The Scottish TUC and boycotts against Israel: evidence collected, arguments evaded

Submitted by cathy n on 19 April, 2009 - 7:52 Author: Stan Crooke

“The delegation ended its visit with a strong sense of the injustice and human rights violations experienced on a daily basis by ordinary Palestinians,” states the recently published “Report of the Scottish TUC Delegation to Palestine and Israel, 28th February – 7th March 2009”.

And it’s easy to see why the eleven trade unionists, a mixture of STUC officials and members of affiliated unions, felt such a strong sense of injustice by the end of their visit.

In Jerusalem they met with victims of forced evictions and other discriminatory policies carried out by the Israeli authorities in the east of the city. Members of the Israeli human rights organisation B’Tselem, also based in Jerusalem, described to the delegation human rights breaches committed by Israeli forces during the recent fighting in Gaza, as well as land seizures and restrictions on movement imposed in the West Bank.

During the delegation’s visit to the West Bank Palestinian trade unionists spoke of the siezure of land and water resources by Israeli settlers, the high levels of unemployment and poverty among Palestinians, the damaging effects of the Israeli occupation on children’s health and education, and the daily harassment from Israeli soldiers suffered by Palestinians at the 700 checkpoints in the West Bank.

After a visit to Birzeit University, where teaching staff highlighted the impact of the Israeli occupation on education and freedom of movement, the delegation returned to East Jerusalem and met with local schoolteachers. The latter described the problems of family disintegration, unemployment, low pay, poverty and drug abuse which are faced by the pupils and their families.

But the purpose of the delegation was not to catalogue the breaches of human rights and various forms of discrimination practised the by Israeli authorities.

The delegation took place in response to a motion passed at the STUC’s 2007 congress which called on the General Council to explore the merits of the call for boycott, disinvestments and sanctions (BDS) against Israel until it complied with international law and agreed human rights principles.

Where the issue of BDS was raised in meetings in which the delegation participated, it received – hardly surprisingly – very different responses.

The chairperson of the Histradut (Israeli trade union federation) was against a boycott. So too was the Israeli Welfare Minister. Two of the three officials of the Jerusalem Municipality trade union to whom the delegation spoke were against a boycott, while the third was against a trade union boycott but for a boycott by foreign governments.

The workers from the Sderot food factory who met with the delegation were uniformly against a boycott, as too was the President of the National Union of Building, Wood, Ceramic and Glass Workers (NUBWCGW). B’Tselem was also against a boycott

On the other hand, the General Union of Palestinian Women supported a boycott and sanctions. So too did the Palestinian Authority’s Minister of Planning, as well as teaching staff at Birzeit University. By definition, the Ramallah-based “Boycott, Disinvestment and Sanctions Campaign”, a federation of Palestinian NGOs, supported everything in its own title.

The Nablus firefighters who spoke with the delegation were “privately, from a personal and political perspective, fully supportive of sanctions”, although this was qualified by the fact that they were “unsure” whether BDS would have a detrimental impact on their fire service.

Between these two ‘extremes’ more nuanced positions were expressed by other parties with whom the delegation held meetings.

The General Secretary of the PGFTU (Palestinian trade union federation) explained that the PGFTU “cannot advise against BDS” and that “many sections of Palestinian society were calling for a boycott.”

But the PGFTU itself “cannot determine what the STUC or other international organisations decide to do in relation to a boycott.” It was “(other) organisations’ own decisions (as to whether to support a boycott).” In other words: the PGFTU has no pro-boycott policy, but does not oppose other organisations adopting such a policy.

The Palestinian human rights organisation Al-Haq likewise did not advocate a boycott itself as this was something which should be “left to others, such as trade unions and politicians, … something that individuals do on a personal basis.” Al-Haq did, however, support sanctions and disinvestments targeted at the occupation.

But as the organisation’s director explained: “Al-Haq is asking for sanctions from third state parties which are obligated under international law… If a state continues to commit crimes against humanity, there are legal procedures for dealing with this.” Thus, Al-Haq initiates legal proceedings which, if upheld, would see sanctions imposed on Israel as the appropriate penalty under international law.

