Fellows in the News

On December 4, graduate students at the University of California will have the opportunity to pursue justice by exercising their vote on two related issues. The first is whether our union, Local UAW 2865, should join the global movement for Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) to be enacted against Israel until that nation-state has complied with international law and respects the rights of all Palestinian people. The second measure asks each of us to personally commit to participation in the academic boycott against Israeli educational institutions.

As a grad student, a labor activist, and as a Jew, I will be voting yes on both questions.

If the first question passes, we will call upon the University of California and the UAW International to divest from and decline to conduct business with Israeli state institutions as well as the international corporations that are complicit in the human rights violations committed by Israel against the Palestinian people. Our Local will also call upon our federal government to end military aid to Israel.

As we are reminded at every turn, 2014 is the quinquagenary of the Free Speech movement. Our institution is grounded in the belief that educational excellence can model respectful, civil communication and promote mutual respect. (Regents Policy 4400) If UC is to accomplish these objectives, it cannot simultaneously invest in entities that are structured to do exactly the opposite.

What does BDS mean?

Boycott

This proposes both a traditional consumer boycott of goods and products, and an academic boycott. What is the latter? We are asked to pledge that we will personally refuse to take part in research, conferences, events, exchange programs, or other activities that are sponsored by Israeli universities complicit in the occupation of Palestine and the settler-colonial policies of the state of Israel. The boycott is directed against institutions, not individual scholars. In fact, we are actively encouraged to collaborate with individual Israelis, Palestinians, and others in the region who oppose the occupation of Palestine and related policies of the state of Israel.

Divest

The United States is virtually alone in its support of Israel’s war on the Palestinian people and occupation of Palestinian land. Most members of the global community are committed to the rule of law, and see the Israeli state’s actions for what they are: the occupation of Palestinian land, in violation of international law. Israel’s collective punishment of Palestinian people for individual acts of violence further violates international and human rights law. This past July, in a vote by the United Nations’ Human Rights Council, The United States was the sole vote in opposition to resolution (A/HRC/S-21/L.1) on ensuring respect for international law in the Occupied Palestinian Territory, including East Jerusalem.

In fact, the ongoing, brutal oppression of the Palestinian people relies on continuing U.S. military aid to Israel. US government support for the Israeli government legitimizes the messaging of that government to its people, while our tax dollars and other economic investments underwrite the cost. Calling on our government to cease its support for war against civilians is a position with which I, as a person of conscience, stand. In demanding that my University divest its capital investments from public and private entities that perpetuate the occupation and its human rights violations, I am joining with others who object to affiliation with an institution that uses its financial resources to underwrite illegal activity.

Sanctions

Both measures make a clear distinction between institutions and individuals. The actions called for are to be taken against the former: The nation-state of Israel, corporations, and universities that are complicit in the subjugation of the Palestinian people. It is also essential to note that this measure does not call for support of Hamas or any government of Palestine. Just as Americans are distinguishable from our government, so Palestinian – and Israeli – people are distinguishable from theirs. Enacting sanctions is a tool civil society uses to communicate the unacceptability of a nation’s practices.

At its most basic level, a vote to approve BDS is a vote for human rights. The Israeli government has been violating the human – and civil – rights of the Palestinian people continually and systematically. The Israeli military occupies Palestinian territory. The Israeli government has supported the illegal settlement of Palestinian land by Israeli citizens. Israel practices collective punishment against the Palestinian people for acts committed by individuals. None of these practices are defensible legally, morally, or ethically; if practiced by other nations they would be identified as acts of terror. Yet we as American taxpayers and those of us who are Jews pay for these practices both fiscally and through being held accountable for the actions of what is, for all practical terms, a rogue state.

Hamas’ rain of rockets on the Israeli people is no more defensible than the actions of the Israeli government. The differences lie in inevitability, and outcome. By inevitability, I refer to what people – any people – will do when surrounded, subjugated, are denied their rights to land and livelihood – even to basic food for their children. According to the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East, only one in four Gaza households are food secure. The population density of Gaza is among the highest in the world and growing: On July 14th 2014 the Washington Post reported 42,600 people per square mile within Gaza City; two weeks later, on July 29th, it reported that land seized by Israel to create a “buffer zone” equaled 44% of the Gaza strip, most of which had been densely populated before the Israel military systematically destroyed it. (See http://tinyurl.com/n8e4hfp)

By outcomes, I mean bluntly, death and destruction. During Israel’s month long invasion of the Gaza Strip this past summer, 71 Israelis died – and so did 2,131 Palestinians (http://tinyurl.com/k8wxe5n) 69% of the Palestinians killed were civilians; 24% were children. Of the Israelis who lost their lives, 6% were civilians; 1% was a child. 2,927 rockets were launched at Israel from Gaza; the psychological affects of which were severe for the Israelis who spent much of that month in bomb shelters, though little physical damage was sustained. By contrast, Israel struck 3,834 targets in Gaza (http://tinyurl.com/l265xjh).

The Israeli government’s propaganda has also damaged the Israeli people’s collective psyche and identity. Israel was founded as a Jewish democratic state. Today, as the government takes every conceivable opportunity to reinforce its narrative that “Palestinians are enemies who threaten Jewish sovereignty and are solely to blame for the failure to achieve peace” (http://tinyurl.com/oz6u624), the Israeli people valorize a Jewish state over one that is democratic. What was founded as a secular state devolves into a theocracy.

For me personally, the abuses of human and civil rights that are funded through public and private investment in Israel are the central issue. Yet my support of BDS is also consistent with my identity as a Jew. It is precisely because of the values I hold as a Jew that I feel so strongly that Israel’s violations of international law are unsupportable. My task, the task of every Jew, is Tikkun Olam – to heal the world. Illegal occupation of Palestine produces violence, not peace. Palestinian and Israeli people, especially children, suffer the consequences of Israeli policies and the (predictable) response of the Palestinian government.

The Torah teaches: “You shall not oppress a stranger, for you know the feelings of the stranger, having yourselves been strangers in the land of Egypt” (Exodus 23:9), and further requires that “When strangers reside with you in your land, you shall not wrong them. The strangers who reside with you shall be to you as your citizens; you shall love each one as yourself, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.” (Leviticus 19:33-34) Yet as I write this, the Israeli Cabinet has just passed a bill that emphasizes Israel’s Jewishness above its democratic nature, and relegates Arabic from an official language to one with a “special status.”

Ultimately, the BDS is a call for one of the central tenets of my life as a Jew, an activist, and a human being: The pursuit of justice. The Torah exhorts us to pursue justice. Labor reminds us that the Industrial Workers of the World taught that “an injury to one is an injury to all.” The pursuit of justice is central to the human experience. Marx saw revolution as the inevitable result of injustice. Pope Paul VI articulated Catholic Social Teaching’s central principle when he counseled “If you want peace, work for justice.” I am proud of my union, which sees its work of achieving justice for the workers it represents within the context of injustice elsewhere in the world and is giving us the opportunity to speak truth to the University, to Labor, to Israel. I’m seizing that opportunity: I’m voting yes to both questions on December 4.

About the Author

Lisa Feldstein is a doctoral candidate in City & Regional Planning at UC Berkeley and a member of UAW Local 2865′s “Jewish Officers and Members in Support of Divestment.” A progressive activist who resides in San Francisco, she is a member of Kehilla Community Community Synagogue in Piedmont, CA. She is grateful to Roi Livne, Zach Levenson, and Lilith C. Dornhuber de Bellesiles for fact-checking and support on this post.

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