On Dec. 4, the UC Student Workers Union will vote on whether to join the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions, or BDS, movement against Israel. Passage of the measure would formally align the UAW 2865 — representing more than 13,000 student-TAs, teachers and graduate students across UC campuses — with the BDS movement.
BDS is a highly controversial movement that openly seeks to isolate Israeli academics, businesses and cultural institutions as well as ostracize Israel from the international community. Our union is motivated by good intentions — to end Palestinian suffering — but BDS is short-sighted and counterproductive and effectively institutionalizes discrimination.
BDS supporters believe they can somehow turn Israel into a pariah state and its institutions into untouchables while refraining from discriminating against individual Israelis. This is logistically challenging, if not impossible, and ethically tricky. And because the BDS approach is not accepted by most international and domestic labor and political organizations or the UC leadership — which has explicitly stated its opposition — alignment with the movement cannot be justified as a quick-and-dirty tactic to push Israel to the negotiating table. Instead, joining BDS would mean institutionalizing discrimination against Israel and Israelis — with little to show for it.
The union leadership, however, denies this and has constructed a ballot that strategically misrepresents the vote’s implications. The ballot’s first section asks us to join the BDS movement in two ways: It asks UAW International and the UC system to divest from and boycott “Israeli state institutions and international companies complicit” in Palestinian suffering, and it asks the U.S. government to end military aid to Israel. Separately, the ballot invites us to individually pledge to boycott Israeli academic institutions. The separation of the ballot implies that one could sign on to the first part – financial divestment – without joining the academic boycott. That implication is highly misleading. Allying with BDS means joining its basic platform, a fundamental element of which is the academic boycott. Suggesting that one does not necessarily entail the other assumes we have not read the plain text on the BDS movement’s website. Moreover, the language of complicity implies that we would boycott only some universities and institutions, whereas, as the union’s FAQs reveal, we would actually boycott all Israeli academic institutions, unless they openly support the BDS position — a disturbingly McCarthy-esque demand.
This lack of transparency in the ballot language is consistent with the union leadership’s remarkably opaque response to opposition to this resolution. Union leaders ignored basic requests for information for months and refused to share opposition concerns with members. They failed to tell members that the California Teamsters, who represent 14,000 workers in the UC system and tens of thousands at companies targeted by BDS, vehemently oppose the resolution. Union leadership also authorized more than $3,000 exclusively for promoting BDS, funneling members’ money into a highly controversial and complex issue — one that was certainly not part of the platform on which they were elected. It seems that a platform that opposes dialogue goes hand in hand with shutting down dissent.
The position and tactics of the BDS movement might make sense if one were to take the remarkable position of doubting the legitimacy of the State of Israel. In fact, that viewpoint seems to be the position of our union leaders. At the July Joint Council meeting, they approved a statement supporting the Palestinian right to self-determination and supporting a resolution to the conflict in which all Palestinians can resettle within Israel. But at the next meeting, Oct. 18, leaders voted down two proposals: one to simultaneously recognize the Jewish right of self-determination and one to support a resolution to the conflict in which there are two states for two peoples. The motivation for those decisions became apparent at a Nov. 18 event, where BDS caucus member Kumars Salehi stated, “BDS is the future — the peace process is the past.”
Opposing direct negotiations is a radical view at odds with most Palestinian and Israeli people, the majority of whom still favor a two-state outcome. It is also out of lockstep with the position of political leaders, UC leadership, fellow unions, and many union members, who all support a negotiated peace process as a viable path to a just resolution. Israel’s policies vis-à-vis the Palestinians are part of a complex conflict that affects not only millions of Palestinians, but also millions of Israelis who live in constant fear of violent attack.
Indeed, just two weeks ago, two terrorists wielding axes and guns murdered five Israelis in a synagogue – four rabbis at morning prayers and a Druze police officer attempting to protect them – the latest in a long history of attacks on Israeli civilians. And Palestinians suffer daily constraints on their freedom of movement and tragic loss of life in clashes with Israeli armed forces. Disentangling this cycle of violence cannot happen unilaterally; it must take place through peaceful negotiation. An extreme approach like BDS will therefore not only isolate and alienate Israeli institutions and scholars, but will also undermine internationally recognized efforts for a lasting peace.
The reason that so many of our union leaders support BDS is understandable: they are profoundly concerned about the suffering of innocent Palestinians — as are we. But transforming Israel into a pariah state is not a recipe for peace. It is a recipe for preventing negotiations that recognize real grievances on both sides — and such negotiations are our only hope for real peace.
Do you support dialogue and cooperation? Then vote no. Do you support national self-determination for both Palestinians and Israelis? Then vote no. Do you support a two-state solution? Then vote no. Vote no on BDS to vote yes on peace.
Jonathan Kummerfeld is a fifth-year PhD student in the campus Computer Science division and Mark Donig is a second-year J.D. student at the UC Berkeley School of Law. They are part of Informed Grads, the student group opposed to the BDS proposal.