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

Text of my presentation at Limmud, University of Warwick, 29 December 2014

My name is Eric Lee and I’m speaking to you tonight on behalf of TULIP – Trade Unions Linking Israel and Palestine.

TULIP was founded about 5 years ago and in its founding statement, signed by three very prominent trade union leaders in the UK, the USA and Australia, we said:

“At the moment, the opponents of a two-state solution are on the offensive, working hard to promote their destructive agenda of boycotts and sanctions targetting Israel. It’s time for trade unionists in all countries to go on the offensive ourselves, to challenge the apologists for Hamas and Hizbollah in the labour movement.”

To learn more about TULIP I strongly recommend you visit our website – www.tuliponline.org – and join our mailing list there.

In tonight’s talk, I want to discuss three things –

  • What is happening in the world’s trade unions with regard to Israel
  • Why I think this is happening
  • And finally, what we can do to reverse this trend

What is happening

Earlier this month, the supporters of BDS – the campaign supporting boycotts, divestments and sanctions targetting the Jewish state – won a big victory in the American trade union movement.

This is enormously significant because the American labour movement has long been a safe space for friends of Israel, and to a large degree remains so.

Here is what happened.

Graduate students at the University of California have been organized by the United Auto Workers (UAW). The UAW has long been friendly to Israel and there’s not a hint of support for BDS in the national union.

But local activists in California persuaded the leadership of Local 2865, which represents some 13,000 members, to support BDS, including an academic boycott.

The Jewish community was engraged, many students got together and launched a sophisticated campaign with an excellent website making the case against BDS. The students – all 13,000 of them – were given the chance to democratically decide for or against their union supporting BDS.

The national union opposes BDS, as does practically every other national union in the US.

Other unions intervened, including the powerful Teamsters union which was furious at the idea that the University of California might divest from or boycott companies which employ members of their union and which do business with Israel.

The vote took place and it was a resounding defeat for our side.

Of course we can choose to spin it otherwise.

We can say that the vast majority of students didn’t bother to vote.

We can say that we didn’t really have a chance, our side, to make our case.

But we probably wouldn’t have said those things if we’d won.

The reality is that the student members of United Auto Workers Local 2865 have dealt a serious blow to Israel’s standing in the American labour movement, a movement in which we believed such things could not happen.

And this will happen again as BDS activists are emboldened, as they realize that their ideas are increasingly popular and they can win votes like this one.

This is only the beginning.

And it follows in the wake of a string of defeats suffered by Israel’s supporters – and in general supporters of a two-state solution – inside the world’s trade unions.

Let’s take an example much closer to home – the Trades Union Congress (TUC) here in Britain.

The decisions taken on September 11th this year by the 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, one of the three founders of Trade Unions Linking Israel and Palestine (TULIP).

In the past, 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, who retired at the end of 2012, played a leading role as a force for moderation in the British and global trade union movements.

Today, things are completely different.

In 2014, the TUC at its annual conference passed the most anti-Israel resolution in its history.

It denounced Israel for the attack on Gaza without a word about the Hamas missile strikes which targetted Israeli civilians, or the use of human shields by the terrorist organization.

It called on the UK “to end immediately arms trading with Israel including all military-industrial collaboration. The TUC should, working with the relevant unions, press those companies involved in supporting Israel’s military to cease to do so.”

This statement went even further than the one put out earlier by Amnesty International which at least called “on the UN to immediately impose a comprehensive arms embargo on Israel, Hamas and Palestinian armed groups.”

The TUC said nothing at all about the arming of Palestinian groups – just demanding that Israel be disarmed.

It called for “the suspension of the EU-Israel Association Agreement until the rights of the Palestinians are established”.

It is not clear which rights the TUC is referring to — and this could include the “right of return”.

The TUC called for its “affiliated unions to consider strategies – such as worker capital strategies including pension funds – to put pressure on complicit corporations to cease to do so and withdraw from the Occupied Territories.”

