Anti-Israel activists try to disrupt global labour conference in Istanbul

Last week’s LabourStart Global Solidarity Conference in Istanbul was meant to be an extraordinary event. Activists from the newly-independent unions of the “Arab Spring” countries were due to meet with colleagues from established unions from both developed and developing countries. As Canadian union activist Derek Blackadder put it, “100 unions, 30 countries, one class”.

And there were high points, such as the visit by conference delegates to a picket line outside a factory owned by the German company GEA. The Turkish workers, locked out for weeks, were clearly moved by the presence of so many people from so many different countries.

But there was also an attempt by anti-Israel activists to break up the conference and undermine the solidarity being built.

It was decided to hold the conference in Istanbul despite the risks of this sort of thing happening. All the major Turkish unions were supportive and formed a broad-based organizing committee. The oil workers union Petrol-Is donated their facilities, in part to thank LabourStart for the online campaigns it has waged over the years in support of the union’s struggles.

The conference agenda was packed with workshops and plenaries on subjects like precarious work, the role of women in the trade union movement, organizing migrant workers, and global campaigning.

The first indication that things might go terribly wrong came when several North African delegates walked out during the opening plenary when I mentioned Israel (among many other countries) in my keynote address.

My remarks were followed by a video address from Sharan Burrow, the general secretary of the International Trade Union Confederation, who spoke directly about the Israel-Palestinian conflict, reaffirming the ITUC’s commitment to a two-state solution.

The conference broke up into workshops the first of which was entitled “what is LabourStart?” The first intervention from the floor came from a Palestinian trade unionist who wanted to discuss a 2006 article of mine supporting Israel’s right to self-defense when attacked by Iran through its proxy, Hizbollah. Others rose to repeat similar “charges” – that LabourStart was somehow a “Zionist” project, and was tainted by this.

At the end of the session, at my suggestion, an emergency meeting was held between myself and the North African delegates in an attempt to clear the air. I told them it was essential that we be open and transparent, and that I would honestly answer any questions. It was an initially tense but ultimately productive meeting as one by one I dealt with idiotic rumors that had been spreading for years — such as that LabourStart suppresses Palestinian labour news. (Something easily disproved by simply looking at the LabourStart website.)

Meanwhile, the local anti-Israel activists, led by an English ex-pat (and member of the pro-Hamas Socialist Workers Party), were gearing up for a full assault on the conference. They began circulating a “resolution” opposing the presence of representatives of the “racist Zionist” Histadrut at the conference.

Their campaign was an odd one for at least two reasons. First of all, there were no representatives of the Histadrut at the conference. There were five Israeli citizens (one a Palestinian Arab woman) but none of them came to represent the Histadrut. Second, LabourStart conferences are not decision-making bodies, so no resolutions are ever debated or adopted.

Around this time, rumors began flying that someone had uncovered photos of myself, in military uniform, participating in the occupation of the West Bank.

While this was going on, the conference continued peacefully with very productive sessions. One featured Palestinian trade unionists from two rival organizations at which neither one mentioned the campaign for boycotts, divestments and sanctions – BDS – targetting the Jewish state. Another very interesting workshop featured two Israelis (one Arab, one Jewish) from the Workers Advice Center, a left-wing alternative union.

On the sidelines, in the corridors and during the coffee breaks, the Israelis were mingling with people they would never have been allowed to talk to before — including delegates who came from the illegal independent unions in Iran.

One of the most interesting workshops was entitled “Echoes of the Arab Spring” and featured speakers from the USA, Israel and Iraqi Kurdistan to discuss uprisings that have taken place outside the Arab world, but which were inspired by Tunisia and Egypt.

The little room was packed with delegates from more than a dozen countries, including several from Arab countries. But as soon as the session began, a handful of Turkish pro-BDS campaigners demanded to know if the Israeli speaker was a member of the Histadrut. I moderated the session, and intervened to prevent the disruption — I told them that I had been a member of Histadrut when I lived in Israel, and that Histadrut members were certainly welcome here. The disruptors shouted abuse, and eventually stormed out, slamming the door behind them. Not a single Arab left the room and a very fruitful discussion was held.

While we discussed the Occupy Wall Street movement, the social protests in Israel and the 62-day long uprising in Iraqi Kurdistan, the Israel-haters were busily posting hand-written signs all over the building saying that the “racist Zionist Histadrut” was not welcome — and specifically naming not only the Israeli activists, but myself. There was a tense moment as one of the handful of Jewish participants tried to take down one of the signs, but violence was averted.

During the final plenary session, once again there was an attempted disruption as a pro-Hamas activist rushed the stage claiming to be representing the conference organizing committee. Following a long rant about Zionism, one of the North African delegates demanded the floor — and spoke out against the anti-Israel disruptors.

On the day after the conference closed, the Arab delegates from Palestine, Jordan, Iraq, Bahrain and North Africa stayed behind for a very fruitful session with LabourStart and the AFL-CIO’s Solidarity Center.

In the end, the conference was a success. People who would never get a chance to meet face to face in normal trade union work were exchanging views and experiences.

A real contribution was being made to the creation of a new global solidarity network for trade unionists.

The anti-Israel activists couldn’t have cared less. Their only goal was to get out their message of hatred — that Israelis were not welcome there. Their hatred of Jews in general, and Israelis in particular, meant that nothing else mattered to them.

But in the end, they failed in their effort to destroy this historic attempt to bring together trade unionists from many countries. Their attempt to do so showed up the BDS campaigners as people with no interest in social justice or global solidarity, but simply as Jew-haters.