May 27, 2016 Graduate Student Workers Resist New Attack on UAW 2865 BDS Resolution — and more, from Labor for Palestine
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Union Members Struggle for a Democratic Debate on Palestine: Statement from UAW 2865,GEO-UAW 2322, and GSOC-UAW 2110 Palestine Solidarity Caucuses on UAW 2865 BDS Vote Nullification
Three UAW Locals have overwhelmingly endorsed, by full member vote, to support boycott, divestment, and sanctions (BDS) in solidarity with Palestinian workers and society. This grassroots momentum has only increased despite anti-democratic actions by higher up Union officials to quell debate on the issue among locals.
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Rank and file challenge US union bosses over BDS (Electronic Intifada)
“Despite the attempts of top-down … officials to crush our union democracy, the tide of rank and-file support is against them,” Keady added. “We will work hard to implement the will of our members until Palestinians have won justice, freedom and equality.”
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Is BDS Simply a ‘Campus Movement?’How Deceitful Can Thomas Friedman Actually Be? (Huffington Post)
Michael Letwin, Co-Convener, Labor for Palestine; Former President, Association of Legal Aid Attorneys/UAW 2325 comments, “By respecting the BDS picket line, a growing number of U.S. trade unions are honoring the most fundamental labor principle: An injury to one is an injury to all. The refusal by ILWU Local 10 dockers to handle Israeli Zim Line cargo in 2014 shows the unparalleled power of labor solidarity against apartheid Israel.”
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Resource: Labor for Palestine: Challenging US Labor Zionism (American Quarterly)
Notable challenges to this dominant Labor Zionism began in the late 1960s. These include positions taken by the League of Revolutionary Black Workers in 1969 and wildcat strikes against the United Auto Workers (UAW) leadership’s support for Israel in 1973. Since September 11, 2001, Israel’s wars and other apartheid policies have been challenged by New York City Labor Against the War (NYCLAW), Labor for Palestine, ILWU Local 10 dockworkers, UAW Local 2865 graduate students at the University of California, the United Electrical Workers, and others. Increasingly, such efforts have made common cause with racial justice and other movements, and—at the margins—have begun to crack Labor Zionism’s seemingly impregnable hold in the United States.
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Louise Hewlett Nixon Professor, Stanford University
On May 25 the New York Times published an op-ed by Thomas Friedman with the incendiary title, “Netanyahu, Prime Minister of the State of Israel-Palestine,” which attempts to show just how far the Israeli Prime Minister has gone to destroy any notion of a two-state solution. That Friedman would have only now caught on to the demise of such a possibility should indicate just how far out of touch he is.
Friedman spends his space talking about Netanyahu’s purging of Defense Minister Moshe Yaalon, and his naming of “far-right Avigdor Lieberman” as his Yaalon’s replacement. But he begins his piece with this entrée: “Israel has recently been under intense criticism on the world stage. Some of it, like the ‘boycott, divestment, sanctions’ (B.D.S.) campaign, is a campus movement to destroy Israel masquerading as a political critique.”
Friedman seems to take always alluding in some way or another to BDS as an obligation. Not only does he do so with remarkable consistency, he also always gets it wrong. More than two years ago, Mondoweiss succinctly captured Friedman’s modus operanti: “Not only does he try to obfuscate the origin of the successful movement and the extent of its success but he tries to cut it down to acceptable proportions.”
Yes, Friedman persistently misattributes the origins of the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions movement, (BDS) which in 2005 emanated not from U.S. college campuses as he suggests, but rather from Palestinian civil society, with over 170 Palestinian political parties, organizations, trade unions and movements joining together to fight for Palestinian rights. Talk about obfuscation.
Besides purposefully erasing the origins of BDS, Friedman constantly ignores its reach. Well beyond the borders of U.S. college campuses, churches, unions, artists, writers, musicians and others, from around the world, have either explicitly endorsed BDS or taken on one or another of its tactics. And they are doing so in increasing numbers.
In April the Alliance of Baptists affirmed the use of boycott, divestment, and sanctions to end the Israeli occupation of Palestinian land; in May the United Methodist Church passed three measures criticizing Israel and advocating for Palestinian rights; in January that same church put five Israeli banks on a blacklist, declaring that the church would do no business with banks involved in the Occupation; previously in 2014 the United Presbyterian Church voted to divest from companies doing business on the West Bank.
a host of US labor unions have decided to endorse the BDS pledge. The United Electrical Workers (UE), a union of over thirty-five thousand members, debated the question of Israel’s occupation of Palestine at its August 2015 convention. “Our government is on the wrong side,” said Angaza Laughinghouse of Local 150 (North Carolina). “We have to stand on the right side of the Palestine struggle.” Laughinghouse’s union—UE—decided to unanimously endorse BDS and to actively work “to become engaged in BDS.” In October, the two hundred thousand members of the AFL-CIO of Connecticut passed a resolution that called upon the national AFL-CIO to endorse BDS “in connection with companies and investments profiting from or complicit in human rights violations arising from the occupation of the Palestinian territories by the State of Israel.”
Michael Letwin, Co-Convener, Labor for Palestine; Former President, Association of Legal Aid Attorneys/UAW 2325 comments, “By respecting the BDS picket line, a growing number of U.S. trade unions are honoring the most fundamental labor principle: An injury to one is an injury to all. The refusal by ILWU Local 10 dockers to handle Israeli Zim Line cargo in 2014 shows the unparalleled power of labor solidarity against apartheid Israel.”
Artists and musicians such as Junot Diaz, Lauryn Hill, Roger Waters, Chuck D, Boots Riley, and others have come out in solidarity with the Palestinians, and in Augist 2015 over a thousand Black artists and activists signed on. As I reported then:
On the anniversary of last summer’s Gaza massacre, in the 48th year of Israeli occupation, the 67th year of Palestinians’ ongoing Nakba (the Arabic word for Israel’s ethnic cleansing)—and in the fourth century of Black oppression in the present-day United States—we, the undersigned Black activists, artists, scholars, writers, and political prisoners offer this letter of reaffirmed solidarity with the Palestinian struggle and commitment to the liberation of Palestine’s land and people.
The list of signatories includes scholar-activists Angela Davis and Cornel West, political prisoners Mumia Abu-Jamal and Sundiata Acoli, rappers Talib Kweli, Boots Riley and Jasiri X, and Black Lives Matter co-founder Patrisse Cullors. Organizational signers include the Florida-based Dream Defenders and St. Louis-based Hands Up United and Tribe X, which were founded after the killings of Trayvon Martin and Mike Brown, respectively, as well as the 35-year-old Organization for Black Struggle in St. Louis.
Commenting on Friedman’s latest, Mondoweiss again has it just right:
Friedman’s smear is obviously the establishment litmus test these days. Hillary Clinton says BDS is bad. So does President Obama, so does the French prime minister. But that will soon change. As Israel sinks further into its existential identity crisis, the few remaining liberals among the Jewish elites there will turn desperately to the world to pressure Israel, as Gideon Levy and Larry Derfner have already done. That pressure means boycott, divestment and sanctions. And if it also means the end of Israel as a Jewish state, that prospect will by then no longer be tragic to realistic Americans, including Friedman, who have glimpsed the paranoid Sparta that the Jewish democracy has produced.
One can only wonder how long Thomas Friedman can staunchly keep on with his delusional lies about BDS.
In an address on Middle East policy last month, Bernie Sanders —the first Jewish American to win a presidential primary—did something virtually unheard of in contemporary U.S. politics when he called for an end to “what amounts to the occupation of Palestinian territory” by Israel.
The only candidate to skip the pro-Israel lobby group AIPAC’s annual conference in Washington, Sanders instead delivered a speech from Utah in which he acknowledged that “today there is a whole lot of suffering among Palestinians” due to the occupation.
