BELDING AND HAMID: Why divest from the occupation

Karen Tian_Divestment_0208
Photo by Karen Tian.

On Wednesday, we joined with Yale Students for Justice in Palestine to publically launch a campaign calling upon Yale professors to sign an open letter that would ask TIAA-CREF to divest from companies that directly profit from the Israeli occupation of the West Bank and Gaza. Already, over 20 Yale faculty members have joined the campaign.

TIAA-CREF is one of the largest American financial corporations, and it handles the retirement funds for many Yale professors. Though TIAA-CREF claims to be socially responsible — its motto is “Financial Services for the Greater Good” — it invests in companies that materially profit from violating the Palestinian right to live in peace and security.

We see the aim of the campaign as narrow — all of the targeted companies aid in human rights violations perpetrated by the Israeli occupation. Our campaign will send a message to Caterpillar, whose bulldozers are regularly used to demolish Palestinian homes; Elbit Systems, which manufactures drones used to spy on Palestinian civilians; Motorola, which provides the surveillance equipment used in illegal Jewish-only settlements and sniper stations along the separation wall; Veolia Environmental Services, which supports the illegal settlements with the construction of a light-rail system from Jewish West Jerusalem to the West Bank; and Northrop Grumman, which supplied Israel with missiles, F-16 combat jets and parts for the Apache helicopters used to massacre of hundreds of Palestinian civilians in Gaza during Operation Cast Lead from 2008 to 2009.

The campaign does not call for the boycott of Israel or divestment from TIAA-CREF itself. It is about asking TIAA-CREF to divest from companies that profit directly from the occupation of Palestinian land, not those that do trade in Israel or with the Israeli government. Of the five companies mentioned, only Elbit is Israeli.

Our campaign does not seek to be controversial. Israel’s occupation of the Palestinian territories is in flagrant violation of international law. We see ourselves as following Jewish Voice for Peace, which founded this divestment campaign in 2010, and the dozens of other organizations who have signed on since. All we want is the CEO of TIAA-CREF to live up to his company’s motto.

The campaign’s effectiveness has been demonstrated by several major successes. For instance, in June 2012, after almost 200 New York University faculty and staff signed the petition and Morgan Stanley Capital International removed Caterpillar from its World Socially Responsible Index (which guides its investments), TIAA-CREF divested more than $72 million in Caterpillar shares from its Social Choice Funds portfolio. In addition, the campaign has alerted organizations other than TIAA-CREF to the unethical practices of the aforementioned companies, occasionally leading to divestments. For example, Friends Fiduciary Corporation, a nonprofit and socially responsible investment firm, decided to drop Veolia from its portfolio in September 2012.

We in the American ivory tower often envision ourselves in a passive role in foreign conflicts. We may write papers about them or follow them in the news, but we imagine that only a solution negotiated by the Israeli government and the Palestinian Authority could change the situation for the better. In reality, however, the global capitalistic institutions to which all of us are in some way bound connect us intimately to the plight of Ibrahim al-Kiswani, whose home the Israeli army unjustly demolished on Wednesday with a Caterpillar bulldozer, and to the death of Rachel Corrie, an American peace activist who was killed when an Israeli soldier in a Caterpillar bulldozer ran her over in the Gaza Strip in 2003. Scholars cannot claim to be neutral observers of these crimes while their retirement funds pay for them.

We understand that Yale faculty members did not choose to invest in the destruction of Palestinian lives and livelihoods; TIAA-CREF made that decision for them. Now, however, we are calling on them to pressure TIAA-CREF to divest. We can no longer feign neutrality while our own complicity stares us in the face.

The pension funds of 20 Yale faculty members easily amount to several hundred thousand dollars; their asking TIAA-CREF to live up to their motto already has a significant impact. Every supporter matters. We can all call on members of Yale’s faculty to join thousands of their peers across the country and take an important step for peace.

Jess Belding is a senior in Davenport College. Faisal Hamid is a senior in Trumbull College and a co-founder of Students for Justice in Palestine. Contact them at jessica.belding@yale.edu and faisal.hamid@yale.edu .

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