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Notes from a Small Planet: Fossil Fuel Divestment, Where Are the Jews?

Mimi Bluestone
May 11, 2015
by Mimi Bluestone globeRUN YOUR EYES down the growing list of religious organizations committed to fossil fuel divestment — groups that have pledged to sell off their stock in the coal, oil, and natural gas companies that are fueling our existential climate crisis. In all, more than 200 organizations, the majority of them religious, have committed to taking their money out of fossil fuels, according to GoFossilFree, an international divestment organization that tallies divestment commitments. To date, there are no Jewish organizations on the list. The absence of Jewish organizations is especially puzzling because more than a hundred Jewish groups endorsed the People’s Climate March last September. That was a great and glorious day for the climate movement, and Jewish organizations played a proud part in that profoundly diverse outpouring of support for a better world. Those same groups have yet to take the next step by pulling their money out of the companies that are profiting from the destruction of our climate. Let’s be clear: there’s no shortage of Jews in the fossil fuel divestment movement. There’s also reason to think that Jewish organizations may catch up with other religious communities in their support of divestment. But so far Jewish organizations have shied away from divestment, for several possible reasons: 1) That very word, “divestment,” makes some Jews and Jewish groups queasy because it’s associated with BDS (Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions), the effort to pressure Israel about its treatment of Palestinians through economic sanctions. If anything, this discomfort speaks to the power of divestment as a tactic for stigmatizing its target. 2) Some Jewish organizations don’t want to inhibit energy extraction in North America. In April, for example, the American Jewish Committee reiterated its support for the Keystone pipeline project, citing the need to limit U.S. dependence on “hostile or unstable foreign sources.” For years AJC has urged the Obama Administration to approve the pipeline. That position pits AJC against climate activists, who see Keystone and the tar sands oil it would carry as an unconscionable assault on the earth’s surface, groundwater, and atmosphere. 3) Jewish philanthropy based on oil and gas money could be another factor cramping enthusiasm for divestment. The Charles and Lynn Schusterman Family Foundation, headquartered in Tulsa, is the largest family foundation devoted to Jewish causes, with assets of $2 billion, according to the Forward. The family’s wealth comes from oil and gas, including hydraulic fracturing (fracking) and deepwater drilling, methods that pose greater environmental risks than conventional extraction. Yet the Schustermans have given not only to Hillel, the network of college campus groups, but to Hazon, a Jewish environmental group, as well as to several other groups that took part in the People’s Climate March — and, according to the Forward, leaders of Hazon and Repair the World, another Schusterman recipient group, said they felt no pressure from the foundation to limit their environmental engagement. Rabbi Arthur Waskow, a leading climate activist in the Jewish community, told the Forward he welcomed Schusterman funding for groups that are trying to move the world beyond fossil fuels. Yet Waskow also said he hoped the foundation itself would divest. “It may be harder for Schusterman, because they’re so deeply rooted in oil,” Waskow told Forward reporters. “But folks who keep kosher do it even when it’s hard.” (The Schustermans could follow the example of the Rockefellers, another family that owes its fortune to oil. Last September, the Rockefeller Brothers Fund, after years of fruitless shareholder activism, announced that it would divest from fossil fuels.) There are other major Jewish philanthropists who owe their affluence — past, present, or both — to the oil and gas fields of the former Soviet Union. Leonid Nevzlin, who ran the Yukos Oil Company in Russia, has given $6 million to Tel Aviv’s Jewish Diaspora Museum in 2006. The Genesis Philanthropy Group, whose leaders include Russian-based oil executives Mikhail Fridman and Stan Polovets, focuses its giving on projects aimed at fostering Jewish identity among Russian-speaking North American immigrants. Genesis gave $10.8 million to Brandeis University in 2009 to set up the Brandeis Genesis Institute for Russian-speaking Jews and to provide scholarships. Jehuda Reinharz, who was Brandeis’ president at the time of the grant, joined the Genesis advisory board that same year. There is no visible evidence that these oil-based philanthropies are trying to steer their beneficiaries away from discussions of divestment — but there’s no reason to think these moguls would be friendly to the concept, either. DivestmentYOU DON’T have to be Jewish, of course, to find that it’s not easy being green in the world of faith institutions. Steve Knight is a divestment advocate with GreenFaith, an interfaith coalition for the environment, and an advocate for divestment in the Episcopal Diocese of New York. Knight describes the role of divestment campaigners in many religious communities as “akin to that of Old Testament prophets, making their lonely cries in the wilderness for justice and equity.” Religious communities, like anyone else, can get prickly when someone challenges their financial status quo. “Unfortunately,” Knight says, “the prophet is not always welcome in his or her own country.” Nevertheless, many religious organizations have committed to getting out of fossil fuel. So have some colleges, universities, foundations, and some local governments. The divestment movement keeps widening, and may be spreading to Jewish institutions, too. In 2013, simmering support for divestment among students, faculty, and alumni compelled Brandeis University to set up an exploratory group to evaluate the university’s fossil fuel investments. The university’s policy states that Brandeis should consider selling a company’s securities if the company’s conduct is “clearly and gravely offensive to the university’s sense of social justice.” This applies in cases where the exercise of shareholder rights does not seem likely to “correct the injury.” Just last month, the task force reported back, finding that “continued investment in fossil fuels presents a fundamental tension with Brandeis’ proud tradition of social justice.” The report calls for one of two options. The first: divest the entire Brandeis portfolio of the most polluting fossil fuel companies (the “Carbon Underground 200” consisting of the top 100 publicly traded coal companies and the top 100 publicly traded oil and gas companies). Alternatively, the university could divest a portion of its energy holdings, such as coal stocks. The report notes that Brandeis can pursue other climate-friendly policies as well, including adjusting investments to reduce the portfolio’s overall “carbon footprint,” reducing the carbon footprint on campus, and increasing educational offerings on climate and energy across the curriculum. What would not be acceptable, it concludes, is business as usual: “Choosing not to act on this global issue would represent a failure of the University to live up to its social justice principles.” YOSEF ABRAMOWITZ, the American-born Israeli CEO of solar energy developer Energiya International, wants Jewish organizations around the world to commit to divestment. In February, Abramowitz told an environmental symposium sponsored by the United Jewish Appeal (UJA) and Hazon’s Greening Fellowship that “we have to green our money in ways that are aligned with our values and aspirations.” He challenged UJA to divest what he said was a $900 million endowment. The term divestment should not be taboo, asserts eco-theologian Rabbi Lawrence Troster, a rabbinic scholar-in-residence at GreenFaith and a founder and coordinator of Shomrei Breishit: Rabbis and Cantors for the Earth. “Divestment from fossil fuels is a tactic and a campaign that the Jewish community should embrace,” Troster told an April webinar on climate change. “While some people have been leery of the term because of its connection with divestment from Israel, this is a term that we need to utilize. It’s been used in the past, and it will connect us with other campaigns of [fossil fuel] divestment in this country and elsewhere.” Finding common cause with other groups on the issue of divestment “is important to the Jewish community,” Troster believes. Drawing attention to climate change is also essential for Israel, he says, where the water supply and the coastline are vulnerable to a warming atmosphere. By participating in an international climate movement, “we’re helping Israel,” he concludes. Whatever one’s views of the BDS movement, it doesn’t own a patent on divestment strategies. Divestment was essential during the 1980s struggle against South Africa’s notorious apartheid government. Concerned people around the world — college students, religious communities, union pension holders — took a stand against profiting from multinational corporations doing business under that racist regime. The divestment movement helped bring down apartheid by shaming South Africa and ostracizing its white minority government. The American Jewish community, however, was very much split on supporting anti-apartheid divestment in the ’80s — particularly as it was an open secret that Israel was supplying weaponry and training to the apartheid government, and elements within the African National Congress began expressing solidarity with