“For a presidential candidate to break from the mold, like it seems maybe Sanders is doing, and to talk about the fact that the occupation needs to end, is something that’s exciting to Palestinians,” says Manawel Abdel-Al, a member of the general secretariat of the Palestinian General Federation of Trade Unions (PGFTU).
“We hope this isn’t just election talk,” he adds. “People were very excited about Barack Obama as well and we didn’t get much progress. But we’re hopeful.”
Abdel-Al—who lives in occupied East Jerusalem—is visiting Chicago this week at the invitation of the United Electrical Workers (UE), the U.S. Palestinian Community Network, and Jewish Voice for Peace to enlist the support of the U.S. labor movement in the Palestinian liberation struggle. He addressed standing-room-only audiences of rank-and-file unionists at last weekend’s Labor Notes conference and again on Tuesday night at the local UE Hall.
A machine repair technician by trade, Abdel-Al has been a union activist for three decades. He tells In These Times that throughout their history, Palestinian trade unions have always waged a “two-part” battle. “We represent workers in the class struggle for socioeconomic rights, but also in the national, political struggle for freedom and independence,” he says, noting that the Palestinian labor movement has managed to endure despite a century of repression and upheaval under British, Jordanian, and Israeli control.
Abdel-Al’s PGFTU represents 14 private sector unions in the West Bank and Gaza. In the West Bank, Abdel-Al says the PGFTU negotiates collective bargaining agreements with employers and successfully convinced the Palestinian Authority (P.A.) to pass a minimum wage law in 2012. The union federation is now calling for the P.A. to implement social welfare policies by next year.
Meanwhile, over 25,000 public schoolteachers (not affiliated with PGFTU) staged a one-month strike earlier this year to call for the P.A. to honor a promised pay raise that had been “left on the backburner for three years,” Abdel-Al says. The strike ended last month after President Mahmoud Abbas intervened and promised back pay and a 10 percent wage increase.
Abdel-Al’s PGFTU is not recognized by the Israeli government, leaving unprotected the approximately 92,000 West Bank Palestinians who regularly cross into and out of Israel and Israeli settlements for work. Abdel-Al explains that while many of these workers have legal permits to be employed in Israel, many others are unauthorized workers—hired under-the-table by Israeli employers—and face extreme exploitation. “When they’re injured on the job, they’re simply taken to the closest border checkpoint and left there. The employer disappears.”
Abdel-Al at Chicago’s Haymarket monument. (Jeff Schuhrke)
Regardless of their legal status, Abdel-Al says that all Palestinian workers in Israel, including Palestinian citizens of Israel, face discrimination, arbitrary dismissal, low pay, and a host of other issues on the job. “All we want is freedom from oppression,” he says, asking U.S. unionists to do whatever they can to help their fellow workers in Palestine.
Heeding this call, last August, UE became the first national U.S. labor union to endorse Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS)—a global, nonviolent movement to protest Israeli human rights violations inspired by the successful efforts of civil society groups to pressure South Africa’s apartheid regime in the 1980s.
While the activist network Labor for Palestine has been pushing U.S. unions to get behind BDS for the past decade, serious strides have only been made in the two years since Israel’s 2014 bombardment of Gaza, which killed 1,462 civilians. In December 2014, BDS was endorsed by University of California graduate student workers with UAW Local 2865—a vote that was controversially nullified by the UAW’s International Executive Board earlier this year. Following Local 2865 and UE’s lead, the Connecticut AFL-CIO also passed a resolution in favor of BDS late last year.
BDS is gaining traction within the international labor movement as well, with support from unions in South Africa, the UK, Norway, Brazil, and elsewhere. Last April, it was endorsed by Canada’s Confederation of National Trade Unions (CSN), which represents 325,000 public and private sector workers in Quebec.
“I think BDS is a powerful tool to educate people on what is happening in Palestine,” Nathalie Guay, coordinator of CSN’s international relations, tells In These Times. Guay, who helped connect the PGFTU and UE, hopes that more North American unions will not only endorse BDS, but also send their members on delegations to Palestine to learn about the situation first-hand. “Every single person who goes there comes back as an activist for Palestine. We need more of that.”
Noting the growing international influence of unions from the global south, including Brazil’s pro-BDS Central Única dos Trabalhadores, Guay predicts the international labor movement will continue to increase its support for Palestine in the years to come. “I think there will be some evolution,” she says.
This evolution is already evident in the International Trade Union Confederation—a global organization composed of the world’s major labor federations—which has issued increasingly critical statements of Israel since the 2014 assault on Gaza.
“We believe statements are not enough and hope the ITUC will change its policies in a more definitive way to help end the occupation,” Abdel-Al says. “But no matter how small, this is a positive change.”
Abdel-Al took time out of his busy schedule this week to visit the Haymarket memorial—a tribute to martyred Chicago unionists who were hanged in 1887 as a result of their activism in support of the 8-hour workday. “This is the birthplace of the worldwide labor movement. Around the world, we celebrate labor on May 1st because of what happened in Chicago.”
He wants U.S. labor activists to remember that occupied Palestinians are also oppressed workers. “Any activism, any support for us would be in accordance with a slogan that is well known by the working class everywhere—workers of the world, unite! Through solidarity and willpower, workers can make changes and bring about the achievement of rights for persecuted and oppressed people everywhere.”
Jeff Schuhrke is a Summer 2013 editorial intern at In These Times.
In lieu of an abstract, here is a brief excerpt of the content:
Recent years have seen rapidly growing momentum behind the Palestinian call for boycott, divestment, and sanctions (BDS), particularly in the wake of repeated Israeli attacks on Gaza since 2008–9 that have left thousands dead, maimed, and homeless. In February 2007, as part of this campaign, Palestinian trade union bodies appealed directly for support, including a request for international labor to cut ties with the Histadrut, the Zionist labor federation. Although these calls have received wide-ranging support from trade unionists in South Africa, the UK, Ireland, Canada, Norway, and elsewhere, Labor Zionism remains ubiquitous in the United States. This first dates to the Balfour Declaration in 1917 and establishment of the Histadrut in 1920. Such US Labor Zionism grew rapidly in the 1940s, as a combined result of the Nazi Holocaust, the Cold War, neocolonialism, and the USSR’s pivotal support for establishment of the Israel state. Even then, however, it has never had significant working-class roots. Since the Nakba of 1947–49, Labor Zionism in the United States has been promoted by the Histadrut’s US mouthpiece, the Jewish Labor Committee (JLC). Through such efforts, closely coordinated with Israeli officials, the JLC has organized trade union leaders’ support for Zionism.
Notable challenges to this dominant Labor Zionism began in the late 1960s. These include positions taken by the League of Revolutionary Black Workers in 1967 and wildcat strikes against the United Auto Workers (UAW) leadership’s support for Israel in 1973. Since September 11, 2001, Israel’s wars and other apartheid policies have been challenged by New York City Labor Against the War (NYCLAW), Labor for Palestine, ILWU Local 10 dockworkers, UAW Local 2865 graduate students at the University of California, the United Electrical Workers, and others. Increasingly, such efforts have made common cause with racial justice and other movements, and—at the margins—have begun to crack Labor Zionism’s seemingly impregnable hold in the United States. These recent developments run parallel to, and draw inspiration from, the American Studies Association’s own endorsement of BDS on December 13, 2013.
Zionist Roots in US Labor
Through the 1930s Jewish workers in the United States were adamantly anti-Zionist. Jewish Bundists viewed Zionism as a “sinister deviation from the true path … a mirage, compounded of religious romanticism and chauvinism,” and after the Nazis took power in 1933, “many Jews within American labor vehemently opposed Zionist efforts.” For example, the JLC, founded in 1934 to oppose the rise of Nazism, noted that
the great bulk of Jewish labor in the United States are … of the opinion that the Jewish question must be solved in the countries in which Jews live and therefore must be solved as part of the more general question of re-adjusting the economic, political, social and cultural life of our country to the needs of a new day.
