Sunday, 24 October 2010

Where Now for Trade Union Friends of Israel?

Guest post from Lawrence Shaw, National Union of Journalists' Assistant Organiser writing in a personal capacity. You can follow him on Twitter here.

The question of what position to take over the ongoing conflict in Palestine has been a serious political flashpoint in the UK trade union movement for as long as I can remember.

Like many ordinary union members, I have always been appalled at many actions of the Israeli state, particularly in relation to the impoverished people of Gaza. But I have always also been extremely uncomfortable about the shrill ultra-left trendies in yashmags who remain curiously ambiguous on the question of Israel's right to exist and seem to treat trade unions as simply a vehicle for their Palestine hobbyhorse.

The enormity of the strength of feeling on the issue really hit home to me during the NUJ conference in 2007. Delegates narrowly voted in a sleepy afternoon session to instruct the TUC to explore boycotting Israeli goods.

A few hours later, I opened my NUJ inbox to an unsolicited flood of abuse and ranting from various bedroom Zionists who had trawled the union website to aggressively complain to every email address they could find. It hit the
mainstream media. Within a week, hundreds of NUJ members had threatened to resign over the issue, and some high-profile members actually did – such as Channel 4 anchorman Jon Snow and now Education Minister Michael Gove. The debate still rumbles within the NUJ to this day.

It is a pattern that has been repeated across the wider labour movement, causing bitter schisms at several union conferences. The latest episode was played out at the recent TUC in Manchester where delegates voted on working towards boycotting goods produced in illegal Israeli West Bank settlements. The motion itself was very targeted. This was no Israel-wide boycott, and in actuality will probably have little actual impact on the ground, but was symbolically important.

The
Trade Union Friends of Israel held a fringe meeting in Manchester just hours before the motion on the boycott entitled “What can Trade Unions do to aid peace?” It was effectively a last-ditch attempt to influence any un-mandated delegates into changing their voting position.

Speakers included Roger Lyons, the former Amicus/MSF luminary who famously claimed his bathroom radio on
expenses, Eric Lee of the Labourstart website, Terry McCorran a Unison activist from Northern Ireland and Alon Roth-Snir, a senior Israeli diplomat in the UK.

The meeting was small. It was later very clear that aside from the handful of unaffiliated delegates and
Palestine Solidarity Campaign supporters engaging in a spot of masochism, the majority of attendants had come to the TUC specifically for the TUFI event.

Each speaker began, ostensibly at least, to be conciliatory. Indeed, the
stated aim of TUFI is to “promote Israeli-Palestinian Trade union Co-operation”.

Sadly, the pacifying tone was not borne out. As things wore on, the various axes to grind appeared. Mr McCorran, for instance, clearly had issues with Unison decision-making structures by suggesting the recent Unison conference decision to call for a boycott had been undemocratic because it had not been put to “all” members and went off on a personal tangent about the powers of Unison branches. Eric Lee somehow managed to bring up the Iranian nuclear power issue.

By the end of the meeting, having been egged on by some of the bussed-in delegates from the floor, Roger Lyons suggested that there was more than a whiff of naked anti-Semitism around some trade unions in the UK – a very serious and preposterous allegation.

As someone who relishes Israeli culture through my
Krav Maga obsession, I was hoping the meeting might lend its way towards showing a level of understanding of the complexity of the issue and towards addressing the actual question posed.

In the end, I walked away feeling that it was just more of the same - another attempt to brush over the abject crimes of the Israeli state with not one mention of the flotilla scandal and nothing on the internationally condemned settlements, instead suggesting that any move towards a boycott was driven by anti-Semitic sentiment. Eric Lee proudly proclaimed that TUFI would be happy to have an open public debate with the PSC over the issues, without seeing how this would do precisely nothing to solve the problem.

It is a debate that, for now at least, TUFI is
losing heavily. The TUC voted unanimously for the boycott that afternoon. I witnessed a large gang of Lyons’ entourage slinking off after the vote in spite of having loudly decreed that unions should be more bothered about addressing issues like pay and the cuts. Clearly, they were not bothered enough to hang around to listen to the other debates.

