Divestment Flap Hits L.A. Union

By Rebecca Spence

Published October 13, 2006, issue of October 13, 2006.
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The United Teachers Los Angeles found itself in the midst of a firestorm last week after Jewish organizations discovered that its human rights committee planned to co-host an October 14 meeting to initiate a campaign of divestment, boycott and sanctions against Israel.

One day after meeting with a cadre of Jewish organizational leaders and fielding hundreds of protest calls from members, the president of the union, A.J. Duffy, announced October 5 that his labor group would not allow the anti-Israel gathering to take place at its offices on Wilshire Blvd.

The imbroglio in Los Angeles comes at a time when sensitivities to Israel boycott campaigns are particularly heightened after a wave of recent attempts by labor unions in Europe and North America to promote economic divestment from Israel. An effort in England’s largest teacher union was passed in late May – although it was nullified days because of a union merger - while a Canadian labor union successfully passed a divestment resolution in the same week.

Duffy quickly quelled fears that Los Angeles was following suit when he canceled the October 14 meeting and severed a link from the union’s Web site to that of its human rights committee. The committee had planned to co-host the event with the left-wing activist group the Movement for a Democratic Society.

“I have to balance the fact that this is a democratic union and democratic country that cherishes free speech against the sheer volume of members, both Jewish and non-Jewish, who are appalled by what’s going on,” said Duffy, whose union represents 48,000 teachers.

“The only relevant thing right now is my responsibility to mend fences, take actions to bring confidence back in UTLA and move on,” Duffy said, adding that he would like to be able to focus his energies on the fight for a fair contract.

Duffy, who is Jewish, also expressed frustration with some of the protesters, who have questioned whether a teacher’s union has any business taking a position on international affairs. “The plain fact of the matter is large unions are often involved in issues like this and do often take stances, and yes, it’s appropriate,” he said. Still, Duffy added, he would make no effort to stake out an official position on the Middle East conflict.

One teacher, Paul Kujawsky, the vice president of Democrats for Israel, Los Angeles and a fifth grade instructor at the Germain Street Elementary School in Chatworth, said he was “outraged” that the “UTLA should have its own foreign policy when there are significant education issues to address.”

Representatives of Jewish organizations, including the Anti-Defamation League, the American Jewish Congress, Stand With Us, and the Zionist Organization of America assembled with Duffy last week at the Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles to air their concerns. After the meeting, all of the participants, with the exception of the ZOA, signed a letter thanking Duffy for clarifying the fact that a divestment campaign was not being launched by the teachers union - the largest labor federation in L.A. County - or at the union’s headquarters.

Still, some Jewish leaders said they wouldn’t be satisfied until the threat of a boycott campaign is completely abolished. While the meeting co-hosted by the human rights committee, one of 33 union committees, won’t take place at the group’s headquarters, the meeting may still be held elsewhere and the seeds of a boycott could still be sewn, Jewish communal leaders said.

“Our goal is that if the meeting does proceed somewhere else we would hope that the campaign would end there,” said Amanda Susskind, the director of the ADL’s pacific southwest region. Other Jewish communal leaders warned that the divestment attempts in Los Angeles were part of a growing movement to question the legitimacy of the Jewish state. “UTLA is another local stop of the worldwide effort against Israel,” said Rabbi Abraham Cooper, the associate dean of the Simon Wiesenthal Center.

Cooper also questioned the validity of an optional course on the Middle East conflict that L.A. school teachers can take to raise their salaries. The course is administered by the American Friends Service Committee, which Cooper contends is biased against Israel.

The union’s Duffy countered that he had looked into the Wiesenthal Center’s concerns and determined that the course had been properly evaluated by the Los Angeles Unified School District administration. “I’m not going to step in and try to stop this course when I hear the district say it’s non-biased,” he said. “I understand from the pro-Jewish point of view they would like anything bordering on anti-Israel to be eradicated, but that can’t be my position.”

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