Two organisations with which the delegation held meetings – “Breaking the Silence” (former Israeli conscripts who campaign against the occupation) and the International Labour Organisation – had no view on BDS.

Despite the delegation having a specific remit to consider the appropriateness of BDS against Israel, a considerable number of meetings were held at which the issue of BDS was not raised: with officials of the Israeli Foreign Affairs Ministry, with a representative of Sderot Municipality, with members of the PGFTU Youth Section, with members of the National Palestinian Transport Union, with inhabitants of the Palestinian village of Nilin, and with teachers at an East Jerusalem school.

(In most of these cases, however, it would not require much imagination to work out if the delegation’s hosts were pro-BDS or anti-BDS.)

The delegation’s report of its visit ends with its own view of the question of BDS against Israel:

“In the light of what we witnessed and heard in our meetings in Israel and the Occupied Territories, it is the delegation’s view that the General Council should recommend to the Annual Congress the need to take a position of supporting boycott and disinvestments and calling for sanctions against Israel because of the Israeli state’s violations of human rights.”

There are a number of reasons why this is not only the wrong conclusion to draw about the issue of BDS but also one which is not even consistent with what the delegation heard in the meetings held in the course of the visit.

The Israeli Welfare Minister is hardly a role-model for socialists and trade unionists. But in a a sense he was correct to tell the delegation to “look into this issue humbly” in order to avoid “operating adversely to the [goals] which the delegation wished to support.” It actually is a pity that the delegation ignored his exhortations, and also failed to think through politically a lot of what was said during their visit. Why?

A boycott of Israel will strengthen the right wing in Israel. This is simply a statement of fact, and one frequently expressed by activists in the Israeli peace movement. It is also a matter of fact recognised by Israeli trade union activists and (some) Palestinian trade union activists.

A boycott of Israel would play into the hands of the right wing by lending apparent credence to their arguments that only a strong Israel which stifles domestic dissent and pays no heed to a hostile international public opinion can protect Israel’s interests and its right to exist.

The likely domestic political consequences of a boycott are vaguely reflected in some of the comments recorded in the delegation’s report.

The Histradut chairperson, for example, refers to a boycott as a hindrance to attempts to influence the Israeli government on the issue of Palestine and Palestinian workers. The Welfare Minister refers to a feeling among Israelis that the world does not understand them, and to the importance of recognising Israel’s right to exist.

Now, the STUC delegation might be of the opinion that a boycott would not play into the hands of the Israeli right wing. Alternatively, its members might not care whether or not it does so. Whatever the delegation’s opinions on this issue, however, it is reasonable to expect to see some evidence of it having been discussed.

In fact, the issue does not even receive even a passing mention in the conclusions of the delegation’s report.

Just as a boycott would strengthen the right wing in Israel, so too it would hinder – severely – attempts to build solidarity with Israeli and Palestinian trade unionists and peace activists.

In theory, one could boycott Israeli goods exported by the ‘bad’ Israeli state but still solidarise and support the ‘good’ bits of that state. (Leaving aside, as an additional complication, the question of who will play the role of ‘gatekeeper’ in deciding which are the ‘good’ bits of Israeli society.) In reality, however, the choice is straightforward: you can campaign for a boycott, or you can promote dialogue and solidarity.

This, indeed, was a fairly constant theme amongst opponents of BDS with whom the STUC delegation had meetings.

According to the Histradut chairperson, a boycott would undermine joint work between the union and the PGFTU. One of the Jerusalem Municipality trade unionists “said that instead of boycott he wanted to see dialogue.” Arab and Jewish shop stewards at the Sderot food factory “said that they did not support a boycott and they worked together well, whatever their heritage.” The NUBWCGW President “emphasised the importance of partnership and dialogue rather than boycott.”

Again, the STUC delegation might think that there is no contradiction between BDS and building solidarity (with Israelis as well as Palestinians). Or it might recognise there is a contradiction but not care about it. But instead of discussing the issue and allowing the readers of its report an insight into their thinking, the delegation does no more in its conclusions than note that such an argument was expressed.

