Exclusive: Second largest German bank shuts anti-Israel BDS account

Security Minister Erdan urges European banks to follow suit.

Visitors arrive to Commerzbank's headquarters before the bank's annual news conference in Frankfurt, Germany, February 12, 2016 (photo credit: REUTERS)
Visitors arrive to Commerzbank's headquarters before the bank's annual news conference in Frankfurt, Germany, February 12, 2016
(photo credit: REUTERS)
BERLIN – In the latest of a series of similar account closures by international banks, German bank Commerzbank has shut down a boycott Israel account, the first action of its kind in that country, The Jerusalem Post has learned.
The account has been “dealt with” and the bank notified the account holder more than a month ago, a source told the Post.
The closure of the anti-Israel account because of Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions activity is believed to be the first instance of a German bank taking action to halt the movement.
“I welcome and commend the decision by Commerzbank and other European banks to close the accounts of BDS organizations. This is the right thing to do from both a legal, financial and moral perspective.
The BDS campaign, which seeks the destruction of Israel, is discriminatory, anti-Semitic and anti-peace, and often has connections to extremist and terrorist groups,” Public Security Minister Gilad Erdan told the Post on Tuesday.
Erdan, who is tasked with combating BDS for Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s administration, added: “I call on other banks to follow Commerzbank’s example, particularly those with connections to official state bodies that claim to oppose BDS. I will continue to work to expose the true face of the BDS extremists and their supporters, and to ensure that they face the full consequences of their actions.”
The closed account allegedly belongs to the anti-Israel and pro-BDS website Der Semit, which lists its account in a small town in the state of Hesse, in which Frankfurt, which is the home to Commerzbank’s headquarters, also is located.
“We cannot, because of data protection and bank secrecy laws answer questions regarding existing account relationships,” Commerzbank spokesman Michael Machauer told the Post. “Commerzbank adheres to all compliance standards and regulations governing accounts.”
The Commerzbank account holder for the pro-BDS website in Hesse declined to comment.
The anti-Israel activist, who owns the BDS website, lost a court case to the prominent German Jewish journalist Henryk M. Broder in 2007. Broder termed the owner of the website “expert[s] in applied Jew-phobia.”
The closure of the account may have ramifications that will ripple across Germany, where there are scores of anti-Israel groups that promote BDS and maintain bank accounts within the Federal Republic.
According to German banking law, financial institutions can summarily terminate accounts without providing a reason. As a general rule, the account holder has a grace period of 90 days to wind down financial transactions before the closure.
Commerzbank has offices and branches in more than 50 countries, according to its website.
In February, the Post reported that the French bank BNP Paribas shut the account of the BDS Campaign in Germany that was held by the bank’s subsidiary DAB in Munich.
German banks that provide accounts to anti-Israel groups range from Sparkasse to Deutsche PostBank to the Stuttgart- based BW Bank in the southern state of Baden-Württemberg. Erdan’s comment urging banks with “connections to official state bodies” is an apparent reference to the BW bank’s governmental ties.
The city of Stuttgart owns nearly 20 percent of BW bank, and the state government roughly 25%.
BW provides an account to one of Germany’s most active BDS groups – Palestine Committee Stuttgart and also holds the account of the local neo-Nazi party (NPD) in Stuttgart. Both the neo-Nazi organization and Palestine Committee Stuttgart share the same anti-Israel goals.
The “bank does not support calls to boycott Israel,” Rüdiger Schoss, a spokesman for BW, wrote the Post in an email. “A refusal to provide an account is only possible when, according to German law, objective impediments are present, such as violations of sanctions guidelines, calls to violence or a documented denial of the Holocaust.”
Rudi Hoogvliet, a spokesman for Winfried Kretschmann, the Green Party governor of Baden-Württemberg, declined to comment, saying the state does not have anything new to add to the BW comment.
Eva Muszar, a spokeswoman for the Green Party in Stuttgart, told the Post: “We Greens reject a boycott of Israel, as well as BDS. The BDS campaign aggressively calls for a boycott of Israeli goods and organizations, and is collectively directed against Jewish Israelis and uses anti-Semitic prejudices.”
A spokesman for Stuttgart Mayor Fritz Kuhn said: “The bank’s operational business is a matter for the bank to explain,” adding that Kuhn rejects BDS.
Thomas Oeben, a spokesman for the Christian Democratic Union – the coalition partner of the Greens in the state government – declined to answer queries about the movement and the role of BW.
BW, like Commerzbank, has an office in Manhattan.
New York Governor Andrew Cuomo signed an executive order last week punishing companies in the state that engage in BDS activity. For Cuomo to sanction the companies, they are required to have business with the state government.
“It’s very simple. If you boycott against Israel, New York will boycott you,” Cuomo said at the time.
Meanwhile, US Senator Mark Kirk (R-Illinois), in April, issued a tough comment on the row over the German bank and BDS activity.
“I am alarmed by reports that Commerzbank, a German bank headquartered in Frankfurt with branches in Illinois and New York, may be one of several German banks facilitating accounts used by anti-Israel and anti-Semitic BDS groups, and I urge the Illinois Investment Policy Board to investigate these reports under our state’s first-in-thenation anti-BDS law.”
Kirk added: ”Recent reports of pro-BDS German banks further underscore the need for Congress to pass the Combating BDS Act of 2016, a bipartisan bill to authorize state and local governments to follow Illinois’s lead and divest public taxpayer money from companies engaged in anti-Semitic BDS conduct.”
Kirk’s comment followed Erdan’s statement in April that European banks involved in BDS activity face “potential legal, reputational and ethical consequences.”
Such remarks may have played a critical role in the closure of the Commerzbank BDS account, as well as other closures in April, May and June.
The Post’s investigative series on BDS accounts in Europe has led to the closure of six accounts of pro-BDS organizations. The network of BDS accounts occasionally overlaps with the shadowy world of Palestinian and Iranian terrorism and unfettered movement in the EU.
Last week, the Austrian bank Bawag shut down the account of the Austria-Arab Culture Center, which had hosted convicted Palestinian terrorist Leila Khaled, who participated in the 1969 hijacking of a TWA jet. A year later, she hijacked EL AL flight 219. Khaled was in Europe as part of a speaking tour.
In May, PayPal and Credit Mutuel pulled the plug on their accounts with BDS France. The Austrian financial company Erste Group terminated BDS Austria’s account in April.