This article originally appeared in The Berkeley Graduate.
Students in the University of California Workers Union voted last week to take a political stance and join a national campaign called Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS). The campaign aims to apply political pressure on Israel to force the state to abide by international law and respect the right of return for Palestinian refugees. With over 2000 votes cast, 65 percent voted in favor of BDS and 35 percent opposed.
The 12,000 academic student employees, including readers, tutors, and teaching assistants across the ten campuses of the University of California system are part of the United Auto Workers (UAW) Local 2865, the biggest academic student employee union in the United States. In the past, the Union has advocated on behalf of student workers on issues of paid parental leave and wages. This time, the union voted on a more contentious global issue.
Inspired by the use of divestment against the apartheid regime in South Africa, the global BDS campaign began in 2005. Over 170 Palestinian signatories, representing refugees in exile, Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza strip as well as Palestinian citizens within the Israeli state, called for a boycott against Israel until it meets its obligations under international law.
Over the summer, global media reported on Israel’s “Operation Protective Edge,” during which over 2,000 people, mostly Palestinians, died. “It was so horrific,” said David McCleary, a union member and fourth year doctoral candidate in molecular and cell biology who’s a strong supporter of BDS.
In July, in part prompted by the violence over the summer, the Union joined the BDS debate. The Unions’ governing body, known as the joint council, endorsed BDS with a vote of 42 to 1, and decided to bring it to the union as a whole. “They recognized that for some people this is a controversial issue,” McCeary said, “there has never been a member vote for an issue like this.” After a four hour meeting in October, the joint council finalized the language that would appear on the December ballot.
The proposal included two provisions. The first called on the University of California system to divest from Israeli state institutions and international companies that are complicit in “human rights violations as part of the Israeli oppression of the Palestinian people” and the second appeals to the U.S. government to stop military aid to Israel. Members were also given the option to check a box to make a voluntary individual commitment to boycott research, conferences, events and exchange programs sponsored by Israeli universities. Just over 50 percent of voters chose to check this box.
Some students see the voluntary university boycott as especially counterproductive. Jonathan Kummerfeld, a fifth year doctoral candidate in computer science and an Australian Jew, has been a union member since 2011. “All of us are concerned for Palestinian people,” said Kummerfeld, the UC Berkeley coordinator for Informed Grads, a group that opposes the BDS campaign. The question, he said, is how best to support human rights for Palestinians. Kummerfeld only recently became more involved when he received an email over the summer.
“This is inappropriate for our Union,” Kummerfeld recalled thinking to himself after reading the email. “Our Union should fundamentally be focused on worker issues,” he said. Kummerfeld sees this as a question of foreign policy and not a conflict between labor and management.
Opponents of the BDS believe that if passed, the proposal would weaken opportunities for Israeli-Palestinian dialogue and that the proposal, according to the Informed Grads website, “aims to achieve the end of Israel.”
The Alliance for Academic Freedom, an organization of progressive academics that also opposes academic boycotts and campus blacklists, issued a statement saying that though the labor movement has historically been committed to internationalism, they are against taking the side of “one nationalism against another.” Additionally, the Alliance takes the position that the vote could hinder overall academic freedom and intellectual exchange.
“I am very excited that it passed,” said McCleary, “A 30 point margin is pretty significant.” McCleary hopes the passage of the BDS proposal will cause a domino effect of the other unions and universities putting economic pressure on Israel to respect human rights. He also hopes it will prove to be a peaceful approach to ending the continuing conflict in the Middle East. By contrast, Kummerfeld believes the vote will hurt dialogue in Israel.
Kummerfeld also wonders what this means going forward for the union and its ability to effectively represent members. “The process as a whole didn’t really work out in a fair way,” Kummerfeld says of structure of the voting. “I don’t want to be affiliated with a group that takes such an extreme stance.” In the short term he’ll remain in the union, but he plans to end his membership at the end of the year.
Whether the university BDS movement will have an effect on the human rights of Palestinian people remains to be seen.