By AWL Tube workers
RMT's London Transport region held a public meeting on Monday 24 October entitled "Palestine's fight for freedom". Clips from this meeting have been published on the internet.
Steve Hedley, the regional organiser, introduced the meeting initially with some points that Workers' Liberty supporters wholeheartedly agree with. He talked about the meeting being in solidarity with both the Palestinian and the Israeli people, expressed support for the massive social protest movement in Israel and made the correct point that the the current economic situation there is linked to the huge cost of maintaining the occupation of the Palestinian territories.
However, from here things went downhill. Steve stated that "Histadrut [the main Israeli trade union organisation] won't organise Palestinian workers ... that's why we've taken a decision as a region not to have anything to do with Histadrut, because of that policy, not because we don't want to organise with Israeli workers, if they started organising Palestinian workers of course we'd have links with those organisations". It’s true that Histadrut does not organise in the occupied territories (they have links with the Palestinian General Federation of Trade Unions which does), but within Israel it has admitted Arab members since 1959.
Like all trade union organisations, there are political tensions with Histadrut. Like many other trade union bodies around the world, it has historically supported the foreign policy of its state. But breaking links with Histadrut means cutting off solidarity and dialogue with the majority of organised Israeli workers (Jewish and Arab): the very people best placed to fight to force change from the Israeli government.
Clips show that later in the meeting, things hit an even more concerning note. Steve addressed a Jewish audience member about "your friends in the media" and also referred to someone as one of the "chosen people". Anti-Semitism takes many guises other than directly saying "I hate Jews"; anti-Semitism historically contains an image of power attributed to Jews ("the Jews control the banks", "all Jews are wealthy capitalists", "the Jews control the media", "the Jews think they are chosen (and thus better than everyone else)"). These comments by Steve are in line with some of those myths and are therefore anti-Semitic. They should have no place in any labour movement meeting; we condemn them. We also condemn the foul anti-Irish comments directed at Steve which have appeared on at least one blog following the publicising of his comments. We were not at the meeting, so do not know what arguments preceded this incident, or what other unpleasant comments might have been said by anyone else in attendance; but nevertheless, racism in any form is unacceptable.
The right-wing pro-Israel blogosphere has challenged the right of unions to say anything about Palestine, and there has been a spewing of anti-union, anti-working class comments which we likewise condemn. These include calls on the Mayor of London to introduce driverless trains as soon as possible in order to smash the RMT – an utterly disgraceful call for the bosses and their political servants to attack workers and trade unions.
Trade unions are organisations of the working class, built to fight for working-class interests, and have a clear duty to speak out on issues which concern workers across the world, far beyond the immediate economic interests of their members. It is right that trade unions should campaign for an end to Israel’s oppression of the Palestinians, and that they should hold meetings such as this one, which was called by a decision of the union’s regional council. It is also right that the RMT and other unions should make solidarity with workers' organisations in Israel – including Histadrut-affiliated unions and independent organisations. Indeed, this is the national policy of the RMT.
Workers' unity, at home and across the world, is our strength. It is for this reason that we must speak out about the poison of anti-Semitism in the labour movement - Jewish workers, Jewish union members, have their place in our movement every bit as much as all other workers. Anti-Semitism serves only to divide us.
On 8 November Steve Hedley issued a statement about the incident.
AWL Tubeworkers have responded:
We welcome the apology contained in Steve Hedley's statement in response to Workers' Liberty's statement 'Anti-Semitism has no place in the labour movement'.
We hope that this establishes that Anti-Semitic language is unacceptable, even when faced with right-wing provocation.
There is clearly a genuine difference of views about what constitutes Anti-Semitism and we believe it will make the labour movement as a whole stronger if those issues are debated openly and calmly.
[This is a transcript of a recording of Steve Hedley’s response to aggressive right-wing, pro-Israeli-government heckling from the floor of the meeting.]
SH: We oppose the Israeli government because of the racist policies they are carrying out on the Palestinian people. You can cover it up for so long with your friends in the media but the attack on the Mavi Marmara and the attacks on those innocent women and children have turned into the biggest concentration camp on the earth. This is the reality. You’re an absolute disgrace to the Jewish people. You are a modern-day fascist, you are a modern-day Nazi, by supporting those policies that oppress a [word inaudible] minority in your own state. No wonder the EDL are flying the flag of Israel. The modern-day Nazi EDL are flying the flag of Israel because it’s the state that they associate with. What the Nazis did to you, you’re doing to the Palestinians.
[Chair calls the next speaker from the floor, who begins speaking.]
Heckler: Feel better?
SH: Better than you, obviously. But then again you’re one of the chosen people so you might feel better than me, huh?
Heckler: So it’s about being Jewish?
SH: It’s about being a Zionist.