Desmond Tutu, Israel and U.S. pensions

July 22, 2011

Bernd Debusmann is a Reuters columnist. The opinions expressed are his own.

What’s the connection between a South African Nobel Peace Prize winner, Israel, and one of America’s biggest pension funds? An international campaign for economic, cultural and academic boycotts of Israel and Jewish settlements on the West Bank.

The South African in question is retired Archbishop Desmond Tutu, whose role in the fight against apartheid in the 1980s gained him the Peace Prize and world-wide fame. The pension fund is the Teachers Insurance and Annuity Association – College Retirement Equities Fund, better known as TIAA-CREF. The connecting link is the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions campaign, BDS for short, launched by Palestinians in 2005.

In an op-ed article in the Charlotte Observer, timed to coincide with TIAA-CREF’s annual shareholders meeting in Charlotte, North Carolina, on July 19, the archbishop rebuked the pension fund for having refused to allow a vote on a resolution questioning its holdings in companies that profit from operating in the West Bank and East Jerusalem.

Tutu drew parallels between BDS and the global wave of divestments, spurred by grassroots activists, which contributed to the collapse of apartheid.

The activists in the TIAA-CREF case belong to Jewish Voice for Peace, a small but growing American group that says the fund had denied its investors the chance “to decide for themselves if they want to retire with the help of Caterpillar D-9 bulldozers to demolish Palestinian homes, Veolia landfills on West Bank lands, and Elbit surveillance systems securing settlements throughout the West Bank and East Jerusalem and on the Separation Wall.”

The archbishop’s op-ed drew a response that highlights the deep divisions between American Jews critical of Israeli policies and those in unquestioning support. Jeffrey Epstein, a leader of the Jewish community in Charlotte, said in an op-ed in the same newspaper that by lending his moral authority to the BDS campaign, Tutu had aligned himself with Iran, Hamas, Hezbollah “and other enemies of freedom and peace in the Middle East.”

The archbishop had allowed himself to be drawn into an effort by Israel’s enemies to “delegitimize” the very existence of the state of Israel, Epstein wrote. That view of BDS is shared by Israel’s government (and mainstream American Jewish organizations) as well as the Israeli legislators who approved a law making public calls for boycotts a punishable offense.

As counter-productive measures go, the law is in a class by itself. BDS supporters say it will strengthen their movement rather than weaken it.

“It will go down as a galvanizing moment,” said Rebecca Vilkomerson, Executive Director of Jewish Voice for Peace. “It is already boosting us.” In a conference call with U.S.-based reporters this week, a Palestinian leader of the boycott movement, Omar Barghouti, and an Israeli BDS activist, Ofer Neiman, both thought boycotts would gain momentum internationally.


The expectation is that the movement will be spurred by a wave of condemnation of the law, both in Israel and outside, from a long list of individuals and groups including several that are firmly opposed to boycotts. Much of the criticism echoed a statement by Amnesty International which said the law would have “a chilling effect on freedom of expression in Israel” and was “a blatant attempt to stifle peaceful dissent and campaigning.”

Not only that, Amnesty lamented, it was only one of many laws recently passed or being considered which have been criticized by Israeli human rights non-governmental organizations for restricting freedom of expression, the work of Israeli civil society organizations, or the rights of Palestinians.

Britain’s Foreign Secretary, William Hague, called the law an “infringement of the freedom of expression.” The New York Times, in an editorial, said the law was not befitting a democracy and said no country could be delegitimized if it held true to its democratic principles.

All that did nothing to persuade TIAA-CREF to make changes in its investment portfolio. Neither did a group of shareholding activists led by Vilkomerson who argued their case at the fund’s Charlotte meeting. Vilkomerson, in an interview, said the boycott movement has had no major successes in the United States so far. But in Europe, BDS pressure has had results. Both in Sweden and Norway, large pension funds removed Elbit System Ltd., an Israeli defense electronics company, from their portfolios.

The reason: the company’s involvement in building and operating the separation barrier between Israel and the West Bank in defiance of a 2004 ruling by the International Court of Justice which found the wall “contrary to international law.” (The Israeli government points out that suicide bombings have dropped sharply since the barrier went up).

Another success story cited by BDS supporters is an international campaign against the French multinational Veolia Transportation for its involvement in a controversial project to link West Jerusalem and Israeli settlements in the West Bank. The Dutch ASN bank divested itself of Veolia holdings in 2006 and the company later dropped out of the project.

The lack of BDS’s success in the United States raises a question: how much impact can a grassroots movement have in a country where neither the administration, nor Congress, nor the majority of the public is inclined to take Israel, America’s closest ally in the Middle East, to task for building settlements — illegal under the Fourth Geneva convention — in what would be a Palestinian state.

You can contact the author at Debusmann@Reuters


We welcome comments that advance the story through relevant opinion, anecdotes, links and data. If you see a comment that you believe is irrelevant or inappropriate, you can flag it to our editors by using the report abuse links. Views expressed in the comments do not represent those of Reuters. For more information on our comment policy, see

Illegal under the Fourth Geneva convention? BS! The land is legally bought and payed for, you ignoramus.

Posted by janebond007 | Report as abusive

We, Americans, are brainwashed by the Zionist controlled media. Until we are objectively informed of the realities of the Israeli occupation of Palestine, we will continue assuming that the poor little Jews need protection from the big bad wolf; of coarse, nothing could be further from the truth. I expect that the internet will eventually provide undeniable and indefensible facts that will alter the American Zionist psychosis.

Posted by Sovereign | Report as abusive

[…] Desmond Tutu, Israel and U.S. pensions […]

Posted by Trade Newswire – Senegalese take to streets urging leader to quit | Report as abusive

Excellent points janebond007 and DrLarson. Jews have the right, granted by both the League of Nations and United Nations to settle anywhere West of the Jordan River in the original Palestine Mandate. Those like Tutu, Vilkomerson and Debusmann demonstrate their irrational hatred for the Jews by repeatedly singling out Israel for offenses which in fact define countries like Saudi Arabia, Iran, and China. Where are the BDS campaigns against these totalitarian and repressive regimes? Apparently, cheap oil and Barbie dolls trump humanitarian ideals.

Posted by StevenFeldman | Report as abusive

DrLarson and StevenFeldman . How blatant and on
ne sided can you become . I doubt Saudi Arabia stops a Jew from entering its lands , it prohibits Israelis from enetring not jew and you about telling prohet mohammed (peace be upon the divine prophet )is a jew hater , you are and will always build charades about him .If he was the jew hater he would never would have married a jew . He was anti immorality , anti unsury and anti people haters and will always remained that way . May Allah the almighty give you guys sane sense. Amen

P.s. Islam is never anti jew if it would have been that way , no jew would have been given shelter and protection at the time of western crusades. Get aware coz you are slumbering with ignorance.

Posted by Ismailtaimur | Report as abusive


[…]Sites of interest we have a link to[…]……

Posted by air purifier whole house | Report as abusive