the Palestinian Liberation Organization. THE “D” WORD still carries baggage in the Jewish community. In March, Rabbi Waskow and others staged an interfaith political theater piece in New York called “Confronting the Carbon Pharaohs,” in which followers of the Carbon Pharaoh and devotees of Mother Earth dueled verbally outside Lincoln Center’s David H. Koch Theater. The word “divestment” wasn’t written into the dialogue. (Full disclosure: I was one of Pharaoh’s minions, chanting “Drill, baby, drill” and “Oil is money and money is power.” Below find a short video by my husband Herb Perr of the event and the issues surrounding it.) Waskow’s Move Our Money, Protect Our Planet (MOM POP) campaign focuses on “moving our money” out of investments that harm the earth, but the campaign studiously avoids talking about divestment. The term is missing, too, in the description of panels and speakers at what is being billed as the first Jewish conference on climate change. The gathering is scheduled for May 17th at Hebrew College in Newton Centre, Massachusetts, sponsored by the college and the Jewish Climate Action Network (JCAN). But while the term is a absent, the concept is there. Waskow is slated to talk about MOM POP alongside professionals specializing in socially and environmentally responsible investment. “We did have a conversation” about using the term, says Rabbi Katy Allen, JCAN’s coordinator. “It’s a hot button word for a segment of the community.” Allen says she prefers to avoid using “divestment” because she wants to focus on finding ways “to invite people in. There are thoughtful ways to engage people in the conversation.” Indeed, the very concept of climate change is itself “so overwhelming,” she observes. “There’s a lot of process going on. We need to help people through this process.” Jewish groups looking to move their money out of fossil fuels thus face a choice. They can risk alienating other Jews who can’t yet stomach the term ‘divestment,’ or they can endorse the concept but avoid the term, isolating themselves from a burgeoning worldwide movement. Which side do they want to be on? One way of addressing our own responsibility would be for households, congregations, denominations, federations, and political action groups to “Move Our Money” from spending that helps these modern pharaohs burn our planet to spending that helps to heal it. For example, these actions might be both practical and effective:
  • Purchasing wind-born rather than coal-fired electricity to light our homes and synagogues and community centers;
  • Organizing our great federations to offer grants and loans to every Jewish organization in their regions to solarize their buildings;
  • Moving our endowment funds from supporting deadly carbon to supporting stable, profitable, life-giving enterprises;
  • Insisting that our tax money go no longer to subsidizing enormously profitable Big Oil but instead to subsidizing the swift deployment of renewable energy
“In the Jewish tradition your money and your ethical behavior cannot be separated,” Rabbi Troster declares. “We cannot evade our moral responsibility for everything we do and everything we own.” Perhaps it’s time to own the term ‘divestment,’ too. “In the Jewish tradition,” Troster continues, “your property and your ethical behavior cannot be separated.” One must not profit from a prohibited activity, he explains, such as causing harm to another person’s health. The Torah also prohibits allowing someone else to use your assets to do harm: you are responsible for the ways in which others use your property. This kind of guidance for behaving honorably works in a face-to-face society, in which the effects of one’s behavior are easy to see. But in today’s complex financial landscape, an investment made on one side of the world has unseen impacts somewhere else. “We have an impact on people distant from us in both geography and time,” Troster points out. “The carbon we emit today will remain in the air for up to 1,000 years.” The divestment movement calls on people to make these connections. Until fairly recently, he notes majority rabbinical opinion held that only corporate directors and majority shareholders — people with direct control over a company’s actions — were morally accountable for corporate wrongdoing. In today’s interconnected world, however, corporate activity can have devastating effects on people shareholders will never see, including people not yet born, and some Jewish scholars now hold all corporate shareholders to be responsible because they have the option of engaging in collective shareholder activism, including divestment. “We have to reduce the ethical distance between our actions and their impacts,” Rabbi Troster concludes, “and one way we can do this is ethical investing.” Mimi Bluestone is a climate activist, teacher, and writer who lives in Brooklyn.