TUC silence on Russian aggression is nothing new

This article appears in Solidarity.


In an otherwise excellent piece on the TUC’s passing of an idiotic resolution on Ukraine, Dale Street writes that “for the first time since the Second World War the territory of a European country has been seized by that of a neighbouring big power.”

That doesn’t sound right — and it isn’t.

In fact there have been several occasions since 1945 when European countries have been the victims of aggression by neighboring big powers.

There was the Turkish invasion of Cyprus 40 years resulting in a division of the country and an occupation of its northern part that continues until the present day.

That invasion was exceptional not only in the sense that such invasions are rare in Europe. It’s also exceptional because every other example I can think of involves the Russian army.

Russian tanks and troops invaded Hungary in 1956 and Czechoslovakia in 1968, and while they did not redraw any borders, they did impose regimes that were considerably friendlier to the Soviets than the ones the local populations would have liked.

In the 1990s the Russian army waged a brutal war of conquest targetting the breakaway Chechen republic, burying once and for all the Leninist myth about a “right of secession”. (There never was any such right.)

More recently, in 2008 the Russian army — no longer the Red Army — invaded Georgia, wresting control of the provinces of South Ossetia and Abkhazia, turning these into “independent” states recognized only by Moscow.

Actually, that’s not entirely true. The “independent republics” of Abkhazia and South Ossetia are also recognized by Nicaragua, Venezuela and Nauru. Nauru for those of you who are not familiar with the Pacific island country formerly known as “Pleasant Island”, has a population of just over 9,000. The only country in the world that is smaller is the Vatican.

As for Nicaragua and Venezuela, this slavish kowtowing before Russian imperialism is utterly shameless. Even Cuba hasn’t gone so far as to recognize the breakaway provinces, currently occupied by Russian troops.

When tiny Georgia was facing the full might of the Russian army, a number of European leaders flew in to show solidarity, appearing at a rally in Tbilisi’s Freedom Square. These included the presidents of Poland, Ukraine, Lithuania, Latvia, and Estonia — the same countries that are today worried yet again by Russian sabre-rattling.

Historically, the left understood all this. Prior to 1917, the view on the European left was unanimously Russophobic, with the Tsarist empire branded as a “prison-house of nationalities”.

After the first few years of the Stalinist dictatorship, much of the international left turned anti-Soviet, and once again there would be widespread protests at Stalinist aggression.

But today with post-Soviet Russia reverting to the more traditional forms of imperialist expansion, first in Chechnya, then seizing South Ossetia and Abkhazia from Georgia, then Crimea, and now eastern Ukraine, you would think that the left would have no hesitation about condemning that aggression.

But none of these have provoked any serious protests, least of all from the organized left.

On the face of it, this is quite strange.

After all, when the Soviet Union was young, and when idealistic leftists believed it incapable of doing any wrong, Stalin could order the Red Army to march into Georgia and annex it once again to Russia. Communists in Britain and elsewhere supported that invasion without protest because it was done under the banner of, well, Communism.

They were wrong, and the social democrats who opposed Stalin were right. But at least one can understand their error. Soviet imperialism at least pretended to be somehow “progressive”. Putin’s aggression makes no such pretense.

The fact that the TUC couldn’t bring itself to condemn Putin this time should come as no surprise, as they didn’t say a word when Russian tanks poured into Georgia six years ago, or Chechnya a decade before that.

Shame on the TUC and the British Left for not speaking out.

From ‘pro-peace’ to ‘pro-Palestinian’ – the British TUC switches sides

The decisions taken yesterday by Britain’s Trade Union Congress (TUC) on the subject of Palestine mark the end of an era.

Just a few years ago, the TUC was electing people like Roger Lyons, the head of Trade Union Friends of Israel (TUFI), as its President. Lyons was followed as TUC president by Michael Leahy, a founder of Trade Unions Linking Israel and Palestine (TULIP). When pro-Palestinian campaigners tried to bring up the question of support for a boycott of Israel or the Histadrut, they were shunted aside. TUC General Secretary Brendan Barber played a leading role as a force for moderation in the global trade union movement.