While genuine attempts to build cross-cultural workers' co-operation are to be welcomed and urgently encouraged by any serious trade unionist, it is no good if those attempts are dressed up in a strident defence of Israeli state policy. TUFI and their allies should stop moaning about various perceived persecutions, diverting attention from major global political issues, calling for debates with the PSC and turning up mob-handed to hold fringe meetings that nobody goes to. TUFI and the PSC should instead stick to the task about bringing workers together on the ground and engaging UK trade unionists in facilitating that. Then maybe they might find many more ordinary union members would come around to their way of thinking.

Until that day comes, the pointless arguments and bitter debates will continue and in doing so turn off the vast majority of workers from engaging in trying to build for a labour movement solution in Palestine.

25 comments:

luna17 said...

'I have always also been extremely uncomfortable about the shrill ultra-left trendies in yashmags who remain curiously ambiguous on the question of Israels right to exist and seem to treat trade unions as simply a vehicle for their Palestine hobbyhorse.'

That is shrill, apolitical and personal abuse, not engagement with ideas. If someone can't see the irony therein they don't deserve to have their views treated with any credibility.

Brother G said...

It's not really personal abuse to criticise a particular element of the far left without calling anyone out by name is it?

Or are you trying to deny that there is a segment within the British far-left who drag the wider movement down with hysterical proclamations and uncritical support for organisations such as Hamas?

Anonymous said...

Right to exist yes. Right to maintain an apartheid state no. South Africa still exists but white supremacy has gone. No one on the left should believe in Jewish states any more than white states. We believe in democratic states with equality for their citizens regardless of race or religion.

modernity said...

If comrade Shaw wishes to argue that a boycott of *one* country and only one country, in the sake of reason, he must answer why no boycott of Sudan, Saudi Arabia, Syria, Libya and all those other countries with atrocious human rights records.

Why no boycott of America, for illegal wars, organising death squads, coup d'etats?

Why only one state, and not the others?

I look forward to a logical and considered response.

Loz said...

@ Luna - it was a caricature. Possibly a bit tongue in cheek, but just a caricature. It was certainly not personal and I have many close friends and comrades who take the issue of Palestine very seriously. I am painting a verbal picture of the most extreme unquestioning people who defend Hamas and all that goes with it.

@ Modernity - I don't think you'll find I personally endorsed voting for the boycott anywhere in the post.

Personally, I am dubious as to the actual effect of boycotts. South Africa was raised during the TUC debate as the model of boycott success but I think the whole situation over that was very different to the West Bank in 2010.

Many odious corporate entities have been the target of boycotts by various group and organisations over the years. These have had varying degrees of success with this, to say the least. I haven't seen Nestle or Coca-Cola wither on the vine. That said, the company has changed its practices due to pressure. So change can happen because of campaigning.

I do share your sentiment that there are other governments and regimes with which we should not co-operate or trade that seem to slip under the radar. (Colombia, due to their treatment of trade unionists, is one you missed off your list of evil governments.)

Ironically, on the news right now is an item about Palestinian workers who are employed to build the homes in the illegal settlements. I cannot help wondering if this boycott will help those workers in the short-term or long-term? This is not a trick question - I genuinely do not know the answer to that.

Fact is, the issue of Israel and Palestine is remarkably divisive with strong views held on both sides that play out into incredibly feverish and destructive rows in UK trade unions. When these rows overshadow the vital industrial work of trade unions, it is important for us to understand why this has happened.

I believe the best thing the trade unions in the UK can do is work towards fostering grass-roots links between Israeli and Palestinian workers. The Trade Union Friends of Israel certainly talk a good game about doing this. But my experience by the end of the fringe meeting was that the theme quickly changed to apologising for Israeli state policy and bashing the Palestinians and suggested UK trade unions are becoming anti-Semitic, which I do not think is particularly helpful for an organisation that exists ostensibly to try to aid co-operation.

Robert said...

Exactly the same argument was used by apartheid South Africa. Why were they being singled out rather than all those black African states with atrocious human rights records?

Sudan, Saudi, Libya, Syria etc. however repressive their internal regime are not illegally occupying someone else's land in breach of UN resolutions. That's one.

Israel claims to be a democracy so should be held to a higher standard. That's two.

