Friday, June 01, 2007


Moves in Unison to boycott Israel

Unison Conference 2007, Resolution 54: An Open Letter to a member of Unison

From Alison Brown, Ed Whitby, Jean Lane, Kate Ahrens, Mike Fenwick, and Nick Holden.

Dear friend,

The brutal Israeli-Palestinian conflict continues to simmer. That, unless there is a settlement, it will boil-over again into widespread bloodshed, is as certain as anything in politics is. Against this background, Resolution 54 to Unison Conference proposes that Unison support a boycott of Israel.

Resolution 54 is a lamentably dishonest and evasive piece of work. But if our union conference is going to debate it, then Resolution 54 must be taken seriously and the issues raised in its proposal discussed on their merits. That is why we, Unison members, address this Open Letter to you.

Like most decent people, you are unhappy about the Middle East, about the destructive instability and the seemingly endless carnage. You think the policy of the Palestine Liberation Organisation, a Palestinian State alongside Israel, a sovereign, independent Palestinian state in contiguous territory, is both a good idea and a crying necessity. You detest the continued frustration of the desire of the Palestinian people for that State.

Like us, you are disappointed that the "road map" for Middle East peace, which the European Union, the UN, the USA and Russia sponsored four years ago, has not led to progress towards a Palestinian State.

You were horrified at the Israel-Hezbollah war in the summer of 2006, which was one consequence of the failure of the US to promote the Roadmap. You, like Solidarity and Workers' Liberty, opposed that war.


A case could be made for boycotting Israel as a means of putting on it extra pressure to reach a "two-states" settlement with the Palestinians.

At its most effective, such a boycott would put small additional pressure on Israel. The movement to boycott South Africa was launched after the Sharpeville massacre in February 1960 and continued for more than three decades, with only the most marginal effect on South Africa. Apartheid did not begin to crumble until the new black-majority trade unions and the populations of the townships rose up. The South African example testifies to the marginality of boycott tactics.

Against all such boycotts there is the central argument that boycotts of whole nations and their institutions are the crudest of political weapons. They hit opponents of the government being boycotted, those who share the viewpoint of the boycotters, as well as supporters of what the boycotters object to.

That objection had less weight for South Africa because there the majority of the country's population supported the boycott, and everyone saw it as aimed at the overthrow of white-minority rule rather than at the crushing of the whole country. Even for South Africa, though, there were downsides. For a number of years the boycott was used to condemn direct links between British unions and the new black-majority trade unions in South Africa.

Boycotts are called "boycotts" after the name of the target of a boycott placed on an Irish land agent by his neighbours, in the 1880s. The policy was first called "shunning". A boycott of Israel institutions would organise an international movement to shun not only Israeli chauvinists, but also all those in Israel who support two states, or who would if they could see a way to achieve two states that would also bring them freedom from homicide-bomb and other forms of attack.

A boycott would inevitably contribute to a siege mentality in Israel, and thus put additional difficulties in the way of Israelis - Jews and Arabs - working for a two-states settlement. It would strengthen the hard core Israeli chauvinists.

It is impossible to measure which would be greater, the pressure for a settlement which an international movement of shunning would put on the Israeli establishment, or the political strengthening of intransigence which it would bring in the Israeli population.

However, the main group promoting this resolution, the SWP are people who reject a "two states" settlement. They are not interested in such calculations. What do you think they are - soggy liberals and do-gooders? Their concern is to strike a strong r-r-revolutionary stance, not to help the Palestinians.

Where boycott leads

The case of Miriam Shlesinger shows what the boycott could lead to. She and another Israeli academic, Gideon Toury, were removed from the editorial board of an international journal of translation studies by the editor, the British academic Mona Baker, for being Israeli. Yet Shlesinger is a former chair of the Israeli section of Amnesty International, a group which spends most of its time denouncing Israeli government mistreatment of Palestinians.

And, as Shlesinger herself commented: "I understand why it [her left-wing political stand] is mentioned, because it makes the boycott seem more absurd when the 'good guys' are included in the 'bad guys' category, but really it's irrelevant. Ever since third grade, I thought collective punishment was immoral and this is essentially that."

But something other than calculations about the impact a boycott might have in Israel, is involved here. It is, in our view, the decisive argument against a boycott.

