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On Thursday 17 September the TUC congress voted for a motion from the Fire Brigades Union (FBU) for a boycott of Israeli goods. The vote does not commit unions to any real action, and anyway was neutralised by the TUC General Council putting a statement through the congress which defined a much more limited policy. But the TUC vote will boost the "boycott Israel" mood in the labour movement and the left.
We believe this is a step backwards for the labour movement and for the cause of solidarity with the Palestinians. Rather than boycott, we advocate maximum links by the British labour movement with the many grass-roots groups and movements in Israel that support Palestinian rights or can feasibly be swung to support Palestinian rights, as well as with secular and democratic Palestinian movements.
Many labour movement activists - including many who are not fanatically hostile to everything Israeli - have been swung to supporting a boycott by the desire to "do something" against arrogant, callous Israeli governments uninterested in peace and casual about their slaughter of Palestinians in such actions as Israel's January 2009 offensive in Gaza.
A quiet choice not to buy Israeli fruit in the supermarket seems to them practical, possibly effective, and anyway a non-violent and dignified form of protest.
That is straightforward. But the counter-arguments are equally straightforward.
The bottom-line argument is that if a boycott gains real momentum, then - whatever the intentions of many of the trade unionists now voting for boycotts - it cannot fail to become a movement to target, shun, and penalise conspicuous Israel-linked people and pro-Israelis in Britain, i.e. Jews.
It cannot fail to boost the occasional pickets now mounted by anti-Israel enthusiasts against Marks and Spencer shops. The "official" reason for these pickets is links between Marks and Spencer bosses and Israel. In fact what singles out Marks and Spencer among High Street chains is that it is the one well known to have been founded by Jewish businessmen.
It cannot fail to revive the mood on university campuses which for many years, from the mid-1980s, led to student unions banning student Jewish societies on the grounds that they would not foreswear all links with Israel.
It cannot fail to encourage a revival of the sort of action which started the boycott bandwagon rolling in Britain - the decision in 2002 by a British academic to sack two Israeli academics from journals which she edited, solely on the grounds that they were Israeli. One of the Israeli academics sacked was Miriam Shlesinger, former chair of the Israeli branch of Amnesty International, a living disproof of the idea that all Israeli Jews are little Benjamin Netanyahus or Ariel Sharons.
Wouldn't the effective pressure for concessions which a boycott would apply to the Israeli government compensate for such side-effects, and make them secondary? No. The Arab states - all of them most of the time, and most of them all of the time - have been boycotting Israel since 1948, and that hasn't helped.
Even if a consumer boycott became strong - in practice it will be token, even if it gathers enough force to produce a large anti-Jewish "spillover" - it is much more likely to strengthen chauvinist "fortress" attitudes in Israel than peace sentiments. Israeli Jews are likely to react in a prickly fashion to censorious measures from the Europe in which six million of their parents and grandparents were killed, and from the Britain which tried to block Jewish flight to Palestine while the Holocaust was being prepared and carried through.
Unions can achieve much by positive solidarity. Between its 2008 and 2009 conferences, the rail union RMT was the one union in Britain with a positive policy of solidarity, not boycott. It did more to help the Palestinians than the boycottist unions. It hosted a visit by Israeli army refuser Tamar Katz (the more fervent boycotters would boycott even Tamar), and organised a demonstration to protest at Israeli Railways' discrimination against Arab workers.
Trade unionists should seek to help Arab and Jewish workers inside Israel organise and unite, to show them solidarity, to develop links with their union movement, the Histadrut, and through those links to encourage support for Palestinian rights. The FBU motion, by contrast, called for a "review" of British unions' links with the Histadrut.
Boycott campaigners are clear that for them the "review" proposal is useful only as the thin end of a wedge to get links with the Histadrut broken off. As the boycott campaign has rolled on - the university lecturers' union AUT in 2005, then Unison, TGWU-Unite, PCS, and RMT in more recent years - the campaigners have become bolder about trying to break links between organised British workers and organised Israeli workers.
In some unions, such as Unison, boycott motions have also included a call for a "cultural" boycott. The best answer to this was given by the Palestinian academic Edward Said: "I believe it is our duty as Palestinian and yes, even Arab intellectuals to engage Israeli academic and intellectual audiences by lecturing at Israeli centres, openly, courageously, uncompromisingly. What have years of refusing to deal with Israel done for us? Nothing at all, except to weaken us and weaken our perception of our opponent" (Al-Ahram weekly 378, 21-27 May 1998).
Films indicting Israeli government misdeeds in the Occupied Territories have been banned in Europe under this "cultural boycott". For example a French film festival barred Simone Bitton from taking part in a workshop; Bitton, an Israeli citizen but long settled in France, had produced Mur in protest against the Separation Wall (Challenge, January 2007).
