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Legal Warfare Report: Israeli academics pressure Western companies to terminate business links with Israel

Editorial Note

Legal Warfare Report
IAM has periodically reported on Israeli academics who participate in activities designed to pressure Western companies to terminate business links with Israel.  These faculty work with a number of American denominations including American Friends Service Committee (Quakers), Presbyterian Church USA and United Church of Christ who have taken a lead in the BDS movement.  Other Israeli academics operate through Who Profits from the Occupation? a project aimed at identifying Israeli companies that, according to the official website "profit from Palestinian and Syrian land."  Who Profits? helps to raise awareness and organize boycotts of such companies and also works with a coalition of radical  groups in the West that promote "corporate accountability."  The combined efforts of these groups have resulted in dissuading a number of companies from doing business with Israel and, recently, in helping to delist Caterpillar from the MSCI-ESG index of ethical companies.  The index of "progressive investment" is used by pension funds, investment funds and individual investors interested in ethical investment.
Among the academics that IAM profiled in the past few months are:
Dalit Baum, formerly of Haifa University,  who now works for American Friends Service Committee West Coast office in charge of BDS. Baum, a leader in the academic lesbian community in Israel was recently invited  to a conference on gender organized by Hanna Herzog (TAU).
Neve Gordon (BGU) who published a chapter in a recently released book that supports BDS.
Merav Amir  (HUJ) who is involved with Who Profits published a chapter in the same book.
Anat Biletzki (TAU) gave a lecture under the auspices of the Tree of Life Foundation of the United Church of Christ that supports BDS.
In the past, the Tree of Life Foundation hosted Benjamin Beit-Hallahmi from the Department of Psychology U of Haifa.  Beit-Hallahmi, a former member of Matzpen used a Sabbatical leave in the United States to research and write a book The Israeli Connection. Who Israel Arms and Why that purported to show Israel's link to the then apartheid regime in South Africa. The book has achieved a near- iconic status in pro-Palestinian circles and was often cited by BDS supporters. 
Nurit Peled Elhanan (HUJ) testified  before the Russell Tribunal, a group of self-appointed radical leftists who consider Israel to be a  apartheid state and urge BDS.
Legal warfare (lawfare) is leading form of warfare against Israel today. Unlike other forms of warfare, lawfare uses a combination of law and public opinion to affect change.  Israeli scholars are at a premium because they legitimize the BDS movement both as Israelis and academics.  As a novel form of non-conventional warfare, lawfare poses a dilemma with regard to academic freedom.  The Knesset recognized this problem and decreed that BDS advocacy should be considered illegal because it constitutes a serious threat to national security.  However, many in the academic community have expressed misgivings that the BDS legislation would limit the highly expansive academic freedom that the Israeli academy has historically enjoyed. 
The decision to delist Caterpillar should be a reminder that this type of academic freedom comes at a cost to Israeli economy and society.  

Decision to oust Caterpillar from influential ethical investing index linked to Israeli use of tractors
Role of Israel’s use of the tractors in the decision suggests that a sustained campaign by pro-Palestinian groups has had some effect.
By JTA  | Jun.23, 2012 | 1:59 AM |   
The sale of Caterpillar tractors to Israel was a factor, but not the determining one, in the delisting of the company from an influential index that prioritizes good governance and human rights.The move, however, is poised to further complicate the difficult ongoing conversation about Israel taking place between American Jewish gruops and the Presbyterian Church (USA).

A senior official at MSCI-ESG, a subdivision of MSCI, an investment advice firm, said Caterpillar already had a low rating before its delisting earlier this year, in part because of its association with the Israeli army’s use of the tractors in the West Bank and past use in the Gaza Strip. The role of Israel’s use of the tractors in the decision also suggests that a sustained campaign by pro-Palestinian groups has had some effect, although officials at MSCI-ESG and one of its clients, the TIAA-CREF pension fund, deny succumbing to direct pressure.

TIAA-CREF’s divestiture amounted to $72 million in funds, dwarfing previous divestitures by liberal religious groups such as Friends Fiduciary, a Quaker group that divested $900,000.

The news of the delisting comes ahead of the biennial general assembly of the Presbyterian Church (USA), where divestment from Caterpillar and other companies selling products used by the Israeli army, will be considered.

