TIAA-CREF asks feds for OK to dodge Israeli divestment vote at annual meeting

Israel/Palestine
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TIAA-CREF “For the Greater  (old corporate logo)

TIAA-CREF , Teachers Insurance and Annuity Association (TIAA) and College Retirement Equities Fund (CREF), is one of the largest retirement systems in the world. It has 60 offices in the US and 15,000 client institutions in the academic, research, medical, cultural and nonprofit fields.  

Back in February, over 200 CREF investors filed a shareholder proposal, asking CREF trustees to end investments in companies that profit from serious human rights violations, including those profiting from Israel’s occupation of Palestinian lands. The proposal was set to be voted by all CREF shareholders this July. And TIAA-CREF officials are now asking the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) to allow it to “take no action” on this proposal– essentially keeping it off the ballot.

The financial services giant has done this move before. From “Pensions and Investments:”

CREF officials in a March letter to the Securities and Exchange Commission requested that they be allowed to take no action on the proposal, said a company source, who asked for anonymity.

TIAA-CREF spokesman John McCool said in a statement that the letter to the SEC will be made public only after the SEC staff has a chance to respond.

In 2011, Jewish Voice for Peace filed a shareholder proposal calling for CREF to divest from three companies doing business in the Jewish settlements in the West Bank — Caterpillar, Veolia Environment and Elbit — if the companies did not change how they operated their businesses in the West Bank. The matter was never heard by the CREF shareholders after the SEC sided with CREF in a similar request to avoid the matter.

CREF officials had argued in a 2011 letter to the SEC that the proposal would have interfered with CREF’s investment-making decisions.

Sydney Levy, a spokesman for Jewish Voice for Peace, said the shareholder proposal was rewritten this year not to require divesture of a specific company.

Attorney Nitsana Darshan-Leitner of the Israel Law Center said in an interview that the Jewish Voice for Peace resolution was “anti-Semitic” and “anti-Israel.”

Yes, you can see that the infamous rightwing Israeli lawfare bullies, the law center Shurat HaDin, is hot on the trail. Shurat HaDin blasted out a press release via email to its rank and file yesterday trying to put the campaign on an “Arab boycott”, leaving out the role of CREF clients. That email has now landed in Reuters along with a disclaimer (“not responsible for the content”).

From Reuters: Israel-based civil rights group informs Fortune 100 pension giant against divestment proposal

Tel Aviv, April 10, 2013: A Tel Aviv-based civil rights group warned the Teachers Insurance and Annuity Association – College Retirement Equities Fund (TIAA-CREF) on Wednesday that adoption of a resolution boycotting Israeli firms and investments would be in direct violation of New York and Federal law. Recently, members of the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement, calling for the policy, submitted a resolution to be voted upon at the fund’s upcoming membership meeting.
 
Nitsana Darshan-Leitner, the director of Shurat HaDin – Israel Law Center, stressed that if CREF adopts the resolution it would be officially taking an extremely hostile position against Israel, and its companies, and unfairly involving itself in the Middle East conflict.
 
“Considering that the TIAA-CREF’s corporate charter limits its proper function to conducting business ‘to aid and strengthen nonprofit colleges, universities’ we do not understand how a biased and malicious resolution like this can properly be presented to their membership. The resolution violates standing laws, is contrary to public policy and must be abandoned,” Darshan-Leitner added.
 
In a letter sent to the pension giant’s executives, Darshan-Leitner pointed out that New York law defines boycotts as “unlawful discriminatory practice” and that any decision to “refuse to buy from, sell to or trade with, or otherwise discriminate against any person, because of the…creed…[or ]national origin” is unlawful and even places secondary actors, aiding the policy, under liability.
 
The letter noted that the Ribicoff Amendment to the Tax Reform Act of 1976 also makes it a federal violation to “participate in or cooperate with an international boycott.” The BDS boycott of Israel is an extension of the continuing Arab boycott of Israel…
 

[Darshan-Leitner said] “If the resolution passes and TIAA-CREF does not expressly disown itself of the results, Shurat HaDin will be ready to immediate bring take action to ensure the enforcement of New York’s anti-discrimination laws, take all steps to ensure enforcement of Federal anti-boycott laws and to ensure that Israeli companies are not financially harmed nor discriminated against,” she said…
 
Shurat HaDin – Israel Law Center is an Israel-based organization dedicated to enforcing basic human rights through the legal system and represents victims of terrorism in courtrooms around the world. Its clients include American, European, and Israeli citizens. It is unaffiliated with any political party or governmental body.

The press release doesn’t even mention the WeDivest Coalition, though WeDivest initiated this latest effort.

WeDivest originated with Jewish Voice for Peace,  but now includes five additional organizations: the US Campaign to End the Israeli OccupationAdalah-NYThe US Palestinian Community NetworkGrassroots International, the American Friends Service Committee.

Instead, the Shurat HaDin release claim is that the proposal was submitted by “members of the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement…continuing the Arab boycott of Israel.” This is not true. I contacted Omar Barghouti from the BDS National Committee who said this was not their effort.

They may wish to argue that JVP is a “member” of the BDS movement, although no such membership concept exists, except in the BDS National Committee, which is only a Palestinian coalition of member federations, networks and political parties. This is possibly based on a recent JVP statement where they considered themselves “part of” the BDS movement.

Still, it is not really accurate to say JVP is a “member” of the BDS movement.

The BNC has not submitted this resolution, needless to say.

BNC wholeheartedly supports all boycott and divestment resolutions aimed at holding Israel accountable for its occupation, colonization and apartheid, and the BNC is proud of the WeDivest-initiated campaign to pressure TIAA-CREF to divest from companies sustaining Israel’s occupation.
 

Since 2010, the We Divest Campaign (wedivest.org/) , of which JVP is a member, has been urging TIAA-CREF to divest from companies profiting from Israel’s military occupation, and meantime TIAA-CREF officials has been attempting to thwart these shareholder resolutions by seeking to “bar its shareholders from ever seeing or voting on the shareholder proposal”. Nonetheless, in June 2012  TIAA-CREF dropped Caterpillar, Inc. from its Social Choice Funds portfolio.

We’ll be updating on this CREF shareholder proposal shortly, including any response from the SEC staff to TIAA-CREF request.

About Annie Robbins

Annie Robbins is Editor at Large for Mondoweiss, a mother, a human rights activist and a ceramic artist. She lives in the SF bay area. Follow her on Twitter @anniefofani

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