In the 1940s, however, US labor leaders enlisted in the Histadrut’s well-orchestrated campaign for a Jewish state in Palestine, and finally won support of the previously anti-Zionist JLC. These efforts helped enable the impending Nakba (Catastrophe). Labor leaders established the National Trade Union Emergency Conference on Labor Palestine, which won over Jewish Bundists; silenced anti-Zionist holdouts; exploited rank-and-file workers’ sympathy for Holocaust victims; and helped convince Truman to support partition and lift the US arms embargo against the Zionist militias.
The Zionism of these labor officials was closely linked to their support for US imperialism, anticommunism, and racism against workers of color in the United States. This was consistent with Israel’s self-proclaimed role as “watchdog” for US imperial interests. Meanwhile, nearly all of the US labor Left mirrored the USSR’s indispensable support for establishment of the Israeli state.
In the subsequent decades, US trade union leaders across the political spectrum supported Israeli wars, charged “anti-Semitism” against those who criticized Israel’s close alliance with apartheid South Africa,” and bought huge quantities of State of Israel Bonds, which paralleled overall US government economic and military support for the Israeli state.
At its its national convention in Baltimore this August, UE, the United Electrical, Radio and Machine Workers endorsed the worldwide BDS movement – Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions – to pressure Israel to end its apartheid over the Palestinians just as similar tactics helped to end South African apartheid in the 1980s. UE represents more than 30,000 workers across the country in a range of private and public sector occupations.and is now the first U.S. national union to endorse BDS. Today we talk to Michael Letwin, co-founder of Labor for Palestine, about this remarkable victory for the BDS movement. We also discuss the progress being made on the cultural boycott and the current campaign to persuade Kanye West to respect the Palestinian call for a cultural boycott of Israel by canceling his planned September 30 concert in Israel.
Joel Reinstein reports on a historic vote in support of the boycott, divestment and sanctions campaign–and the rising tide of labor solidarity with Palestine.
September 3, 2015
AT ITS 74th national convention, the United Electrical, Radio and Machine Workers (UE) became the first national union in the U.S. to endorse the Palestinian boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) movement.
In addition to endorsement of BDS, the resolution passed by the UE on August 20 called for cutting off U.S. aid to Israel and for the U.S. to back recognition of the right of return for the 5 million Palestinian refugees scattered throughout the region and the world. It noted Israel’s “long history of violating the human rights of the Palestinians, starting with the ethnic cleansing of 750,000 Palestinians in 1947-48,” as well as the crucial role that organized labor played in the 1980s movement against apartheid South Africa.
Autumn Martinez and Elizabeth Jesdale of UE Local 255 were among those speaking for the resolution, having met Palestinian trade unionists at the World Social Forum in Tunisia. “It’s absolutely disgusting what’s going on,” said Martinez. “Free Palestine!”
Representing 35,000 workers across the U.S., UE’s endorsement of BDS is a major development in the rising arc of labor solidarity with Palestine. Coming soon after an announcement by multinational corporation Veolia, which lost billions of dollars in contracts after being targeted by BDS activists, that it would cease doing business with Israel, the UE resolution is yet more proof of the BDS movement’s growing strength.
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UE’S RESOLUTION comes nine months after UAW Local 2865, the graduate student union representing 13,000 workers in the University of California (UC) system, became the first U.S. union to endorse BDS.
As an academic union, Local 2865 passed its resolution with the support of the BDS movement’s student wing, which is particularly strong in California, where seven of the state’s nine undergraduate student governments at UC schools have also passed BDS resolutions. BDS has also won the support of United Students Against Sweatshops, the nation’s largest student-labor solidarity organization.
But labor solidarity with BDS, despite the wishful thinking of Zionists, isn’t limited to campuses. In October 2014, BDS activists in the Bay Area scored a resounding victory in blocking the unloading of, and ultimately turning away, a ship from the Israel-owned Zim shipping line.
This victory would have been impossible without the assistance of dockworkers from International Longshore and Warehouse Union (ILWU) Local 10. While the union was unable to officially endorse the action due to labor law restrictions, members supported it by respecting activists’ pickets and providing them with crucial information about the ship’s schedule.
Labor support for BDS isn’t simply a matter of “doing the right thing.” Palestinian liberation is a working-class issue. All major Palestinian trade unions, including the Palestinian General Federation of Trade Unions representing some 290,000 workers, were among the organizations who put out the original BDS call in 2005.
Palestinian workers’ ability to organize in the Occupied Territories is severely curtailed by Israel’s military occupation, and many Palestinian workers must go through the daily ordeal of crossing Israeli checkpoints to reach their places of work, in addition to having to contend with the general violence and repression of the occupation. Palestinian citizens of Israel “face discrimination in work opportunities, pay and conditions” and are “excluded from the labor force by the use of the military-service criterion as a condition for acceptance of employment,” according to a 2011 report by Adalah Legal Center for Arab Minority Rights in Israel.
Additionally, in targeting corporations that do business with Israel, the BDS movement’s demands are consistent with putting human needs before profit–its enemies are the same as those of workers. This was illustrated during the 2013 Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART) workers’ strike, when BART brought in Tom Hock, vice president of BDS target company Veolia, as a negotiator to help break the strike.
Palestine’s connections to labor are further highlighted in the controversial firing last summer of Palestinian-American professor Steven Salaita by the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. Under pressure from wealthy anti-Palestinian donors, the university fired the newly hired Salaita after he sent a series of tweets expressing outrage at Israel’s 2014 assault on Gaza.
More than a breach of academic freedom, the political firing demonstrated how universities are increasingly behaving as corporations in which workers–especially workers of color–don’t have a say. As a result, the American Association of University Professors censured the university, and more than 5,000 professors across the country signed a pledge to boycott the school until Salaita’s termination is rescinded.
This was a labor battle with Palestine at its center–and anti-Palestinians on the side of management. And in the legal battle that has followed, Salaita has won the preliminary rounds, and the university chancellor who oversaw his firing has been fired.
UE doesn’t restrict itself to “bread-and-butter” issues directly involving wages and workplace conditions. In addition to the resolution supporting BDS, its convention saw passage of a resolution opposing war and militarism that called for a reduction in the U.S. military budget, an end to U.S. military intervention abroad, and support for the Japanese labor federation Zenroren in its fight for demilitarization in Japan.
Another resolution addressed racism and the police, with the union’s press release stating that “questioning a police officer, or just putting your hands in your pocket at the wrong time, can get you killed if you’re black or Latino.” There were also resolutions against the assault on public education, discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity, and destruction of the environment.
In the 1950s, UE mounted public campaigns to force major electrical manufacturing corporations to agree to nondiscrimination clauses. UE was among the first to organize undocumented workers and speak out on behalf of immigrants. As an early critic of the Vietnam War, the union campaigned for redirecting the federal budget toward job-creating, socially useful production.
As the first national union to officially respect the picket lines of the BDS movement, UE has shown the way forward for U.S. labor. Issues affecting workers’ lives extend well beyond the workplace, and as bosses are coordinating on an international scale more than ever before, so must labor. As with the international boycott against South Africa, labor’s power will form a crucial component of the Palestinian BDS movement–and UE has taken an historic step towards making this happen.
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Ragina Johnson reports on the dockworkers’ shutdown of the Port of Oakland to protest the epidemic of police murder across the U.S.
May 4, 2015
ILWU Local 10 members demonstrate at Oscar Grant Plaza in Oakland in 2010
HUNDREDS OF union members, activists and community groups gathered at the Port of Oakland early on May 1 to protest police terrorism and support the Black Lives Matter movement.
