Beyond the legal strategy: Taking the fight against BDS into the unions — and how to win

This is the text of my presentation on a panel held at the Wiener Library in London on 11 July 2013.

We should begin by facing up honestly to the disaster of this Employment Tribunal decision. I won’t go into the question of whether it was right to have gone down this route in the first place. Nor will I attempt to deal with whether the case could have been handled differently.

The reality is that we had many months to prepare, we had outstanding witnesses, we had the best lawyers in the country, and we lost the case – and we lost badly.

The Employment Tribunal found nothing of merit in our case, and denounced us for having wasted their time.

It doesn’t get worse than this.

Our opponents in groups like the Palestine Solidarity Campaign celebrated – rightly – our defeat.

I was not convinced before and am not convinced now that this route – going through the courts – is the best way to take on proponents of BDS.

I think we can safely say that this case actually hurt our cause and was a huge setback and we need to re-think how we continue with our fight.

I’m not saying that there is never a time to use legal measures; I know that many times – such as the court fight between David Irving and Deborah Lipstadt – this can be very useful. Though it’s important to remember that Lipstadt and her publisher didn’t bring that case to court – it was the Holocaust-denying Irving who did so.

But just as a carpenter sees any problem as a nail and reaches for his hammer, so lawyers may tend to see every problem as a legal one – but I don’t.

The fight against BDS in the UCU and other unions is first of all a political fight.

Some people have given up on the unions. We know that a significant number of academics resigned from the UCU when it was no longer possible for them to stomache the rampant anti-semitism in their union.

I respect their decision, but it would be dishonest to say that it was the right decision. It was not.

For Jews in the labour movement, it is completely unacceptable to be told by anyone that we have no right to be there, that people like us should not feel at home in our unions. Jews, and that includes Zionists like myself, have every right to be union members, activists and leaders.

We must stand our ground and defend our right to be members of a movement that Jewish people played such an important role in founding.

While some have quit unions such as the UCU, others have stood their ground.

Every day of the year, Trade Union Friends of Israel (TUFI), Trade Unions Linking Israel and Palestine (TULIP), Engage and others continue to make the case for a two-state solution, against BDS and against demonization of Israel.

It is a difficult fight – but in some countries, our side is winning. The obvious examples are Germany, the USA and Australia.

Some would say that it’s obviously going to be easier in those countries.

After all, Germany feels all this guilt about the Holocaust. Of course trade unionists there are not going to be particularly anti-Israel.

And the USA, well we all know the power of the Israel lobby. (This is not me speaking – this is what people will say.)

But Australia? Why are some of the most vocal and effective advocates of Israel’s right to exist to be found in places like Melbourne and Sydney?

The answer is that those people have fought a political fight which they have won, convincing others of the correctness of our cause.

It’s important to remember that even in the British trade union movement, those who openly support Hamas and Hizbollah represent a fringe. Among trade union leaders, moderate voices still prevail.

Many of you will not be aware of this, but when the International Trade Union Confederation held its most recent congress in Vancouver, it was Brendan Barber of the British TUC who played a key role in preventing a viciously anti-Israel resolution proposed by the South Africans (COSATU) from reaching the floor.

The TUC in general has been far better on this issue than the leadership of UCU.

And at international level, the International Trade Union Confederation and the global union federations including the Education International – to which the UCU belongs – continue to welcome Israeli members, have elevated Israelis to top positions, and advocate for a two-state solution and generally against BDS.

It is premature at least to say that the fight is unwinnable.

Before I continue with how we can win, I want to say a word about our opponents, the people who support BDS.

To say that someone supports BDS actually tells us very little about them.

There are at the very least soft supporters as opposed to hard supporters.

There are people who speak of Israel with unveiled disgust and hatred and others who merely want to label West Bank settlement goods as such.

Anyone who has spent any time in British unions trying to argue the case against BDS will soon discover that our main enemy is not so much hatred of Israel, but ignorance.

Some years ago, the Jewish Chronicle reported on its front page that Unison had decided not to make a donation to the website I founded, LabourStart, because I was a “Zionist”, which I am. It’s a bit more complicated than that.

Months later, I met a member of the Unison national executive who asked me if I was from that organization, LabourStart, which they’d decided not to fund.

I am, I said.

He admitted that he didn’t much remember the debate they had, but then was reminded of something and he said, “Wasn’t it something like – you were accused of being anti-Semitic?”

Anti-semitic, Zionist, whatever.

One imagines that these are issues and terms that are of little interest to the average trade union member in Britain and our opponents take advantage of this ignorance to spread lies and half-truths about Israel every day.

Our job is to counter that with the truth.

Can anti-semitism be defeated politically and if so, how?

I think it can and I want to conclude by talking about how we can do this.

We should focus on our strengths and the most important thing to remember in this fight is that we are right.

We are right in two senses:

First, the facts are on our side.

For example, Israel is not an apartheid state – this is one of those things that is incredibly easy to disprove.

Hamas and Hizbollah are fascist movements, as is the Muslim Brotherhood, and by exposing them we make it harder for people in the labour movement and on the left to identify with them.

And second, we are morally right – and this carries some weight.

We are morally right because we continue a very noble tradition on the left that rejects all forms of prejudice, bigotry, racism and anti-semitism.

We, and not our pro-BDS opponents, are the genuine heirs of the great internationalist tradition of the left and labour movements.

We must always remember that our opponents are not mindless proto-Nazis scheming to create the next Holocaust.

Many of them are ordinary trade union members who have only heard one side of an argument.

There are some among them who don’t grasp the difference between being a Zionist and being an anti-semite. And why should they know this? No one is teaching them, no one is explaining anything.

There are course anti-semites among them, particuarly in the hard core around the Palestine Solidarity Campaign, but they are a minority.

They should be exposed, isolated and defeated politically.

We have many allies, not only in the Jewish community, and working together with them we have nothing to fear.

We can win this fight.