Protest Ends with 'Whoops'

As of early Friday, everything was going according to plan.

September 14, 2009

As of early Friday, everything was going according to plan.

A human rights activist group known as Adalah-NY had enlisted some of the most prominent progressives in academe to support its divestment campaign. The group aimed to put public pressure on TIAA-CREF, calling on the giant retirement fund manager to divest from Africa-Israel Investments Ltd., a company accused of building Jewish settlements on the West Bank. In an orchestrated media blitz, Adalah-NY launched an online petition, having already secured the endorsements of leftist luminaries like Noam Chomsky and Howard Zinn. There was just one problem: TIAA-CREF had liquidated its holdings in Africa-Israel three months earlier.

Friday’s episode is sure to stir criticism that professors, in a rush to condemn a Fortune 500 company for social irresponsibility, failed to check their facts. On the other hand, it’s not as if TIAA-CREF dumped its stock for any noble cause. The company’s CREF Stock Account held $257,000 in Africa-Israel up until June, when the shares were sold “as part of regular rebalancing,” according to Jennifer Leigh Compton, a spokeswoman for TIAA-CREF.

Patrick Connors, who was among the New York-based activists to organize the petition, suggested the group’s work was not finished -- even if TIAA-CREF has concluded its business with Africa-Israel. Connors cited several other companies, including those highlighted by a group called the Coalition of Women for Peace, that he says represent ongoing and problematic investments for TIAA-CREF.

“Africa-Israel was an important example of TIAA-CREF's investment in settlements, and we are glad to now learn that it is no longer an issue,” he wrote in an e-mail. “However, the broader and vital imperative remains for TIAA-CREF to divest from all companies supporting Israeli settlement activity.…”

TIAA-CREF also gave no assurances Friday that it would rule out investing in Africa-Israel in the future.

Professors Assumed Information Was Accurate

So how did a human rights campaign wind up rallying for change that had already occurred? The confusion stemmed from an online investment schedule, dated in March, which was posted on the company’s Web site until recently. The more up-to-date June investment documents, however, were posted on TIAA-CREF’s site by the time the activists’ went public with their protest. The June documents showed no holdings in Africa-Israel.

The protesters might have been dissuaded had they contacted TIAA-CREF about their concerns before going public, but no one called the company beforehand, Connors conceded.

“We didn’t get the sense that we’d get the information we needed, and we thought the public approach would be an effective approach,” he said. “Based on past experiences, that’s what we thought would be the most effective approach.”

Joel Beinin, a Stanford University professor who signed the petition, acknowledged that the faculty who signed onto the petition opened themselves to criticism that they had jumped the gun without fully vetting the information. That said, professors assumed Adalah-NY had up-to-date information when they asked for support.

"We had confidence in Adalah's research, and it generally has a very good record on this sort of thing," he said late Friday afternoon.

TIAA-CREF did not issue a statement about its holdings until late Friday, and as such the protesters' assertions were permitted to circulate throughout the day on their Web site, and some publications repeated them before confirming that they were accurate. Adalah-NY organizers were not aware of the error until Inside Higher Ed pointed out that the TIAA-CREF documents showed no mention of Africa-Israel holdings.

Adalah-NY is not the first group to raise objections about Africa-Israel. The company has taken criticism due to the actions of its subsidiary, Danya Cebus, which has built homes in at least one West Bank settlement, the Associated Press reported.

In March, the British Embassy in Israel decided against relocating its new offices in a building owned by Africa-Israel amid public outcry. A spokeswoman for the embassy, quoted by the Associated Press, said the settlement issue played a role in the decision.

Africa-Israel officials did not respond to an e-mail inquiry from Inside Higher Ed.

Africa-Israel is owned by Lev Leviev, an Israeli diamond mogul who has bought up properties in New York after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. The once profitable company’s fortunes have taken a turn for the worse in recent months, however, as it struggles under billions of dollars in debt.


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