Today, things are completely different.

Yesterday, the TUC at its annual conference passed the most anti-Israel resolution in its history.

Click here to read the complete article on my Times of Israel blog.

The anti-anti-semitism of fools

This article also appears on Harry’s Place, Howie’s Corner, Solidarity (Workers’ Liberty) and Shiraz Socialist.

 I have just come back from attending a large demonstration in central London protesting the rise of anti-Semitism in the UK.

The demonstration was organised by a new group called the Campaign Against Antisemitism. It was backed by all the major Jewish organisations in Britain, including the Board of Deputies, the Jewish Leadership Council, and many others. Nearly a thousand people signed up to attend the demo on Facebook; it looked to me like there at least that number there. The crowd seemed overwhelmingly Jewish.

Now if this had been a demonstration against racism, organized by the leadership of the Black communities in Britain, I can guarantee you that a wide range of Left groups would have been there to show their solidarity. You would have found assorted Trotskyists and others selling their newspapers, handing out leaflets and showing that they stood shoulder-to-shoulder with an ethnic minority group struggling against racist assaults, while busily trying to recruit new members.

But at this demonstration, I didn’t see a single left group of any kind with an obvious presence. There may have been individual socialists – like myself – there; but there were no banners, newspapers, or flyers. Continue reading

Why Israel is losing the battle in Britain’s trade unions

Britain’s trade unions were not always hostile to Israel. One doesn’t have to go back very far to remember a time when they would invite representatives from the Histadrut to speak at union conferences. And the Trades Union Congress, the umbrella body representing 6.2 million union members, is still on record supporting a two-state solution and Israel’s right to exist.

This is my first blog post for the Times of Israel. Read the full post here.

If you care about your privacy and use Gmail, read this

gmailI recently read Dave Eggers’ new novel, The Circle, which describes a world in which a Facebook-Google-like company takes over people’s lives and brings about a complete end to privacy. Some would describe the book as being visionary, or a warning. I think it actually didn’t go far enough.

Increasingly, we live in a world without privacy.

Millions of us wear devices that track our every step (I use FitBit for that) and we record every morsel of food we eat (my food diary of choice these days is MyNetDiary). We use web browsers or even computers (such as Chromebooks) that track our every step on the net, every term we have ever searched for, every byte we have ever downloaded.

Soon, we’ll have Google Glasses and driverless cars and countless other bits of hardware and software that turn our lives into an open book. And that’s a book which is open not to the security services of governments which we, in the end, elect, but to the data mining departments at faceless, privately-owned giant corporations which are accountable to no one.

One could withdraw from all this, close down accounts on Facebook and Twitter, get rid of that FitBit, and ditch the mobile phone which can pinpoint exactly where we are at any moment. Or one could take some simple steps that would radically improve one’s privacy without totally disconnecting from everything.

An easy one is Gmail.

I’ve ditched it and you can too.

When Gmail came on the scene, it was an exceptionally good web-based email client, and those of us who were using Hotmail (later purchased by Microsoft) or Yahoo Mail, eventually moved over to Google’s service. There was, however, one tiny little problem with Gmail.

It exists for just one reason: to help Google make money. Google is not in business to make the world a better place (OK, they say they are, but they’re lying). They are in business to make a profit. Gmail is a very important part of their business model.

They give it away for free (mostly), and crushed the competition by giving away more gigabytes of storage than anyone else.

Millions of us signed up to use it. And we discovered, if we were paying attention, how Google benefited from this: they data mine our emails. We turn over the content of our address books and our emails, including attachments, to Google, and in exchange they mine the data to find ways to sell us things.

If Google knows that you are discussing having a holiday in Spain with your friends and family, it will helpfully show you advertisements promoting various Spanish-related holiday deals — on the same screen as you see your emails.