As the crowd grew, news that Baltimore’s lead prosecutor planned to indict the six cops involved in Freddie Gray’s murder was arriving. There was a feeling of vindication in the crowd that there had finally been a step toward justice for the Gray family, people in Baltimore and families struggling for justice against the national epidemic of police violence.
The decision of Oakland dockworkers to shut down the port on May Day in solidarity with the struggle against police brutality continues the International Longshore and Warehouse Union (ILWU) Local 10’s decades-long tradition of militant labor struggles. Local 10 has not only fought around bread-and-butter economic issues for its own members, but has also taken many stands in opposition to racism, war and police brutality. ILWU Local 10 has a well-deserved reputation of taking concrete action in solidarity with community fights.
The rally was called prior to the escalating rebellion in Baltimore around Freddie Gray’s murder. In the lead-up to the event, retired longshore worker Jack Heyman wrote about the importance of dockworkers and labor being part of the struggle against police and state terror:
When police in North Charleston, S.C., killed Walter Scott, a Black worker, the longshore union members there organized protests. ILWU Local 10, which has close relations with the Charleston union, responded with its call to stop work and march on May Day. The South Carolina AFL-CIO commended the ILWU local for its “courageous actions of solidarity with the families” and also is calling for May 1 “actions to protest the continuing unjustifiable killings.”
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AS THE rally at the port kicked off in the morning, speakers reminded the crowd about the need to continue fighting in city after city. “These kinds of actions will continue to occur until we see a change,” said Wanda Johnson, who is the mother of Oscar Grant, an unarmed African American man murdered by Bay Area BART police in 2009.
These struggles for justice especially hit home for longshore workers and their families, who are not immune from the epidemic of police terrorism and mass incarceration that has devastated so many communities across the U.S. ILWU members are family to Jeremiah Moore and Richard “Pedie” Perez III, both killed by police in the last couple years. These cases have not received the same attention as some of the more high-profile cases in the Bay Area, but they are just as devastating.
Moore, who was 29 years old and autistic, was killed by a Vallejo police officer in 2012. “This is a citizen issue,” said Moore’s family member Rebecca as she surveyed the crowd holding photos of countless people killed by police. “I’m here to support everyone.”
Last year, Richmond police killed Richard “Pedie” Perez III, who was 24. His father spoke briefly and powerfully to thank the crowd for coming out. “It’s so tough,” he said of the devastating loss that family members wake up to each morning. “Every day I cry.”
Police target African Americans disproportionately because of racist policing practices and the deeper structural and systemic discrimination that oppresses communities of color. Yet the Moore and Perez families are not African American–their tragic loss reveals the fact that the violence of police terrorism affects all working-class and poor people.
Mollie Costello of the Alan Blueford Foundation reminded everyone that we’re coming up on the two-year anniversary of Oakland high school student Alan Blueford’s murder by Oakland police. “We’re here as a community, and we’re here for labor,” she said.
After the speakers finished, the whole crowd chanted together: “Justice for Freddie Gray, justice for Pedie Perez, justice for Oscar Grant, justice for Jeremiah Moore, justice for Alan Blueford.”
In the crowd, there were activists from other unions who had taken the day off to support the Black Lives Matter movement and the movement against police terror. In an interview, one union carpenter, who wished to remain anonymous for fear of retaliation by conservative elements in Carpenters Union Local 2236, referenced the 1934 general strike in San Francisco that centered on the dockworkers’ struggle:
I think it is important to be educated in history. Regarding Black Lives Matter and police violence, it wasn’t long ago that labor was facing police terror. Labor needs to support these movements now. In 1934, during the San Francisco general strike, tens of thousands of workers went out to protest workers who had been murdered by the police.
This protest in 1934 against the police killing of two workers–what is known as “Bloody Thursday”–helped galvanize other unions to support the dockworkers’ strike and turned the struggle into a general strike that shut down San Francisco. These historic actions by port workers and the broader labor movement led to the unionization of the docks and the formation of the ILWU.
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On May 1, dozens of longshore workers, with their banners “An injury to one is and injury to all” and “Stop police terror,” led the march–along with the dockworkers’ drill team–towards Oscar Grant Plaza in downtown Oakland. ILWU members held signs “Justice for Pedie” and wore shirts with the faces of ILWU family members who were victims of police terror.
As the march moved through Oakland, African American families and community membered picked up signs and put them in the windows of their homes. Some also joined the protest, swelling the size of the march to about 1,000. In a touching display of support, grade school kids at two Oakland schools ran out cheering across their playground and fields to meet the march, yelling and chanting while peering through the schools’ fences.
People talked and chanted as they covered the several miles to downtown Oakland. Along the way, many engaged in discussions about how to build labor support for the Black Lives Matter movement and the need to connect the attacks on working people with a struggle against racist police violence. In an interview, ILWU Local 10 member Anthony Leviege pointed out that the movement needs to talk about how the system as a whole stands in the way of justice:
We need to talk about jobs. We should make demands for economic change. These economic problems are what lead to ghettos and police aggression. The police should turn their guns on who the real criminals are–corporations and those running the system. People are getting ground down. We can’t breathe. Police and war are all symbols of how this system just doesn’t work.
The march ended up with a rally at Oscar Grant Plaza, where the number of unions and activists taking part grew to include many Oakland and Berkeley public school teachers, transit workers in the Amalgamated Transit Union 1555, and organizations fighting for a living wage, such as East Bay Organizing Committee and the Fight for 15 Bay Area.
The ILWU action coincided with a rally of Service Employees International Union Local 1021 and International Federation of Professional and Technical Engineers Local 21, who are organizing for a new municipal workers’ contract with the City of Oakland.
ILWU Local 10 members spoke at Oscar Grant Plaza and expressed solidarity with the rebellion in Baltimore over the murder of Freddie Gray. They connected these struggles to the economic, political and class system that is waging war on all working people and trying to keep African Americans on the bottom rung of society.
“I understand why those kids are out there throwing rocks and bottles,” said Trent Willis, former president and business agent of Local 10. “It’s a result of many generations of people out there facing poverty and violence. We have to understand that this is a class struggle, my union understands that, and that’s why I am proud to be a Local 10 member.”
Clarence Thomas, who recently retired after 30 years as a longshore worker, union activist and former executive board member, expressed the militancy needed for this fight:
The ILWU is in the vanguard of the entire U.S. labor movement. If we want to stop this reign of terror, we have to stop commerce. When workers stop, they shut down America. The supreme task of the U.S. labor movement is to confront the corporations head on and lead a movement of workers and oppressed to build a just and peaceful world.
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Why is the American Federation of Teachers promoting Israeli apartheid?
Submitted by Ali Abunimah on Thu, 03/26/2015 – 19:23
American Federation of Teachers President Randi Weingarten led a propaganda tour to Israel and uses her union to push J Street’s anti-Palestinian-rights agenda. (Flickr)
The Israel lobby group J Street has just wrapped up its annual conference in Washington, DC.
The prevailing mood of alarm and despair in the wake of Israel’s election was captured by keynote speaker Randi Weingarten, president of the 1.5 million-strong American Federation of Teachers (AFT) trade union.
“This is a difficult moment for those of us who believe in the ideal of Jews and Palestinians living side by side, in two states, with real rights, and with security,” Weingarten lamented.
She lambasted Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s “last-ditch effort to retain power.” It was, she said, “both painful and pitiful – just days after thousands of us went to Selma to honor those brutally beaten fighting to exercise the right to vote – to watch Netanyahu renounce the two-state solution and demonize Israel’s Arab citizens for exercising their basic democratic rights.”
Weingarten fretted about a status quo that “threatens the future of the State of Israel.” She posited herself as a representative of the reasonable middle in a “vast chasm between those who believe: Israel, right or wrong, and never mind the occupation or democracy; and those who believe: Israel is evil and doesn’t have a right to exist, which then justifies BDS, or worse, violence or terrorism.”