Geopolitically the Israeli aparthied regime poisons relations between Islam and the West. Israel's treatment of the Palestinians was quoted by Bin Laden himself as one of the reasons for 9/11. Given Europe's proximity to the Arab world and given our growing Muslim population it is not in our interests to allow this situation to continue.

The US bankrolls Israel and is therefore responsible for the suffering of the Palestinians in a way it is not responsible for Sudan. It makes sense for us to campaign against situations our own governments share responsiblity for.

Finally Israel's contemptible behaviour is a key cause of antisemitism among Muslims. Antisemitism needs to be fought wherever it appears but the Israeli government makes the job of those fighting anti Jewish racism much more difficult. It is in the interests of the Jewish disapora to pressure the Israeli government to reform.

modernity said...

Loz,

Sorry, maybe I miss read it.

But what *is* your point?

That someone at a fringe meeting "suggested UK trade unions are becoming anti-Semitic"?

Is that it? One bloke?

I don't want to misrepresent your views, I am trying to see what is your point?

Is that it?

Loz said...

@Modernity

My point is that in a meeting supposed to be addressing what UK unions could do to aid co-operation between Palestinian and Israeli workers, the following issues were raised by speakers on the platform:

*Iran's nuclear programme
*How the wall around Gaza stops suicide bombers
*How TUFI delegates were shown the shells of Rockets fired into Israel by Hamas
*How UK unions are now indulging in anti-Semitism and they are not welcoming for activists with a Jewish background.
*How the TUFI could easily "beat" the PSC in a public debate.

The charge of anti-Semitism came from the floor - one of the people I am suggesting was bussed in for the meeting who promptly left the TUC once the boycott debate was over - and was then endorsed from the stage by the chair of TUFI and prominent trade unionist Roger Lyons - not just "one bloke at a meeting".

I am trying to illustrate that the TUFI meeting did nothing to answer the question posed by the meeting title.

As a trade unionist most concerned by the Israel/Palestine issue overshadowing vital industrial work in UK trade union discourse, I am trying to understand and illustrate why this debate continues to rage on in such a divisive fashion. And that by holding a meeting ostensibly about co-operation that turns into an attack on Palestine and its supporters within the UK union movement, TUFI is not helping matters.

I hope this answers your question.

modernity said...

Loz,

I share your disquiet that the Middle East is often used as an issue in British politics, we have an example above:

"Sudan, Saudi, Libya, Syria etc. however repressive their internal regime are not illegally occupying someone else's land in breach of UN resolutions. That's one."

Until recently, and Robert probably didn't know this, but Syria was occupying Lebanon from the late 1970s onwards, and only withdrew comparatively recently.

Then, of course, we have China's occupation of Tibet, which hand-in-hand goes with the rape of the countryside and expropriation of raw materials.

Not forgetting Saudi Arabia's occasional war with Yemen and annexation of lands.

No boycott for China? Too much of a workers state, degenerated, deformed etc, etc etc

Knowledge and logic seemed to go out of the window when the Middle East is dragged up.

I am surprised that the antiracists here haven't noticed this offending statement

"but the Israeli government makes the job of those fighting anti Jewish racism much more difficult."

modernity said...

"I am trying to understand and illustrate why this debate continues to rage on in such a divisive fashion."

Loz,

Thanks for the reply it makes a lot more sense, sorry my previous reply of 11:02 cross posted with yours.

I would completely agree that this issue has had a divisive effect within British trade unions, I've seen it myself.

But surely your question needs to be addressed to those who campaign for the boycotting of Israelis?

Loz said...

@ Modernity

Seeing as democratically decided TUC policy is now to boycott goods from the West Bank, I think TUFI needs to learn why it lost the debate, hence the post.

I was kind of hoping from this that the TUFI types would learn that posing their "argument" in the way I outlined clearly wasn't doing them any favours.

Ordinary union members are far more turned-on by positive messages rather than a pro-Israeli government policy rant IMO.

Best

Lawrence

skidmarx said...

I notice that the same "you only call for boycotts against Israel" argument was a devastating failure for David Hirsh against Ran Greenstein over at Engage recently. It really is no good for Israel's supporters to spend all their time delegitimising the Palestinians and then accuse their opponents of the reverse.
I think it should be "attendees" rather than "attendants" in the post, and probably "yashmaks".
Perhaps a "labour movement" solution for Palestine just doesn't coincide with the labour movement apologists for Israel.

modernity said...

