South Africa: Unions are wrong to cheer on the UJ boycott

South Africa’s unions are cheering on the decision by the University of Johannesburg to cut ties with an Israeli academic institution.
In a statement issued last week, the municipal workers union (SAMWU) said that it “encourages all other South African Universities and academic institutions to refuse to deal with any institution that openly supports Israeli apartheid and or oppression of fellow human beings … We will make sure those academic institutions in this country, which have ties with Israeli institutions immediately begin talks to end these relationships.”
And SAMWU is not alone.  As they point out in their statement, “the COSATU led Coalition for a Free Palestine has already begun discussions to work out ways and means to give practical support to UJ.”
This is an unfortunate development rooted in ignorance.
It will do nothing to improve the prospects for an Israeli-Palestinian peace.
But it will further undermine the increasingly negative image of COSATU – and its growing isolation – in the international labour movement.
This was confirmed last year at the Vancouver congress of the International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC), to which COSATU is affiliated.
The ITUC has affiliated unions in 151 countries (including Israel and Palestine) representing an estimated 176 million workers.
When COSATU pushed its boycott agenda last year, it was utterly rejected.  Instead the ITUC reaffirmed its support for a two-state solution and elected the leader of the Israeli unions, Ofer Eini, to be one of its vice presidents.
A few weeks ago the ITUC reaffirmed the commitment of the international trade union movement to a two-state solution and to Israeli-Palestinian trade union cooperation.
In a “Workers’ Pact for Peace and Justice in Palestine and Israel” the organisation explicitly called yet again for “two states for two peoples  and the rights of all Palestinians and Israelis to live in security, within safe borders and free from occupation.”
It reaffirmed  its support for “action by the PGFTU Palestine and Histadrut Israel for peace, justice and workers’ rights”.
The word “boycott” never appears in the statement – intentionally.
Proponents of the campaign to boycott Israel and its institutions like to portray this as something new – and growing.
But the reality is that the original Israel boycott is quite old – it began in the 1940s, led by the Arab League.
And it is not growing.  The boycott of Israel withered and died over the years as the Israeli economy grew ever stronger.
Israel is no longer isolated.  It benefits from thriving trade and good relations with most countries.
And while a generation ago there were no Arab states or leaders who would have anything to do with the Jewish state, today Israel has peace agreements with Jordan and Egypt, and a mutual recognition agreement with the PLO going back almost two decades.
Israel is not isolated – but the boycotters are.
Those who support the destruction of the Jewish state, are increasingly isolated and alone – as COSATU leaders discovered to their amazement in Vancouver last year at the ITUC congress.
Most people in the trade union movement understand that the best way we can help bring about genuine peace and reconciliation between Israelis and Palestinians is through engagement – not boycotts.
Trade unionists are deeply critical of Israeli government policies – as are many Israelis.
The leader of the Israeli unions, Ofer Eini, has been a strong proponent of the peace process and has severely criticized the Israel Labour Party for not standing up to the Netanyahu government.
The trade union federation he leads has tens of thousands of Arab members who enjoy full equality in its ranks.
Most trade unionists around the world now understand that boycotting the Jewish state and attempting to isolate it is counter-productive.  It strengthens the Israeli Right, not the peace camp in that country.
No one has been more outspoken on this issue than the German trade unions.  They understand better than anyone that the original 1940s Arab-led boycott of Israel was in fact a continuation of the Nazi regime’s anti-Jewish boycotts which preceded the Holocaust.
The German unions even issued a strong warning to British unions that were considering a boycott of Israel.  They said that the German experience taught them to oppose such measures which smacked of racism.
And a strong fight-back has already begun in the unions.
Last year leaders of several unions in the USA, the UK, Germany  and Australia launched a new initiative – Trade Unions Linking Israel and Palestine (TULIP).  Among those who endorsed TULIP early on was Michael Sommer, the leader of the German national trade union centre DGB – who was elected last year to serve as president of the ITUC.
TULIP has planted itself firmly in the mainstream of the international labour movement.
COSATU on the other hand is isolated, misled and misinformed on this issue.
Picking on an Israeli university as a target is foolish.  Anyone who knows the country will tell you that Israeli universities are hot-beds of dissent, places where the occupation is fiercely criticized by most, both students and faculty.
Many of those students and faculty will in fact be Palestinian Arabs themselves.
A boycott of goods produced by Jewish settlements in the West Bank might somehow make sense.
But boycotting a university?  That’s a real sign of ignorance.
It doesn’t have to be this way.  There is an alternative.
COSATU could play an enormously positive and constructive role, especially in helping to build a strong relationship between Israeli and Palestinian trade unions.
Its own history, and that of the liberation movement as a whole, teaches the importance of working across racial and national divides and building unity.  Unity based on social class.
Boycotts like this one stir up hatred – and contribute nothing to peace.
COSATU today finds itself advocating a policy that has failed since the 1940s – the Nazi-inspired policy of boycotting Jewish goods and more recently, the Jewish state.
There is an alternative and it is the one proposed by the international trade union movement.
Instead of repeating tired old anti-Israel rhetoric, the leaders of COSATU should engage in some fresh thinking and look for a new approach.