Let Us Join Those Who Refuse

07/29/2010 12:13 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

let me be strong as history
let me join those who refuse
let there be time
let it be possible

--Melanie Kaye Kantrowitz


Those are the words that a small circle of women and men read together on a humid New York day in mid July at the completion of an observation of Tisha B'Av, the Jewish holiday which commemorates the destruction of Jerusalem and other disasters throughout Jewish history. Traditionally, it is believed that the Messiah will be born on Tisha B'Av, bringing redemption and liberation out of destruction and occupation.

Thus we thought it was appropriate that we were holding the ceremony in a rather unusual place, on the corner of 46th St. and 3rd Ave, right across from the pension giant TIAA CREF's headquarters.

The reason for the odd juxtaposition was that Tisha B'Av fell on the same day as the first TIAA CREF annual meeting since Jewish Voice for Peace (JVP) initiated a campaign to get TIAA CREF to divest its holdings from companies that profit from Israel's occupation of Palestinian land.

The ceremony over, professors, teachers, non-profit workers, and artists, all of whom use TIAA CREF for their retirement funds, prepared to go into the meeting. After two hours, the members of JVP who came back out were exuberant.

They had presented the TIAA CREF leadership with over 1300 postcards, signed by people from New York, Washington D.C, Boston and San Francisco, from South Carolina, Georgia, Ohio, Colorado, Hawaii, and almost every other state you could name. These were supplemented by the over 14,000 additional signatories, gathered in less than a month, on a petition to TIAA CREF asking them to divest from the occupation. Those signatories followed an initial petition signed by 280 prominent professors, rabbis, and public figures such as Naomi Klein, Richard Falk, Juan Cole, Bill Fletcher Jr., and Nadia Hijab. At the meeting, TIAA CREF leadership announced that they would meet with JVP the following day to learn more about why we are asking for divestment from Occupation-related investments.

It was an exciting beginning to what we anticipate will be a long campaign. Based upon the response nationwide -- so many people asked us for postcards to help get more signatures that we ran out within 8 hours -- we believe that this campaign will be an enormous public education tool, an opportunity for Americans to learn about Israel's ongoing human rights abuses and flouting of international law. And when we win, companies and investors will begin to realize that it doesn't pay to invest in Occupation.

Our request to TIAA CREF is ultimately to divest from all companies that profit from the illegal occupation of the West Bank, including East Jerusalem, and Gaza. We've targeted five companies that particularly egregiously illustrate the damage that the Occupation is causing. Follow the links to learn more about Catepillar and Motorola, (which are held in TIAA CREF's social choice fund), Elbit, Veolia and Northrop Grumann and their role in building and maintaining the Occupation.

Just to take one example, Catepillar, has been the target of human rights activists for years, including shareholder activism by JVP and interfaith allies since 2004, and letters of condemnation from organizations like Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch. Catepillar supplies bulldozers, as tall as a house, to the specifications of the Israeli Army to accomplish such tasks as bulldozing homes and destroying orchards. It was a Catepillar D-9 bulldozer that killed American activist Rachel Corrie as she tried to protect a civilian's home in Gaza in 2003. Catepillar sells its bulldozers, used as weapons, to Israel under the auspices of a U.S. Department of Defense program.

So what is Catepillar doing in TIAA CREF's "social choice" fund, specifically created (after the anti-apartheid struggles in South Africa) for participants who don't want to build their retirement savings on profits from war profiteering?

We hope that we'll be able to work with TIAA CREF as a partner in addressing inconsistencies like these in TIAA CREF's investment strategies. After all, TIAA CREF is the company whose motto is "Finance for the Greater Good." Earlier this year, after a campaign of three years, TIAA CREF divested from several companies that continued to do business with the Sudan despite the ongoing genocide in Darfur. Clearly TIAA CREF is aware and capable of making investment decisions based on more than just the bottom line.

Now it is our turn. To convince a company like TIAA CREF, which has 3.5 million participants and over $400 billion in investments, to change its policies, especially given the enormous, well-funded push-back we anticipate from the Israel-right-or-wrong crowd, will not be easy. The beauty of this campaign is that TIAA CREF and the five companies we've targeted are everywhere. We can all build local campaigns in our own communities that will feed into the national campaign effort. Learn more about the campaign . Sign the petition. Email divest@jvp.org if you're interested in doing more. Let us all "join those who refuse" -- refuse to profit from occupation and war crimes.