BDS, or Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions against Israel until it grants equal rights to Palestinians, is one of the most simple and effective strategies for ending the subjugation of the Palestinian people. It works not only to punish companies that profit from the disenfranchisement of an occupied nation. It also works as a teaching tool and rallying point for bringing awareness to what Israel does that warrants being divested from. Even something as simple as campaigning to get your university to stop buying Israeli hummus can make hundreds or even thousands of people aware of a massive injustice that we as Americans unwittingly support.
Its effectiveness can be measured by how much it terrifies the Israeli government to have people all over the world even talking about boycotting and divesting from Israel until it complies with international law, much less doing it. Some initiatives have already caused significant harm to companies for abetting lawbreaking, though they don’t yet add up to a major financial threat to Israel’s comfort with the status quo.
But even the specter of boycott is enough to make other companies think twice before investing in the first place, and a rising global awareness of what Israel is really doing day by day in the West Bank and Gaza has many Israeli politicians quaking in their boots. Netanyahu calls it one of the five biggest threats faced by Israel (though by “Israel” he doesn’t mean the Israeli people — he means the prevailing world order that allows the Israeli government to break the law with impunity).
We can’t all stand with the people of Bil’in as they non-violently protest the takeover of their village lands and get tear-gassed, beaten, arrested, and sometimes killed in return. We can’t all work with olive harvesters and farmers who face armed settlers and soldiers who harass, beat, and sometimes shoot them on their own land. We can’t all walk with the children of Hebron as they run a gamut of checkpoints and violent settlers to get to school.
And sadly, we can’t seem to do much about our own government giving $3 billion of our tax dollars per year to the Israeli government, along with the political cover to keep doing to the Palestinians whatever they like, no matter how brutal, immoral, self-defeating or at odds with international law.
But we can refuse to spend or invest our money on companies that profit directly from the occupation of the Palestinian territories. As it happens, TIAA-CREF, a $400 billion finanical services and investment company, is one of the largest retirement funds in the world. It holds and invests a huge percentage of the pension funds of America’s teachers, professor, think tankers, and others in the cultural, research, and medical fields. (I have money in TIAA-CREF since I worked at a think tank in Washington.) Part of the reason for their success is that they bill themselves as the socially responsible choice. Their motto is, “Financial Services for the Greater Good.”
And yet they invest in companies that profit heavily from Israel’s crimes against Palestinians. As a recent post in Mondoweiss put it, “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).”
It’s obviously unacceptable, not to say bizarre, for a company that divested from Sudan for moral reasons, and that bills itself as the socially responsible choice, to continue to invest in the subjugation of the Palestinian people.
So last year, Jewish Voice for Peace initiated a campaign to ask TIAA-CREF to divest from these five companies. By now they’ve gathered over 22,000 signatures in support of the initiative, and in the annual shareholder meeting last summer, which I attended, well over half the shareholder comments were urging TIAA-CREF to divest from the five companies listed above.
How did the company respond? The CEO hemmed and hawed and said he’d take it under advisement. Then this year, they moved their annual shareholder meeting from New York to Charlotte, North Carolina, to which most of us in the New York activist community don’t have the time or means to travel. Presumably they were able to enjoy this “shareholder meeting” without being bothered by so many shareholders!
But they couldn’t escape us entirely. July 19, the day of the meeting, was a day of action by activists all over the country protesting at various TIAA-CREF offices. And Desmond Tutu, bless him, published an article in the Charlotte Observer with the title, “TIAA-CREF should hear us, divest from Israeli apartheid.”
They can run, but they can’t hide forever. Again quoting the recent article in Mondoweiss, “This is only the beginning of a long and critical struggle.”