In Britain, Europe, America, etc., a boycott-Israel movement would, inexorably, become an anti-Jewish movement, directed perhaps first against Israelis, but then against those closely linked to Israelis, i.e. British, European, or American Jews.

That would do greatly more damage than any good it might conceivably do for the Palestinians. Experience has already proved that.

Many members of Unison will recall the movement in the colleges in the 1970s and 80s to "no-platform" "Zionists".

Its premise was that Jewish nationalism is "racist", but that Arab, Palestinian (or any other) nationalism is not. Israel did not have the right to exist. Its assertion of national identity was not something positive to itself, but only something negative about Arabs, i.e. "racist".

That campaign led in a number of colleges to bans (or attempts at bans) on Jewish student societies, and to the harassment and hounding of young Jews. It was a disgraceful as well as a very unpleasant experience.

In a boycott-Israel movement, the targets would inevitably come to be (or also be) the hard-core "Zionists" in Britain and elsewhere. That is, Jews.

Jews are the easily definable "Zionists" in our midst. Jews who may be critical of Israeli governments, who may want a two-states settlement, but who, quite rightly, will fight all variants of "Destroy-Israel" politics, including the cleverly spun ones like the call for a "Secular Democratic State", and will understandably resist a boycott of Israel.

They, and their enterprises and institutions, will inevitably become the targets of a Boycott Israel movement. Even if the SWPers who promote boycott do not want that, once it got under way, a boycott would not be in their control.

(And that they do not want that can not now be taken as self-evident. These are the British allies of the Muslim Brotherhood! Who knows what people as politically disorientated as they so plainly now are, will do next? Who knows what their Jihadist allies will impose on them?)

The boycott-Israel movement would in practice, whatever anyone might intend, quickly turn into an anti-Jewish movement.

That would certainly do more damage than any possible good a boycott would do for the cause of establishing a Palestinian state (the cause which, remember, the SWP promoters of the motion anyway do not share.)

Resolution 54's arguments

Let us look in more detail at how the resolution motivates a boycott, and what the resolution's main promoters, the SWP, say.

You will have noted that the victory of Hamas in the 2006 Palestinian general election pushed back further the possibility of a settlement.

You will know that a large part of the Hamas vote is believed to have been a vote against the widespread corruption in Palestinian governing circles, for the more conventionally honest Hamas and for the welfare provision which Hamas makes for some of the Palestinian needy. Nevertheless, in voting for Hamas, the electorate gave a majority to a clerical-fascist organisation, which rejects a two-states solution to the conflict - a sovereign Palestinian state side by side with Israel.

You will know that Hamas differs from the secular Palestine Liberation Organisation, which came out for a two-states arrangement twenty years ago, in 1988, in that it rejects such a settlement and continues to deny Israel's right to exist. It openly proclaims its objective to be the conquest and destruction of Israel.

In our view, two states, a sovereign Palestine besides a sovereign Israel, is the only just settlement. It is the only settlement that caters, as far as is possible, for the legitimate rights, fears, and concerns of both Jews and Arabs.

It is also the only practical, the only attainable, settlement.

All the alternative "solutions" — a "secular democratic state" for instance — imply the conquest and forcible dismantling of Israel. The "secular democratic state" formula means, to its Arab and would-be-left proponents, an Arab state in which Jews would have religious rights, but would have all their national rights, including the right to a state of their own, stripped from them.

That would be impossible to achieve without the conquest, massacre or displacement of millions of Israeli Jews, people born in Israel, most of them the children of parents, or grandparents, or great grandparents, born there.

No less than the old Arab and Islamic goal of destroying "the Zionist entity", "Secular democratic state" lies at the other side of the conquest and destruction of Israel. The carnage on both sides that that would involve, scarcely bears thinking about. Such a conquest of Israel by the surrounding Arab states, even were it possible, would not, could not, lead to equality for such Jews as were left, in a common state with the Palestinians.

Whether or not in an ideal world, and if we had the power of gods, we might choose to rearrange things so that Jews and Arabs would live peacefully in one "secular democratic state" in the territory of pre-1948 Palestine — that is of no consequence now. It is utopian nonsense. Hypocritical nonsense.

It is only a cleverly-"spun" euphemism for the conquest of Israel. It is what Yasser Arafat’s predecessor as leader of the Palestine Liberation Organisation, Ahmed Shukairi, used to express bluntly and honestly in the slogan: "Drive the Jews into the sea!"