Loz,

Sorry, but you didn't address the issue.

If your complaint is that "the pointless arguments and bitter debates will continue and in doing so turn off the vast majority of workers from engaging... "
then logically, you have to be critical of those who propose the boycotting of Israelis.

That is, if you are serious.

Piling the blame on TUFI is surely a *side* argument?

Loz said...

@Skidmarx, I bow to your better spelling and grammar. Purely as a side issue, one of the points the NUJ has been trying to make recently is the need for trained sub-editors to review and edit raw copy before publishing. Newspaper companies inevitably believe that whole part of the production process can be dispensed with to save costs, and my published errors highlight this necessity. It will surely not be long before errors of this magnitude find their way into national newspapers if employers continue their present course.

@Modernity - I went to the TUFI fringe to see what arguments were being put up against the boycott motion as it is an issue that has caused so much friction within UK trade unions - quite possibly at times to the expense of industrial focus, in my opinion.

Needless to say, you can obviously tell from my post that I was simply not convinced by the TUFI meeting on reasons why delegates should vote against a boycott. (I was not a voting delegate at the TUC btw). I instead left feeling afterwards that they were not serious themselves about dealing with the root of the problem, preferring instead to go into a fairly straight Zionist position against the boycott rather than addressing the substance of the motion at hand.

Whether we like it or not, the TUC voted unanimously to support a boycott and that is now TUC policy. Meanwhile this was the first year in some time, I gather, that a senior TUC official has not addressed the TUFI fringe, in spite of the fact that Brendan Barber was an invited speaker to the best of my knowledge.

I have tried to illustrate, in my personal opinion I must stress, why TUFI has lost so much influence and have suggested ways I believe, to make their work more relevant again.

Nobody has to agree with me. But my report and my attempt to understand the political situation within UK trade unions is entirely serious.

Fraternally,

Loz

Loz said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
modernity said...

"But my report and my attempt to understand the political situation within UK trade unions is entirely serious."

I'm not suggesting you're arguing in bad faith, merely that it is only part of the picture, a very small part of it.

I accept that you have criticism of TUFI, and I can see your point, but the boycott of Israelis goes far beyond the TUC and TUFI.

This issue has been on the boil for years, and if we only see it from the perspective of the NUJ, the TUC or TUFI then it is to take a rather parochial view of these complex issues.

You make the point that it is divisive, but you don't follow through and ask who instigated these boycotts, why, how were they perceived and what do they achieve.

Those are questions worth asking.

I don't mean any of that in a nasty way, I just think there are many questions that need asking.

If you are serious about this issue then you might look into how the boycott of Israelis has been handled at UCU.

It is not terribly edifying, it has left the union open to the charge of institutionalised racism, it has fractured discussions, members have left and still it festers on in the corner.

So in my view there is a much bigger picture to this issue.

You could, at the very least, look at the SWP's role in UCU and how they often pushed the boycott of Israelis, for their own political purposes.


I'll leave it at that.

Cheers.

Duncan said...

Modernity,

Out of genuine interest, do you think that people were singling out one country, and only one country, by arguing for a boycott of South Africa?

I think this is particularly relevant as there were undoubtedly other states, even in Africa, with a worse human rights record, Zaire under Mobutu for one.

Why was only this one state boycotted, not others?

Can you think of any legitimate reasons or do you think people had less charitable motivations?

Vm said...

Have we all learned not to waste our time in a game of whataboutism with someone who has no interest in engaging with the issues, but merely deflecting attention away from the issue at hand?

Bob from Brockley said...

Lawrence, on the whole I think this is a good post, which made some very good points. The "friends of Israel" arguing that the Is-Pal issue detracts from the real issues and then slinking off for the debates about the real issues is quite damning. But despite their not putting their money where their mouth is, that argument is a very strong one.

In the last couple of years, conditions and wages in my own sector has been under massive assault from the employers and are now under worse assault from the austerity regime, and yet my union has spent an extraordinary amount of time and resources on campaigning about this issue.

