U.C. student workers debate unions BDS proposal

The boycott, divestment and sanctions campaign against Israel pivoted to labor unions this week when members of a union representing U.C. student workers debated a BDS proposal in Berkeley.

The Berkeley BDS Caucus and a pro-Israel group called Informed Grads co-sponsored the debate, which took place Nov. 18 on the Cal campus. Though the sides could not have been more diametrically opposed, the debate was notable for its civility, with nary a hiss or catcall from the audience of about 50.

Two representatives from each group alternated remarks and responded to questions during the 90-minute discourse.

Cal grad students (from left) Mark Donig, Jonathan Kummerfeld, Roi Livne and Kumars Salehi photo/dan pine

UAW Local 2865 — which represents 13,000 teaching assistants, tutors, graduate student instructors and other student workers in the University of California system — unveiled the BDS proposal in July. A membership-wide vote is scheduled for Dec. 4.

Endorsed by the local’s 83-member joint council, the proposal calls on the U.C. local and its parent union, the United Auto Workers, to divest from “Israeli state institutions and international companies complicit in severe and ongoing human rights violations as part of the Israeli oppression of the Palestinian people.”

In contrast to U.C. student government resolutions supporting BDS, which have no financial impact as the U.C. system routinely dismisses them, a BDS resolution passed by UAW 2865 would seek to remove pension fund investments from such companies. The proposal also demands an end to U.S. military aid to Israel and an academic boycott of Israeli universities.

Law student Mark Donig, speaking for the Informed Grads side, derided the proposal, claiming that even Palestinian leaders such as Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas have condemned BDS.

“For many Palestinians, the reality [of BDS] on the ground would be disastrous,” Donig said. “It would entrench extremists. The goal [of BDS supporters] is not about peace and justice for Palestinians. It takes as its central position the delegitimization and eventual dismantling of Israel.”

Berkeley graduate student Kumars Salehi defended BDS, calling it “a global nonviolent campaign to liberate all Palestinians.” He said its aims include ending “illegal occupation of the West Bank and Gaza” and granting Palestinians the so-called right of return. (Israel’s presence in Gaza ended in 2005.)

Jonathan Kummerfeld of Informed Grads focused on broad union opposition to BDS, noting “42 of the largest unions have gone on record opposing BDS, including our parent union, the UAW.”

He also said the BDS effort has harmed UAW 2865. According to public records, he said, local leadership has spent at least $7,000 promoting the proposal, funds that could have been better spent on more immediate union concerns.

Perhaps the most surprising speaker was Roi Livne, a graduate student in sociology who strongly supports BDS against his native Israel. He started out by noting that his support constitutes a violation of Israeli law. Citing war crimes accusations against Israel from organizations such as Amnesty International, he said that any entity that invests in companies that do business with Israel is “complicit in war crimes.” He added, “BDS is the bare minimum position our union can take.”

During Q&A, the BDS proponents went on the defensive, with Salehi claiming BDS “does not entail the destruction of Israel,” and that the BDS movement is not “tied to or linked or financing any group that is being claimed is committing atrocities,” referring to Hamas.

Nevertheless, he wrapped up his comments by saying that a two-state solution “was a charade to begin with, and has played itself out.”

Informed Grads has drafted open letters to U.C. faculty, staff and graduate students urging a no vote on the BDS proposal, and has created Informedgrads.org to state its case to others.

Dan Pine

Dan Pine is J.'s news editor. He can be reached at dan@jweekly.com.