Google will say in its defense that no one at Google reads your emails. That’s also a lie. While there are no slave-labouring children chained to their desks in Burma while they read your emails, there are massive server farms with countless thousands of powerful computers — and they are reading your emails.

That’s how Google makes it money from Gmail — by selling your most private information to anyone willing to pay for it, in order to sell you a product or service.

Now Google is not alone in doing this, and Facebook is possibly an even more egregious violator of your private space. Facebook’s business model is also to sell your information to advertisers, and they’re very good at this.

But the difference between using Gmail and using Facebook is an important one: if you quit Facebook, you lose access to all your friends and contacts who are, for better or worse, using the space.

But if you quit Gmail, you can move to an alternative web-based email platform and keep all your emails, all your contacts, as if nothing changed.

You use Facebook (and Twitter and LinkedIn and other social networks) to stay in touch with people who are part of closed digital ecosystems.

But you use Gmail as one of many possible email clients and quitting Gmail doesn’t mean you stop using email.

I’ve seen the difference between using Gmail and using a service that you may have to pay for (but which doesn’t run ads) summed up in this way: for Google, you are not a client, you are an asset.

I’d rather be a client than an asset.  Let me explain why.

I’d rather pay a small amount of money to not see any ads — and more important to protect my privacy from the prying eyes of private corporations aiming to know me better in order to sell me more.

Most of the web-based email services out there are not much better than Gmail when it comes to privacy. But many of them acknowledge the privacy issues raised by Gmail’s practice.

When Microsoft launched Outlook.com as a replacement for Hotmail, it challenged Google on this very issue. In an online table comparing their service to Google’s and Yahoo’s, Microsoft writes that Outlook.com (unlike Gmail and Yahoo Mail) “doesn’t serve targeted ads based on email contents”.

But of course Microsoft is hardly to be trusted with one’s privacy any more than Google is. And one of the “advantages” of using it, they claim, is its tight integration with Facebook, Skype and Twitter. In other words, sharing your personal information across all those platforms rather than letting Google have it. Why do I not feel any more secure reading this?

If you don’t want to be anyone’s “asset” and are willing to pay a company a small amount of money to provide you with a web-based email service, here are the things you should be looking at:

  • How much would it cost?
  • What’s the company’s policy — and record — on privacy?
  • Can I easily migrate all my Gmail contacts and content (emails I’ve sent and received) to the new service?

fmThe service I’ve chosen is Fastmail — an Australian based company that’s been around for 15 years, longer than Gmail.

For a time it was owned by Opera, the Norwegian browser company, but became independent recently as its original owners bought it back.

Here’s how Fastmail stacks up on the issues I raised above:

Cost: The most basic plan is just $10 per year, but that wouldn’t be very useful if you’re a serious email user. I am a very serious user, and I’ve gone for the Enhanced Plan — $40 per year, for which I receive 15 GB of email storage. All my emails in recent years total up to barely a third of that, so it’s plenty of room for most people. So I’m paying £2.00 a month for the privilege of privacy — and for a first-class, extremely fast and intuitive email server.

Fastmail’s privacy: This is a company that really does take privacy seriously. They not only show you no ads and sell your information to no one, but their website goes on at some length about privacy laws in Australia and much more. While there is no guarantee that they will be 100% better than Google, they’re already a lot better by not selling your information to anyone.

Migrating from Gmail: I admit that this had me worried. But actually, Fastmail has a one-click IMAP migration button. You basically tell it your email address on Gmail and your password there, and it goes to work. When it’s done, it sends you an email telling you how many emails it’s imported and where (into which folders) it has put them. It was completely painless. For the handful of people who may write to me at my old Gmail address (see more on this below), I’ve simply instructed Gmail to forward my mail to Fastmail, which it does.

But wouldn’t I have to inform everyone that I no longer have a Gmail address?

