(MintPress) – The major retirement fund, TIAA-CREF recently decided to remove investments in American corporation Caterpillar Inc. because of pressure from pro-Palestinian activists. The effort, led in large part by the activist group Jewish Voice For Peace, welcomed the decision and has encouraged other groups to adopt the cause. However, the resistance to the Boycott Divestment Sanctions (BDS) movement against Israel has been strong, even from academics, activists and citizens who express avowedly “pro-Palestinian, pro-peace” positions. The movement, critics charge, is nebulous and will harm efforts to achieve a negotiated two-state solution in the ongoing Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
JVP and NYU professors unite
The pressure to divest from Caterpillar has been growing since 2010, when the pro-peace organization, Jewish Voice for Peace, began a campaign pressuring the retirement fund TIAA-CREF to remove investments from Caterpillar Inc. Caterpillar has sold tractors and bulldozers to Israel, indirectly through the U.S. military. Much of the equipment has been used to destroy homes of Palestinians living in the West Bank. Additionally, activists say that numerous Palestinian crops, including olive trees and lemon trees, have been bulldozed using Caterpillar equipment.
The killing of Rachel Corrie in 2003 is one prominent case that helped launch the BDS movement and the call for Caterpillar divestment in particular. Corrie was killed while peacefully protesting the Israeli demolition of a Palestinian home in Gaza. She was crushed to death by a bulldozer, igniting a firestorm of condemnation from activist communities. Although her case has yet to go to trial, her mother, Cindy Corrie continues to be a major supporter of BDS campaigns.
The decision to boycott companies that facilitate Israel’s occupation of the Palestinian territories began officially in 2005 when some Palestinian civil society organizations issued a call for people all over the world to boycott and divest from companies that aid Israeli government actions, directly or indirectly, in the occupation and annexation of Palestinian land.
The movement does not have a central leadership and has been adopted in various forms by activists, organizations, labor unions and community groups across the world. While the victories have been few, this latest initiative represents perhaps the largest victory for supporters of BDS.
Rabbi Alissa Wise, Director of Campaigns at Jewish Voice for Peace and National Coordinator of the We Divest Campaign, welcomed the decision, saying, “We applaud this decision.” Continuing, Wise reiterated the purpose behind the campaign, saying, “By selling weaponized bulldozers to Israel, Caterpillar is complicit in Israel’s systematic violations of Palestinian human rights. We’re glad to see that the socially responsible investment community appears to be recognizing this and is starting to take appropriate action.”
The effort was joined by some 200 New York University professors, all petitioning TIAA-CREF President/CEO Roger W. Ferguson, Jr. to “divest funds from companies that profit from Israel’s illegal occupation of Palestinian territories.”
BDS skepticism from the left
Even within the political left, the group most closely associated with BDS actions, there has been some prominent academics who have rejected the movement as having a negative effect on Palestinians and the peace process. Professor Norman Finkelstein, one of the foremost authorities on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and an active supporter of Palestinian national rights, has labeled the BDS movement as a hypocritical cult.
In a 2012 interview, Dr. Finkelstein lambasted the movement’s ambiguous stance on international law, saying, “The law is clear. You want to use the International Court of Justice (ICJ) on your side? Okay, the ICJ has said the West Bank, East Jerusalem, and Gaza- they are occupied Palestinian territories. That is correct. But the ICJ also said that pre-June 1967 border is Israel’s legal border. That’s their country. That’s the law. You want to promote one state? Fine, that’s your right. But then don’t pretend you are trying to enforce the law.” Continuing, Finkelstein adds, “I am getting a little exasperated with what I think is a whole lot of nonsense. I have been at this 30 years I have earned my right to speak my mind, and I am not going to tolerate what I think is silliness, childishness, and a lot of leftist posturing.”
Some self-described “liberal Zionists”, including author Peter Beinart have called for a “Zionist BDS” that respects international law by only boycotting products made in Israeli settlements while actively supporting a two-state solution to the conflict.
A harbinger of things to come?
Despite the continued opposition by some within the typically pro-Palestinian peace camp, and traditional pro-Israel hardliners, this major divestment could be a harbinger of things to come for the BDS movement. The momentum has been building since last month, when Friends Fiduciary, a Quaker institution, divested $900,000 worth of shares in Caterpillar. The group simply stated: “We are uncomfortable defending our position on this stock.”
Previous divestment efforts have generally been defeated in highly debated events. For example, the Park Slope Food Co-op in Brooklyn, NY voted against having a referendum on adopting BDS measures. Similarly, the United Methodist Church voted against divestment, instead choosing to adopt, “positive investment in Palestinian companies and initiatives.”
The discussion within various faith based organizations has been strong, as various churches in the United States have debated various BDS measures. Next month, the Presbyterian Church will hold a referendum to decide if the church will adopt any form of BDS.