The next BDS battlefield

iceberg image

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.

Next month 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 U.S. 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, leafleting, 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 U.S. 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 U.S. and Israeli universities. In Illinois, Northwestern and Tel Aviv University, and the University of Chicago and Ben-Gurion University, enjoy strong partnerships. More such relationships, including one involving the University of Illinois, are in the works.

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

But this story doesn't end happily. Not yet. At least not in this column. That's because 1) Campus BDS is an effective anti-Israel marketing -- if not economic - campaign; 2) a new BDS battlefield has emerged, one threatening substantial negative economic impact on Israel and those doing business with the Jewish State; and 3) 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.

Latching onto the SRI bandwagon, the BDS tactic is to have Israeli companies and those doing business with Israel screened out, either by specific corporate name or by particular business practices: a headquarters 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. 

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 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 SRI-defining tables and linking their campus and SRI efforts, ensuring they are represented on university SRI Advisory Committees. The University of Chicago and Northwestern University, among others, have created such SRI Advisory Committees.

Until recently, the American Jewish community was AWOL on this front. Thankfully, since 2012, a group called JLens has been providing shareholder representation for the Israel-supporting 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 U.N.'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 that the SRI table will not be monopolized by BDS supporters.

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 Dec. 5 in New York.

With our 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 that sinks the Israel economic juggernaut.

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


Connect with us

Sign up for our weekly newsletter featuring issues and events in the Jewish world.