I Am CUPE, Hear Me Roar
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I Am CUPE, Hear Me Roar

CUPE members taking part in a protest against Israeli military attacks on Gaza; photo by Medmoiselle T.

In a startling and uncharacteristic move, CUPE Ontario has done something controversial. Even more unexpectedly, they’ve gone about it in controversial fashion.
The segment of the union which represents university workers passed a motion this weekend, calling for a halt to all campus activities which directly or indirectly support the Israeli military, and asking for widespread debate on implementing an academic boycott of “Israeli academic institutions” [PDF]. This motion, however, is a substantially revised version of the one CUPE Ontario president Sid Ryan suggested a few weeks ago, one directed not so much at Israeli institutions as Israeli academics themselves.

Photo by hc916 from the Torontoist Flickr Pool.

We cannot confirm in full detail what the original resolution called for; in the wake of much hueing and crying, after condemnation from CUPE’s national president, and amidst charges of anti-Semitism, that proposal was retracted and CUPE pulled it from their website. The key element, however, was “a ban on Israeli academics doing speaking, teaching or research work at Ontario universities as a protest against the December 29 bombing of the Islamic University in Gaza.” Ryan did allow for exceptions, however, saying that “Israeli academics should not be on our campuses unless they explicitly condemn the university bombing and the assault on Gaza in general.” In short, CUPE Ontario was considering an ideological litmus test for members of the university community, one which was to be applied selectively based on an academic’s nationality. This did not sit well with a rather large number of people, and Ryan did much backpedalling in consequence.
After the mea culpas were issued a new motion was put forth, this one specifically targeting “military research or the Israeli state military” for immediate action and calling for an “education campaign” around institutional academic boycotts. Ryan wrote a disingenuous and tone-deaf op-ed piece defending this revised motion, giving the previous controversy no more than a phrase’s worth of attention and suggesting that the sum total of the outrage directed at him was due to knee-jerk Israeli protectionism. And this, precisely, is the problem. Whatever merit the new resolution may possess is significantly obscured by the bombast with which Ryan is defending it, and by the perception that it was crafted as a sanitized version of the proposal he was really after. Every report on the current motion must mention the furor which surrounded the retracted one or risk looking laughably incomplete. Ryan and CUPE have so bungled their handling of the matter that it is now dangerously easy to replace criticism of their position with criticism of those holding it: advocates of the boycott can dismiss opposition to it on the grounds that it’s Ryan/CUPE-bashing run amok, and opponents of the boycott can undermine its merits with ad hominem attacks on its promoters.

There is a humanitarian catastrophe going on in Gaza and the West Bank. As if that weren’t enough, there is also a history of concerted attacks against Israeli civilians, a fractured Palestinian leadership, and perhaps a disastrously hard-line government about to take office in Israel. We are long on problems and short on solutions, and rarely has the conscientious, mindful use of language been so essential to preserving what little calm remains, much less to improving matters. It may be the case that an institutional academic boycott of Israel warrants a public discussion. Most Israelis oppose one, but some are in favour. Most Palestinians support one, but some prominent leaders have (at least in the past) rejected them. Regardless of whether such a boycott would help or hinder matters, the issue surely deserves much more nuanced and sensitive treatment than it has received at CUPE’s hands. The debate has now become as much about Ryan as it has about Israelis or Palestinians, as much about CUPE’s botched communications as about humanitarian imperatives or the role of academia in a democracy. To that extent, we have all been done a disservice.