Taking on TIAA-CREF, with pain and outrage

A version of this piece originally appeared in Mondoweiss.

July 20, 2011

Today in Charlotte, North Carolina, CREF, part of TIAA-CREF (Teachers Insurance and Annuity Association of America and the College Retirement Equities Fund), a $400 billion finanical services, investment and retirement company, held its annual shareholders’ meeting. The company elected trustees, considered shareholder resolutions and “any other business that may properly come before the meeting.” This year, however, was not business as usual.

TIAA-CREF states, “our socially screened funds and accounts invest in companies that satisfy environmental, social and governance criteria...” As a socially responsible investor, the  company has attracted the portfolios of people like myself in the academic, cultural, research, and medical fields, and has become one of the largest retirement funds in the world. It is dedicated to the nonprofit sector and recently divested from assets in Sudan due to concerns about human rights violations in that country.

So what happens when a group of shareholders, organized by a national Jewish peace group, asks TIAA-CREF to divest from companies that profit from or maintain the Israeli occupation? It seems that despite the Arab Spring and a growing recognition of Arabs as fellow human beings, human rights do not apply equally to everyone.

We are not talking about subtle accusations. These companies:

  • Supply armor-plated and weaponized bulldozers to destroy Palestinian homes and olive orchards in the West Bank and Gaza (Caterpillar);
  • Run segregated bus services for Jewish settlers in the Occupied Territories and manage the Tovlan landfill in the Jordan Valley, dumping trash from Jewish settlements and Israel into the West Bank (Veolia);
  • Produce parts for Apache helicopters and F-16 aircrafts responsible for the death and injury of hundreds of civilians and massive destruction during the 2008-2009 Gaza assault (Northrop Grumman);
  • Provide Israeli surveillance systems, unmanned drones, and construction of the Separation Wall which was declared illegal by the International Court of Justice and UN Security Council (Elbit);
  • Construct surveillance systems around Jewish settlements, checkpoints, and military bases in the West Bank (Motorola).


Jewish Voice for Peace’s “We Divest” campaign sponsors include the American Friends Service Committee, the US Campaign to End the Israeli Occupation, and Grassroots International, and has over 22,000 signatures in support of this divestment campaign. TIAA-CREF went so far as to get the SEC to give its blessing to ignore this resolution by its own shareholders as meddling in internal business operations.

Nonetheless, there is mounting international concern over the ongoing Israeli exploitation of Palestinian land and water resources, the continued permitting system and denial of access and movement within the West Bank, the seizing of Palestinian land in East Jerusalem, and the crushing blockade of Gaza (despite the flourishing tunnel economy). There is also a growing nonviolent movement to respond to these injustices that not only devastate Palestinians but are deeply corruptive to Israeli society. The recent Israeli law banning and criminalizing boycotts of Jewish settlement goods has even provoked Israelis who are deeply concerned with democracy and free speech in their own country.

But there is one big taboo. Recognizing the Palestinian struggle as valid and understanding that despite the long history of anti-Semitism and Jewish victimization, the Israeli  government and military are in fact the more powerful and egregious aggressors, is a tough and unpopular concept. These are stressful times for the Israel right-or-wrong crowd. There has been an obvious meltdown of the “peace process” on all fronts and the Israeli political scene is plunging rightward, making liberals increasingly uncomfortable. Palestinians are pushing for recognition of a state by the UN, struggling to build a unity government that will move democratic forces forward, and embracing a nonviolent strategy to fight the Israeli occupation. People are increasingly questioning the difference between state-sponsored violence, such as Israeli commandos attacking unarmed activists in international waters, and acts of terror.

As a Jewish American who values my culture’s long commitment to justice, to “healing the world,” I write from a place of both pain and outrage. It seems that at this point, the greatest threat to Israeli legitimacy is the behavior of the Israeli government and military. The greatest threat to Israeli security is not the return to the 1967 lines, but the denial of democratic rights to Palestinian citizens of Israel, the continued oppression of Palestinians in the Occupied Territories, and the lack of a reasonable and just resolution to the Palestinian refugee issue.

As teachers and caregivers we have an historic opportunity to make our voices heard; to hold multinational corporations accountable for their contribution to this conflict. On July 19, while shareholders met in Charlotte, there was a national day of action demanding that TIAA-CREF fulfill its mission: to support socially responsible investing and the establishment of social screens that prohibit investment in companies that profit from Israel’s occupation of Palestinian territory and the ongoing subjugation of Palestinians. This is only the beginning of a long and critical struggle.

Alice Rothchild is a Boston-based physician, a Grassroots International supporter, and author of "Broken Promises, Broken Dreams: Stories of Jewish Trauma and Resilience." Her website is www.alicerothchild.com.