A further objection to BDS voiced by its opponents in the course of the delegation’s visit was that it would impact on Palestinian workers as well as Israeli workers.

As one of the Jerusalem Municipality trade unionists put it: “The poorest employees in Jerusalem are Palestinian, and the country is facing a recession. So, boycott will harm the weakest within society such as Palestinians and the poorer Jewish people.” Similarly, one of his colleagues said: “Boycott will hit one million Palestinians in Israel.”

This objection to a boycott is addressed by the delegation in its conclusions – but simply by countering it with a quote from the Palestinian Authority’s Minister of Planning: “The situation for Palestinian workers was so bad that a boycott could not do real damage, and Palestinians were not employed in the sectors of the Israeli economy which would be most affected by a boycott.”

So, who is right and who is wrong? The workers in Jerusalem or the Minister in Ramallah? The delegation does not even ask the question, never mind answer it.

And this is despite the fact that the Minister of Planning’s argument is undermined, even if only partially, by the fact that the one workplace in Israel visited by the delegation – the food factory in Sderot – employed both Jewish and Arab workers and “was part of a larger company which did export products.”

(Admittedly, the reference here is to Israeli Arab workers rather than Palestinian workers living outside of the 1967 borders. Even so, it stands at odds with the Planning Minister’s assertion.)

And even if the Minister of Planning was right, what then? If Israeli Arabs and Palestinians do not work in the sectors of the Israeli economy which would be hit by a boycott, then it must mean that Israeli Jews work in those sectors.

Does the delegation therefore believe that it is acceptable, or even a ‘good thing’, for Israeli workers (especially “the poorer Jewish people”) to lose their jobs as a result of BDS? That this will push those unemployed workers to the left and into the peace camp? That this is any way to promote trade union solidarity?

Again, these are just so many additional questions sidestepped by the delegation in its conclusions.

One additional common objection to calls for a boycott is that will promote antisemitism.

Previous pro-boycott spasms in Britain saw attempts to shut down university Jewish Societies. Current lists of boycott targets include not just Israeli products but also Jewish community newspapers published in Britain. And an increasingly prevalent current in boycott-campaigning is one which attributes to the Israeli state the various stereotypically-racist qualities traditionally attributed by antisemites to Jews as people.

There was no particular reason for the delegation to discuss this issue in the course of their visit. The purpose of their visit, in theory at least, was to listen to what other people had to say. But in deciding whether or not to back the call for BDS, it is certainly a factor which deserves to be taken into consideration. And yet – again – the report’s conclusions do not even acknowledge the problem.

If, as is the case, the STUC delegation’s report ignores the arguments against a boycott, what is it that persuaded the delegation’s members of the merits of BDS (assuming, that is, that a goodly number of them had not already made up their minds about the matter even before setting foot in Israel)?

The answer is simple. Israel is occupying territory which it should not be occupying. In doing so it is committing human rights violations on a daily basis. Therefore, in line with what a number of people said to the delegation, BDS should be supported. As the delegation states in its conclusions:

“The issues were discussed in terms of violations of human rights. … It was very clear to the delegation that the daily violations of human rights were a direct result of Israel’s occupation of Palestinian territories. … It was imperative and urgent that international trade union colleagues act.”

But just as the delegation failed to give any consideration to the objections to BDS expressed during its visit, so too its conclusions fail to test out the various claims put forward in support of the supposed efficacy of a boycott. In fact, the delegation displays a particularly unquestioning and uncritical attitude towards the entire mode of argumentation put forward by advocates of BDS.

On more than one occasion BDS supporters drew analogies with South Africa. The Palestinian Minister of Planning, for example, “drew comparisons with South Africa and the important role of public opinion and the boycott of the apartheid regime.”

In discussion with teaching staff at Birzeit University “parallels were again drawn with South Africa, where it took 20 years to work – but Israel had to be isolated. They impressed upon us the urgency of the situation, given that 91% of Israelis supported the attacks on Gaza. … There is a most urgent and practical need for boycott.”

But the boycott campaign against South Africa existed for 34 years, not 20 years. In fact, apartheid South Africa was subject to a boycott campaign for most of its existence. Whatever else one might say about a boycott campaign, therefore, it is certainly no response to a situation characterised as “urgent”.