It called for all its member unions to affiliate to the pro-Hamas Palestine Solidarity Campaign (PSC), even though that Campaign, unlike the TUC itself, is not committed to supporting a two-state solution. Its logo shows all of Palestine united as a single state.

Already many of the largest unions in Britain are affiliated to, and fund, the Palestine Solidarity Campaign. The include Unite the Union, Unison, the GMB, the RMT, the National Union of Teachers and a dozen more.

And the resolution committed the TUC — which previously played a moderating role in the international labour movement — to push for unions in Europe and around the world to adopt similar policies.

As the TUC has considerable influence in the global labour movement, this could be the most significant thing the resolution actually said.

One cannot overstate the importance of this change.

Britain’s trade unions, which until very recently tried to bridge the gap between Israelis and Palestinians, and which saw themselves as being “pro-peace” have now taken sides.

They no longer bring over representatives of the Histadrut and Palestinian trade unions to British union conferences.

Instead, they are on the side of the Palestinians, as they see it, demanding ‘free Gaza’ and ‘Justice for Palestine’ — and they have burned their bridges to the Jewish state and its trade union movement.

And let’s not forget that the TUC stands at the top of the largest voluntary membership organization in Britain — representing 54 unions with 6.2 million members. And that it has considerable influence in the Labour Party, including being its largest funder.

And the British TUC is hardly the worst.

Opposition to Israel – indeed hatred of the Jewish state – is much more intense in other trade union movements.

One of the worst cases is the South African labour movement.

In August of this year, Tony Ehrenreich, provincial secretary of the Western Cape branch of the Congress of South African Trade Unions (COSATU), was accused by Jewish organizations of hate speech.

They claimed that on Facebook he wrote:

“The time has come to say very clearly that if a woman or child is killed in Gaza, then the Jewish board of deputies, who are complicit, will feel the wrath of the People of SA with the age old biblical teaching of an eye for an eye . . .The time has come for the conflict to be waged everywhere the Zionist supporters fund and condone the war killing machine of Israel.”

That sounds to me like incitement to violence against Jews in South Africa.

But Ehrenreich denied that he was an anti-Semite.

This is not the first time a COSATU leader has used inflammatory rhetoric against Israel and the South African Jewish community.

Bongani Masuku, who is in charge of international relations at COSATU, was convicted of hate speech by the South African Human Rights Commission in 2009.

At the height of the 2008-9 Gaza war, when tensions were already high, Masuku announced that COSATU would target Jewish supporters of Israel and “make their lives hell” and urged that “every Zionist must be made to drink the bitter medicine they are feeding our brothers and sisters in Palestine”.

The case of Masuku demonstrates how serious the problem is. It is not confined to South Africa.

COSATU has tried to use its considerable influence in the international trade union movement to whip up hatred towards Israel. And Bongani Masuku remains in charge of COSATU’s international department.

A COSATU-led attempt to demonise and isolate Israel at the June 2010 congress of the International Trade Union Confederation was thwarted – thanks in part to the intervention of Brendan Barber from the British TUC.

But Masuku and his comrades continue to use inflammatory rhetoric, claiming that Israel is “worse than apartheid”, and relying on their reputation as the movement that brought down the racist regime in South Africa.

Over time, it is likely that their influence will grow and other unions in other countries will embrace their violent anti-Israel rhetoric.

Looking at these examples from the USA, Britain and South Africa – and there are many more – one cannot help but feel despair.

A generation ago, support for Israel in the labour movement was very strong. That support has eroded year on year, and with it, support for a two-state solution as well.

Supporters of Hamas with its exterminationist programme, its vision of a Palestine free of Jews, living under Sharia law, have set the agenda.

Though there remain many unions which are sympathetic to Israel and a two-state solution, particularly in the USA, Germany and Australia, the trend is absolutely clear.

Every day, supporters of delegitimising Israel are growing stronger and the voices of moderation are growing weaker.

Why this is happening

So, why is this happening?

There is not necessarily a simple, one-size-fits-all explanation – nor is there a simple solution (which I’ll come to in the final part of my talk).