It has campaigned on more or less no other international issue. (It signs up to the Cuba Solidarity Campaign, I think, despite the appalling treatment of workers and unions in my sector in Cuba. And it, quite rightly, does have a strong position on Colombia, altho it devotes little energy to raising that issue.)

Why is it that Israel is singled out? I think it is a quite persuasive possibility that it is singled out because of antisemitism, simply because it is hard to find a more convincing explanation for the completely out of proportion role that Israel plays in the left and trade unionist imagination. I don't, therefore, see that as a "preposterous" allegation. It gains more traction when you have heard antisemitic arguments raised again and again in branch meetings by fellow trade unionists, and in the wider movement.

For me, the explanation is a bit more complex than antisemitism. It is something like this. That Israel today, like South Africa in the 1980s or Spain in the 1930s, has become a shibboleth for the left, a cultural code whereby we recognise each other as right on. (This is more or less the analysis taken by the historian Shulamit Volkov.)

Bob from Brockley said...

Re Robert:

Exactly the same argument was used by apartheid South Africa. Why were they being singled out rather than all those black African states with atrocious human rights records?

The crucial difference, of course, is that, in the apartheid case, although anti-black racism was prevalent in the West, anti-Afrikaans racism was not (hence, singling out white South Africa could not really spring from some wider racist motivation), while in the Israel case, antisemitism is prevalent in the West, so there IS a wider context in which we can be suspicious about a singling out of the world's only Jewish state.

Israel claims to be a democracy so should be held to a higher standard. That's two.

Oh, I see, we should only boycott democracies! Great idea. Let's hold dictatorships to some low moral standards.

Geopolitically the Israeli aparthied regime poisons relations between Islam and the West. Israel's treatment of the Palestinians was quoted by Bin Laden himself as one of the reasons for 9/11. Given Europe's proximity to the Arab world and given our growing Muslim population it is not in our interests to allow this situation to continue.

Bin Laden repeatedly talks about the outrage of the Spanish reconquista, the Christian seizure of Al-Andalus back from the Caliphate. As Europeans, given our proximity to Muslim North Africa, we cannot allow that situation to continue either, should we. Give Andalucia back to Morocco! And which other of Bin Laden's demands should be written into TUC policy for the sake of community cohesion?

The US bankrolls Israel and is therefore responsible for the suffering of the Palestinians in a way it is not responsible for Sudan. It makes sense for us to campaign against situations our own governments share responsiblity for.
Right, the US bankrolls Israel, so let's punish Israel and leave the US unscathed! We need, as British trade unionists, to take responsibility for all of America's actions. Right.

Finally Israel's contemptible behaviour is a key cause of antisemitism among Muslims. Antisemitism needs to be fought wherever it appears but the Israeli government makes the job of those fighting anti Jewish racism much more difficult. It is in the interests of the Jewish disapora to pressure the Israeli government to reform.

Hmm, and now the British trade union movement has a responsibility to boycott the Jewish state in the interests of the Jewish diaspora! This argument also blames racism on the victims of racism. (An analogy would be that mass immigration drives anti-immigrant racism, making anti-racists' jobs harder, therefore anti-racists should argue for much tougher immigration controls.)

Bob from Brockley said...

Re Skidmarx,

It really is no good for Israel's supporters to spend all their time delegitimising the Palestinians and then accuse their opponents of the reverse.

Can you explain what you mean here? Can you give me an example of Engage or TUFI or TULIP or Eric Lee or any of the labour movement's other supporters of Israel delegitimising the Palestinians?

I think it should be "attendees" rather than "attendants" in the post, and probably "yashmaks".

A yashmak is a yashmak, and a yashmag is a yashmag (or yashmagh). I've thankfully seen few yashmaks at trade union meetings.

Fred said...

Skidmarx "I notice that the same "you only call for boycotts against Israel" argument was a devastating failure for David Hirsh against Ran Greenstein over at Engage recently."

Oh please Skidmarx. Ran Greenstein first resorted to name calling and personal insults and has now back-pedalled and virtually so
pologised to Hirsh. Ran Greenstien's childish name calling and personal attacks in his comments on Engage demonstrate how difficult it is to have a reasonable discussion on the subject.

