Columbia student representatives from a wide array of organizations show their support for a divestment campaign (Photo courtesy of Columbia SJP)
Staff members and students from Columbia University and Barnard College gathered yesterday to launch a divestment campaign targeting companies with links to the Israeli occupation. The Columbia faculty, backed up by the campus Students for Justice in Palestine chapter, are calling on retirement fund TIAA-CREF to divest from a number of companies that profit from contracts with the Israel Defense Forces.
The campaign is part of the larger movement to pressure TIAA-CREF to divest. In 2010, Jewish Voice for Peace and a host of other Palestine solidarity groups began to pressure the retirement fund to stop investing in companies that profit from the Israeli military’s occupation of the West Bank and Gaza. Many members of the Columbia staff are served by TIAA-CREF’s retirement fund. The current Columbia campaign to divest has garnered the support of student groups ranging from Students Against Mass Incarceration to the Black Students Organization to the Native American Council.
“As faculty and officers of Columbia University we look to TIAA-CREF to invest our retirement account funds wisely and ethically,” Columbia Professor Katherine Franke, who has endorsed the academic boycott of Israel, said in a statement. “We cannot tolerate the idea that one day we may live on retirement income that finds its source in the profitability of the illegal occupation.” Franke spoke at a press conference held at Columbia yesterday, where she added: “This is part of a larger campaign to use economic pressure on the State of Israel to withdraw from the settlements and to end the occupation.”
Columbia Professor Katherine Franke speaks at a press conference on Columbia divestment yesterday (Photo courtesy of Columbia SJP)
In a press release, backers of the divestment campaign said that over 100 Columbia and Barnard professors have signed onto a petition aimed at TIAA-CREF. Students and professors in support of the campaign note that the university divested from companies with links to South African apartheid in the 1980s, though it was not fully carried out until 1991. This current campaign is not targeting the university itself, though. In 2002, Columbia rejected professor-initiated requests to look into divesting university funds from companies with links to the Israeli military.
Supporters of divestment also noted that Columbia is the alma mater of President Barack Obama, who they say has continued to “provide support for Israeli human rights abuses and violation of international law.”
The retirement fund TIAA-CREF, one of the largest in the U.S., has money invested in a number of companies with links to the occupation. They include Caterpillar, whose bulldozers the Israeli army uses to demolish Palestinian homes; Northrop Grumman, a company that supplies the Israeli military with crucial parts for helicopters and F-16s; and Hewlett-Packard, a corporation that developed a biometric access system in use at checkpoints and supplies computer equipment to the Israeli military.
The Jewish Voice for Peace-led campaign targeting TIAA-CREF has already had some success. In 2012, TIAA-CREF took out $73 million in “social choice funds” that were invested in Caterpillar. That move was not taken by the retirement fund itself, though. Instead, it was spurred by a Wall Street investment firm that advises companies on “socially responsible” investments. The firm, MSCI, dropped Caterpillar from its list of socially responsible companies in part due to its involvement in the occupied Palestinian territories. TIAA-CREF relies on MSCI’s listing of socially responsible companies for guidance on where its own “social choice funds” should be invested. But last year, TIAA-CREF CEO Roger Ferguson questioned whether “shareholder activism” can play a role in Israel/Palestine, and millions of dollars remain invested in companies with links to the Israeli military.
This year has seen more controversy related to the divestment campaign targeting TIAA-CREF. As Annie Robbins noted earlier this month, TIAA-CREF has asked Securities and Exchange Commission to allow the fund to take no action on a shareholder proposal demanding divestment. The right-wing Israeli organization Shurat HaDin has sent the retirement fund a letter warning against the divestment proposal, based on the factually inaccurate claim that boycotting Israel violates U.S. law. That claim stems from a federal law barring Americans or U.S. firms from complying with the Arab boycott of Israel, though it has nothing to do with citizen-initiated campaigns like the boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) movement aimed at Israel.
The Columbia divestment launch comes in the midst of battles over Palestine on California campuses. The latest campus student government to vote for divestment was the University of California, Berkeley.