Engage: a mixed gathering

Submitted by cathy n on 31 July, 2007 - 3:51

Sacha Ismail and Chris Marks report on the anti-boycott meeting called by ‘Engage’, 11 July 2007

Something like 250 or 300 people attended the meeting on opposing boycotts of Israel called by the Engage campaign on 11 July. The main room in which the plenary sessions were held was packed — despite the £5 entrance fee.

The audience was mostly quite old, very posh and, it seemed, Jewish. This last fact is, of course, quite understandable: it is British Jews who will be the primary victims of the anti-semitism the boycott campaign is whipping up. However, it confirms the suspicion that Engage, even though many of its leading activists are not Jewish, has failed to reach out to a broader constituency.

Before the meeting began, we distributed a leaflet calling for a principled, left-wing anti-boycott campaign which actively supports the Palestinians, and sold our pamphlet “Two nations, two states”. The response was very interesting. Some people were highly sympathetic, and we sold quite a few pamphlets. Equally, there were a fair number of people who as soon as they heard the word “Palestinian” assumed we were for the boycott, and in some cases were very rude indeed.

There was a small pro-boycott demonstration outside. A telling incident: one particularly irate anti-boycotter tore up one of the demonstrators’ pro-boycott leaflets and threw them in her face. When we told him loudly and in no uncertain terms that this was no way to behave, the obviously very jumpy managers of Friends Meeting House got the police to threaten to remove us! And meanwhile, the pro-boycott demonstrators whom we, despite our disagreement with them, had been seeking to defend, said nothing in our defence, but simply smirked. Thanks, comrades.

The meeting itself was divided into three sections. The first was a general plenary, with speeches on the general picture in terms of pro-boycott campaigning (mainly in the unions) and resistance to it. The two speeches we managed to hear (we were let in late) were from Jon Pike and Dave Hirsh, both ex-AWL members and well-known UCU activists. Both, this or that detail aside, gave very good speeches: left-wing, labour movement-focussed and clear about the need for solidarity with the Palestinians.

The tone of contributions from the floor, however, was more mixed: quite a few participants were clearly not very left-wing at all. Among the highlights were someone who interjected that it was quite reasonable for Palestinian students to be denied an education, since they were all carrying bombs to university, and someone who commented that since a pro-boycott demonstrator outside had been unable to spell chrysanthemum on demand, she had no right to an opinion on the Middle East conflict! (It was reminiscent of a comment made by a Union of Jewish Students organiser to an AWL member recently that the problem of UCU is that it includes not just “proper academics”, but ignorant plebs who “teach hairdressing” at FE colleges...)

In the second session, the conference divided into workshops on a number of issues connected to the boycott and the Israel-Palestine conflict. We attended the one about opposing a boycott in the unions — quite a small workshop, since the great majority of the people at the conference were self-evidently not trade union activists or interested in the labour movement – another problem with Engage.

The speakers included Jon Pike and Eric Lee of LabourStart, as well as activists from the NUJ and GMB. They all made some good points, but there was a lack of emphasis on pro-Palestinian campaigning. This is a more general problem with Engage’s approach to Palestinians. There are always ritual genuflections towards an internationalist position, but little attempt to actively campaign for Palestinian rights. This is presumably because that would aggravate quite a large number of Engage’s often not very pro-Palestinian supporters.

Moreover, the stance taken by Jon Pike on the anti-boycott struggle within UCU seemed to align him with the right wing of the union — attacking the left as if from outside it, and dismissing the possibility of involving more members in branch, conference and other democratic structures in favour of a referendum on the boycott proposal.

The problem with this from a socialist point of view is obvious: use of referendums to over-rule democratic structures give the bureaucracy the power to manipulate an atomised, unorganised membership by setting questions calculated to overturn any decisions they don’t like. Undoubtedly it is true, as Jon Pike pointed out, that some of the “revolutionary left” has a conservative, anti-democratic attitude to the membership: but the real left alternative is to organise more members in democratic processes through debate and campaigning, not abandon them of a union run by referendum.

It had been an interesting evening, however. Engage’s ability to mobilise people around the boycott issue is impressive, but it remains quite far from the sort of campaign we need: broad-based, labour movement-focussed (and allied with the left of the labour movement) and active in solidarity with the Palestinians.

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