it is as simple and as unfair as the first one to the table wins the debate for what is and isn’t SRI-worthy.

BDS supporters, as advocates and more potently as shareholders, have been showing up at those SRI-defining tables, urging institutional investors and SRI consultants to adopt the BDS worldview of Israel.

Latching onto the SRI bandwagon, the BDS tactic is to have Israeli companies and those doing business with her screened out, either by specific corporate name or by particular business practices: a HQs in an occupied territory, selling equipment to an occupying military force, doing business with a company whose products facilitate the violation of human rights, etc., etc.

BDS supporters are also linking their campus and SRI efforts, ensuring they are represented on university SRI Advisory Committees.

Until recently, the American Jewish community was AWOL on this SRI front. Thankfully, since 2012 a group called JLens has been providing shareholder representation for our community at SRI forums. They have participated in important SRI session organized by the Vatican, interfaith coalitions, universities, and others. JLens is also a participating member of the UN’s Principles for Responsible Investing. With over 9,000 individual and institutional investors, JLens is our eyes, ears and voice, promoting Jewish values and protecting Jewish interests — ensuring both that the SRI table will not be monopolized by BDS supporters and that the rest of our community’s SRI concerns are taken into account.

Recognizing the import of this emerging arena, and the need to have real “skin” in the SRI arena, earlier this year the Jewish Federation of Metropolitan Chicago became the first federation to invest over $1 million in JLens’ Jewish Advocacy Strategy. JLens has subsequently hired the Jewish community’s first full-time shareholder advocate to strengthen relationships with firms and fellow SRI investors, and will be hosting the first Jewish Impact Investing Summit, on December 5 in New York.

With our community’s eyes understandably fixed on campuses, we’ve belatedly detected the BDS “bummock,” the scientific phrase for the submerged, larger part of an iceberg. Without taking our eyes off the campus tip of the BDS iceberg, we’re adjusting course to ensure we don’t drift into a Titanic SRI problem sinking the Israel economic juggernaut.

About the Author
Jay Tcath is Executive Vice President of the Jewish United Fund/Jewish Federation of Metropolitan Chicago.
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