May 29, 2018 | The Jerusalem Post

German Jewish shareholders call for probe into bank’s BDS-linked accounts

The Central Welfare Board of Jews in Germany – a part owner of the Cologne-based Bank for Social Economy – wants the bank to open a new investigation into its alleged support of the boycott campaign against Israel.

Abraham Lehrer, chairman of the Central Welfare Board, was quoted on Thursday in the Jüdische Allgemeine, a weekly German-Jewish newspaper, calling on the bank to “again investigate the activity” (its enablement of BDS activity).

Lehrer is also the vice president of the Central Council of Jews.

He added that he had made the shareholders’ position clear to the bank’s leadership and expressed his disappointment with its decision to not take action against the BDS accounts.

On April 28, spokeswoman Renate Müller told The Jerusalem Post that “the Central Welfare Board of Jews in Germany will henceforth use its influence to actively counter every form of the BDS movement. For this reason, the ZWST [the board] calls on the Bank for Social Economy [Bank für Sozialwirtschaft] to end its business relations with BDS organizations.”

In an email on Wednesday to the Simon Wiesenthal Center’s associate dean Rabbi Abraham Cooper, and obtained by the Post, bank chairman Harald Schmitz defended a German BDS group called Jüdische Stimme (Jewish Voice).

Schmitz wrote: “With regard to the Jüdische Stimme (Jewish Voice), we ask you to consider that this organization is supported by people of Jewish descent.

From our point of view, the charge of antisemitism therefore misses the mark. Nevertheless, we have critically scrutinized the political objectives of the Jüdische Stimme and had temporarily suspended our business relations. After very intensive discussions, however, in April 2017 we agreed conditions with the Jüdische Stimme which would make a resumption of our business relationships possible.

In this context, it was particularly important to us that the organization rejects all forms of violence against the State of Israel.”

Stefan Laurin, the author of the Jüdische Allgemeine article cited above, in it dismissed Jewish Voice’s justification of its boycott advocacy because it is nonviolent.

“Jewish Voice has nothing against Hamas activists who violently infiltrate Israel, and rejects Israel’s right to defend itself against such attacks.”

Schmitz continued in his letter, “We do not maintain business relations with antisemitic organizations, nor do we support the objectives of the BDS campaign,” and “we feel a special commitment to reconciliation between Germany and Israel.”

The bank chairman wrote to the Wiesenthal Center because the human rights group had told the Post that the “pro-BDS” behavior of the bank’s three top executives, Schmitz, Oliver Luckner and Thomas Kahleis, could land them on the list of the year’s worst outbreaks of antisemitism.

The Wiesenthal Center tweeted on Tuesday: “German bankers facilitating boycott of Jewish State. In the early running for SWC Top Ten 2018 #BDS #Israel.”

Schmitz objected to Wiesenthal’s warning, saying “a misunderstanding has arisen in relation to our bank as a result” of the Post’s reporting.

The Post uncovered at least four organizations that hold accounts with the Bank for Social Economy and have expressed explicit or indirect support for BDS.

Cooper, told the Post on Thursday that “the bankers have a responsibility to do no harm to the Jewish world and not leave a decision to a group of radicals [Jewish Voice].” He continued, “Other banks and cities have made that decision to not support BDS. BDS is not about helping Palestinians, it is about punishing Jews.

“We can understand the confusion because Jewish Voice has a Jewish title,” the rabbi said.

The “bankers should do their due diligence, and not weaken the largest Jewish community in the world that resides in the State of Israel, whose population has a significant proportion of Shoah survivors and their progeny. The overwhelming majority of the world’s Jews support Israel. The bankers efforts are only weakening – and rendering weaker and defenseless – Israel. No German should be involved in BDS, and that is the responsibility of the German generation since the end of World War II,” Cooper said.

“The German-Jewish institutions in Germany are all supporters of the Jewish state. The moral issue is eminently clear. No German should be involved in a boycott against the world’s largest Jewish community. End of story.”

Post queries to Schmitz, Luckner and Kahleis were not returned.

NATHAN GELBART, a prominent lawyer who has won high-profile cases against Jewish antisemites in Germany, slammed the bank’s executives for stoking antisemitism via their support for Jewish Voice.

In an email to the Post on Thursday, Gelbart wrote, “This is my opinion as a lawyer who regularly deals with the topics of antisemitism and BDS.

“Whoever presupposes or excludes certain attitudes because a person is born Jewish expresses himself in an antisemitic manner.

For example, take the completely outlandish contention of the BfS [Bank for Social Economy] that Jews necessarily cannot express antisemitism because they are Jewish, and therefore Jewish Voice cannot have an antisemitic agenda. Just as communists can be billionaires and police officers can be bank robbers, there are also Jews with antisemitic thought patterns,” Gelbart wrote.

He added that the “demand to boycott a cultural festival because the embassy of the State of Israel sponsors this festival is therefore hostile to Jews, because the initiator of the call – Jewish Voice – only intervenes in the support of cultural events when Israel appears.

The countless festivals that are supported by other foreign representatives do not interest these people [Jewish Voice].

“A bank that voluntarily provides service to antisemites makes common cause with Jew-hatred,” Gelbart said.

When asked about Gelbart’s comments, Schmitz declined to respond.

The Post reported last week that Jewish Voice initiated boycott campaigns against Israel’s sponsorship of a cultural festival in Berlin this August, for the expulsion of Israel’s ambassador to Berlin and for all German weapons exports to Israel to be stopped.

Jewish Voice, on its website, likens Israel’s political leadership to Adolf Hitler. A sign is seen with the Jewish Voice logo at a demonstration against Israel, held by group member Iris Hefets, which reads: “Führer of Israel to the international court.”

The Central Welfare Board owns 0.7% of the Bank for Social Economy. It is unclear what the Jewish organization will do if the bank refuses to crack down on its BDS activity. The Central Welfare Board could sell its shares and switch to a new bank that does not enable BDS. Deutsche Bank, DAB and Commerzbank have closed BDS accounts over the last two years. The German LGBT organization the Magnus Hirschfeld Foundation dropped its account to protest the bank’s alleged support of BDS.

Gaby Spronz, a representative of the Aktionsforum Israel in Germany, told the Post that the Bank for Social Economy “is indirectly supporting the terror of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, as this organization is supported by Jewish Voice, which the bank supports.” He noted that the EU and the US designated the PFLP as a terrorist entity. 

Benjamin Weinthal reports on human rights in the Middle East and is a fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies. Follow him on Twitter @BenWeinthal.

Follow the Foundation for Defense of Democracies on Twitter @FDD. FDD is a Washington-based nonpartisan research institute focusing on national security and foreign policy.