It was 4:30 in the morning on April 22 before the final votes were counted in the presence of tearful and apprehensive onlookers and the result was announced: By a vote of 429 to 216, the graduate workers of New York University (NYU) voted overwhelmingly to join the boycott, divestment and sanctions campaign against Israeli apartheid.
Nearly 650 union members voted on the referendum, a strong turnout indicating widespread support for justice in Palestine.
The resounding success of the BDS referendum was the culmination of a nine-month-long education and organizing campaign among the membership of the Graduate Student Organizing Committee (GSOC) at NYU, a part of United Auto Workers (UAW) Local 2110.
GSOC-UAW 2110 is a labor union representing over 2,000 teaching assistants, adjunct instructors, research assistants and other graduate workers at NYU, and the only recognized union in the US for graduate workers at a private university.
The BDS vote was initiated by GSOC’s BDS caucus in response to the call for solidarity from Palestinian civil society and all major Palestinian trade unions. With clear support from its membership, GSOC is now calling on both the UAW and NYU to withdraw investments from Israeli state institutions and international companies complicit in the ongoing violation of Palestinian human and civil rights.
In accordance with the BDS call, GSOC is also calling on NYU to close down its study abroad program at Tel Aviv University, which continues to violate NYU’s own non-discrimination policy by enforcing Israel’s apartheid laws on its students.
Additionally, 366 union members — 58 percent of voters — also pledged to adhere to the academic boycott of Israel and refrain from participating in research and programs sponsored by Israeli universities.
The academic boycott is an important step in exposing how all aspects of Israeli culture and scholarship are tainted with apartheid if they do not take a stand against it. One cannot be a fighter against one form of oppression while ignoring the systematic racism upon which one’s state is built and perpetuates itself.
The recent stand by 22 Israeli anthropologists calling for the academic boycott of Israel is a bold example for others in the country and worldwide.
The atmosphere of threats and intimidation that BDS supporters in Israel face is a reminder that Israel will tolerate many forms of progressive politics in the academy as long as academics keep their mouths shut about the occupation.
In the US support for the BDS movement continues to swell despite the crackdown on Palestine solidarity organizing. Predictably, this resilience is generating a panic among the defenders of apartheid, who are suddenly facing the prospect that they may go the way of the white South African regime in the 1980s or the racist backers of the Jim Crow laws in the US South.
It is the duty of every person of conscience to help in the effort to make this fear a reality and relegate systematic racism to the dustbin of history. In the meantime, let them tremble.
BDS is proving to be hard to stop as a movement. Recently, the Graduate Employee Organization at University of Massachusetts Amherst passed a BDS resolution by referendum, followed by an academic boycott measure approved by the City University of New York Doctoral Students Council. These join many other US academic associations and several labor unions that have endorsed BDS.
It is especially important for unions to take a stand in solidarity with Palestine. All of the Palestinian trade union federations have signed on to the BDS call, bidding their fellow workers worldwide to make good on the principle of solidarity as the basis for any effective labor movement.
Opponents of BDS may criticize labor unions for taking a stance on a supposedly extraneous and controversial issue, but if the labor movement is to fight for a multiracial and international working class, it must combat racism and oppression of all kinds.
Palestine solidarity resolutions in labor unions are not “divisive.” That’s what apartheid is — by definition. BDS is a step toward unity, and this is all the more important for a relatively new union to show its members that it can represent their interests.
At NYU, GSOC has demonstrated that it is a union willing to defend its many Palestinian members who are directly affected by Israeli apartheid laws. The endorsement of the BDS campaign shows that the union will foster a culture of acceptance and solidarity with the oppressed. Graduate workers will not stand idly by while Israel bombs the homes of fellow union members and the oppressed people of Palestine.
The implications of the GSOC referendum are clear: more and more academic workers will become aware that relations with an apartheid regime cannot in any way be considered “normal.”
NYU’s institutional link with Tel Aviv University, which is located on the destroyed Palestinian village of Sheikh Muwanis and takes pride in developing military technologies and murderous war doctrines used in the occupation, will be henceforward put into question as a relationship that legitimizes apartheid.
A similar BDS referendum passed by the 13,000-member strong UAW Local 2865 in California was later “nullified” by the UAW International Executive Board, a decision now under appeal by the Public Review Board.
In the lead-up to the GSOC referendum, Local 2110 President Maida Rosenstein made the case for continuing to do nothing: “Why not wait until the Public Review Board rules [on the appeal by Local 2865] before conducting this referendum?” she suggested in a communication to GSOC stewards. Such hedging and legalism is to be expected as the solidarity struggle with Palestine heats up.
Against this complacency we must remember that never before has change come about by itself. Segregation and the Jim Crow laws did not melt away while well-intentioned citizens let the legal system take its course, and the leaders of apartheid South Africa did not suddenly come to terms with their own moral bankruptcy.
These systems of oppression were instead dismantled by broad-based social movements that took bold and uncompromising stands. For decades Palestinians have endured the brutal occupation of their land and waited for the international labor movement to recognize their suffering and take a stand.
The attempted suppression of member voices in UAW Local 2865 only galvanized GSOC members in favor of BDS to redouble their efforts. Now the success at NYU has to be built upon in other labor unions and academic institutions.
This victory in GSOC is an important ray of hope for the movement. In the early hours last Friday, as the votes came rolling in, each “yes” symbolized an outstretched hand of solidarity with the oppressed Palestinians. The dawning realization that victory in this vote was near brought waves of emotion among the many union members, including Palestinians, who were present.
As Murhaf Abdalqader, a Palestinian student attending NYU, said:
While I can’t speak for anyone but myself, I can say that if Palestinians saw the passion and dedication that I saw from the people of all different backgrounds behind this initiative, they’d be inspired with hope. Hope that they gave up on ages ago. Hope [the lack of which] has led us to where we are today — hope of an actual future.
I know that for me, I had given up on things improving in my lifetime. But the results of last night resurrected that child-like hope again. Thank you GSOC. And thank you to everyone who participated, organized or voted yes. Here’s to a free and prospering Palestine.
The NYU referendum shows that the tide is turning against defenders of apartheid. Palestine solidarity organizers should take courage from this historic victory and know that history is on our side. There will be justice in Palestine. The BDS movement is bringing it closer every day.