Human Rights Advocates Confront TIAA-CREF Over Investing in Injustice


July 17, 2012

Earlier today at TIAA-CREF’s annual meeting in New York City, concerned shareholders confronted trustees over the pension fund giant’s investments in companies such as Caterpillar, Northrop Grumman, Veolia, Elbit, Motorola Solutions, and Hewlett-Packard, whose products are used by the Israeli military to violate international law and the human rights of Palestinians. Simultaneously, protesters rallied in front of TIAA-CREF offices across the country to urge trustees to divest from these and other companies that profit from and enable Israel’s 45-year-old military occupation and colonization of Palestinian lands.

Inside the New York meeting, James Schamus, professor at Columbia University and a TIAA-CREF shareholder, challenged TIAA-CREF CEO Roger Ferguson, asking: “When will TIAA-CREF provide clients like me with a fund that is Israeli-occupation clean?” In response, Ferguson claimed that TIAA-CREF cannot address concerns from individual shareholders through their Social Choice fund.

While stating that he has no intention of engaging with the companies in question, a prerequisite to divestment, and that he believes it is not clear that shareholder activism can have the same effect with Israel/Palestine as it did with apartheid-era South Africa, Ferguson did agree to report to ethical investment ratings agency MSCI concerning the companies discussed during today’s meeting, which included not only ones profiting from the Israeli occupation, but also Nike, Coca-Cola, and private healthcare companies such as Aetna and Cigna. Last month it was revealed that TIAA-CREF had sold more than $72 million worth of shares in Caterpillar from its Social Choice fund after the latter’s stock was downgraded by MSCI as a result of the Israeli army’s use of Caterpillar products in human rights abuses in the occupied Palestinian territories. Ferguson also acknowledged that the We Divest campaign has influenced TIAA-CREF and its decision to drop Caterpillar from its Social Choice fund, and that they will be monitoring developments in the global Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions movement, initiated by Palestinian civil society in 2005.

“If TIAA-CREF trustees wish to live up to their motto of investing for “the greater good,’ they cannot continue to profit from companies whose products are used to destroy Palestinian homes, schools, and agricultural land, to build illegal Jewish-only colonies on occupied land, and to deny Palestinians basic freedoms such as freedom of movement,” said Riham Barghouti of Adalah-NY, speaking outside the meeting in New York. “Change is in the air and the time is now.”

While concerned shareholders questioned TIAA-CREF trustees in New York, in Chicago and San Francisco protesters rallied outside local TIAA-CREF offices in a show of support for divestment. In Chicago, Ali Abunimah, co-founder of the Electronic Intifada and author of One Country: A Bold-Proposal to End the Israeli-Palestinian Impasse addressed the rally, stating: “I believe if we continue, in seven years, we can see justice and peace in Israel and Palestine for everyone.”

The We Divest campaign will continue until TIAA-CREF lives up to its stated ideals of acting for “the greater good,” by divesting from companies whose products are used by the Israeli government to enforce its illegal occupation and colonization of the Palestinian West Bank, East Jerusalem, and Gaza Strip, and to deny millions of Palestinians the most basic freedoms and human rights. The We Divest campaign is a response to the 2005 call from Palestinian civil society for Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions, to pressure Israel into abiding by international law and respecting Palestinian rights.