I don’t recommend that people use email addresses given to them by their Internet Service Providers (ISPs) or web-based email companies. We need the flexibility to change ISPs and change web-based email providers whenever we want to. That’s why my own email address isn’t a Fastmail address or a Gmail address — it’s a labourstart.org address and I’ve had the same one for some 16 years, even though I’ve used a wide range of ISPs and web-based email companies over those years. Getting one’s own domain name is relatively cheap and if you can afford it, set up a permanent email address that will stay with you for life.

I’ve used Fastmail on and off in the past, but am committed to it now and encourage everyone who’s using Gmail, Outlook.com or Yahoo Mail to consider making the shift.

Click here to learn more.

Think the BBC’s coverage of Gaza is unbalanced? Check out the Guardian

Three hours after the end of the 72-hour ceasefire, Israeli finally retaliated with air strikes.  Hamas missiles were fired at a range of different target’s in southern parts of Israel.

The BBC headline at the moment reads:

Gaza rockets fired as ceasefire ends
Palestinian militant group Hamas rejects any extension of the three-day Gaza ceasefire, with rockets fired at Israel as the truce ends.

That seems a fair statement of things. But here’s what the Guardian leads with:

Israel orders response to rockets fired from Gaza
A rocket trail over the northern Gaza Strip after the expiration of the 72-hour ceasefire with Israel.
LIVE Israel claims at least 10 rockets were fired by Hamas after temporary truce expired on Friday morning
“The Israel Defence Force has confirmed it has renewed strikes on Gaza:”
Gaza ceasefire ends

Now, Hamas has been threatening to break the ceasefire since it began on Tuesday, so it’s hardly a surprise.

From the BBC account, you’d learn that Hamas is responsible for the renewal of violence.

But from the Guardian, you’d think that the Gaza ceasefire ended because the IDF renewed strikes.

Though it does says that “Israel claims at least 10 rockets were fired”.

The use of the word “claims” in this context is deliberate; while the IDF’s decision to bomb Gaza is taken as a fact, the rocket attacks on Israel (which at least the BBC thinks are real) are cited as “Israeli claims”.

It’s this kind of totally unfair, biased and inaccurate reporting that it helping to whip up anti-Israel (and anti-Jewish) hysteria to new levels in Britain — something which, ironically, is the subject of a top Guardian news story today.

Hamas has been defeated – now Israel must seize the opportunity

That headline will seem premature to post people, but any strictly military analysis of what’s happened in the last month confirms Hamas’ defeat.

This was supposed to be a war that would see Tel Aviv go up in flames, and Israeli cities were to be flattened by thousands of Hamas rockets. That didn’t happen. Israel’s “Iron Dome” missile defense system worked exceptionally well.

And though Hamas started the war with its missile attacks, it soon lost the initiative to Israel, which attacked Gaza in force. The result was the destruction of hundreds of missiles, the capture of large numbers of Hamas fighters, and the killing of hundreds more.

Hamas’ “secret weapon” — the vast network of attack tunnels to allow its fighters to enter Israel — has been exposed and largely destroyed.

If this had been any other war, at any other time, the results would be clear to all. Israel’s military has won; Hamas has lost.

But this is war in the age of Twitter — and politics has become the extension of war by other means.

While Israeli forces have routed their Hamas opponents on the ground, in the battlefield of global public opinion, Hamas has the upper hand.

This has happened largely because of Israel’s failure to minimize the number of civilians killed on the Palestinian side.

Israel has made huge efforts to do this, including dropping leaflets from the sky, sending text messages to Palestinian families, and even the practice of hitting buildings that are about to the struck with dud warheads, as a warning. No doubt this has reduced the number of civilian deaths. But it has not been good enough, and that’s not me saying that, it’s President Obama.  And he is right.

There can be no more civilian deaths on either side; this has to stop now.

I believe that a ceasefire will happen, sooner or later, even if all the ceasefires so far have been failures. When that ceasefire does come, its terms will confirm what I have already said.