Her attack on BDS – the Palestinian-led campaign of boycott, divestment and sanctions – and her attempt to associate it with “violence” and “terrorism,” echoes her earlier condemnation of the American Studies Association for endorsing the Palestinian call to boycott Israeli institutions complicit in occupation and human rights violations.
Weingarten then began to speak about a delegation of AFT officials earlier this year to “Israel and the West Bank” that she traveled on along with J Street executive director Jeremy Ben-Ami.
Weingarten is one of the most influential and high-profile union leaders in the country. But at a time when inner city public school teachers are battling against education cuts and privatization, she is spending her time on advocacy for Israel that has nothing to do with that agenda.
Without consulting her constituents, she is using her union platform to push a Zionist agenda informed by her view that the Israeli occupation army is the sacred and miraculous answer to the Holocaust.
Her address to J Street represented precisely the kind of liberal Zionism that Israeli journalist Noam Sheizaf condemned when he appeared on the same stage: full of easy potshots at the bogeyman Netanyahu, but total silence about Israel’s siege and massacres in Gaza.
The AFT president’s speech was not the only involvement of a US teacher’s union in the conference. The J Street program lists the Illinois Federation of Teachers (IFT) as a major donor to the conference.
IFT, which represents more than 100,000 educators and public employees in Illinois and is affiliated with the AFT, ignored repeated requests for comment about the amount of the donation and its purpose.
But here’s a clue: IFT president Dan Montgomery, who serves as a vice-president of the AFT, also went on the junket with Weingarten and Ben-Ami.
Israel lobby’s kinder face
J Street poses as the kinder, gentler face of the Israel lobby, the alternative to hardlineAIPAC. But it is just as adamantly opposed to fundamental Palestinian rights.
For the same reason, J Street opposes the right of return of Palestinian refugees.
It has unyieldingly supported recent Israeli massacres of Palestinians, including the attack on Gaza last summer that killed more than 2,200 people. It has endorsed the Obama administration’s campaign to end all efforts to bring Israeli war criminals to justice.
Neither Weingarten nor Ben-Ami responded to requests for comment about the AFT/J-Street visit to “Israel and the West Bank.”
But we can gain much insight into the delegation and its pernicious politics from this ten-minute video released by AFT to coincide with Weingarten’s appearance at the J Street conference.
Bearing Witness: AFT Leaders Mission to Israel and the West Bank
It opens with Weingarten standing against the backdrop of occupied East Jerusalem and waxing poetic about looking out over “four thousand years of history.”
She enthuses about Israel’s “Declaration of Independence” as a document that embodies Israel’s supposed egalitarian, open and democratic spirit. (This is the same document that historian Ilan Pappe describes in the current issue of The Link as “window dressing aimed at safeguarding Israel’s future international image and status” from the reality of ethnic cleansing and apartheid.)
With uplifting music playing throughout, the video reproduces almost every conceivable trope of what Palestinians condemn as normalization.
There is a relentless insistence on “dialogue” and heart-warming singing groups and schools bringing Arab and Jewish children together. There is constant chatter about “both sides,” obscuring the enormous power imbalance between a nuclear-armed, US-backed military occupation engaged in industrial-scale colonization, and a nearly defenseless, impoverished, occupied and disposessed people.
The American delegates are presented as caring innocents who just want to make a difference.
J Street director Jeremy Ben-Ami (far right) with AFT president Randi Weingarten and Illinois Federation of Teachers president Dan Montgomery (fifth and sixth from right, respectively) with other members of the AFT delegation and Dalia Rabin (center) at the Yitzhak Rabin Center in Tel Aviv. (via Facebook)
PACBI, the Palestinian Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel, defines normalization as: “cultural activities, projects, events and products involving Palestinians and/or other Arabs on one side and Israelis on the other … that are based on the false premise of symmetry/parity between the oppressors and the oppressed or that assume that both colonizers and colonized are equally responsible for the ‘conflict.’”
Such activities, PACBI states, “are intellectually dishonest and morally reprehensible forms of normalization that ought to be boycotted.”
PACBI is not opposed to all contact between Israelis and Palestinians, but says context and politics are critical.
It welcomes “co-resistance” activities in which “the Israeli party in the project recognizes the comprehensive Palestinian rights under international law” corresponding to the rights set out in the Palestinian call for boycott, divestment and sanctions: an end to occupation, full equality for Palestinian citizens of Israel and full respect of the rights of Palestinian refugees.
But even when the AFT video documents delegates being shown some of the most brutal aspects of the occupation, it is overlaid with an anesthetizing, normalizing fog.
The delegates are seen on a tour of Hebron, led not by Palestinians who live there but by an Israeli Jew from the group Breaking the Silence. They witness the emptiness of Shuhada Street, once the bustling heart of the Old City, but forbidden to Palestinians by the occupation army.
One AFT delegate says the situation in Hebron is “symbolic of the distrust on both sides.” But what former UN Special Rapporteur and international jurist John Dugard has documented in Hebron is an Israeli-imposed regime he explicitly likens to the apartheid that existed in his native South Africa.
This episode, like the rest of the video, deceptively presents occupier and occupied as equally vulnerable and equally responsible.
Erasing Gaza massacre
The only exception is when Israelis are shown as the victims of Palestinians.
“We went to a community right along the Gaza Strip,” Illinois Federation of Teachers President Dan Montgomery explains.
He talks about how “when fighting broke out in Gaza,” Israelis living in the area got fifteen-second warnings of rocket strikes. “And you’re frantically trying to find out where your small kids are,” he adds.
As he speaks, the video lingers on Israeli elementary school children. It then shows how many “safe places” – bomb shelters – they have.
This Israeli-centric view regularly instilled in participants of hasbara, or propaganda, tours completely ignores the 900,000 children – half the total population imprisoned in the Gaza Strip under Israeli siege – who have no shelters.
There is no mention of the UN schools repeatedly bombed during Israel’s attack, as they served as makeshift shelters, killing children and their families.
Neither is there any mention of Israel’s relentless ceasefire violations and attacks on Gaza, before and after the summer massacre.
Palestinians in Gaza are invisible, not a subject of concern for AFT or for J Street.
Weingarten made no mention of them in her speech, except, like the video, as a threat to Israelis.
Palestinians: visible but absent
The AFT delegates, however, do remind us repeatedly that they met and spoke to Palestinians in many places in the West Bank – an assertion meant to deliver an impression of even-handedness.
But in the film all the analysis and framing is given by Israeli and American Jews. No Palestinian is seen or heard providing analysis or bearing witness to Israeli crimes.
At one point, J Street director Jeremy Ben-Ami is seen lecturing to the group. In the background is a slide showing relative population figures of Arabs and Jews – the “demographic threat” supposedly posed by Palestinian births is a particular obsession of liberal Zionists.
Scholars Mayssoun Sukarieh and Stuart Tannock have termed AFT’s US-funded teacher training programs in the Middle East “labor imperialism” that serves “US government foreign policy interests in maintaining and extending American control and influence over the region.”
At the same time, the video suggests AFT is encouraging normalization between Palestinian and Israeli teachers’ groups.
Towards the end of the video, there is a sanitized segment on how the Nakba – the 1948 ethnic cleansing of Palestine – is commemorated at Jerusalem’s Hand in Hand School, one of a tiny number of mixed Jewish-Palestinian schools.
Jewish and Palestinian students and teachers briefly speak about how difficult it is. A Palestinian teacher talks about how she teaches the history from “both sides.”
A Palestinian girl says that Nakba Day “reminds us that we need to move on and not just stick to the past and all the bad things that happened.”
The message is clear: forget about the past, and forget about its present – the unfulfilled rights of millions of Palestinian refugees.
