Jewish Groups Push Back in Fight for Divestment From Fossil Fuel Companies

Fear Tactic Could Be Used in Israel Debate

Environmentalists demonstrate outside President Obama’s speech at the founding of UCLA’s new Genocide Studies center. Most Jewish groups disagree with the tactic of divestment from fossil fuel companies, feaaring it may boost its use in the Israel debate.
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Environmentalists demonstrate outside President Obama’s speech at the founding of UCLA’s new Genocide Studies center. Most Jewish groups disagree with the tactic of divestment from fossil fuel companies, feaaring it may boost its use in the Israel debate.

By Hody Nemes and Nathan Guttman

Published May 22, 2014, issue of May 30, 2014.
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The recent 1,300-page National Climate Assessment drove home in the starkest terms so far the clear and present danger human-influenced climate change poses to the United States and to the survival of large human populations worldwide.

But as activists and institutions around the country step up efforts to staunch fossil fuel wastes that drive global warming, Jewish religious and communal groups are virtually unanimous in rejecting one of the main tactics being urged to push for corporate change: divesting fossil fuel companies from their stock portfolios.

A landmark decision by Stanford University in May to rid its $18.7 billion endowment of all coal investments marked a breakthrough for divestment advocates and put the question front and center for other mainstream institutions. But in interviews with the Forward, Jewish institutional leaders saw the issue as secondary to other global and social issues.

“We should be thinking of divestment only in terms of very extreme threats of the kind that Iran poses,” said Richard Foltin, director of national and legislative affairs at the American Jewish Committee. Foltin was referring to mainstream Jewish communal support for divestment from companies doing business with Iran, whose development of its nuclear capabilities is viewed as a cover for developing nuclear weapons that would pose an existential threat to Israel.

Kara Kaufman, a 2012 graduate of Brown University and committed climate activist, sees this perspective as one bound to alienate younger Jews.

“The Jewish community could play a real leadership role and be on the right side of history,” said Kaufman, who is the great great-granddaughter of legendary Yiddish author Sholem Aleichem.

As young Jews grapple with the environmental future they will face and how to respond to it, both as human beings and specifically as Jews, the Jewish community, Kaufman said, can “set an example for other faith communities to follow by supporting divestment as one of a handful of powerful ways to build the movement towards a stable planet and future.”

But Jews urging such a move on national organizations face a formidable hurdle: the fear of legitimizing divestment as a tactic, considering its use by pro-Palestinian groups against Israel.


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