The latest ceasefire (already broken) saw Hamas back down from all its preconditions, agreeing to quiet in exchange for quiet. It accepted that Israeli forces could remain in place, inside Gaza, during the ceasefire.  It agreed that they could continue to destroy tunnels, if those tunnels were behind Israeli lines.

That was a massive capitulation by Hamas, and evidence of its military weakness.

The question now is, what next? What happens after a ceasefire?

This is where the Israeli leadership needs to show courage, and to take some risks. Because in the immediate aftermath of the eventual ceasefire we’re going to get, we have an historic opportunity to break the deadlock.

Netanyahu and the Israeli right are not going to like this, but this will be the perfect moment for Israel to make some big changes to its policies.

  • Instead of refusing to talk to the Hamas-PLO unity government, Israel should join the USA in welcoming its formation, and welcoming it to peace talks.  Israel should apply an updated version of the old Shemtov-Yariv formula which allowed negotiations with any Palestinians who recognized Israel and repudiated terror.
  • Israel should encourage the Palestinian Authority (PA), possibly with Egyptian help, to immediately take control of security in Gaza and to bring a permanent halt to missile attacks on the Jewish state.
  • Israel and Egypt should end the blockade of Gaza, and together with the PA ensure that the flow of weapons from Iran and elsewhere to Gaza ceases immediately. The same measures that are in place today in the West Bank (where no one speaks of a blockade) should be in place in Gaza as well.
  • Israel should welcome the PA’s application to become full members of the United Nations, and should offer to be the first state in the world to welcome a full Palestinian ambassador to present his credentials to the Israeli President in Jerusalem.
  • Israel should announce that it embraces the principles of the Geneva Accord and welcomes the Arab Peace Initiative, is prepared to give up land for peace, and to close down the settlements.

I admit that it’s hard to imagine Netanyahu and his right-wing allies embracing any of these points. But that doesn’t mean it can’t happen. Netanyahu’s party represents a small fraction of Israeli voters (only 20 of the 120 seats in the Knesset are held by the Likud). Alternative ruling coalitions are possible, with or without new elections.

It is not guaranteed that Netanyahu will continue to benefit from high levels of public support. Just as there are signs in Gaza of ordinary people growing tired of Hamas, most Israelis want peace and quiet too.

Whoever leads Israel needs to show the same courage that its soldiers have always shown, and to take risks for peace. Because the alternative — endless war — cannot be allowed to happen.

Amnesty lost its way long ago

This article appeared today in the Jewish Chronicle.

Imagine Israel without guns or ammunition, without Iron Dome, as helpless before the armed fanatics of Hamas as Jews had been for centuries. Of course we can’t imagine such a thing. But Amnesty International can.

Its response to the current fighting in Gaza is a campaign to “stop the arms, stop the killing” — and Amnesty is concerned about only one side. They write “The death toll is rising as rockets rain down on the citizens of Gaza … nobody is safe from the indiscriminate bombing. Israel says it’s targeting ‘Hamas operatives’ but most of the dead are civilians.”

No mention of Hamas rocket attacks, terrorist infiltrators, attack tunnels, the right of self-defence, nothing. Israel “says” it’s targeting Hamas fighters, but Amnesty thinks Israel is lying.

Amnesty calls “on the UK government to halt the supply of arms to Israel.”

This view has a long history in Amnesty.

Four years ago, I ran as a candidate for the Board of Amnesty’s UK Section, which has a quarter of a million members. Though only a small fraction of them voted in those elections, I placed fifth out of the ten candidates, four of whom were elected. And I ran on platform explicitly critical of Amnesty’s views on Israel.

Amnesty lost its way a long time ago when it turned against Israel. They’re not alone in that view, which is shared by many in the UK and elsewhere. But it doesn’t have to be that way. Amnesty remains a democratic organisation where the members can change policies.

Amnesty won the Nobel Peace Prize for good reason. It does fantastic work in defence of human rights. It should not be allowed to sleepwalk its way into irrelevance with these kinds of stupid and uninformed positions on Israel and Palestine. Amnesty needs a wake-up call now.