But forgetting is only a prescription for Palestinians, never for Jews.
After the visit to Palestine, Weingarten and the rest of the AFT delegation went to Auschwitz, the Nazi death camp in Poland – and this is featured in the video.
The lesson of Auschwitz, Weingarten explains, is “Never forget. You can’t combat hate and prejudice if you forget.”
Using the Holocaust
The inclusion of Auschwitz in a video on the situation in Palestine seems calculated to send the not so subtle message that whatever is happening to Palestinians is dwarfed morally and in scale by the Holocaust.
In her address to J Street, Weingarten made the connection clear, using the Holocaust – or Shoah – as a rhetorical device to justify Zionism and whitewash and elevate the Israeli state to a sacred principle and manifest destiny.
She intersperses this passage with “dayenu” – a word taken from the Passover ritual meaning roughly “it would have sufficed for us”:
For our ancestors, if we had said: There will be a Jewish state – for the 6 million who died in the Shoah, there is now a homeland where more than six million Jews live – they would have said, “Dayenu.” A state with a powerful military. Dayenu. A vigorous economy. Dayenu. A proud democracy. Dayenu.
Here, Weingarten really lays out her cards. Her interactions with and ostensible concern for Palestinians are nothing but a liberal cover for Jewish nationalism. In the end she represents the Israeli army as the answer to the Holocaust – a classic Netanyahu talking point.
In addition to Weingarten, Montgomery and Ben-Ami, the delegation included Ted Kirsch, president of AFT Pennsylvania; Dennis Kelly, president of United Educators of San Francisco; Melissa Cropper, president of the Ohio Federation of Teachers; Rabbi Sharon Kleinbaum, leader of Congregation Simchat Beit Torah in New York; Louis Malfaro, an AFT vice-president and an officer of Texas AFT; Ruby Newbold, an AFT vice-president and vice-president of AFT Michigan and Patricia Keefer, AFT’s director of international affairs.
AFT’s sordid history
A little history is useful to put the AFT’s support for Israel and for the anti-Palestinian rights agenda of J Street in perspective.
During the decades of the Cold War, AFT functioned as an arm of US imperialism and foreign policy, particularly in Latin America.
The union’s leaders, foremost among them Albert Shanker, its president from 1974 to 1997, formed close alliances with the CIA and other US government agencies. Their mission was to stem the influence of communism by creating politically amenable US-sponsored international labor organizations. In the process they helped divide and destroy the trade union movements in many countries.
AFT was central to a nexus of organizations doing such work, including the American Institute for Free Labor Development (AIFLD), the US-financed organization sponsored by the AFL-CIO labor federation. AIFLD notoriously worked closely with the CIA and the US embassy to destabilize Chile and instigate Pinochet’s 1973 coup.
This quotation from Selden suggests that much of the international activity undertaken by Shanker and like-minded associates was motivated by a desire to advance Israel’s interests:
The whole AIFLD, CIA, AFT, AFL-CIO and Social Democrats USA web of relationships is complicated by the Israel problem. American Jews are understandably concerned for the future of Israel, and rightly or wrongly they consider the policy of the Soviet Union to be anti-Israel, at least in its effect. This in turn leads many Israeli supporters to condone activities of the interlocking defense-intelligence labor establishment which they otherwise would indignantly denounce. It is hard to take a balanced view of such an emotional problem.
Democracy’s Champion, a book published by the AFT’s Albert Shanker Institute to honor Shanker’s legacy, confirms that his Zionism was a strong motivation throughout his life and leadership, turning the union into a perfect tool for both Israel and US imperialism.
Soon after he took office, for instance, Shanker appointed AFT staffer Eugenia Kemble to join AFL-CIO delegations to the UN’s International Labor Organization (ILO). One of Kemble’s “main tasks,” according to Democracy’s Champion, “was to help defeat the anti-Israel resolutions that arose quite regularly at ILO conferences.” Kemble received the “Israel State Medal” for her efforts.
During the 1970s, the AFT regularly adopted resolutions pledging staunch support for Israel. A 1974 resolution railed against the UN for voting to allow Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) leader Yasser Arafat to address the General Assembly.
“Not even the terrorists’ most ardent supporters seriously envision the wolf turning into a lamb,” the resolution states, before asserting, “We stand firm with the State of Israel and her heroic people, Jews, Arabs and Christians alike.”
Similarly, a 1976 resolution called Israel “our only remaining sister democracy in the Middle East” and “a cornerstone of America’s defense against the spread of totalitarian movements and military dictatorship into the Mediterranean and the Middle East.”
In 2006, the AFT adopted a resolution fully supporting that year’s invasion of Lebanon, during which Israel killed more than 1,200 civilians and deliberately destroyed much of the country’s infrastructure.
It was not without opposition, however. “The delegates narrowly passed this resolution after heated debate,” wrote AFT San Francisco Local 2121 member and past president Allan Fisher in a letter published by the The Boston Globe.
According to Fisher, “half the delegates on the convention floor vigorously opposed this resolution because it does not call for a ceasefire and makes no criticism whatsoever of Israel’s unjust and brutal behavior.”
Michael Letwin, co-convener of the solidarity group Labor for Palestine, says that despite the complicity of union leaderships like the AFT’s, rank-and-file labor is playing a growing role in the Palestinians’ struggle to regain all their rights.
“That is why BDS is championed by the Congress of South African Trade Unions and numerous other trade unionists around the world, including dockworkers on the US West Coast who refuse to handle Israeli Zim line cargo, and UAW 2865 at the University of California,” Letwin told The Electronic Intifada.
“Weingarten and other US labor leaders must end their longstanding complicity with apartheid Israel, and support a free Palestine, from the river to the sea, with equal rights for all,” he added.
The support for Israel may be rooted in the AFT’s history but it is also symptomatic of the approach Weingarten takes to politics and power today when it comes to the union’s core mission.
The strike by the AFT-affiliated Chicago Teachers Union the following September was seen as a model and inspiration for educators across the US facing neoliberal “reform” and privatization agendas.
Chicago has long been ground zero for the assault on public education, especially stealth privatization through the creation of charter schools. In 2013, Emanuel announced the closure of dozens of schools, overwhelmingly in long-neglected African American neighborhoods.
Karen Lewis, the president of the Chicago Teachers Union, was tipped as a possible challenger to Emanuel for mayor, but declined to run for health reasons.
Dr. Steven Salaita, whose appointment to the University of Illinois was withdrawn after he tweeted criticism of Israel. (AP Photo/Seth Perlman)
Most academic organizations have been wary of discussing, much less endorsing, the academic boycott of Israel. But things have changed since April 2013, when the Association of Asian American Studies became the first academic organization to answer the call for solidarity from the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions movement (BDS) emanating out of Palestinian civil society. The American Studies Association vote to endorse the academic boycott of Israel that December put into motion a mass movement that has had a ripple effect way beyond the United States. The horrific Israeli attack on Gaza this past summer, which killed more than 2,200 Gazans, including over 500 children, garnered worldwide protest demonstrations on an unheard-of scale. And just recently, continuing the Israeli government’s hard turn to the far right, the Israeli parliament passed a Nationality Law that, according to the Christian Science Monitor, “threatens to further alienate Israel’s minority of Arab citizens, tarnish its reputation as a democracy, and erode Israel’s ties with western allies.”
At the November 23 meeting of the cabinet of Israel, there was open contention over this controversial law, which would “enshrine in law Israel’s nature as a Jewish state, reserving what the prime minister called ‘national rights,’ such as the flag and anthem and right to immigrate, for Jews alone.” And while according to Netanyahu, “it would also underline Israel’s democratic nature, with equality for all its citizens,” nobody can seriously accept that contention, given the nature of the law—even if they could before.
