Next Up for the SRI Movement: Israel?

A group calls on TIAA-CREF to divest from certain companies that are tied to Israel.

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A national group has called on TIAA-CREF to divest from a number of companies that are tied to Israel. The group, Jewish Voice for Peace, is pushing for the financial services company to blacklist companies that “profit from the violation of international law through home demolitions, the destruction of life-sustaining orchards, the construction of roads and transit that only Israelis can use, the killing of civilians by drones, and many other injustices.”

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Among its main targets are manufacturing giant Caterpillar, which has built custom-made bulldozers for the Israeli army; defense company Elbit Systems, which has produced drones for Israel; and Motorola, which has provided Israel with telecommunications and checkpoint-security services. TIAA-CREF is currently invested in all three of these companies, as well as others that Jewish Voice for Peace considers to be objectionable.

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Rebecca Vilkomerson, the executive director of Jewish Voice for Peace, says the campaign, which is spearheaded by activists who themselves are Jewish, is not anti-Israel. “We want to change Israel’s policy; we’re not anti-Israel,” she says.

TIAA-CREF opposes the campaign. “While TIAA-CREF acknowledges participants’ varying views on Israeli and Palestinian policies [in] the Gaza Strip and West Bank, we are unable to alter our investment policy in accordance with those views,” the firm says in a statement. “Our responsibility to earn a competitive financial return on the retirement savings entrusted to us by 3.7 million participants obliges us to invest in a diverse line-up of companies across all sectors of the global economy.”

The company continues by saying that Jewish Voice for Peace should instead raise its objections with the federal government. “We believe that concerns about the situation in the Gaza Strip and the West Bank are best addressed by U.S. foreign policy and lend themselves less to using one’s shareholder status to influence portfolio companies,” it says.

Jewish Voice for Peace’s advocacy opens a relatively new chapter in a global campaign that, until recently, had focused almost exclusively on divesting from Sudan. Last year, for instance, American Funds--following a push led by the Boston-based Investors Against Genocide—quietly began pulling out of PetroChina, the Chinese oil company whose financial ties to the Sudanese government have long raised concerns among socially responsible investors. American Funds finished the year with $2.7 million worth of PetroChina shares, down from the $190 million stake it had maintained just a few months before.

Three American Funds offerings—Capital Income Builder, EuroPacific Growth, and Capital World Growth and Income—were affected by the sell-offs. Together, the three funds got rid of roughly 99 percent of their PetroChina holdings during the last quarter of 2009.

Similarly, TIAA-CREF last year pulled out of four companies that are tied to the Sudanese government. Vilkomerson says that TIAA-CREF’s previous willingness to divest from select companies made it an ideal target for the current campaign. TIAA-Cref’s tagline, which is “Financial Services for the Greater Good,” and its size also factored into the equation. “If they change, it would make a very significant difference,” says Vilkomerson.