Ethan Felson, the vice president of the Jewish Council for Public Affairs, and the Jewish community's lead official in countering the boycott, divestment and sanctions movement aimed at Israel -- known as BDS -- said that how the movement was spinning the news of the MSCI-ESG decision would cause "damage" just ahead of the Presbyterian colloquy.

BDS groups were already claiming a victory, although Felson noted that the sales to Israel were neither the immediate nor the preeminent factor in the divestment. He said that linking Caterpillar to Israeli practices was "nonsensical," noting that it had no say in how the U.S. military resells the tractors, and that it could not legally turn down the U.S. military as a client.

The MSCI-ESG official told JTA on Friday that what drove Caterpillar off the index was the company's decision in February to shutter a London, Ont. plant after a high-profile dispute with employees. However, the official acknowledged several factors played into the company's already relatively low rating, including the association of Caterpillar with Israeli army practices in the occupied territories.

The death in 2003 of Rachel Corrie, an American pro-Palestinian activist, while she was protesting such a demolition in Gaza, helped spur the BDS movement forward. Corrie’s parents and witnesses say she was caught beneath an armored tractor. The army denies fault and maintains she was killed by debris.

MSCI-ESG – ESG stands for Environment, Social or Governance – has as its clients a number of progressive groups that base their investments in part on social justice issues, including care for the environment, the treatment and safety of employees, and involvement in human rights abuses.

MSCI-ESG’s decision, made in February and effective as of March 1, came to light this week because of claims by groups associated with the BDS movement that a decision by TIAA-CREF – a pension fund for teachers and other academics – to divest from Caterpillar was a result of their pressure.

"It’s long past time that TIAA-CREF began living up to its motto of ‘Financial Services for the Greater Good’ when it comes to the people of Israel and Palestine,” Rabbi Alissa Wise, the national coordinator for “We Divest,” a coalition of several groups, including Jewish Voice for Peace, where Wise is director of campaigns.

Caterpillar, in a statement released to Jewish groups, once again denied direct sales to Israel of the D-9 Track-Type tractors.

"This is how it works," corporate spokesman Jim Dugan said. "Caterpillar sells equipment to the U.S. government, which then transfers the equipment to the Israeli government, which then transfers it to the Israeli military. Israeli is one of about 150 countries that take part in the program, which supports U.S. allies. For the D9s, the protective armor plating, the bullet resistant glass and other modifications take place after the machine has been transferred to the Israeli government by the U.S. government. These changes happen after the sale, not in our factories. We hope and wish for a peaceful resolution to the unrest in the Middle East, but that solution is a political matter to be worked out by the appropriate parties. Caterpillar does not and should not have a role in that political process."

The Jewish Federations of America’s Israel Action Network derided the haste with which pro-BDS groups claimed credit for the divestment.

"Pro-BDS groups have constructed the ‘Caterpillar Myth’ that insinuates a conflict between the machine and the Palestinian people," Geri Palast, IAN’s managing director said in a statement. "It is designed to invoke dystopian images, link BDS to specific Israeli policies and appeal to fear."

Officials of TIAA-CREF, however, denied such pressure was a factor and pointed JTA to established policy that devolves such decisions to its “social screen vendor,” in this case, MSCI-ESG.

And while the MSCI-ESG official, who spoke on background, affirmed that Israel’s use of the tractors was one of several factors in the decision, he also said that an established methodology determines which company is listed and which is not, and that decisions are not based on representations from interest groups. The official’s emphasis suggested that shuttering the Canadian factory had greater weight than Israel’s use of the tractors.

Rebecca Vilkomerson, the Jewish Voice for Peace spokswoman said she was “confident” that representations by the We Divest coalition and other groups both to MSCI-ESG and to TIAA-CREF played a role.

In any case, she said, activism by groups such as hers has resulted in a “consensus in the human rights community because of its role in human rights abuses in Palestine, Caterpillar is not an ethical actor.”

Pro-Palestinian groups have for a decade campaigned against the sale of the tractors to Israel. Caterpillar sells the tractors to the U.S. military for resale to allies. Caterpillar says it does not determine to which countries the tractors are resold and how they are refitted for military use.

The pro-Palestinian groups, backed by a number of human rights NGOs, say that Israel uses the tractors to destroy Palestinian homes as a means of inhibiting growth and as collective punishment. Israel says the tractors are used to destroy illegal structures, and in Gaza were used until 2005, when Israel pulled out, to destroy tunnels used by terrorists for smuggling purposes.
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