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TIAA-CREF ousts Caterpillar from Social Choice, shrinks investment in Elbit

July 2012

Things are not going well for Caterpillar or Elbit Systems’ stocks.

The campaign by Grassroots International and others to pressure pension fund giant TIAA-CREF to divest from Elbit, Israel’s largest military multinational, is bearing fruit. The fund holdings in Elbit have shrunk by more than half. As of writing, they now stand at only $660,000, down from $1,628,272 in May of 2011.   The company is a major purveyor of ‘killer’ drones and military surveillance equipment for Israel’s occupation of Palestinian lands. Because of this, 12 pension funds, including Norway’s largest and powerful state pension fund, have dropped Elbit in recent years. The share price for Elbit has been declining steadily since 2009 and it is now one of the worst stock performers in the entire aerospace and defense sector.    The Elbit campaign is part of a wider global effort, the Palestinian civil society-led Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement (BDS), a nonviolent initiative inspired by the international boycott campaign that helped to abolish apartheid in South Africa. In the US, the bastion of support for Israel’s illegal occupation, the campaign is gaining momentum. And the last several weeks have seen a number of impressive victories. “We Divest” is a campaign to compel retirement fund giant TIAA-CREF to stop investing in five companies that profit from the Israeli occupation, including: Caterpillar, Motorola, Veolia, Northrop Grumman, and Elbit Systems.   On June 25, Morgan Stanley Capital Index (MSCI) announced that it had removed Caterpillar from its index of socially responsible companies, in part because the company supplies militarized equipment used in the Palestine occupation. As a result of the MSCI announcement, TIAA-CREF, the leading retirement assets management firm for workers in the academic, research, medical and cultural fields, downgraded their relationship with Caterpillar by removing it from their Social Choice portfolio on May 1,2012. Around that same time the Quaker-run Friends Fiduciary eliminated all its stocks in Caterpillar stating: “We are uncomfortable defending our position on this stock.”   Despite intense and heavy-handed lobbying by pro-Israel groups, a resolution at the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church (USA) to divest from three corporations involved in the occupation only narrowly failed by a mere two votes on July 5th.  If it had passed, they would have become the largest Christian church body in the US to support divestment. And notwithstanding the arm-twisting by the pro-Israel lobby, the Presbyterians did vote the very next day to boycott products made in Israeli settlements in the occupied territories.   BDS activists are understandably pleased with these recent advances, particularly with the TIAA-CREF victory. The pension fund powerhouse has been a prime target of the campaign for a number of years. On July 17 of this year, protestors  continued the pressure with demonstrations outside the TIAA-CREF’s annual shareholder meeting in New York, demanding full divestment of all its funds from all five “We Divest” targeted stocks.   Encouragingly, the BDS movement has grown steadily. This year’s BDS Global Day of Action took place in 23 countries on March 30, and on campuses in 202 cities across the world.   BDS is exacting an increasing toll on Israeli businesses that benefit from the occupation. For example, Agrexco, formerly Israel’s largest food exporter, entered liquidation  in 2011 following a widespread campaign of boycotts, demonstrations, blockades, lobbying and legal action in 13 European countries. Student campaigns in Europe against EU-funded collaboration with private Israeli companies and universities have sprung up in numerous campuses across the continent. A campaign backed by Archbishop Desmond Tutu and more than 400 South African academics forced the University of Johannesburg to sever ties with Israel’s Ben-Gurion University in 2011, marking the first victory in the worldwide push for an academic boycott of Israel—from the heart of the very nation that coined the word ‘apartheid’.

As Nadia Hijab of the Palestinian Policy Network and a senior fellow at the Institute for Palestine Studies notes “…trends have definitely been moving in favor of Palestinian rights and against Israeli colonization of the occupied territories and discrimination towards its Palestinian citizens as well as Palestinian refugees. Perhaps most significantly, Palestinian civil society has in recent years been able to define the terms of the struggle, forcing pro-Israel forces on the defensive and costing them millions.”

Photo above by Rae Abileah, courtesy of Jewish Voice for Peace, during a TIAA-CREF demonstration in San Francisco, July 17, 2012.

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