May 20, 2016 | The Jerusalem Post
Exclusive: Major French bank closes anti-Israel BDS account
The massive French bank Credit Mutuel shut down the account of La Campagne BDS France amid escalating criticism over the illegal practices of supporting financial transactions that target Israel for boycotts.
In a dramatic setback for a large Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions movement (BDS) group, BDS France removed a link on its donor webpage in May for Credit Mutuel and added a link to PayPal as a method of contribution.
Speaking from Tel Aviv on Wednesday, the Israeli journalist Jean Patrick Grumberg told The Jerusalem Post that according to his source “BDS France used illegal ways to open its account and Credit Mutuel closed it.”
Grumberg confirmed the termination of the account through his source at Credit Mutuel. He is a reporter for the French-speaking American website Dreuz. Grumberg has reported on Credit Mutuel’s role in enabling BDS.
Frédéric Monot, a spokesman for Credit Mutuel, wrote the Post by email on Wednesday: “We cannot give any information about accounts held or not by the clients of the Crédit Mutuel.”
Monot’s statement on Wednesday on accounts not held by the bank stands in contrast to his April comment to the Post. “We do not disclose information covered by banking secrecy but we strictly respect the application of French law,” said Monot.
A spokeswoman at the BDS France office in Paris told the Post on the telephone on Wednesday she would forward the Post query to “the best person to respond” on the matter. BDS France and its parent organization BDS Movement did not immediately respond to multiple Post emails.
French MP Meyer Habib told the Post on Thursday, “Let us be clear: French law prohibits all forms of call for economic boycott.
This rule, recently confirmed by the French Court of Cassation (French supreme civil court), apply to everybody in the same way, including major economic players such as banks. It seems that Credit Mutuel closed BDS France account at CRIF's [the Representative Council of French Jewish Institutions] request.
That would be a first step and good news, not only for Israeli companies and the friends of Israel but for all those believing in respect for democracy, the rule of law and human rights.”
Habib added, “Prime Minister Valls clearly formulated French Government position against Israel boycott in response to a question I asked at French National Assembly on December 16th 2015. It is high time actions followed words and law was effectively implemented and rigorously applied.”
So what happened and why was the account shut down? The Post first exposed the BDS France account with the Strasbourg-based Credit Mutuel in April as part of the paper’s ongoing investigative series into the elaborate and shadowy network of bank accounts for BDS networks across Europe.
Roger Cukierman, the head of the Representative Council of French Jewish Institutions, told the Post in late April that “a boycott [of Israel] is forbidden by law” in France, and said the BDS France account should be closed. France’s 2003 “Lellouche law” bars boycotts based on national origin. French courts have enforced the Lellouche law by fining French BDS activists for discrimination.
Also in late April, the French embassy in Tel Aviv told the Post the account held by BDS France with Credit Mutuel bank appears to violate the law.
“The French opposition against any form of boycott is well known. There are strict rules in France against calls for a boycott. These rules apply notably to all economic operators,” the French embassy told Post.
Credit Mutuel faced political—and possibly economic penalties—from the State of New York because of its BDS activity. A proposed anti-BDS law is meandering its way through the legislature in New York. “The New York legislation would certainly adversely affect those banks. In a time of crisis that is growing more acute by the day, Americans and New Yorkers want to stand with our strategic democratic ally. Israel and against hatred peddled by the BDS movement,” New York State democratic Assemblyman Charles Lavine told the Post in early April.
Credit Mutuel has an office in New York City.
The closure of BDS France’s accounts resulted in a trifecta of European financial institutions pulling the plug on BDS accounts. In February, the French bank BNP Paribas discontinued the BDS Campaign account in Germany held by its subsidiary bank in DAB in Munich.
In April, the giant Austrian bank Erste Group severed its account with BDS Austria. Both BNP Paribas and Erste Group have branch offices in New York City. The reasons for the closures are unclear. The explanations could range from violations of anti-terror finance laws, lack of due financial diligence to violations of anti-discrimination laws.
The prospect of facing pariah status, damage to their reputation, and financial penalties in New York City may have also played a role in the account closures.
While French and Austrian banks have started to crack down on BDS accounts, German banks and politicians have vehemently opposed the closure of their support for anti-Israel financial help for BDS NGOs.
Commerzbank—the second largest bank in Germany—maintains a BDS account outside of its Frankfurt headquarters. Senator Mark Kirk (R-Ill.) said in April, “I am alarmed by reports that Commerzbank, a German bank headquartered in Frankfurt with branches in Illinois and New York, may be one of several German banks facilitating accounts used by anti-Israel and anti-Semitic BDS groups, and I urge the Illinois Investment Policy Board to investigate these reports under our state’s first-in-the-nation anti-BDS law.”
A 2004 study by Ludolf Herbs and Thomas Weihe titled, “The Commerzbank and the Jews 1933-1945,” detailed the bank’s “participation in anti-Semitic measures was an important part of the business practices of the Commerzbank” during the Holocaust.
Commerzbank paid the United States $1.45 billion last year for violating Iran, Cuba and Sudan sanctions.
The BW bank located in Stuttgart in the southern German state of Baden-Württemberg provides a BDS account to the group Palestine Committee Stuttgart. BW has an office in New York City.
The city of Stuttgart owns nearly 20 percent of BW and the state owns roughly 25 percent of the bank. Stuttgart Mayor Fritz Kuhn has defended the BDS account. Winfried Kretschmann, the governor of the state Baden-Württemberg, declined to comment.
The Austrian bank BAWAG furnishes Vienna’s pro-boycott Austrian-Arab Culture Center with an account. The Center held an event last month with the convicted Palestinian terrorist Leila Khaled, a member of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine. BAWAG has an office in New York City.
The United States and the European Union classify the PFLP as a terrorist organization. Khaled was a member of the terrorist network that hijacked TWA Flight 840 in 1969. A year later, she played a key role in the hijacking of EL AL Flight 219.
New York City-based Cerberus Capital Management owns 52 percent of BAWAG, and GoldenTree Asset Management — also a New York City-based investment firm — controls 40% of the bank’s ownership. The spokespeople Peter Duda and Mary Beth Grover, respectively for the firms, declined to comment.
Benjamin Weinthal is a fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies. Follow him on Twitter @BenWeinthal.