The blog of Eric Lee - web design and internet consulting for the trade union movement.

Unions: Don't boycott Palestine

The decisions by major unions in the UK and Canada yesterday to promote peace in the Middle East by encouraging boycotts have come in for a lot of criticism. But I want to understand the reasons behind the decisions by the National Association of Teachers in Further and Higher Education (NATFHE) and the Ontario section of the Canadian Union of Public Employees (CUPE) to boycott Palestinian products and academics.

The Canadian union's Ontario branch called for a policy of boycotts, divestment and sanctions against the Palestinian Authority until it recognises the Jewish people's "right to self-determination".

The election victory for Hamas, which rejects the Oslo accords, the road map, the 1947 UN partition plan and basically every other suggestion of ways in which Israelis and Arabs can live together side by side is a worthy target for the Canadian unionists.

And they've really hit the nail on the head by singling out this issue of recognising the other side's rights. Israel under Ben Gurion accepted the UN partition plan back in 1947 and most Israeli governments right up to the present day have agreed to one form of compromise or another -- most recently the complete withdrawal of all settlers and soldiers from Gaza. In the face of one side's refusal to recognize the other's right to exist, I can see where those Canadian unionists were coming from.

The election victory of Hamas, with its steadfast refusal to recognise Israel, is central to understanding what has happened.

In case anyone missed this point, NATFHE resolved as follows: "Conference notes the victory of HAMAS in the free, democratic and non-violent elections for the Palestinian Authority." So it's pretty clear that the call for a boycott is in direct response to the Palestinian decision to turn away from the peace process, such as it was.

After all, we wouldn't call for a boycott of a country which had just elected a government committed to ending the conflict, territorial compromise, and so on. Boycotts are a weapon of last resort and we use them only against regimes like Hamas -- or South Africa under apartheid.

Both the Canadian and British unions alike compared Palestine to South Africa, which has triggered some criticism. Obviously, the comparison will not be exact, but I can see where they are coming from.

After all, the central belief of the white racists in South Africa was that the races must live apart, and that one had greater rights than the other. This does describe Hamas' view of things fairly accurately. In societies where Islamic fundamentalist parties -- the sister movements to Hamas -- have come to power, they have imposed racist laws and suppressed ethnic and religious minorities. Imagining a Hamas military victory over Israel, I can see where one would expect the rise of a Palestinian-dominated apartheid state.

Of course it is equally likely that a Hamas military victory would result in a simple genocide directed against the Jews, in which case accusing Hamas of proposing apartheid is actually being generous.

One campaigning group in the UK hailed the union for standing up to "the campaign of intimidation and bullying waged against proponents of the NATFHE academic boycott initiative." I think it is important to point out the courage shown by both unions in taking on powerful Arab and Islamic lobbies, both inside their countries and globally. Clearly these campaigners had the recent world-wide outcry over the Danish cartoons in mind.

Timing is everything. And the timing of the union boycott resolutions in the wake of the Hamas election victory -- as highlighted in the NATFHE statements -- confirms this.

Unions have a long and proud tradition of supporting the rights of peoples to self determination and opposing violence, which naturally makes them hostile towards Hamas. Throw in Hamas' medieval world-view, its rejection of women's rights and gay rights, and the racism at the core of its hatred of Jews and Israel, and you can see why unions have chosen the boycott route.

But I have to say that I don't agree with them. I think the best way to deal with the Palestinians is not by boycott, but by dialogue and engagement.

Targetting Palestinian academics is particularly stupid, as quite a few of them were involved in the original Oslo peace process. Boycotting the Palestinians will be counter-productive, causing them to react defensively, rallying around the Hamas government. And it is a form of collective punishment, blaming Palestinian innocents for decisions taken by some of their leaders.

Finally, the decision by NATFHE and CUPE is a bad one because it could be turned around and used by supporters of Hamas and Islamic Jihad.

I know it sounds unlikely, but this could some day lead to unions calling for boycotts of Israeli academics and Israeli products. Yes, I know this seems highly unlikely, following the recent Israeli elections where the centre-left triumphed and the far right was routed. Israel's new defense minister is one of the founders of the "Peace Now" movement. Its government is committed to further large scale withdrawals from Palestinian territories.

It sounds crazy, I know, but next thing you know, unions might even call for boycotts against Israel too.


Excellent article! I will translate it to Spanish and post it on my blog (with a link to the original) if you allow it.

It seems that the only way left to make our voices heard is through irony and sad jokes about the situation. It really makes me think we have returned to the pre-nazi era in several respects.

Yes, please do. Thanks.

When you have something this good, you should publish it first as an op-ed in a major daily.