Bags in tow and running late after a flight from Detroit, Barbara Harvey moved briskly through midtown Manhattan toward TIAA-CREF’s pristine headquarters on Third Avenue. She was there to join other activists from Jewish Voice for Peace in calling on the financial services giant to divest from five companies—Caterpillar, Elbit, Motorola, Northrup Grumman, and Veolia (no slouches themselves)—that profit from Israeli occupation of the West Bank and military activity in the Gaza Strip.
On Monday, the CREF side of the company (the College Retirement Equity Fund) held its annual board meeting. It happened to fall on Tisha B’Av, which JVP used to lend its activism some gravitas, with the destruction of the Temples compared, in a lucid analogy, to the contemporary plight of the Palestinians. Around 8:30 in the morning, 10 members held a commemorative service across the street from the headquarters. They lit candles and read aloud, competing with the whirs and screeches of the midtown traffic.
Once a law professor, Harvey left academia to move “into the trenches” of activism as a member of Jewish Voice for Peace. But her pensions are still tied up with TIAA-CREF, which makes her a “participant”: A decided advantage on this day, when only participants
who registered at least four days in advance were allowed inside the two-hour-long meeting (which was closed to press). Eight eligible JVP members planned to deliver 1,400 postcards the group had collected over the past month. These read: “Divest from the Israeli Occupation.”
As the expansion of Israeli settlements persists, divestment has emerged as one of the most viable means of protest, although it splits the Jewish left, with groups like J Street standing cautiously against it. “I’m disappointed that they have decided not to get involved,” said Rebecca Vilkomerson, JVP’s Executive Director, of the “pro-Israel, pro-peace” group. Her campaign, she emphasized, is not targeted at the Israeli state but the settlement practice.
Specifically, JVP is turning to shareholder activism—trying to nudge policy changes by leveraging financial investments. It’s a tactic that has worked on TIAA-CREF before. Last year, the company pulled significant investments over human rights violations in Sudan. The divestment was the culmination of an advocacy organization’s three-year campaign as well as TIAA-CREF’s lengthy negotiations with its clients. That campaign, Vilkomerson told me, “was inspiring for us.”
After the meeting, the JVP members expressed gleeful surprise at the warm reception their remarks received. Bob Carpenter, a large man with a thick beard and a “Veterans for Peace” cap, was the first to emerge. “They were listening,” he said of the company’s heads, “Godammit, they were listening.” Aaron Levitt, an active JVP member, agreed. The CREF management, he told me over the phone, “[Was] both aware of, and sympathetic to, concerns about the occupation.” He added: “That was different than what I expected.”
However, despite its kind ear, the financial company is not planning to divest anytime soon. “While we appreciate the opportunity to hear from JVP,” Abby Cohen, a TIAA-CREF spokesperson, told me, “we are unable to divest from the companies on the group’s target list.” Roger Ferguson, the company’s CEO, said during the board meeting that the Darfur divestment possessed “significant consensus” among clients and “in the global community,” whereas, the company’s clients, Cohen added delicately, hold “varying concerns” in the Middle East.
Vilkomerson hadn’t expected consensus. There are, she said, “a lot of people who will be against.” Nor does she anticipate a short campaign. But the JVP members were encouraged by the significant number of postcards and online signatories that came from the heartland, from cities and towns in Ohio, Kentucky, and Colorado. “This issue has activated the young community,” Harvey said of her native Detroit. “They really get it.”
But the divestment efforts there, she admitted, would not move unhindered. “It’s an uphill battle,” she told me, “because it is the heart of AIPAC-land.”
UPDATE: An earlier version of this article reported that the CREF board meeting was open only to participants who registered four days in advance, and was closed to press. In fact, according to a TIAA-CREF spokesperson, the meeting was open to all participants, and to press, although this reporter was turned away.