Next week the University of California student-workers union, UAW 2865 (yes, it’s affiliated with United Auto Workers), will vote on its Joint Council’s motion to boycott, divest, and sanction Israeli institutions.
This motion is absurd on its face, but if it has any teeth at all it’s also illegal.
First, the absurdity. The idea that a graduate student union — whose core business is negotiating terms and conditions of its members’ employment — should inject itself into the Israeli–Palestinian conflict is almost comical in its obvious bigotry. Is it really the position of the geopolitical experts running UAW 2865 that Israeli actions in Gaza merit a boycott when — quite literally — no other nation’s crimes in the entire world merit a formal union response? No, this isn’t a statement of real principle, it’s the hijacking of an otherwise-neutral institution for explicitly political purposes.
Next, the legality. If this motion has any teeth at all — as opposed to being a mere juvenile temper tantrum — it would require that union members actually do something. That “something” could include refusing to work with Israeli scholars, refusing to teach Israeli students, and hijacking classrooms to — as union leaders urge — teach BDS propaganda. Each of those actions violates either California law or university policy. If union members object that they’re only opposed to “official” Israeli institutions, “official” Israel still acts through individuals — the professors who work for universities, the scholars who receive its grants, and the students who study under scholarships or other formal affiliations. Israelis cannot and must not be subjected to extraordinary scrutiny because of their nationality or to punitive actions because of their affiliations.
There are good reasons why academic institutions from across the political spectrum have condemned academic boycotts of Israel. Even the UAW International opposes the boycott (along with dozens of other labor leaders). Singling out Israeli institutions for blanket boycotts based on the national-security decisions of its leadership profoundly threatens academic freedom. Will it be the position of California graduate students that they’ll only cooperate with scholars from politically palatable nations (which, by their definition would include North Korea and Iran, but exclude Israel)?
This afternoon, my colleagues and I at the ACLJ sent UAW 2865, the UAW’s executive board, and the University of California president letters outlining their respective legal obligations — with particular emphasis on state and federal laws and policies preventing national-origin discrimination. Simply put, union voters should reject anti-Israel discrimination, but if they embrace the boycott, they (and their employers) are on notice that any actions taken against Israeli individuals or institutions could result in legal action.
Last month the American Studies Association backed away from its own anti-Israel boycott in response to ACLJ warnings. Union leaders are of course free to use their voice and their platform to object to Israeli policies (to the extent their members tolerate their leaders’ diversion of union resources), but they are not free to engage in any discriminatory acts. Moreover, their employers — the UC system schools — are on notice as well. The school itself is responsible if its employees violate the law.
America’s public universities are bound by numerous and expansive nondiscrimination laws. Bigoted ideologues may not exempt themselves from those laws merely because they hate Israel.
David French is a Senior Counsel at the American Center for Law and Justice. A graduate of Harvard Law School, he is a former Senior Counsel for the Alliance Defense Fund, and a past president of the Foundation of Individual Rights in Education. He has taught at Cornell Law School and served as a commercial litigation partner in the firm of Greenebaum, Doll & McDonald. His legal practice is concentrated on constitutional law and the international law of armed conflict, and he is licensed to practice before the Supreme Court of the United States. David is the author of multiple books.
Used with the permission of The American Center for Law and Justice.