Time to divest
Conference, 19-20 October, Edinburgh
Saturday 19 October
Welcome and Introduction
Maggie Chapman, Scottish Green Party
Maggie told us that Denis Goldberg, South African anti-apartheid campaigner, had said apartheid still exists – In Israel. The Scottish Green Party had endorsed the conference and was the only one of the 5 parties represented at the Scottish Parliament that supported Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS). We needed to get BDS on to the agendas of the other parties and, indeed, get it beyond party politics.
Mick Napier, SPSC
Israel was worried about BDS and now had two members of staff at their UK embassy working full time to oppose it. Israel’s international standing was almost lower than North Korea’s.
Michael Deas, Europe Coordinator, Palestinian BDS National Committee
Michael reminded us of why the call for BDS was made (http://www.bdsmovement.net/call). We were at an important stage in the growth of BDS. Veolia and Alstrom had lost an estimated $26bn in contracts since the boycott campaign against them started, and Veolia had sold some of their contracts to run buses in the West Bank. Roger Waters of Pink Floyd had taken up the cultural boycott in a big way. For more information see http://www.bdsmovement.net/victories. The question now is how, by extending our activities to the D of BDS, can we have a bigger impact.
In the UK, there had been progress in getting student unions and trades unions (with the STUC leading) to support BDS, but so far, in general, words had not been translated into action.
BDS gives us a wide range of ways in which to show solidarity with Palestinians. It delivers economic pressure on Israel, by knocking unquestioning international support for Israel. It is a focus for education and raising awareness, allowing Palestinian voices and the Palestinian story to be heard. A decision to divest enables financial institutions to make a public stand.
Ingvild Skogvold, Advisor, Norwegian People’s Aid
Ingvild’s organisation (NPA) and a leading trade union (NUMGE) had produced a report Dangerous Liaisons; see http://www.npaid.org/Media/20_Files/Om-oss/Annual-reports/Dangerous-liaisons. The NPA had been working on following up the report’s recommendations.
Although Norway sees itself as liberal, it still has ties and trade with Israel including the settler colonies in the West Bank. The government has a large pension fund with much of its income from oil. The fund holds about 1% of stocks worldwide. Any decision by this fund to divest would have banks following suit. The fund invests in around 7,500 companies. Research by NPA showed that around 50 of these companies had ties with Israel. NPA/NUMGE reduced this list to 12 by assessing for each company:
- Its “directness of complicity” [more later]
- Its strategic importance to Israel
- The readiness of Norwegian funds to act
Anna Baltzer, National Organiser, US Campaign to End the Occupation
The US Campaign to End the Occupation is a coalition of 40 or so institutions formed in an environment in which the US grants Israel $3bn a year. Current action included:
- Following the decision of Hampshire College to divest from complicit companies in 2009, student unions in 7 other institutions have passed resolutions calling on their colleges to divest.
- Last year, retirement fund TIAA-CREF dropped Caterpillar from its social choice funds leading to divestment of $73m.
- Campaigners have targeted Israeli bonds held by State retirement funds in Minnesota with a similar campaign in California.
- Church groups are beginning to awaken to divestment. The Quakers divested $1.2m from Caterpillar, Veolia and HP and have adopted a no-buy list or ‘screen’ with 29 complicit companies. The Mennonites have now adopted this screen.
Divestment campaigns make clear to fund beneficiaries that they are investing in these bad things and are therefore also complicit, making a distant issue a local one. Divestment campaigning brings Palestinian voices and the Palestinian story to the centre.
Yafa Jarrar, Students Against Israeli Apartheid at Carleton University, Canada
Inspired by the campaign at Hampshire College, US, students at Carleton University, Ottawa, targeted the university’s pension fund for divestment. The fund had investments in 550 companies.
Students Against Israeli Apartheid (SAIA) had three demands. The university should divest, refrain from further investment in complicit companies, and work with other universities to develop, adopt and implement a broader policy of Socially Responsible Investment (SRI) for its Pension Fund and other investments, through a transparent and effective process.
