Mon 26 Feb 2024 4:57 pm - Jerusalem Time

Danish pension funds divest from Israeli banks and companies

By Nasser al-Sahli

Financial institutions across Denmark are facing increasing pressure from the Danish public to withdraw their investments from Israel, as demonstrations continue for the fourth month running in protest at the continuing assault on Gaza and the stance of the Danish government regarding the war.

In different cities across Denmark, people have been asking their pension funds whether their savings are helping to finance illegal settlements in the occupied West Bank.

While it is true that these questions from Danish retirees are not new – and nor have they reached the level seen in Norway, where Norwegian pension funds were pressured to adopt similar steps years ago - they have started to seriously affect the positions of pension fund bodies in Copenhagen.

"Financial institutions across Denmark are facing increasing pressure from the Danish public to withdraw their investments from Israel"

Major pension funds divest from Israel

One of the most important of these is Velliv ("The Good Life"), a pension fund with 420,000 members, which announced that it was withdrawing investments from 11 banks in Israel. 

Although the influence of the pro-Israel lobby in the small Scandinavian country (population 5.6 million) is widespread, in its decision to divest from the Israeli banks Velliv has cited policies and directives from Europe and the UN relating to not investing where there are grounds to suspect violations of human rights.

Velliv pension fund's press director, Mikkel Bro Peterson, stated that "clients (retired pension fund holders) are generally aware of the conflicts across the world". In statements to local newspapers, he stated that "since the outbreak of the Gaza war a number of them have been asking about investments in Israel".

Subsequently, after reviewing its investment portfolio, Velliv decided to withdraw from Israeli banks, building on what he called conclusions about standards around responsible investment.

"The risks when it comes to the [Israeli] banks are either to do with their financing the expansion of the settlements or funding infrastructure in the settlements (in the occupied West Bank)," according to Bro Peterson. He stressed that "these are occupied territories, and these actions don't comply with the UN guiding principles we rely on".

Accordingly, Velliv, which represents the interests of the 420,000 retired members, withdrew over 7,000 shares from investments in Israeli banks.

Move towards responsible investments

Business Administration professor at Aalborg University, Per Nikolaj Bukh, commented on the decision to divest, telling the Danish Broadcasting Corporation (DR) in early February that the move showed "concern with the war in Gaza, and that members of the pension fund had become more concerned with the [recent] events, and that it was a step, in the context of a wave in which companies and pension funds were heading towards investments with a greater conscience, and broader [sense of] social responsibility".

Years ago, the EU issued directives relating to implementing "sustainable investment" policies. These required investing companies and pension funds to submit reports on their adherence to some of the standards for this sustainability, which are tied directly to climate and human rights policies.

The corporate and business umbrella Dansk Industri (Danish Industries, or DI), requires all companies and institutions that are part of it to submit annual reports on their compliance with Danish and European standards, as well as those issued by the UN, in the area of refraining from investment where suspicions of violations arise - including violations of human rights.

"The Danish fund pointed out that the official policy of the UN, the EU, and the Danish government was that establishing a two-state solution was necessary, and that the Israeli settlements in this respect were 'illegal and highly problematic'"

In this context, Pension Denmark, one of the biggest pension funds in Denmark (with 800,000 members), has withdrawn its investments from Israeli banks based on these suspicions and after some members highlighted their fears that some of these investments in Israeli banks could be assisting settler activities in the occupied West Bank.  

However, Pension Denmark's stance was crystallising months before the war in Gaza. The fund confirmed that "a long time before the outbreak of the war on Gaza, we were focusing on the issue of suspicions that Israeli banks were giving loans to illegal settlements in the occupied West Bank," according to one of the fund directors' statements on local TV.

In fact, the pension fund began selling its stocks and shares which had been invested in Israeli banks at the start of the year. These amounted to 75 million Krone in value (nearly ten million euros).

In another similar case, according to reports published by the Danish news site Zetland, in recent weeks, the pension fund P+ (which contains 110,000 members), withdrew its investments from Israel, specifically, from several banks, a cement company and others which produce surveillance equipment which is used in the West Bank.

Prior to this, Børsen (a Danish newspaper focused on business news), reported that Industriens Pension, a labour market pension fund for industrial workers, had excluded seven Israeli banks from its investments and that the PKA pension fund had nominated four Israeli banks to what it called its "exclusion list".

Growing boycott demands at Danish universities

The movement to divest from Israel, which pension funds have initiated, is being met on the academic level with demands at the University of Copenhagen to impose an academic boycott. The association 'Students against the Occupation' at Copenhagen University submitted a petition signed by around 2,100 students and employees, demanding that millions of dollars' worth of investments be dropped from companies on the UN list of businesses which could be complicit in the violation of human rights in the West Bank.

Copenhagen University's administration promised to study the demands after consulting with its asset managers. That comes alongside a step taken by AkademikerPension (a pension fund owned by Academics in Denmark) on 15 January to exclude and divest from 13 Israeli companies including banks which violated AkademikerPension's own investment policy.

This included six banks, four construction companies, and three telecommunications companies. As the reason for its decision, AkademikerPension stated that all of these "were linked to Israeli settlements in the occupied West Bank, and that has systematic negative impacts on the human rights of Palestinians".

On its official website, AkademikerPension has stated that it doesn't intend to "entirely exclude Israel", after criticism from pro-Israel supporters escalated in Denmark. Despite that, the fund confirmed that it was withdrawing investments from the following: Bank Hapoalim, Bank Leumi, Bank of Jerusalem, First International, Mizrahi Tefahot Bank, The Shlomo Group, Bezeq Telecommunications company, Secom, Electra, and others.

The Danish fund pointed out on its website that the official policy of the UN, the EU and the Danish government was that establishing a two-state solution was necessary and that the Israeli settlements in this respect were "illegal and highly problematic".

Analysts say that public opinion in Danish society concerning Israel's war on Gaza has been slowly moving away from official government policy, which was one of strong support for Israel immediately after 7 October.

Now, large elements of Danish society are applying increasing pressure on its unions and political parties to follow a policy consistent with the state's official stance on the issue of investments regulation. This includes the need to be in line with values and principles that have been adopted in Europe and internationally.  



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Danish pension funds divest from Israeli banks and companies