BDS victory at TIAA-CREF

July 22, 2013

Jonathan Cunningham provides the backdrop to a new step forward for the boycott, divestment and sanctions struggle--this one against the Israeli company SodaStream.

THE BOYCOTT, divestment and sanctions (BDS) movement that has been protesting the Israeli occupation of Palestine took another step forward this month when the giant retirement fund giant TIAA-CREF announced it was divesting $9 million from SodaStream, an Israeli company that makes its carbonation machines in the occupied West Bank.

TIAA-CREF has been facing pressure from a new arm of the movement: We Divest, a campaign launched by Jewish Voices for Peace (JVP) in 2010. Days after the SodaStream divestment was announced, We Divest organized a national day of action on July 16 to up the pressure on TIAA-CREF to divest from other companies that profit from the Israeli occupation of Palestine.

The first step in the campaign at TIAA-CREF came last February when over 200 shareholders filed a resolution asking the fund to divest from companies that "contribute to or enable" human rights violations--in particular, those ongoing in Palestine. TIAA-CREF refused to put the proposal to a proxy vote among shareholders--and won approval for this move from the Securities and Exchange Commission. In response, activists all over the U.S. held demonstrations, protests and actions in front of TIAA-CREF offices.

Supporters of the BDS movement against Israel call on shoppers not to buy Sodastream
Supporters of the BDS movement against Israel call on shoppers not to buy Sodastream

THE CAMPAIGN against TIAA-CREF is part of a larger solidarity effort for Palestine. In 2005, a coalition of more than 170 Palestinian organizations called for international supporters to initiate boycott, divestment and sanctions campaigns--to boycott Israeli products and companies, divest from businesses that profit from the Israeli occupation of Palestine, and demand government sanctions for Israel's violations of international law.

The goal of the BDS campaign is to support the Palestinian struggle to secure an end to the occupation of Gaza and the West Bank, to stop the system of institutionalized racial discrimination against Palestinians in Israel, and to recognize the right of Palestinian refugees to return to their homes. The model for BDS is the international divestment campaign against apartheid South Africa which helped the Black freedom struggle finally topple the racist regime.

In recent years, BDS activism has become very effective in highlighting the crimes of the Israeli system--and the complicity of other governments, especially the U.S., that support it. The movement has been gaining momentum rapidly. The world-renowned physicist Dr. Stephen Hawking joined the academic boycott of Israel earlier this year, and this year alone, universities stretching from Oslo in Norway, Sydney in Australia, Sheffield in Britain, York in Canada, and Berkeley in California, among many others, have taken steps toward divestment.

This is the backdrop to the actions at TIAA-CREF. Jewish Voice for Peace started the We Divest campaign to pressure the fund--whose full name is the Teachers Insurance and Annuity Association-College Retirement Equities Fund--in 2010. TIAA-CREF was chosen after it was pressured in 2009 to divest from Africa-Israel Investments, whose construction projects were viewed by activists to be in violation of human rights and international law. The following year, the We Divest campaign moved from being led by JVP to being structured as a coalition, with a representative of participating organizations serving on a National Coordinating Committee.

In February 2011, 20 shareholders filed a resolution asking TIAA-CREF to "engage" with companies doing business with occupying forces. This resolution might seem weakly worded, but it inspired the administrators to take drastic measures. Their first response was to disallow a vote by shareholders on the proposal and to request SEC approval for this action.

After the resulting outrage among activists and the promise of protests at its doorstep, TIAA-CREF moved its annual shareholder meeting from New York City to Charlotte, N.C. Despite the change of venue, however, dozens of activists still showed up outside the shareholder meeting to demand divestment from Israeli apartheid.

This year's proposal is much more direct than the one submitted in 2011. It demands that TIAA-CREF "end investments in companies that, in the trustees' judgment, substantially contribute to or enable egregious violations of human rights, including companies whose business supports Israel's occupation."

This resolution had 10 times as many shareholders backing it. The unequivocal wording produced stronger opposition from pro-Zionist forces. TIAA-CREF has been threatened with a lawsuit by Shurat HaDin, the Israel Law Center (ILC), if it allows the resolution to come to a vote. ILC is a Tel Aviv-based nonprofit that focuses on issues related to the Palestinian struggle for justice. Its work includes blocking other BDS work around the globe, as well as legal efforts to keep Gaza's southern border closed.

THE CAMPAIGN to pressure TIAA-CREF has generated two distinct victories. In July 2012, TIAA-CREF removed all Caterpillar stock--worth more than $72 million--from its "Social Choice" fund. And now this year, TIAA-CREF divested more than $9 million from SodaStream.

Andrew Dalack of the U.S. Palestinian Community Network explained why SodaStream has become a central focus of the BDS campaign:

SodaStream insists in its marketing materials that they are "Building Bridges, Not Walls," but the truth is that it profits from a system of illegal occupation and settlements, based on walls and checkpoints that control, humiliate, and criminalize millions of people. It appears TIAA-CREF was able to see through the empty slogans and identify SodaStream as a company that in no way could be passed off as "for the greater good." We commend them for that.

This victory reinforces the obvious--if TIAA-CREF sees the problem with an investment in SodaStream, it should acknowledge the problem with investment in other companies that profit from Israel's occupation and allow shareholders to vote on the resolution to divest from apartheid.

Activists around the U.S. gathered in protest of TIAA-CREF's blatantly undemocratic decision to block a shareholder vote. The day of action was July 16, the date of the shareholder meeting when the resolution would have been voted on. Actions took place in at least 12 cities, including Charlotte, N.C., (where the meeting was held), Denver, Chicago and New York City.

In Denver, an action called by the Colorado BDS Coalition (CBC) took place in front of the TIAA CREF building at 17th and Broadway. CBC chose TIAA-CREF as its primary target in April of this year, following a conference of solidarity activists. CBC is made up of several organizations and individuals, including the International Socialist Organization, Students for Justice in Palestine, Friends of Sabeel, and Front Range Jewish Voice for Peace.

In New York City, the BDS group Adalah turned out several dozen activists who performed mime, songs and creative divestment chants outside the Midtown headquarters of the pension giant. Known for transforming public protests into cultural events, Adalah-NY once again used street theater and music as a means to attract attention from the rush-hour crowds heading toward Grand Central Station a few blocks away.

The crowd favorite was a hearty rendition--complete with dance moves--of the group's call for TIAA-CREF to divest, sung to the tune of the '70s hit "YMCA." Lyrics and video of the demonstration/performance will be posted to the Adalah-NY website.

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