PennBDS: The TIAA-CREF Campaign

This is part of a series of articles based on the program of the upcoming PennBDS conference. Check out this landing page to find out more.

In some language (probably Yiddish) there exists a word that combines the notions of chutzpah and clownishness.  And if one needed an example to illustrate this concept, one need look no further than the biggest campaign on the BDS agenda:  the one asking the massive educational retirement fund TIAA-CREF to divest from the Jewish state.

What makes this campaign so absurd is that, according to the BDSers themselves, TIAA-CREF already complied with their wishes and divested from Israel back in 2009!

If the chronological paradox of a group launching a major campaign to get CREF to do what the boycotters claimed they have already done sounds like a badly written Doctor Who episode, you need to understand that 2009 was what I refer to as the Year of the BDS Hoax.

The hoax that Hampshire College divested in 2009 was exposed years ago (and confirmed with absolute certainty just a few weeks back).  But in that same year, the BDS presses were running hot with stories of major investment firms following their wishes and pulling funds from the dreaded Zionist entity.

The story behind the original TIAA-CREF hoax was that the retirement fund sold off shares in a company called Africa-Israel, a company headed by a controversial figure who had been targeted by anti-Israel activists.  But more importantly, it was a highly leveraged company heavily invested in real estate that was struggling with massive debt after the financial crisis of 2008.  And CREF’s decision to sell off shares had everything to do with the company’s financial woes, and nothing to do with politics.

The story behind subsequent divestment hoaxes was that in 2010 Israel emerged as a First World economy, exemplified by the country joining the Organizationfor Economic Cooperation and Development or OECD (over the protests of the usual suspects).  The Israel economy, you see, has nearly doubled in size over the last decade (i.e., during the very years the boycotters were working tirelessly to bring that economy to its knees).  This fast growth, coupled with sound governmental financial management, transitioned Israel from a developing to developed economy, similar to the transition the so-called “Asian Tiger” economies went through in the 80s and 90s.

This transition had counter-intuitive consequences in the financial markets since many institutional investors have funds specifically chartered to only invest in developing economies.  And once Israel left that developing category by joining the OECD, those funds were legally required to sell their Israel-based assets.  Now there is always a lag between when such required/automatic sell-offs take place and when investors chartered to buy stock in developed economies get around to doing so.  And so, ironically, First World economic status led to a transition period where more selling (i.e., “divestment”) than buying (i.e., “investment”) of Israeli equities took place.

In the case of sell-offs related to the Africa-Israel’s financial crisis and OECD-related financial-timing issues, the BDS brigade took advantage of ambiguity regarding the word “divestment” to claim that these sell-offs were a result of their work and should be seen as acknowledgement of their Israel = Apartheid message by the financial community.  You see, there is “divestment,” the selling of stock for any reason (the usual one being expectation that it will down in price), and “divestment” the deliberate action by an institution to sell shares in certain companies purely as a political statement (something I refer to as “political divestment” to avoid the aforementioned ambiguity).

Now we all know what real, genuine political divestment looks like.  We saw it with regard to South African during the Apartheid years, and we see it now in connection with countries like Sudan and Iran. In each and every case, it is the people actually performing political divestment that explicitly tell the world they are doing so. Political divestment done in secret is utterly meaningless, so the one and only way you know that divestment is political in nature is that the organization doing this type of divestment (be it TIAA-CREF, Hampshire College or some else) say so themselves.  And just as Students for Justice in Palestine cannot speak in the name of Hampshire College, so too divestment advocates don’t get to project their own political motivations onto the actions of financial institutions.

To state the obvious, neither TIAA-CREF or other organizations claimed by BDSers as political divestors did anything of the kind.  And they were none-too- amused that partisan political organizations were trying to stuff propaganda into their mouths by claiming purely financial decisions were actually political.  So within a few days of the BDS press releases going out, claims of divestment by TIAA-CREF and others were thoroughly debunked.

Now most normal people would either own up to such dishonest behavior (if they want to act ethically and morally) or shut their mouths, pretend the whole thing never happened and never mention TIAA-CREF again (if they’d rather avoid the whole ethics and morality thing).  But what are we to make of the fact that less than a year after getting their hand caught in the cookie jar the BDS “movement” announced that their brand new, biggest campaign yet was going to consist of getting TIAA-CREF to actually do what the boycotters just pretended they did the year before?

I actually played with the whole time-travel notion in this epic time waster (which you are free to read during the PennBDS/Jewish Voice for Peace session on this topic).  But here in the purely linear temporal space you and I call reality, the idea of fraudulently claiming an organization like TIAA-CREF as your ally one year only to turn around and campaign to get them to really do what you claimed they had already done qualifies as positively weird.

Beyond this weirdness, this story also raises the question of whether one should trust anything (including claims about Middle East realities) coming from the mouth of a “movement” that would lie about something so blatantly.  And given that the facts noted above are just a .13 second Google search away, it makes you wonder when they decided that everyone but them is a complete and total idiot.

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One Response to PennBDS: The TIAA-CREF Campaign

  1. DrMike January 21, 2012 at 7:06 pm #

    There is a remarkable contrast between BDS' fictional accomplishments on the one hand, and the most successful divestment movement currently underway (the effort to get governments and business entities to divest from Iran).

    The latter effort (www.uani.com) is headed by respected national figures–former UN Ambassador Mark Wallace, and former CIA director James Woolsey most notably. It has a track record of success in exposing the ties between large corporations and Iran's government and energy sectors, and by the simple act of shedding light on them, often gets them to cancel such arrangements http://www.unitedagainstnucleariran.com/our-initiatives/campaign-successes. Its model legislation has been adopted in California, Indiana, New York and elsewhere to stop state-controlled funds from investing in such corporations.

    The anti-Israel BDS effort, as Jon points out, is marked by lies and hoaxes, as well as an absence of success (if you don't count depriving the citizens of Olympia, Washington of hummus and couscous).

    Now a “compare and contrast” analysis would certainly show many differences in methods, in content, and in strategy. So it's not at all obvious which of those is primarily responsible for the successes of UANI and the failures of BDS. Could it be UANI's refusal to ally itself with extremist groups that openly support terrorism? Or that UANI does not demonize the entire country of Iran and call for its elimination? Or that UANI's methods simply involve sharing facts, rather than trying to corrupt and divide organizations from within?

    Perhaps the reason for the contrasting results is that the Iran divestment movement doesn't need to resort to the underhanded techniques that the BDS movement relies on– because it can fall back on something not available to the BDS movement: facts.

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