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

Racism and Anti-Semitism in the UK: Are union leaders and the Jewish community in denial?

In recent weeks I've had the opportunity to listen to leaders of trade unions and the Jewish community in Britain discuss developments that concern them.

The first has been reaction to the decision taken by the Trades Union Congress (TUC) to call for a partial boycott of Israel and its more recent decision to praise the government's decision to label West Bank products. The second is the spectacular rise of the far-right British National Party (BNP).

Among those trade union leaders who remain relatively moderate on the Middle East (i.e., do not support Hamas), there is real concern about the TUC decision and its aftermath. Even though a resolution adopted by the organization's General Council takes legal precedence over the more militantly anti-Israel resolution adopted by the TUC Congress, no one doubts that the British unions have taken a sharp turn in an anti-Israel direction.

And the stunning election victory by the BNP in this year's European elections – leading to two British fascists winning seats in the European Parliament – led to the decision by the BBC to invite Nick Griffin, the party's leader, to appear on “Question Time”. Following Griffin's breakthrough appearance, polls showed 22% of Britons would now consider voting for the fascist party.

The party already won a million votes in the European elections and it is widely believed that in parliamentary elections in 2010 they could make a breakthrough and win seats in the House of Commons for the first time.

In hearing the reaction of both Jewish leaders and union leaders to these two developments, I am struck by how much they seem to have lost touch with reality. They all appear to be in denial.

The common wisdom about the rise of the BNP is that white working class Britons are increasingly alienated, and no longer feel that the Labour Party represents them. So after decades of voting Labour, they have switched loyalties to vote for a party that they perceive as being their own – the BNP.

Trade union leaders and Jewish leaders alike are convinced that these voters do not turn to the BNP out of racism. In fact, if they were only to be made aware of the racism the BNP represents, they would return to their roots and vote Labour again.

The entire panel on “Question Time” -- which included senior figures from the Labour, Conservative and Liberal Democrat parties – devoted all their energies to proving that Griffin was a racist.

And yet despite their best efforts, the BNP clearly profited from the exposure. Which raises the question – is it possible that exposing the racism of the BNP will actually make it more popular? Could it be that the problem is not so much that white working class voters are being tricked into voting for a racist party – but in fact that they are themselves racists?

There is considerable evidence both of a rise of racist attitudes in Britain and of a persistence of traditional racist beliefs. Even though the newspapers read by the country's elite (such as the Guardian and Independent) may laud multiculturalism, the tabloids read by millions of ordinary people (in particular the Daily Mail and Daily Express) routinely push an overtly racist agenda.

And yet leaders of the one large social movement – the trade unions – which could conceivably take on the BNP, are denying that racism is what attracts voters to it.

The implausibility of all this is really staggering.

I'm sure that the vast majority of BNP voters have no idea where the party stands on health care, education, or foreign policy. The one thing – the only thing -- everyone knows about the BNP is that it is a racist party.

Until very recently, its constitution explicitly banned non-Whites from joining.

Its origins are in the street-fighting neo-Nazis of the old National Front. Even those without the remotest interest in politics will known that Nick Griffin's party are the blokes who hate the Muslims and other immigrants.

That may be all they know about the party – but that is precisely its appeal. Educating the public about just how racist the BNP is will be unlikely to weaken it. And as the debacle of the “Question Time” debate shows, that kind of exposure may even win the party new converts.

And it strikes me that same kind of denial affects how moderate trade unionists are viewing the stunning reversal by the TUC of an even-handed approach to the Middle East.

The resolutions passed by the trade unions this year not only called for a boycott of some Israeli products, but also for an arms embargo on Israel, and for unions to affiliate to the pro-Hamas Palestine Solidarity Campaign. The resolution proposed by the Fire Brigades Union, which passed by a large majority at the TUC, called for the British unions to “review” their relationship with the only mass, independent and democratic trade union movement in the Middle East, the Israeli Histadrut.

One trade union leader who is considered pro-Israel opened a meeting I attended by saying he was “tired” of British unions being called anti-Semitic. No one in the room had done so and in fact, I can't think of an example of anyone doing so, anywhere. It was pre-emptive strike, a warning not to play the anti-Semitism card.

At another event, attended by trade union and Jewish community leaders, a union leader came down very hard on the TUC for reversing decades of a moderate policy, but insisted that we must all be aware that this has nothing to do with anti-Semitism. No one objected to this.

The strange thing about all this is that most educated people who follow this things will agree that anti-Semitism in Britain has been growing in recent years. Reports produced by the Community Security Trust confirm this, as did the All-Party Parliamentary investigation a couple of years ago.

It is now common practice for journalists and politicians to engage in anti-Semitic discourse. The Guardian and Independent newspapers as well as the BBC are routinely the subject of complaints by the Jewish community, as their anti-Israel bias becomes more blatant. For example, comparisons of the Israeli Defense Forces to the Wehrmacht are now commonplace.

At the TUC Congress, a delegate rose to support the motion which was eventually adopted – no one spoke against it – and in the course of his remarks compared the IDF's defensive action in Gaza earlier this year to the German invasion of Poland in 1939. No one rose to object.

It may well be the case that there is no connection between rising anti-Semitism and the decisions taken to boycott Israel. But if there is no such connection, it is quite a coincidence.

Jewish leaders and pro-Israel trade unionists are justified in not wanting to play the anti-Semitism card at every opportunity. One does need to be cautious. Not every criticism of Israel is by definition anti-Semitism. But also, not every criticism is therefore legitimate or free of anti-Semitism either.

Getting up at the TUC and comparing the IDF to the Wehrmacht is an anti-Semitic slur. But not a single trade union leader condemned it at the time, or since.

There is a connection between the views taken by Jewish and trade union leaders on the TUC boycott motion and on the rise of the BNP. In both cases, they insist, the problem is not that people are racist or anti-Semitic.

People vote for the BNP because they are “misinformed”. And trade unionists – who apparently are not affected by the constant barrage of anti-Israel and anti-Semitic attacks in the newspapers they read – are also not anti-Semitic at all, merely “misinformed.”

Everybody seems to be “misinformed” and the solution, apparently, is to educate them, to show them that the BNP, for example, is a racist party. (Even though that seems likely to increase its popularity.)

When I hear that, I think of the famous scene in “Casablanca” where Humphrey Bogart is asked why he came to the desert city.

“My health,” he replied. “I came to Casablanca for the waters.”

His interrogator replies, “The waters? What waters? We're in the desert.”

“I was misinformed,” Bogart says.