Officials of TIAA-CREF, which manages pension funds for teachers and other non-profit employees, rejected demands from activists Tuesday that they no longer invest in companies that profit from the Israeli "occupation" of the West Bank.
At its annual shareholders’ meeting in Charlotte, N.C., CEO Roger Ferguson said the company had considered the request of the activists, which included some shareholders, and did not believe it would achieve the protestors’ goal.
“It is not likely that engagement is going to get the outcome you’re looking for,” Ferguson was quoting as saying. “We have decided, in the way in which we manage the portfolio, that this is not something in which we’re going to engage.”
Media reports said the election of the company’s trustees was delayed nearly an hour while a group of shareholders sought to learn the nominees’ views on the issue. Maceo Sloan, chairman of the board of trustees, at one point reportedly told those in attendance that the board does not make day-to-day operating decisions and thus the nominee’s views have no bearing on this issue.
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The protest is part of the worldwide BDS (boycott, divestment and sanctions) movement that NGO Monitor, an Israeli organization that keeps track of BDS campaigns, has labeled “anti-Semitic, immoral and anti-peace.”
The group leading Tuesday’s protest, Jewish Voice for Peace, said it demonstrated outside the company’s meeting and in 19 other cities in the U.S., including at TIAA-CREF’s office here. Rebecca Vilkomerson, the group’s executive director, said TIAA-CREF was targeted because of its motto, “Finance for the greater good,” and because many of those whose unions invest with the company are “sympathetic to our cause.”
“It markets itself as one that believes in ethical investments … that they care about these issues,” she said. “It has a social choice fund that carries a couple of the companies we targeted for divestment, such as Caterpillar, [whose equipment is used] to destroy homes and orchards.”
Also inside the meeting were several supporters of StandWithUs, a group that seeks to ensure that Israel’s side of the story is told and to correct misinformation about the Middle East conflict. They held the proxies of people who have TIAA-CREF accounts and six of them addressed the meeting to challenge the assertions of Jewish Voice for Peace activists.
Avi Posnick, regional coordinator of StandWithUs in New York, said in an e-mail that he was one of those at the meeting and that he thanked the TIAA-CREF leadership for not joining in the divestment campaign because it would “only push peace further away.”
Posnick said he told the meeting that Jewish Voice for Peace and its supporters were “distorting and misrepresenting the situation to justify divestment. … Israel does not practice apartheid and does not wantonly kill innocent Palestinians. The products made by companies targeted by JVP are not used to commit human rights violations.”
In addition, he said he challenged JVP’s “assertions that Israel is solely to blame for the conflict and the lack of progress on peace. In reality, it is the lack of a true peace partner on the Palestinian side and a continuous `no’ towards every Israeli peace offer.”
A TIAA-CREF spokesperson issued the following statement in response to the protestors: "Our investment committee makes decisions that are guided by our corporate governance policies. We are always listening and determining how best to serve clients according to our guidelines."
Caterpillar issued a statement expressing “compassion for all persons affected by the political strife in the Middle East” and calling for a peaceful resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
It said it “appreciates the concerns” raised by the protestors and noted that its products are “designed to improve quality of life.” The company said it has three million products in use around the world and cannot monitor how each is used. But it said it does not “condone the illegal or immoral use” of any of its products, and that as a company it is “subject to strict anti-boycott requirements.”
“These laws are intended to stop U.S. and U.S.- related companies from supporting or participating in boycotts not sanctioned by the U.S. government,” Caterpillar pointed out.
NGO Monitor said the activists behind these efforts “deny the Jewish people the right of national self-determination.”
“By singling out Israel and using double standards, BDS undermines and is the antithesis of universal human rights values” and “collectively punishes Israelis and supporters,” it said. “Boycotts are the antithesis of dialogue, cooperation and developing peaceful ties between Israelis and Palestinians. … BDS campaigns that single out Israel explicitly violate the European Union Working Definition of anti-Semitism.”
EDITOR’S NOTE: The headline of an earlier version of this story inaccurately said that the protestors called for a boycott of Israel.