Two decades ago, I co-founded Ethos Brands based on the principle that a company can do well by doing good. We sold bottled water and used the profits to bring clean drinking water to children in need around the world. Our plan was successful: not only did we raise awareness about the world water crisis and donate funds to communities in need, but we were also acquired by Starbucks.
This same philosophy drives the environmental, social, and governance (ESG) movement, a significant and growing segment of the capital markets. Over the past few years, the ESG movement has encountered spirited opposition from those who argue that a company’s sole obligation is to maximize profits for shareholders – not be concerned about, for example, the needs of a broader set of stakeholders.
While I disagree with much of ESG’s critics, I hope we all – ESG proponents and opponents – can agree that ESG should not be a Trojan horse for antisemitism and hate. Yet, that is precisely what is at risk with an expected decision by Norway’s sovereign wealth fund, one of the world’s largest investors, to divest its holding in Israeli banks in the coming days.
Norway's sovereign wealth fund is engaging in economic warfare
Attacking the banks of a country is a form of economic warfare. It is next level – a drastic measure normally reserved for the most virulent actors on the world stage. Such a move by Norway will invigorate the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) movement, a radical campaign that aims to delegitimize and isolate Israel, the world’s only Jewish state, including by manipulating ESG.
There was a time in recent memory when Norway was an honest broker in the region. Through its sponsorship and facilitation of the ground-breaking “Oslo process” in the early 1990s – which led to the first Israeli-Palestinian agreement; the establishment of Palestinian self-governance through the Palestinian Authority; and broad acceptance for the importance of working towards a two-state solution – Norway was a creative and constructive force for Israeli-Palestinian reconciliation.
Divesting from Israeli banks because they offer services in the West Bank is antithetical to this legacy. It is an act that punishes both Israeli and Palestinian businesses and consumers. Moreover, this ill-conceived and counterproductive investment decision does nothing to promote positive initiatives that could ameliorate the conflict, or improve the situation on the ground.
We do not know the personal motivations of the so-called Council of Ethics at the fund that is making this recommendation, but what we do know, is that singling out companies that happen to be located in the Jewish state is as prejudicial as singling out people who happen to be Jewish.
Why is the Norwegian sovereign wealth fund overly focused on Israel?
Consider that the Norwegian sovereign wealth fund owns about 1.5% of all listed shares globally across about 9,000 companies. It excludes only 23 companies for violations of human rights. Of this group, nine – a full third of all the companies excluded – are Israeli.
MEANWHILE, REGARDING China – which has 10 times the number of publicly traded companies and more than 100 times the population of Israel – the Norwegian fund only excludes two companies. This is despite the repressive actions of the Chinese regime, both on its general population and the systematic violence directed toward its own Uighur population.
In addition, it is puzzling why a fund so concerned with ethical behavior is still invested in Russian banks under Western sanctions, such as Sberbank and VTB, and still invested in major Russian energy companies whose businesses provide vital revenue to the Russian government, allowing it to maintain its brutal and unprovoked assault on Ukraine.
The disproportionate focus on Israel is indisputable, contemptible, and unfortunately all too common as radical activists attempt to hijack the ESG movement to drive their own agenda, in this case demonizing and delegitimizing the Jewish state.
Make no mistake: the BDS movement is not focused on changing Israeli government policy, improving the lives of Palestinians, or creating a Palestinian state alongside Israel. Rather, it seeks the complete dismantling of the Jewish state and ending the right to Jewish self-determination in its historic homeland, Israel.
BDS is gaining traction in the corporate world
Unfortunately, the BDS movement is gaining traction in the corporate world. According to ADL research, during last year’s shareholder proxy season, eight of the 20 social issue resolutions explicitly targeting foreign countries named Israel – making it the number-one target in the world. Again, not Iran, nor Russia, nor North Korea, nor Syria, nor Venezuela, nor Ethiopia, nor China, but Israel – a vibrant, pluralistic and open democracy.
Last year, Ben and Jerry’s made news when they announced that they would not sell ice cream in the West Bank, effectively ending the company’s presence in all of Israel and eliminating hundreds of jobs for Palestinians and Israelis.
And the ratings agency, Morningstar adopted policies that would make doing business with the Jewish state a black mark on their ESG ratings. Due to pressure from a range of stakeholders including ADL, some of these moves were reversed, but the hard feelings endure.
After more than 100 years of fighting antisemitism and hate, we have learned how important it is to speak up and act. It’s why ADL now calls on business leaders and investors to speak up and tell the Norwegian sovereign wealth fund what they are doing is wrong.
It’s why we urge the Administration and Congress to tell Norway’s leaders that what this sovereign wealth fund is doing, in the name of the Norwegian people and with their money, is antisemitic. It runs counter to US foreign policy interests and the shared values of our nations. It does not advance peace, but accelerates prejudice, plain and simple.
There’s tremendous potential in the ESG movement. But if it can be manipulated so easily by malicious actors, such abuse will irredeemably stain its laudable mission. As one of the world’s largest investors, the Norwegian sovereign wealth fund has an ethical responsibility to prevent that from happening and cease its efforts to target Israel.
The writer is CEO and national director of ADL (the Anti-Defamation League).