The combination of unmitigated building of illegal settlements, massive and inhumane military operations, and legislative maneuvers to codify racism has changed the playing field. If not in resounding resolutions in support of the BDS movement, we see a significant shift of attitude in academic organizations. No longer is it taboo to even talk about a possible boycott—organizations such as the American Anthropological Association (AAA) are formally opening the conversation.
Gathered in December in Washington, DC, members of the AAA addressed a petition that would have closed off discussion of a possible boycott of Israeli institutions. Before that, more than 1,000 members of the AAA had signed a statement supporting the boycott of Israeli academic institutions. In one of the largest gatherings in the history of the association (so large that hotel staff had to remove a partition in the meeting room in order to accommodate 700 participants), a pro-boycott faction in the AAA observed, “The effort to shut down the boycott discussion backfired spectacularly: members present overwhelmingly voted down the [anti-boycott] measure, which mustered a mere 52 supporters. The atmosphere in the room was electric, as anthropologists from across the profession discussed the boycott and the ongoing violations of Palestinian academic freedom and human rights. Of the 24 members who spoke, three-quarters opposed the resolution, arguing that it was an attempt to shut down a crucial debate.” (Emphasis in the original.)
And on November 20, Rosalind Petchesky, a member of the National Women’s Studies Association, reported: “This past week, at the annual conference of the National Women’s Studies Association in San Juan, Puerto Rico, a coalition of feminist Palestine solidarity activists—mainly Palestinian and Jewish—succeeded in urging almost the entire attending body of the conference—a hugely diverse group of around 2,300 faculty members and graduate students in Women & Gender Studies from around the country meeting in occupied Puerto Rico—to support a statement concerning injustices in occupied Palestine.” A draft of the NWSA statement reads in part:
We, the undersigned members of the National Women’s Studies Association (NWSA), endorse the call for Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS), issued by a broad coalition of Palestinian civil society in 2005. As feminist scholars, activists, teachers, and engaged intellectuals we recognize the interconnectedness of systemic forms of oppression (including genocide, slavery, racism, sexism, homophobia, class-based oppression, Islamophobia, ableism, ageism and more) and the transformative potential of resistance and solidarity in all our communities as well as across divides and borders. We cannot overlook the injustice and violence, including sexual and gender-based violence, perpetrated against Palestinians in the West Bank, Gaza Strip, within Israel as well as the colonial displacement of millions.
The previous month, in October, the Peace and Justice Studies Association (PJSA), a bi-national professional association, including peace and justice scholars, activists and educators in the United States and Canada, joined the BDS campaign. After three months of deliberation, with 87 percent of the vote, the association endorsed the proposal to respond to the Palestinians’ call for international solidarity and to join the BDS movement.
Perhaps the most significant discussion took place at the Middle East Studies Association (MESA) in November, in Washington, DC. As Magid Shihade, a professor at Bir Zeit University, notes, “MESA has historically opposed even discussing the boycott as an association.” Yet during its business meeting, 75 percent of those attending voted for a resolution that supports the rights of individuals, groups and associations to boycott and be protected against any backlash. MESA will create a yearlong forum for all members to discuss the topic of boycott. Shihade also reports that MESA intends to “open more space for Palestinians and for topics such as settler colonialism in Israel-Palestine.” The Associated Press writes: “The organization resolved to remain an open forum for discussion of academic boycotts of Israel and deplored attempts to intimidate those taking part in such activities. The issue arose from the 2005 Palestinian civil society call for boycott, divestment, and sanctions (BDS) against Israel.”
So, too, the Modern Language Association, one of the largest academic organizations in the world with nearly 24,000 members in a hundred countries, has agreed to formally talk about an academic boycott of Israel and academic boycotts in general. The organization has announced that it will devote considerable time to discussion of the specific case of the academic boycott of Israel, and academic boycotts in general, and the right to academic freedom and free speech. In a recent e-mail to its members, the MLA states that this year’s Delegate Assembly meeting will consider “Institutional and Individual Boycotts: How Can the MLA Approach This Issue?”; “What Is the Relation of Boycotts to Academic Freedom?” and “How Should the MLA Respond to Problems with Faculty Governance and Retaliation against Public Speech?” One of the sponsors of a resolution for an academic boycott of Israel, David Lloyd, reports that the organization has decided that its 2016 convention will include a debate on the subject, with both sides represented. The MLA will then give its members a full year to continue the discussion before entertaining a resolution for boycott.
And now in the Steven Salaita case—a related and very prominent matter regarding the right to criticize Israeli state policies frankly and without threat of punishment—the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign Senate Committee on Academic Freedom and Tenure has found that
The process by which Dr. Salaita’s proposed appointment was withdrawn and eventually rejected did not follow existing policies and procedures in several substantial respects, raising questions about the institution’s commitment to shared governance. The reasons given—the civility of tweets made by Dr. Salaita in the summer of 2014—is not consistent with the University’s guarantee of freedom of political speech. Statements made by the Chancellor, President, and Trustees asserting that the incivility of a candidate’s utterances may constitute sufficient grounds for rejecting his appointment should be renounced. We conclude, however, that the Chancellor has raised legitimate questions about Dr. Salaita’s professional fitness that must be addressed. In light of the irregular circumstances leading up to the Board of Trustees’ disapproval of an appointment for Dr. Salaita, the Committee recommends that Dr. Salaita’s candidacy be remanded to the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences for reconsideration by a committee of qualified academic experts.
Again, at this point this finding falls short of vindication, but it is a momentous decision by a regularly appointed university committee to have an open and fair discussion of the issue.
Finally, it is not only academic organizations that are signing on to and discussing BDS. Crucially, people in the community and unions are getting involved. Some rank-and-file members participated in the Block the Boat campaign this summer, a consolidated effort to stop an Israeli ship, the Zim, from docking on the West Coast. The campaign states its purpose thus:
By Blocking the Boat we are disrupting business as usual at ports throughout North America and we are putting BDS into action. Direct action. By stopping Zim we are disrupting international commerce and an asset to Israel’s national security. We are not only choosing to refrain from buying an Israeli product, or engaging with an Israeli institution, we are choosing to take action to stop Israel in its tracks. And we are doing so in struggle with workers, with Black and Brown communities, and with all those impacted by the role of Israel in global repression. The Block the Boat campaign is not only an escalation of BDS tactics; it is bringing BDS into the streets and into our communities.
This month has been a particularly momentous one in demonstrating the impact of BDS. On December 4, UAW 2865, the University of California Student-Worker union, became the first major US labor union to support divestment from Israel, by a wide margin in its membership vote. The union’s press release states,
UAW 2865 joins several labor unions in the United Kingdom and Ireland, UNITE New Zealand, CUPE in Canada, COSATU in South Africa and many dockworker unions around the world. It also joins growing grassroots voices in the U.S. labor movement including rank and file members of the International Longshore Workers’ Union Local 10 that supported community pickets and successfully blocked Israeli ships from unloading goods similar to their historic involvement in the anti-South African apartheid movement, and hundreds of labor organizers who signed onto the Labor for Palestine statement.
As another indicator of the sea change when it comes to the BDS campaign, The Chronicle of Higher Education has just named the American Studies Association to its “2014 Influence List,” commenting: “As national organizations go, the American Studies Association is fairly small. But its impact this year on political discourse has been outsized. By voting in favor of an academic boycott of Israel, its eighteen-member executive body provoked a bitter debate nationally and internationally, within higher education and beyond.” As ASA president Lisa Duggan, a professor at New York University, notes in that piece: “We got into the mainstream press and triggered a number of conversations not visible before about Israel-Palestine. In that sense we had done what we wanted to do.” What the ASA has done, in endorsing the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions movement, has been to launch a new and unprecedented national discussion on the issue of Israel-Palestine, one that promises only to gain volume in 2015.
