The Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions Movement Comes to New York University (Muftah)

April 7th, 2016

Social justice is finding a home at New York University (NYU), one of the nation’s most expensive institutions of higher education. Students at NYU have been pushing for the school’s graduate student union, known as GSOC, to endorse the “Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions” movement with a motion that calls on NYU to adopt the campaign’s key provisions. Voting on the ballot, which is available here, is expected to take place over four days from April 18 to 22.

The Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions movement, commonly referred to as “BDS,” is an international effort to exert political and economic pressure on Israel’s decades-long occupation of the West Bank and treatment of its Palestinian citizens. The movement engages in peaceful civil resistance that involves three elements: boycotting entities that profit from violations of Palestinian rights; divesting from corporations that finance such organizations; and calling for direct sanctions against the Israeli state to deprive it of the goods and services that support its occupation and subjugation of the Palestinian people.

At every stage, the NYU campaign to ratify the BDS motion has been democratic and transparent. Ella Wind, a Ph.D. candidate in sociology and elected Unit Representative for NYU’s GSOC, told Muftah that groups supporting and opposing the measure have been actively campaigning ahead of the vote. The union has scheduled town hall events to discuss the motion, and made its website available to interested groups to post information about their position on the vote. Due to popular demand, multiple town halls have been scheduled before the vote, in order involve as many members of the student body in the debate.

Wind told Muftah that the BDS campaign was partly inspired by and modeled after a similar vote taken by GSOC’s sister chapter at the University of California in December 2014. According to the UC union’s press release, it was the “first major U.S. labor union to support divestment from Israel by [a] membership vote.”  Nearly as remarkable was the level of support the motion received: voters endorsed BDS by 2 to 1, with 65% of the union’s rank and file voting in favor of the resolution.

Despite this overwhelming support, the executive board of the United Auto Workers (UAW), which is the umbrella organization for the UC and NYU graduate student unions, took steps in January 2016 to overturn the admittedly “fair and democratic vote.” Journalist Ben Norton published an account of the board’s nullification effortsin Salon, providing perhaps the most nuanced coverage on the issue. Norton’s side-by-side comparison of the UAW board’s rationale and the UC union’s response demonstrated that the board’s decision was, as the UC union claimed, “imposed to undermine the union’s collective bargaining power” and “grossly misrepresent[ed] the actual text of [the] resolution.”

The UAW board’s unilateral action is but one example of growing institutional opposition to the grassroots BDS movement.

Indeed, one of the most recent blows to BDS has come from the U.S. federal government itself. On February 24, 2016, President Barack Obama signed a trade bill into law that, according to Ma’an News Agency, condemns “politically motivated actions that penalize or otherwise limit commercial relations specifically with Israel.” The New York State Senate also passed a bill in January 2016 that, if signed into law, would prohibit the state from contracting with pro-BDS entities and require that it maintain a McCarthy-esque list of individuals and organizations active in the BDS movement.

As Wind stressed, however, the pushback against BDS has a silver lining. “Backlash against BDS shows that it is working, because if it were not then [its opponents] would not try so aggressively to work against it,” she said. Efforts to promote BDS, even if unsuccessful, can only encourage individuals to take a principled stand on an important issue and ensure the debate on Israel’s actions against the Palestinians continues.

These benefits are ones that cannot be undone by top-down maneuvering spearheaded by institutions or moneyed interests, no matter how hard they try.

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