Lawrence makes some good comments with regard to how TUFI acts. The same can be said for the boycott campaign who often engage in a absolute hatred of Israel which is not just critical of Israeli government policies (which everybody should be) but engages in an extreme anti-zionism which often uses right-wing anti-semitic tropes and goes out of its way to deny what everybody knows is the only solution - a 2 states solution withan independant Palestine alongside a state of Israel.

Lawrence if you want to see abusive from pro-boycot NUJ activists then you should have been at NUJ meetings in Manchester over the last 4 years or so. Many Jewish NUJ members haven't even bothered turning up to meetings due to the abuse and intimidation that they received.

Loz said...

@Bob - yes, it turns out I did mean yashmag - the scarves that have now actually become quite fashionable.

@Fred - I work out of the NUJ Manchester office but I am not an official of the Manchester branch, which is what I believe you are referring to. I will get into a debate about who said what over the last four years suffice to say I think you are completely and utterly wrong about levelling charges of "abuse and intimidation" at NUJ members.

One of the reasons I looked at this subject is precisely because of incidents like the debates that have taken place in the NUJ Manchester branch where, again, the Israel/Palestine issue has caused division and distraction from the focus of industrial struggle.

But I have to say when outrageous allegations like yours are raised against long-serving lay members of the branch that I know, trust and respect, as a bystander I find it very difficult to avoid jumping to their defence.

Can you not see that argumentative and accusatory tactics like this thrown about online are at the root of the wider problem?

skidmarx said...

Bob - I don't think I've seen any example of Palestinian solidarity that hasn't had its legitmacy questioned by Israels supporters by claiming that all resistance is terrorism and all aid to the Palestinians is supporting terrorism.
antisemitism is prevalent in the West
Much of the claimed prevalence is of course the lie that anti-zionism is anti-semitism.
This argument also blames racism on the victims of racism.
That argument was that the Jewish diapora would suffer the fallout from Israel's actions. Only if you assume an identity between the two and accept the Israeli state's canard that it is always the victim, never the perpetrator does this stand up at all.

bob said...

I don't think I've seen any example of Palestinian solidarity that hasn't had its legitmacy questioned by Israels supporters by claiming that all resistance is terrorism and all aid to the Palestinians is supporting terrorism.

It depends who you mean by "Israel's supporters". This may be true of some hard-line Zionists, but my question was about groups like TUFI, Engage and TULIP, i.e. groups within the labour movement. Can you give me a concrete example of groups of this sort calling all resistance terrorism or all aid to Palestinians terrorism? Engage is very explicit about being in favour of Palestinian national self-determination and a Palestinian state. TULIP actively promotes aid and support to Palestinian trade union initiatives.

Much of the claimed prevalence [of antisemitism in the West] is of course the lie that anti-zionism is anti-semitism.
We can argue about just how prevelant it is, and certainly some claims are exaggerated. But it is undeniable that antisemitism has deep historical roots in Europe, including in Britain. Along with anti-Islamic sentiment, Judeophobia is part of the historical make-up of European society. And the left and labour movement has not been immune to this, as the old Marxist term "the socialism of fools" indicates, and as plenty of British examples show, from Henry Hyndman's appalling racism to claims about "hook-nosed Rothschilds" in the ILP press, to trade union leaders like Ben Tillett calling for the exclusion of aliens. Given this, it makes sense to wonder if an obsession with Israel in today's trade unions has some link with the wider context of British antisemitism.


"This argument also blames racism on the victims of racism."
That argument was that the Jewish diapora would suffer the fallout from Israel's actions. Only if you assume an identity between the two and accept the Israeli state's canard that it is always the victim, never the perpetrator does this stand up at all.


Of course the Israeli state has been the perpretrator of appalling acts, as anyone in Engage and most people in TUFI would agree. But your model asserts that antisemitism is provoked by Jews, end of story. This is like asserting that rape is provoked by women, that racism is provoked by black people, Islamophobia is provoked by Muslims.

Muslim people suffer the "fallout" from Bin Laden's actions, but we don't say that Bin Laden is the CAUSE of Islamophobia, and that if Islamist terrorism just desisted then Islamophobia would just go away. But that is exactly what you are arguing in relation to Israel.