It is both unacceptable in principle, and, for now and foreseeably, simply unattainable.

For a certainty, an independent Palestinian state is the best the Palestinians can, conceivably, win now or in the calculable future. "Militant" or "anti-imperialist" or Islamist-jihadist talk about anything else simply ignores the interests of the Palestinian people.

Mystic religious fascists like Hamas and Hezbollah who talk of destroying Israel, of course, are not concerned with progress for the Palestinians into a livable two-states relationship with their neighbouring state. They serve "Islam": they are only concerned with fighting holy wars against the infidel.

We repeat: those on the Arab side who reject a two-states arrangement and set as their goal the destruction of Israel are the enemies of the Palestinians as well as of the Israeli Jewish people.

And Israel? Israel should be condemned for not using its present great strength to secure or impose a just settlement, and for the reckless brutality with which it uses its military machine against the Palestinians.

The US should be condemned for not insisting that Israel accept, immediately, the Palestinians' right to an independent state, in deeds as well as in words, and honestly work to help set it up; Britain, for too passively going along with the USA.

Unstated assumptions

Resolution 54 for Unison conference, "Sanctions Against Israel", is a different dish of couscous altogether. Its unstated starting point is support for those in the Middle East - most importantly here, Hamas and Hezbollah - who reject a two-states solution and advocate the destruction of Israel and its replacement by an Islamic Arab state.

The resolution's authors try to exploit the just and widespread sympathy with the Palestinians, while rejecting the only policy that can serve the Palestinians, the policy of the PLO - a Palestinian state alongside Israel.

Their proposal that Unison should back a boycott and sanctions against Israel, and the way they advocate it, shows that plainly.

For instance, they list among the chief faults of Israel its response to the electoral victory of Hamas. Israel "withheld tax revenues from the Palestine Authority and refused dialogue with the elected Authority following the democratic elections of January 2006".

In all this, there are two things that need to be separated from each other. Firstly, do we think it is good that Israel refuses dialogue, or withholds tax revenues? For ourselves, no, we don’t. And, secondy, do we think that Israel has no right in principle to do such things in response to Hamas's election victory?

The point of view of the authors of the resolution for conference is not that it was not good that Israel did what it did; it is that Israel does not have the right to do such things. Israel, they believe, does not have the right to defend itself, on any level, with any weapons.

Think about that. Hamas proclaims in its programme that Israel must be destroyed. And Israel is obliged to forget about that just because a democratic majority of the Palestinians voted for Hamas? Doesn't have the right to do anything else?

Yet, coming under massive international pressure, the most Hamas would shift on this keystone idea was to say that it accepts Israel, de facto, "for now". Until, perhaps as the government of an independent Palestinian state, it feels strong enough, or can mobilise strong enough allies, to do something about destroying Israel.

Hamas has been the main organisation engaged in the homicide-bombings against Israeli civilians since 2001. We condemn Israel for the reckless seeming indifference to civilian casualties with which it conducts its military operations against Hamas and Hezbollah; but there is an enormous difference between that reprehensible behaviour and the deliberate targeting of Israeli civilians, young people in a Tel Aviv night club for instance.

Can the fact that Hamas won a majority in Palestinian elections deny to Israel the right to treat Hamas with hostility, and to put whatever pressure it can on the Palestinians to repudiate Hamas?

Can a majority in a Palestinian election for an Islamist clerical-fascist movement override the right of Israel to defend itself against those committed to its destruction?

The idea that it can leads straight to the only logical basis on which it can be made to stand up: that Israel does not have the right to defend itself, or even to exist. The point of view of the originators of Resolution 54

All "rights" here are assumed to belong to the Palestinians, or whatever powerful allies they might find to carry through the destruction of Israel.

That is indeed the position of the main political force behind the conference resolution - SWP/Respect, which openly allies with MAB, the British offshoot of the Muslim Brotherhood, which the founder of the SWP, the late Tony Cliff, himself once rightly defined as "clerical-fascist", and with the clerical-fascist "resistance" in Iraq.

Support the Palestinians - or treat them as pawns?

The authors of the resolution attempt to use justified and necessary sympathy with the Palestinians, and justified anger with Israel, to line up people like you behind policies which reflect, and are designed to serve, their basic position (repeat: unstated in the resolution) that Israel must be destroyed and all two-states arrangements rejected.

