In November, the Anti-Defamation League announced it is acquiring Jewish investor network JLens to fight so-called anti-Israel activities in the progressive investing arena.
“It’s time for the Jewish community to take a seat at the table to use our power as institutional investors to ensure corporations are aligned with our values, and don’t fall for antisemitic pressures,” Jonathan Greenblatt, the ADL’s CEO, said in a statement.
Impact investing, or environmental, social and governance (ESG) investing, is used to determine a company or investment’s level of social responsibility. Activists are increasingly pressuring investors to consider such factors like climate change in their financial decisions.
But criticism over Israel’s human rights record and discussions on corporate complicity in the ESG sector is worrying Israel lobby groups like the ADL.
“ESG is the latest frontier in the fight against antisemitism, with radical Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) activists trying to push their agenda,” Greenblatt said. “The recent high-profile examples of companies publicly announcing anti-Israel moves are just the tip of the iceberg. In working with JLens, we hope to be able to prevent such actions before they even take off.”
The ADL’s announcement was lambasted online by activists for attempting to block investor scrutiny over Israel’s crimes, thereby creating an Israel exception when it comes to impact investing.
“For anyone who still doesn’t understand what’s going on: the ADL & friends are all-in demanding: – either ESG across the board creates an Israel exception, or we will brand ESG antisemitic and wage war on it, in effect joining the right-wing battle against ‘woke capitalism,’” Lara Friedman, president of the Foundation for Middle East Peace (FMEP), said in a Twitter thread.
As the BDS movement gains momentum, the Israel lobby appears to be strategizing ways to combat it — whether through anti-BDS laws or by dictating the socially responsible investment sphere.
Creating an Israel exception
Even before ESG was a common consideration, the Israel lobby foresaw the socially conscious investing space as a potential threat to Israel.
In an FMEP database on anti-BDS legislation, Friedman cites a report by the Reut Group, an Israel lobby think tank with ties to the Israeli government, concluding that Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) and Socially Responsible Investing (SRI), which became ESG, poses a danger to Israel.
“[T]he anti-Israel movement strives to create a unique category for Israel within international norms and international law, arguing that investments in Israel are not socially responsible. The pro-Israel network should act to accelerate its learning curve and adaptive capacity,” the report says. “Jewish Philanthropy should become more active in impact investing.”
According to Friedman, the ADL’s recent decision to absorb JLens is not a new development, but rather something pro-Israel lawfare groups like Reut and the Zachor Legal Institute have advocated for since the early days of conscious investing.
“So if the idea is we [pro-Israel groups] can’t prevent socially responsible investing from taking off, we have to find a way to subvert it so that it won’t end up being focused on Israel,” Friedman said. “And Israel will be given an exemption effectively.”
JLens targets BDS under conscious investment banner
JLens was established in 2012 and is presented as a resource for Jewish philanthropists to engage in impact investing. Yet draping itself in ethical consumer buzzwords, JLens merely hid the organization’s real goal of battling BDS.
“As values-based investors increasingly influence corporate behavior, JLens’ mission is to give the Jewish community a strategic presence in this influential arena to promote Jewish values and interests, and to combat BDS which has become the dominant narrative on Israel within the field,” the JLens website reads.
The organization spearheaded the campaign against U.S. investment research firm Morningstar, which recently changed its ratings measures because of pressure from Israel lobby groups.
JLens accused Sustainalytics, a Morningstar subsidiary, of anti-Israel bias for its Human Rights Radar, a tool used to measure a company’s social responsibility. The investor network specifically claimed Sustainalytics’ product supported BDS.
After repeated bombardment from pro-Israel groups and Republican officials, Morningstar dropped the Human Rights Radar and made changes to its ranking system. Sustainalytics will now replace the term “occupied territory” with the “West Bank” and stop using the U.N. Human Rights Council and WhoProfits research center as sources. The Israeli government has long denounced the U.N. and WhoProfits as anti-Semitic for exposing Israel’s human rights abuses.
According to Friedman, the campaign against Morningstar tested how effective the Israel lobby can be in manipulating and politicizing ESG.
“The ADL’s move follows the victory of legacy U.S. Jewish orgs/leaders’ pressure on Morningstar, which last week announced a new ESG framework w/ respect to Israel – repudiating intl law, UN data, & data Palestinian experts,” Friedman said on Twitter. “In short, Morningstar pioneered an ESG Israel exception.”
Setting a dangerous precedent in ESG
With the ADL and JLens joining forces, activists and human rights experts say the ESG movement is being exploited and undermined for Israel’s benefit.
Creating an Israel-only exception, Friedman argues, discredits ESG as a sector and increases Israel’s impunity on the global stage. “[It] utterly screws Palestinians and makes them more vulnerable than any people in the world,” she said, adding that, by setting Israel to a lower standard may, in turn, open the door to shielding other human rights abusers as well.
Because if Israel can do this, it just becomes a matter of who has the lobby power, the political weight, the media weight, the financial weight to demand different rules… Is this an area where there are rules that apply to everyone or aren’t there?”
Thus, the Israel lobby has now infiltrated the ESG movement, and by doing so, has set a dangerous precedent when it comes to principles guiding business and human rights.
Feature photo | Carly Maisel attends Never Is Now – 2022 Anti-Defamation League Summit at the Javits Center in New York, NY, on November 10, 2022. Photo | Efren Landaos | Sipa via AP Images
Jessica Buxbaum is a Jerusalem-based journalist for MintPress News covering Palestine, Israel, and Syria. Her work has been featured in Middle East Eye, The New Arab and Gulf News.