CUPE union votes for academic boycott of Israel

Feb 22, 2009 08:23 PM

Adrian Morrow
staff reporter

University workers in the Canadian Union of Public Employees have passed a controversial motion calling for an academic boycott of Israel, and union members from at least one Toronto university are planning to pressure their school to cut any financial ties with the country.

Although the motion didn’t call for a boycott of individual Israeli academics – as some union members had suggested last month – it encourages union locals to publicly discuss boycotting Israeli universities and to push Canadian universities to end any research or investments that could benefit the Israeli army.

Members of Jewish organizations say the motion sets a dangerous precedent by singling out Israel and vow to keep fighting it.

Delegates representing university workers in CUPE’s Ontario branch, which represents 200,000 government and other public sector workers, voted on the motion at a meeting in Windsor.

The committee, which represents the union’s university workers, called on the union to develop an education campaign on what its proponents label Israel’s “apartheid” practices, such as building a wall around Palestinian territory and invading the Gaza Strip in December; asks the union to back an international campaign of sanctions and boycotts against the country and asks the national union to start researching Canadian connections to Israel’s occupation of the Palestinian territories.

The boycott, however, stopped short of calling for Canadian universities to ban Israeli academics, an idea previously floated by CUPE Ontario President Sid Ryan.

“(We want to) do what we can in a peaceful way to end the occupation of Palestine,” Ryan said, adding that the idea of the motion is to boycott research that helps the Israeli military and to investigate any ties between Canadian universities and Israel, not to ban individual Israeli professors.

How the motion is put into place will be left up to individual union locals, he said. At least one Toronto local was planning to support the boycott.

“This is a disastrous and horrific situation that’s developed (in Israel), especially in light of recent events in Gaza,” said Tyler Shipley, spokesperson for CUPE local 3903, which represents contract faculty and teaching assistants at York University. “It’s just unconscionable for us not to take some sort of action.”

Shipley says his local will be pushing York to sever its financial ties to Israel. Local 3903 will also be backing the events of Israeli Apartheid Week, an annual series of lectures and panel discussions opposing Israel’s presence in the Palestinian territories, scheduled for next week.

“It’s important that we get our institution here to grapple with its ties to the Israeli state,” Shipley said. “This is a colonial state, this is a state that has been perpetrating unspeakable human rights abuses.”

Jewish groups and some of CUPE’s own unions opposed the motion.

“Here we have a situation where a once-proud union has sunk so low as to have a small group put forward a motion that is, on its face, bigoted and discriminatory and anti-Jewish,” said Bernie M. Farber, chief executive officer of the Canadian Jewish Congress, who argues that the motion is discriminatory because it targets a single country. He notes that the union isn’t, for instance, calling for a boycott of Sudan over alleged human rights abuses in Darfur.

“The sole target is Jews, is Israel,” he said.

Farber called on the national union not to put the motion into practice. The Congress pointed out that the motion was adopted by a committee of the union and not the entire membership.

Others in the Jewish community were more fearful of the motion’s consequences.

“Our fear and our concern is that there could be violence against Jewish workers,” said Meir Weinstein, national director of the Jewish Defence League of Canada, which is considered a radical group. “Wherever there are calls for a boycott of Israel and the Jewish state, there is violence against Jews.”

Weinstein fears that the tensions on some university campuses – where pro-Palestinian campaigners have scuffled with pro-Israeli students – could boil over into the other workplaces that CUPE represents.

Estimates on the number of people who showed up to protest CUPE’s meeting in Windsor varied – from 35 reported by CUPE to more than 100 estimated by Weinstein. They were met with pro-Palestinian demonstrators.

Rafeef Ziadeh, a teaching assistant at York and CUPE member, however, said the discussion of the motion at CUPE’s meeting in Windsor was civilized.

“The debate was very, very respectful, in CUPE style,” she said.

The final vote passed with a clear majority.

For the most part, the union will start searching for connections between Israeli institutions, such as the army, and Canadian ones, such as its universities, she said.

CUPE passed a second motion to send statements to universities asking them to allow debates on Israel to happen on their campuses, she said.

The Jewish Defence League, meanwhile, is planning a meeting for tomorrow night to discuss how to oppose the resolution now that its been adopted.

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