Their "sympathy" with the Palestinians does not extend to supporting the PLO's historic advocacy of "two states", of the solution which every reasonable person knows to be the only settlement that will serve the Palestinians.

If for the Islamist-jihadists of Hamas and Hezbollah the Palestinian people are mere bomb-fodder in an Islamic Holy War, what are they for the British pseudo-left allies of the jihadists, the people who promote Resolution 54? They are pawns in a great progressive "anti-imperialist" struggle (one that exists mainly in their heads).

The same underlying politics in the resolution are made clear also in its contradictory attitude to the Israeli trade union federation, the Histadrut, on one side and on the other, to the Palestine General Federation of Trade Unions (which, incidentally, supports a Two States position).

Histadrut's opposition to a boycott of Israel is dismissed: they didn't oppose the Lebanon war, did they? The Palestine Federation's support for a boycott is cited as a strong recommendation for the policy.

The gross double standards could hardly be more plainly displayed. Instead of a socialist policy, a class policy, here - Israeli and Palestinian working-class and trade-union unity on the political basis of mutual recognition of the rights of the two nations, Palestinian and Israeli-Jewish - instead of a policy that would allow the two working classes, long chronically divided by Israeli and Arab chauvinism, to unite for a mutually-advantageous political objective (two states) - instead of that, the resolution proposes that Unison members listen to one side only, the Palestinian.

And listen selectively. We repeat: the Palestinian unions support not the policy of Hamas and the SWP for the destruction of Israel, but the PLO policy of "two states".

(And incidentally, those who call on Unison conference to condemn the Histradrut for not opposing the Lebanon war, not calling for a ceasefire - the SWP/Respect - did not themselves call for a ceasefire. They called for the victory of Hezbollah. They marched through the streets of London carrying placards proclaiming: "We are all Hezbollah now".)

The double standards are there too in the description of the 2006 war. We, and the Alliance for Workers' Liberty, condemned the Israeli government for launching all-out war. We protested and agitated against it. The authors of the resolution, however, in their one-sided presentation, "forget" that the war was triggered by Hezbollah rockets and guerrilla raids into Israel.

For all these reasons, we urge Unison members to reject this irresponsible motion, and the politics of those who promote it.

The only way forward - for the Palestinians, more than anyone else - is two states.

Two states for two peoples!


Alison Brown (Yorkshire Ambulance Branch)
Ed Whitby (Newcastle Local Government Branch)
Jean Lane (Tower Hamlets Local Government Branch)
Kate Ahrens (Leicestershire Health Branch)
Mike Fenwick (Airedale Health Branch)
Nick Holden (Leicestershire Health Branch and Health SGE)

All signatories in a personal capacity.

People who read this should know what the secular, democratic left in Palestine is calling for, instead of these characatures without citations. Here's the boycott call from Palestine envisioned as a non-violent alternative to ending Israeli apartheid:

You will note that the call is endorsed by 171 Palestinian organizations within Israel, in the occupied territories and the 5-million Palestinian refugees that live outside of the country (the world's largest refugee population).

Also, Palestinian labour unions support this call... So the question is, if we want to be in solidarity with the Palestinian people, do we listen to a bunch of British people who think they know what is best for the long suffering people of Palestine, or do we support the demands of progressive forces in Palestine trying to move forward to a sustainable and just solution to this on-going human tragedy?
The thing is, anonymous, the views of the Palestinians have changed over time. For long periods of their history, Palestinians were, as far as it was possible to tell, in favour of a one-state, "smash Israel" solution to the middle east. But then they supported a PLO administration which began to recognise Israel's right to exist, sought a negotiated solution, advocated two states, etc. Now, since the election of Hamas, it is less clear, but certainly possible that a majority of the Palestinians have changed their position again.

Like the rest of us, they can't be right all the time. So it's not possible or desirable for British lefties to respond to the situation in Palestine by thinking "I'll just support whatever the Palestinians say". We actually have a responsibility to work out what we think the right way forward is. And a serious boycott of Israelis would damage the chances of solidarity work in the UK towards a just solution in the region, as well as damaging organisations inside Israel which are trying to acheive such an outcome.

You don't need to have "citations" to be right about something. You just have to be willing to think through the issues and test out your ideas in debate and in reality.
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