The women's organisation Sindyanna supports Arab workers in Galilee and Palestinian growers and producers from the Occupied Territories. It wants trade unions to help its work by promoting their products. How would boycotting them help?
Boycotters usually point to the boycott of the apartheid regime in South Africa run by the African National Congress (ANC) and its supporters from 1961 as a model.
But apartheid South Africa was a system where a white minority caste lorded it over a legally-suppressed black majority. The boycott was a gesture of solidarity with the majority, who supported it. The big majority in Israel - including the majority of those Israelis who back Palestinian rights - do not want a boycott.
The Arab minority in Israel suffers disadvantages, as minorities do in many capitalist states, but does not face apartheid. The essential problem is that of Israel's occupation of the West Bank and blockading of Gaza, its denial of the Palestinians' right to have a state of their own.
The analogy with South Africa is false, and slides over into a false blanket condemnation of all Israeli Jews as exploiters.
Moreover, the gesture of boycotting South African goods, even if socialists had no special reason to denounce it, was not all decisive in bringing down apartheid. The revolt of the black working class in South Africa was decisive there.
The "cultural" bit of the South African boycott was a hindrance. It helped the ANC and its allies in their initial denunciation of the new multi-racial trade unions of the 1980s as "yellow unions" (because, in contrast to the ANC-run "trade union federation" which existed only in exile, they negotiated with the employers and the government) and their attempt to block direct links between British unions and those multi-racial unions ("breaches of the boycott").
The TUC and most, maybe all, trade unions support a "two states" settlement, as does Solidarity: the demand that Israel withdraw from the Occupied Territories and allow the Palestinians to exercise their right to form a sovereign, independent state of their own, in contiguous territory, alongside Israel.
Most, though not all, of the activists who have pushed the boycott since about 2002 do not support "two states". They believe that Israel must be wiped off the map, and the Israeli Jews - as many of them as survive the conquest of their state - must be forced to live as a minority in an Arab-majority state.
They would say (and, often, sincerely believe) that the Jews in that Arab-majority state should have democratic rights. But not the right to have their own nation-state! Never that!
In practice such a Jewish minority could be prevented from exercising self-determination only by depriving them of many other democratic rights. And we can gauge how thought-through the support for Jewish rights of the advocates of "one Palestine, from the river to the sea" is by observing their uncritical support for Hamas. Sometimes the "one Palestine" advocates talk of a "democratic, secular state", but Hamas rule "from the river to the sea" would certainly not be secular or democratic.
The boycott proposal, by presenting the Israeli Jews as a "bad people", an illegitimate nation, a community to be shunned in a blanket fashion, functions as the thin end of the wedge for the idea that the Israeli Jews have no right of national self-determination, and that the Jews across the world who feel instinctive (though often critical) solidarity with Israel should be denounced as "Zionists". The term "Zionist" in this context bears the same emotional charge as "fascist" or "racist".
The TUC General Council statement overrode the FBU motion's demand for a consumer boycott of all Israeli goods, substituting a consumer boycott of goods from settlements in the Occupied Territories. Mick Shaw from the FBU had said: "It's not just an issue of a boycott of goods produced in illegal settlements. Firstly, we think that impractical. These goods do not come with a label which says 'these goods are produced on an illegal settlement'." True. The more limited boycott is impractical, and in fact has gained currency only as a "first step towards" comprehensive boycott. But neither the TUC leaders' move to reduce it all to vague but safe impracticality, nor "Zionist"-baiting, is an answer.
What we need, and what would best help the Palestinians, is a different campaign. One which makes the unions' two-states policy an active guide to solidarity - on the lines tentatively started by RMT in 2008-9 - rather than an abstract preamble to motions which go on to recommend nothing but vague lobbying of the Government and individual consumer choices. And one which decisively rejects the "Zionist"-baiters.
"I haven't seen the AWL engage in any solidarity for a long time... The fact is that there are no suggestions about solidarity or support for the Palestinians because AWL are in solidarity with their oppressors!"
We have no reason to apologise or justify ourselves to the likes of you, Tony, but for the sake of those reading this exchange:
The article does, in fact, mention some of the solidarity actions we've been involved in. A more comprehensive list would include:
- Regular pickets outside the Israeli embassy; we haven't been able to keep these up but all in all we must have done over a hundred.
- Moving motions in opposition to Israel's wars and in support of the Palestinians wherever we can, including in the trade unions, and in student unions and NUS.
- A speaker tour with an Israeli military refuser who was jailed at the age of 19 for refusing to fight. She spoke to more than 700 people at universities and trade union branches.
- Getting the RMT to organise protests in solidarity with Israeli Arab rail workers discriminated against and sacked.
- Very active and visible participation in the movement against the war on Gaza; including
- Active participation in university occupations in solidarity with the people of Gaza. In two cases, Cambridge and Sheffield Universities, our comrades played a leading role, and in another, Edinburgh, one of the key occupation organisers went on to join the AWL.