Nor did the BDS campaign targeted at South Africa play anything approaching a substantial role in putting an end to apartheid anyway. The decisive factor was the growth of a militant domestic opposition, especially amongst Black South African workers. The impact of the boycott campaign was minimal.

A number of statements made by members of the “Boycotts, Disinvestment and Sanctions Campaign” (BDSC), the most enthusiastic supporters of a boycott encountered by the delegation, also deserved closer attention and analysis from the delegation than what they received (i.e. none whatsoever).

According to one BDSC member: “Few speak of the major violation of 60 years ago, with the complete theft of the land and the eviction of Palestinian people, and that this action was illegal. … He (the BDSC member) objected to the division of the country on religious grounds, arguing that Christians, Jews and Muslims had all lived together as Palestinians. … It is not about being against Jews or Judaism as a religion, but about being against the Zionist project.”

To make the same point in a less convoluted fashion: Israel is an illegitimate state based upon the dispossession of the Palestinian people, and Jews are simply a religious sect rather than a nation. The rider to this argument is that Israeli Jews have no national rights and Israel has no right to exist. This line of thought, of course, places the campaign’s calls for BDS in a very different context.

Another BDSC member advocated, albeit not entirely overtly, a boycott of the Histradut: “He criticised Histradut for not condemning Israel’s violence in Gaza and suggested that the international trade union movement should have agreed standards that its members have to meet.” But even the PGFTU, which gives a nod and a wink to a boycott of Israel, supports continued links with the Histradut.

The same BDSC member “recommended that people work with the Palestine Solidarity Campaign and the Scottish Palestine Solidarity Campaign (SPSC).”

The SPSC is the campaign whose members: equate Israelis with Nazis, and the Gaza Strip with the Warsaw Ghetto; give a platform to people like Gilad Atzmon (whose ‘anti-Zionism’ is simply another label for anti-semitism); deny the right of “the apartheid state of Israel” to exist; defend Hamas war crimes; link to Holocaust-denial websites (but always by mistake); employ expressions such as “international Jewry”, and describe Israel as a “hydra-headed monster” against which are pitted “the forces of human progress”.

The SPSC, to continue, is the campaign whose members: define Zionism as a “racist and fascist ideology”; describe Hamas as a “national liberation movement”; peddle their own version of Holocaust revisionism (i.e. the ‘real’ but forgotten victims of the Holocaust are the Palestinians); commemorate one Holocaust Memorial Day with readings from an anti-semitic play, and then commemorate another Holocaust Memorial Day by hosting a cheerleader for Hamas.

It would be dishonest to argue that anyone who supports BDS must be in the same league (more appropriately: sewer) as the SPSC.

The Palestinian Minister of Planning, for example, may be wrong to argue in favour of a boycott, but he poses the issue in a very different way: Israel commits human rights abuses; a two-state solution is both possible and desirable; a boycott would help combat human rights abuses and bring about two states.

Having said that, the demand for BDS is more consistent with the politics of the SPSC than with achieving a two-state solution. The impact of any boycott campaign directed at Israel would be even less significant than was the case with apartheid South Africa. But what it would do is reinforce the image of Israel as an illegitimate pariah state whose very existence precludes a settlement of the Middle East conflict.

Which is why, of course, those who are the most enthusiastic about a boycott of Israel are also those are the most hostile to its very existence.

The 2009 congress of the STUC is meeting this week in Perth. It should reject the delegation’s conclusions in support of BDS – not simply because they are so poorly argued (insofar as any reasons at all are provided in support of them) but, more importantly, because they are politically wrong and regressive. Congress should also vote down motions on the order paper variously calling for BDS and a boycott of the Histradut.

Effective support for the Palestinians means dialogue, engagement, solidarity, and joint campaigning with Israelis and Palestinian peace campaigners and trade unionists – not boycott and accommodation to the politics of the SPSC.

The report of the STUC delegation is available at:
http://www.stuc.org.uk/files/Palestine/Delegation%20Report%202009.pdf

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