Better Energy: Divesting from oil, Jewishly

Astoundingly, “drill-baby-drill” companies are found in nearly every investment portfolio of the Jewish community without any moral qualms.

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February 12, 2015 21:05
OIL DERRICKS.

OIL DERRICKS.. (photo credit: REUTERS)

 
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The Norwegian Sovereign Wealth Funds – the largest in the world – took part in two momentous events last week that I hope will ripple worldwide, including among the Jewish community’s estimated $50 billion in endowments, pensions and other investments.

The first is a decision to divest from companies involved in coal and tar sands, because they want their investments to be consistent with their values and these fossil fuels are some of the worst offenders when it comes to climate change.

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Second, they helped cut the ribbon on East Africa’s first commercial-scale solar field, where they invested equity and will receive a solid return for the next 25 years. (Disclosure: I am associated with the solar field.) Global Divestment Day from Fossil Fuels is today, Friday, with Israel and the Jewish community conspicuously absent. (See gofossilfree.org) Christian pension and other funds are used to investing their billions according to their values, often filtering out companies that are involved in tobacco, firearms or abortions. And now the World Council of Churches, representing half a billion Christians, is pulling its money out of fossil-fuel companies. And there is a campaign by Catholics to have the Vatican divest from oil.

The Jewish community funds barely blinked during the divestment against apartheid South Africa, and only sometimes screen for those few companies that comply with the Arab boycott of Israel.

Astoundingly, “drill-baby-drill” companies are found in nearly every investment portfolio of the Jewish community without any moral qualms. This is also true for Jewish foundations that philanthropically give to environmental groups.

The environmental groups in Israel that successfully fought back against oil shale in Emek Ha’ela received grants from foundations whose portfolios include fossil fuels. I am not railing against possible hypocrisy, since it was not known, either by the donors or the recipients. But it is time for members of the Jewish Funders Network, that are holding their international convention in Israel next month, to voluntarily undergo fossil fuel audits of their investments and consider moving their capital to be aligned with their noble missions.

The planet can tolerate a warming of up to 2 degrees Centigrade and all energy policy and investment should be viewed through that prism. Yet the known oil, gas and coal reserves of the planet are five times past the 2-degree mark; meaning, we have to leave 80 percent of our carbon fuels in the ground and make the switch to renewables as fast as possible.



Low oil prices help deter further expensive exploration. Effective divestment can further discourage opening up carbon- based wells and mines if it makes capital harder to come by or more expensive.

Maintaining investment in traditional energy companies is could lower the value of endowment portfolios, since the hyped valuation of many of these companies is based on in-the-ground resources that may, with international action, have to stay underground.

And while the Jewish community is very philanthropic when it comes to Israel, Jewish communal funds as a rule do not invest in Israel, except for the nearly obligatory and low-performing Israel Bonds. Yet the Greater Miami Jewish Federation, along with nearly a dozen others, has invested modest amounts in the Blue Star Index, which is traded on the New York Stock Exchange. I hope that every federation will follow suit. But overall, there is only symbolic investment in Israeli companies by the Jewish community and foundation endowment funds.

We not only ignore our values when it comes to investments by Jewish community endowments, we even go against them.

Most members of the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries are autocratic states and hostile to Israel and in bed with Exxon/Mobil, Chevron and all the rest. We send solidarity missions to Sderot during rocket attacks, but never think about the ultimate source of the Hamas funding. We worry about the spread of Islamic fundamentalism, ignoring the fact that Saudi Arabia’s Wahhabis finance Islamic centers around the world that spread hate and intolerance.

We hear the Israeli prime minister pledge a world without oil, yet the Israeli-Iranian joint venture, the Eilat-Ashkelon Pipeline, spilled 5 million liters of crude in the pristine Arava in December and continues to operate unregulated.

Do we even know who is buying oil from Islamic State and are we sure that Jewish communal dollars aren’t invested directly or indirectly in those largely Asian companies that finance its brutality? Rabbis last week gave beautiful sermons on Tu Bishvat and sustainability, but don’t know and don’t seem to care if their pension funds and the endowments of their seminaries are invested in greedy companies destroying God’s creation.

Imagine: This shmita year, every board of every Jewish communal fund should meet to divest from fossil fuels, and move those available funds to invest at least 18% of their portfolio in Israeli for-profit social and environmental ventures, and in for-profit endeavors that promote economic development and renewable energy in emerging markets to help the world’s poorest people. The Rockefeller Brothers Fund – whose source was originally Standard Oil – have figured out how to do that, as have 50 other leading US foundations. The Jewish community has no more excuses. Julie Hammerman, of the JLens Investor Network, is launching the first Jewish values-based mutual fund.

Truth be told, the Jewish community has let our fear of divestment going mainstream against Israel prevent us from promoting our values and being part of the multi-faith solution to climate change and global economic and social development.

This is morally lazy; we have the intelligence and resources to fight unjust BDS while promoting justice in our portfolios.

Just prior to the Jewish Funders Network conference, Israel will host its first Impact Investment conference, which will create a network of investors who seek not only to do well but also to do good, based on Jewish values. The moral fiction of donors doing good but investing amorally or immorally can finally be rectified in favor of our community’s highest ethical values while also creating financial value.

If the Norwegian Sovereign Wealth Funds have figured out how to provide healthy and ethical returns, so should we.

Yosef I. Abramowitz is president of Energiyal Global Capital, a platform for Impact Investments in solar fields in developing countries, and a co-founder of the solar industry in Israel. He can be followed @kaptainsunshine.

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