The campaign had started in 2009 with research into the ways in which companies were complicit.
The campaign was launched in 2010 with the publication of the report. The student bodies endorsed the report and, by coincidence or otherwise, the board adopted a policy of SRI.
Session 1. Which companies to target: criteria & strategic decisions
Each fund will have its own criteria, perhaps including ethical ones, for choosing companies. One criterion is the ‘material principle’, which can rule out a company for divestment if less that 5% of its deeds are bad. It is important to know who are the decision-makers for a fund.
Divestment campaigns are a means of conveying the reality of what’s happening in Palestine.
They also provide opportunities for artistic and creative campaigning endeavour.
Session 2 Choosing funds
Three words for this session: Research, Research, Research. Learn as much as you can about the fund.
- Who are the decision makers? What relationship can you develop with them? How do they decide? What is the process? What leverage would a campaign have? What account does the fund take of what its clients and regulators think?
- Can you find out what companies the fund invests in? Does the fund count itself as socially responsible? Have they divested before?
- Would you have natural allies or a sympathetic public?
A divestment campaign should give a fund’s clients (beneficiaries, individual investors) a sense of their own power. A state fund is one in which all of its investors (all citizens?) have a stake in the companies in which the fund invests. And these investors are not allowed to opt out. If some of these companies are complicit in Israel contraventions, then all the fund’s investors are complicit. A state fund should be obliged to listen to its investors. The business of the fund is usually highly visible and highly regulated.
Some non-state funds (e.g. TIAA-CRFF) may be similarly transparent and accountable.
Generally there won’t be a lack of complicit funds to choose from. In Norway, routine reports from each fund will list the companies the fund has money in. The state pension fund is really influential in that other funds will tend to follow any divestment decision it takes.
Some funds employ outside advisers to recommend investments – or even to make the investment decisions for the fund.
Sunday 20 October
Session 3 Building and sustaining a campaign
Every campaign is unique but there will be common themes: mobilising the team of activists, securing support from a wide range of allies, and negotiating the sometimes complex bureaucracy in the target fund.
Students Against Israeli Apartheid (SAIA), the campaign to get Carleton University to divest in complicit companies, began in May 2009 with a programme of research. By January 2010, the team had launched its report in which it asked the university to divest from several companies. A key requirement was to find appropriate ways of explaining the campaign to various audiences. There was a need in some instances for the case to be summed up in a couple of sentences, but also a need for the detail to be set out in a long document. It was important to keep track of the detailed work. The most effective way of doing this was (!) meetings.
Session 4 Organising
Showed video of students and allies stopping meeting of board of governors at Carleton University (see http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5PGgmXvVQI8).
Peter MacDonald, Leader, Iona Community
Palestine was an area in a way familiar to churchgoers. There’d be a map of Palestine of the wall of many a church hall; every child at Sunday school would know the names of many places in Palestine and will have taken part in Nativity plays, and so on. Palestine will therefore have a certain resonance among Christians.
Historically, in Scotland, there are strong links. The Declaration of Arbroath used Biblical references. Once the only songs heard in churches were psalms
In 2012, Peter’s community issued the Iona Call after a meeting to study a document from Kairos Palestine (found at www.kairospalestine.ps). Guest leaders were Rev Dr Naim Ateek and Dr Mark Braverman. The Iona Call was to churches in Britain and Ireland. Churches should now be challenged to respond.
When funds respond to calls to divest, it is important for us not to be put off by any financial rationalisations, but to insist on our ethical case. Fund beneficiaries have the right to know how their funds are being invested.
Divestment campaigns can be aimed just as much at raising public awareness as at moving investment money.
BDS allows campaigners to be creative. BDS should put those targeted on the defensive. BDS allows us to give Palestinians effective solidarity rather than charity.