Crushed Homes, Violent Killings: Why the Boycott Israel Movement Is Pushing Into the Mainstream

On March 16, 2003, American human rights activist Rachel Corrie was violently killed by a Caterpillar bulldozer in a refugee camp in Gaza. In an act of civil disobedience, Corrie was standing in the way of a bulldozer, trying to stop it from demolishing a Palestinian home. The Israel Defense Forces (IDF) soldier operating the bulldozer ignored her, running over her body while clearing the home that she gave her life trying to save.

Corrie's death spurred outrage and made Caterpillar a key target of Palestine solidarity activism. But it is only in the past few months that this activism finally began to have an impact on mainstream institutions invested in Caterpillar stock.

Corrie was hardly the only casualty of Caterpillar, Inc's operations in the occupied Palestinian territories. Caterpillar bulldozers—retrofitted with armored plating to make them one of the most formidable military tools of the occupation—are used to destroy homes to make room for illegal settlements and ruin olive orchards that are essential to Palestinian livelihoods.

A military investigation was quick to claim that Corrie’s death was an accident. However, her parents did not hesitate to file a lawsuit against Caterpillar, Inc, on behalf of both their daughter and the Palestinians who routinely have their homes destroyed by Caterpillar bulldozers. Corrie v. Caterpillar, filed in 2003, became instrumental in exposing Caterpillar’s role in the Israeli occupation of Palestine. It also ultimately helped make Caterpillar one of the main corporations targeted in the boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) campaign taking aim at Israel’s violations of human rights.

Seven years since the BDS movement began and nine years since Rachel Corrie’s death, BDS activists are finally beginning to see major divestment initiatives being discussed, voted on and, in some cases, implemented in mainstream institutions. This past month, there have been two major victories: the first in the socially responsible investment community and the second in the religious community.

The first major divestment victory was when MSCI (Morgan Stanley Corporation Index), a Wall Street advising firm specializing in socially conscious investments, removed Caterpillar, Inc. from three of its indexes. MSCI cited the company's role in the ongoing Israeli occupation of Palestine as a “key” reason for this decision. As a result, TIAA-CREF—a major retirement fund that has been targeted by divestment campaigns for two years—was forced to re-evaluate its investments, and divest $73 million in “social choice funds” invested in Caterpillar, Inc. However, the more general retirement fund still has money invested in other Caterpillar stock portfolios.

“This is the first time that someone in the socially responsible investments world has given the Israeli occupation of Palestine this kind of recognition,” Rabbi Alissa Wise, campaign coordinator for the TIAA-CREF “We Divest” campaign, told AlterNet.

Of the $25 trillion invested in the United States, $3 trillion is invested in socially responsible investment portfolios. Infiltrating this community, and targeting indexes such as MSCI could mean even more significant gains for the divestment aspect of the boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) campaign, similar to what was seen with TIAA-CREF.

TIAA-CREF is the largest financial retirement fund in the United States, and has at least $17 billion invested in portfolios. It is the fund used by most colleges, healthcare organizations and religious institutions as well as cultural organizations, non-profits and research organizations.

“These types of people—teachers, healthcare professions and non-profit types—stereotypically care about the greater good a little bit more,” Rabbi Wise said. “A teacher is likely to care about the difficulties surrounding education in Palestine, and a healthcare professional would be concerned with how restrictions on movement affect whether or not a Palestinian can get medical care.”

Accordingly, TIAA-CREF’s motto is “Financial Services for the Greater Good” and it markets its services toward a predictably socially responsible clientele. Ironically, TIAA-CREF is invested in five key corporate players in the Israeli occupation: Northrup Grumman, a weapons manufacturer; Elbit, which makes killer drones; Motorola Solutions,which designs surveillance systems for illegal outposts in Israeli settlements; Veolia, which connects these settlements with a light rail system; and Caterpillar.

This means that every time one of these companies profits--either through US foreign military sales or a direct purchase--TIAA-CREF and its clientele also profit. As long as TIAA-CREF remains invested in these companies, its socially conscious clientele will be indirect war profiteers.

Still, this odd combination of war profiteer investments paired with a socially conscious clientele makes TIAA-CREF the perfect target for the BDS campaign. Instead of feeling alienated by campaigns that encourage social responsibility and social justice, TIAA-CREF’s clientele are often eager to learn about the campaign and learn how they can help pressure TIAA-CREF to divest from these companies.

“Political education is inherently built into the way the campaign is structured,” Rabbi Wise said.“As we are identifying the companies that we want to target, we are also telling the story of the occupation. Elbit makes unmanned drones that are able to kill innocent people. Caterpillar has played a key role in demolishing homes and uprooting olive trees. Motorola Solutions has been involved in making security equipment for illegal outposts in Israeli settlements. As someone learns about our campaign, they learn about the elements that create the Israeli occupation of Palestine.”

The campaign to divest from TIAA-CREF is a natural ally to the Presbyterian Church (USA)’s recent divestment initiative, which targeted three of the companies that TIAA CREF is invested in, including Caterpillar. Though the vote to divest at the church's general assembly ultimately did not pass, it was incredibly close—falling only two votes short. After another vote, it was decided that the Presbyterian General Assembly would offer a “choice of conscience” option for pension holders who wish to avoid investments in these companies, though this was later overturned on a procedural technicality. Additionally, the Church voted separately to boycott products made in Israeli settlements.

“It was very powerful for me to see the official committee of the church present their case for why the church should divest,” Rabbi Wise, who went to Pittsburgh to witness the vote at the Presbyterian's recent general assembly, said. “I have been an activist on this issue for over a decade, and to see a mainstream institution recommending divestment felt like the tides are turning.”

Divestment, an integral and perhaps the most effective element of the larger BDS campaign, is being reviewed as a strategy and interpreted into a variety of different meanings for different communities. In the socially responsible investment world, the Israeli occupation of Palestine is becoming a clearer and clearer example of a human rights abuse that must be avoided—and this is registering on financial indexes which in turn affect large-scale investments. In the religious community, the current political climate in the Holy Land is becoming a more relevant issue, pushing leaders of all faiths to reconsider how their actions as a community can affect positive change.

It is clear that the tide is shifting and divestment is breaking out of the activist world and seeping into mainstream institutions—but how long will it be before these decisions are felt in Palestine?

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