Many ancient cultures had flood myths. In the Hebrew Bible, G-d tells a somewhat righteous man, Noah, to build an arc and gather his own family and a male and female of every species, then proceeds to destroy the earth and all its inhabitants, except those on Noah’s ark. with a great flood. When the devastation is over, G-d declares to Noah:
וַהֲקִמֹתִ֤י אֶת־בְּרִיתִי֙ אִתְּכֶ֔ם וְלֹֽא־יִכָּרֵ֧ת כָּל־בָּשָׂ֛ר ע֖וֹד מִמֵּ֣י הַמַּבּ֑וּל וְלֹֽא־יִהְיֶ֥ה ע֛וֹד מַבּ֖וּל לְשַׁחֵ֥ת הָאָֽרֶץ׃ (Gen. 9:11 BHS-W4)
I will maintain My covenant with you: never again shall all flesh be cut off by the waters of a flood, and never again shall there be a flood to destroy the earth
This phrase, and others in the Hebrew Bible, are taken to mean that G-d has promised never to destroy the world again with floods or other climate-related disasters. But G-d is silent about whether or not humans have that option.
Jews, therefore, have an important religious investment in ensuring that we do not exercise that option, that we follow the myriad injunctions in Bible and Talmud telling us that it is our duty to preserve and protect the world that G-d has given us. A key example is the commandment to observe the Shmita year, first articulated in the second book of Torah, Exodus, as follows:
For six years you are to sow your land and to gather in its produce, but in the seventh, you are to let it go tishm’tenah and to let it be u’nitashta, that the needy of your people may eat, and what remains, the wildlife of the field shall eat. Do thus with your vineyard, with your olive grove.
Here we have perhaps the first written articulation of climate justice—the commandment that every seven years the land should be given a rest and that all food be equally distributed among the poor and wealthy alike.
Clearly, supporting fossil fuel companies would seem to be a direct contradiction to these commandments to preserve and protect the environment we have been given and to put our earth in service to everyone, equally. And there are many outstanding Jewish organizations around the world that pursue climate justice, such as the Jewish Climate Alliance Network, Hazon, The Jewish Earth Alliance, and JLENS. And in Israel, organizations like the Arava Institute and Eco-Peace have done remarkable work not only in fostering sustainable energy solutions, but in bringing together Jews and Palestinians to do so.
But sadly, it has been extremely difficult to engage large Jewish organizations with substantial endowments to embrace the concept of divestment from fossil fuel corporations.
I have been trying to get a hearing from the largest of these Jewish organizations, known as the UJA-Federation of New York, with its nearly $1 billion endowment and control over millions of dollars in pension funds. I was first told that its management’s sole fiduciary responsibility is to maximize return on investment (as if the fiduciary responsibility of charitable organizations isn’t mostly to do good in the world and prevent harm) and then that no one knows where the money is invested. I was finally able to get a meeting with the new Chief Investment Officer, during which, thanks to Fletcher Harper, presentations by Mark Campanelle of Carbon Tracker and Rachel Kyte of Sustainable Energy for All were brilliant and persuasive, and I am hopeful that some movement will come from this.
But in researching this issue, I have learned that so far only one outstanding, large Jewish organization has actually divested its portfolio from fossil fuel companies, the American Jewish World Service. I also learned that there are several factors perhaps unique to the Jewish world that challenge our ability to succeed in having large Jewish organizations divest. These include:
The word “divest” is virtually radioactive in many Jewish circles because of the current BDS movement. BDS stands for “Boycott, Divest, and Sanction,” an international protest movement against Israeli occupation of the Palestinian territories. Although I am personally not opposed to BDS as it pertains to justice for people living in the Occupied Palestinian Territories, I hasten to explain that divesting from fossil fuel companies and BDS are not remotely related. The distinction often falls on deaf ears.
There is at least a perceived resurgence of anti-Semitism in some corners of the world, making Jews feel defensive about feeding old canards. One of them is that Jews control the banks and the world’s monetary system. Jewish organizations, therefore, are reluctant to speak publicly about finances, money, and investments and hence shy away from taking public positions on divesting from fossil fuel companies.
There are very few large pension funds controlled by clergy in the Jewish community. This is apparently very different from what is the case among other faith-based organizations and means that for the most part, where pension funds exist they are controlled by finance people who do think their sole responsibility is to maximize return, rather than by rabbis, who might inject moral values into the equation.
One of the saddest parts of this equation to me is that Israel, home to the largest Jewish population in the world, has not embraced sustainable energy as a national imperative. Despite the fact that experts tell us that the Middle East will be one of the parts of the world most devastated by the climate crisis and that Israel and its neighbors perennially face water shortages and heat waves, Israel continues to explore drilling for gas and oil in the Mediterranean Sea and to neglect obvious solutions like solar energy.
Despite these challenges, I believe there are many openings for us to make progress in the Jewish community. Three examples are: More and more Jewish congregations in the US have signed onto climate initiatives, signaling a growing awareness that the climate crisis is real and that it challenges our religious foundations.
Recently, a committee I chaired at UJA- Federation funded a pilot program to place solar panels on the rooftops of most buildings in a religious Jewish city.
Jews who were once embarrassed when holding onto tobacco company investments came to haunt them are now increasingly persuaded that maintaining investments in ExxonMobil, Chevron, BP, and Shell is just as bad. Hence, from a variety of vantage points, it is clear that we need to borrow from the experience and expertise of other faith communities to make progress in Jewish divestment from fossil fuel corporations a reality.