Comments Off on Breaking Taboos, BDS Gains Ground Among Academics (The Nation)
The union’s 4 December vote comes in the wake of a momentous period of organizing for BDS on college campuses and within scholarly associations — a process marked by a spectacular victory for our side when the American Studies Association voted overwhelmingly for BDS in December 2013. This followed the Asian American Studies Association, which in April 2013 became the first scholarly association to adopt BDS.
This is despite, and in response to, the violence unleashed by Israel on Palestinian lives and homes during the summer in the genocidal military campaign against Gaza.
One way to judge our success would be by the measure of outrage of Zionist organizations, such as the Anti-Defamation League.
The Anti-Defamation League has made an alphabetical list of all university campuses that in 2014 considered or voted on BDS. That number, just for 2014, was an impressive fifteen, of which five student governments actually passed a BDS motion, usually by huge majorities.
“Perhaps more disconcerting,” according to the Anti-Defamation League, was “the extent to which support for BDS has seeped into the realm of scholars.”
Following the American Studies Association vote, several scholarly organizations — including the Peace and Justice Studies Association, the Modern Language Association and the National Women’s Studies Association, among others — have either passed or are considering voting on BDS resolutions.
As it turns out, 4 December — the day the UAW 2865 will be voting on BDS — marks the first anniversary of the American Studies Association victory.
Tactic of the dispossessed
Undoubtedly, the lead-up to the vote and its aftermath will see an escalation of Zionist propaganda against BDS. So it is important to make two points as we organize towards the future:
First, that historically, boycott is a tactic used by the dispossessed against the powerful.
This is not a new tactic. Boycott has deep roots in anti-imperialist struggle, internationally.
Palestinians stand alongside other anti-imperialist fighters whose rich and fierce history of struggle is worth recalling today — not simply because it ought to be part of our collective historical memory, but also because they won against their oppressors.
Second, that the tactic of BDS presents particular difficulties for Israel and its allies, because it is an international movement and not tied to particular nation states or their rulers.
The 2005 call for BDS from Palestinian civil society was both an acknowledgment and a call for solidarity.
It was an acknowledgement the Palestinian people could no longer depend on Arab ruling elites to deliver a just victory due to their compromises with neoliberalism and US imperialism.
Consequently, it was a call for solidarity to those Palestinians could rely on: an international citizenry who could stand with them, often against their own home governments.
Both these features of BDS deserve unpacking.
Boycott, as a tactic of resistance, derives its name from one Captain Charles Boycott.
Boycott was a land agent in nineteenth century Ireland managing the estates of a large landowner, Lord Erne, in County Mayo. Boycott was known for his singular cruelty and ruthlessness towards the Irish people who worked on his land.
But all did not go well for Captain Boycott in history. When Boycott tried to evict his Irish tenants in 1880, the workers, organized by the Irish Land League, led a “boycott” of Charles Boycott.
The entire community participated in the campaign to isolate the imperialist. Workers stopped work on his land, shops refused to serve him; he even failed get anyone to do his laundry.
Boycott finally left Ireland in 1880 but not before he gave us the verb “to boycott” in celebration of the hundreds of ordinary Irish people who kicked him out of their land.
The next successful mass boycott campaign was the Swadeshi movement in Bengal in British-occupied India. At a packed town hall meeting in Calcutta on 7 August 1905, leading nationalists of Bengal called for a boycott of all British goods and institutions to protest the then Viceroy Lord Curzon’s decision to partition Bengal and fuel Hindu-Muslim religious tensions.
The decision of the Bengali nationalists to boycott the colonial power was, again, rooted in internationalism. Its inspiration came in part from the Chinese boycott of American goods in protest against racist immigration laws — a tactic noted as worthy of emulation by radical Bengali nationalists.
The boycott of 1905 blossomed into a full-scale passive resistance campaign, marked by public burnings of British goods, boycott of British schools, colleges, law courts and places of work and a demand for full independence from colonial rule.
Activists and volunteers addressed massive rallies, organized lectures in villages, composed beautiful songs and poems about the motherland, wrote street plays and even set up their own arbitration courts as parallel judiciaries to the British law courts.
Lord Curzon, known for his racism and imperial arrogance, was forced to revoke the partition and ultimately return to England.
The year 1905 proved to be an inspiration and part-blueprint for the subsequent Gandhian movement of the 1920s and later. In fact the economic boycott of British goods proved to be far more intense in the 1921-22 and 1930s campaigns, worrying the major industrialists in Britain.
Hallmark of freedom struggle
The boycott of British goods and institutions became a hallmark of the Indian freedom struggle in general, inspiring similar tactics internationally — notably in South Africa.
Throughout the 1950s the African National Congress and its allies spearheaded various boycott campaigns against the apartheid state. A 1958 paper by the ANC’s national executive argued that “new methods of struggle must emerge … we can no longer rely on the old forms.”
The movement gained international support slowly through the 1960s, passing through acts of brutal violence of the South African state such as the Sharpeville massacre and despite tenacious opposition from the US and British governments in the 1980s.
Margaret Thatcher, the British prime minister, called the ANC a “terrorist organization.” Her spokesperson, Bernard Ingham, famously declared that anyone who believed that the ANC would ever form a government in South Africa was “living in cloud cuckoo land.”
And yet, Nelson Mandela walked out from 27 years of imprisonment into the South African sunshine in February of 1990 — marking the beginning of the end for white minority rule.
Boycotting a settler colonial regime, then, has a proud anti-imperialist history and long history of success.
The ANC revolutionaries called the strategy a “devastating weapon” when wielded in concert with “sympathetic organizations overseas.” And rightly so.
Unlike the South Africans and Indians, the Palestinians in historic Palestine do not have the same strategic power over the Israeli state.
In South Africa and India if the indigenous people — Black South Africans and Indians — stopped all work for and with the colonial regime, the regime would fall. The colonized outnumbered the colonizers by several counts.
This is not the case in Palestine.
Palestinians living in the state of Israel now form a minority population, compared to the Israeli settler-colonial population — all the more reasons why the right of return for Palestinian refugees ought to be an absolutely non-negotiable demand. In historic Palestine overall, the Israeli Jewish and Palestinian populations are roughly equal in number.
This means that numerically, Palestinians, within Palestine, cannot pose the same strategic pressure on the settlers as their Indian or South African counterparts could.
But the rest of us can.
We are many
The rest of us who stand for justice in Palestine can honor the call for solidarity from Palestine and campaign for boycott, divestment and sanctions against the apartheid state of Israel.
In my mind, there is no question that Palestinians have provided the fighting edge to the struggles of the late-twentieth century. I would even go as far as to say that the intifadas — uprisings — in particular and the Palestinian resistance in general provided the inspiration and confidence for what came to be called the Arab Spring.
But they cannot win this fight in isolation, and this is not just their fight.
First, there is the fact that Palestinians are largely an unarmed population resisting a state that is one of the most militarized states on the planet and which uses deadly force on everyone, including infants, with impunity.
Second, most of Israel’s arms are supplied by countries of the global North, the US leading that list. This means we can put pressure on our own governments to stop the genocide in Palestine.
We can do all this because numerically, we are many. And the people who uphold Israeli apartheid may be powerful, but they are few.
If Israeli apartheid falls, it will not just be a victory for Palestine. Because it will be such a massive blow to global imperialism, it will be a taste of liberation for all of us.
This is why it is important to remind ourselves of the rich and deeply internationalist tradition of boycott, as we get ready to introduce BDS resolutions in our schools, unions and community organizations.
Just like the UAW 2865 will on 4 December.
Because boycotts have a history of winning.
Tithi Bhattacharya is a professor of South Asian History at Purdue University, a long time activist for Palestinian justice and a member of the editorial board of theInternational Socialist Review.
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