UJA-NNJ presses for terror-free investing

UJA-NNJ presses for terror-free investing

Leonard Cole, Andrew Davenport, and Kirstin Vorwig explained the ins and outs of divesting from Iran and Sudan at a forum Tuesday sponsored by UJA-NNJ and AIPAC.

UJA Federation of Northern New Jersey – which recently divested its portfolios from companies linked to Iran and Sudan – wants other community organizations to do the same, UJA-NNJ leaders said Tuesday at a forum on divestment.

The federation and the New Jersey chapter of AIPAC hosted the forum the day after a rally protesting Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s speech at the United Nations, which UJA-NNJ’s Jewish Community Relations Council director Joy Kurland called “coincidental.” The goal, she said, was to educate the public on how to divest their assets from terror-linked regimes.

“People need to know what’s involved in terror-free investing,” said Kurland.

In a resolution passed by UJA-NNJ last September, the organization called it “morally unacceptable for it to profit from or support the two countries, the regimes in Sudan and Iran, through investment in companies conducting non-humanitarian business.”

Although Kurland said she does not know if any other area organizations have followed UJA-NNJ’s lead, she is hopeful that more will take action once additional information about the process gets out. Programs like Tuesday’s help further that goal, she said.

The three-member panel began with remarks by Ridgewood resident. Leonard Cole – an adjunct professor of political science at Rutgers University and author of several books on terrorism – who spoke about the history of the Iranian regime, its ties to America, and its current government.

“Iran is not a totalitarian government,” Cole said. “It is – within the confines of the Islamic system – a democracy as they see it.”

Although Iran has a supreme religious leader who appoints a panel of clerics to rule on Islamic law, it also has a separate presidential system, he said. The president, though, does not wield as much influence on Iranian policy as the religious leader.

“His word doesn’t carry the kind of message and depth as a great clerical leader,” Cole said of Ahmadinejad. However, he added, the president has tapped into an Iranian sense of independence in stressing his country’s nuclear aspirations.

“Ahmadinejad speaks for the large majority of Iranians when he says ‘We deserve our inalienable right to nuclear capability,'” Cole said.

Every kind of pressure put on the Iranians so far has failed, he said, because Russia and China block calls for sanctions in the United Nations Security Council. Explaining why the military option is on the table, he asked the audience to imagine they were Israelis, who have had their right to exist repeatedly threatened, now watching continually stalled efforts to contain Iran. “What would your feelings be?” he asked.

“Even if the U.S. would be upset, even if the whole world is dumping on them, the Israelis will try to exercise a military option,” he said. “We have a responsibility to stand with them.”

Andrew Davenport, vice president of the Washington-based Conflict Securities Advisory Group, spoke about his company’s attempts to create terror-free investment opportunities.

“The time to act on these issues has practically passed,” he said. “We’ve been pushing these options a long time.”

CSAG targets nations the State Department lists as state sponsors of terror. The organization works with government agencies, corporations, and the investment community to help these groups understand the risks they face – to both their reputation and their business – if they continue linking to nations considered to be security risks. CSAG has built for investors a list of products that do not have any ties to Iran. Its goal now is to make those products as widely known as possible.

“Our instinct is to look to officials [to deal with foreign policy],” Davenport said. “The truth about divestment is it empowers us all to do something. We do not have to rely on government officials.”

If large assets move away from terror-affiliated countries, those countries will feel it, Davenport continued. He cited the success of the effort to divest from South Africa as a model for Iranian divestment.

“We don’t have to feel helpless anymore,” Davenport said. “Divestment and terror-free investing change the game.”

Kirstin Vorwig, senior director of relationship management in the foundation and nonprofit services group at the investment firm SEI, has first-hand experience in divesting organizations’ assets from Iran. She was responsible for pulling UJA-NNJ’s funds out of Iran- and Sudan-linked companies. SEI works with 19 federations on divestment.

Sudan and Iran are the most common divested countries, said Vorwig, adding that there has been “an increased sensitivity” to divesting stocks from countries that support terrorism, genocide, and human rights abuses.

When SEI screens the World Equity Markets, it eliminates companies that generate revenue through business relationships with Iran or Sudan. With Iran, SEI looks for companies whose oil or mineral extraction activities account for 10 percent of business operations. It looks also at investments made in Iran’s petroleum resources after August 1996 and equal to $20 million or more.

When the company screens for Sudan, it looks for involvement with military equipment, oil or mineral extraction activities, and involvement in genocide.

Those choosing to divest may see drop-offs in the short term, especially if they are invested in the energy sector, Vorwig said. But in the long term, screened investments have minimal impact.

“Diversification is key,” she added.

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