Let’s take the specific example of South Africa, where hostility to the Jewish state is particularly strong in the trade union movement.

There are a number of reasons for this, including the Israeli government’s unfortunate decision to collaborate with the apartheid regime in South Africa right up until its fall.

Israel worked, covertly in most cases, with the racist regime because it was facing diplomatic isolation and took friends wherever it could find them. This was a mistake, it was wrong, and Israeli leaders should acknowledge that.
Instead of doing that, the current Israeli government took the decision to send neither the prime minister nor the president to the funeral of Nelson Mandela.

Ironically, the liberation movement in South Africa did the same thing as the Israeli government — finding allies where they could when they felt weak and isolated. That explains why Mandela and the African National Congress (ANC) found themselves closely allied to Arab dictators like Qaddafi, or the Soviet Union and its client states.
Unfortunately, those alliances helped teach the ANC that Israel was the enemy.

Some might also say that the relationship between the local South African Jewish community and the black majority has also contributed to the rise of anti-Semitism in the country.

While there were certainly some Jews who supported the apartheid regime and profited from it, there were many others — including Joe Slovo, the leader of the South African Communist Party — who played leading roles in the liberation struggle.

A young Mandela himself drew inspiration from what he learned from his Jewish comrades, and spoke about the struggle by the Jewish underground against British Mandate rule in Palestine in his famous courtroom speech.

But that sympathy towards the Zionist project was long forgotten as Israel collaborated with the apartheid regime, and as the liberation movement found itself drawn increasingly closer to the virulently anti-Israel Arab states and Soviet Union.

In Britain, the story is somewhat different.

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, is still on record supporting a two-state solution and Israel’s right to exist.

Pro-Palestinian groups struggled for years to get unions to embrace the campaign of boycotts, divestment and sanctions targetting the Jewish state. But pro-BDS activists were unable to even get the issue discussed at the TUC annual conference.

Where the issue did arise, as it did in 2005 in the Association of University Teachers, members rose up and defeated it, following vigorous debate.

This has now changed.

Early in July 2013, just as Israeli air strikes were beginning in Gaza, but before the large losses of life, Unite, Britain’s largest private sector trade union, issued a statement that was unprecedented in its level of hostility towards the Jewish state.

Referring to Israeli “aggression” it demanded UN and EU sanctions. The union also noted John Kerry’s warning that apartheid might feature in Israel’s future unless a peace deal is agreed.

It commented: “In Unite’s view, Israel is already an apartheid state.”

Unite has 1,420,000 members in the UK and Ireland. It is hugely influential in the Labour Party; indeed, Unite may be the reason why Ed Miliband was selected as Labour’s leader.

The turn by Unite, and the other British trade unions in the TUC, has taken place very quickly, catching many off guard.

But it has happened because of two things and we must be absolutely clear about this:

First, the Palestine Solidarity Campaign has done a tremendous job over many years of painstakingly lobbying British unions with their poisonous message of support for Hamas.

They’ve been able to do this in part because those who oppose them have not taken the threat seriously.

For many years, Trade Union Friends of Israel (TUFI) has been a voice of moderation and reason in British unions. But TUFI’s voice is growing weaker.

For several years now, some of the largest unions such as Unison have prevented TUFI from having a stall at their annual conferences. Attendance at TUFI fringe meetings at the union conferences, when these happen, is small and getting smaller. TUFI struggles to find British trade unionists willing to speak out against the rising tide of anti-Israel sentiment.

And second, the anti-Israel forces have grown in British unions in response to what the Israeli government has done – and has not done.

It is not a question of the media giving biased coverage to Israel.

The fact is that when you have an Israeli government under the leadership of Netanyahu, Lieberman and Bennet who are doing nothing at all to move toward a negotiated settlement with the Palestinians, and who are instead building illegal settlements in the occupied territories, you are going to see an increase in hostility towards Israel.

I realize that many of you will disagree with that, and insist that even if Israel had a government under the leadership of Yitzhak Herzog and the Labour Party you’d still see hostility.

I understand that argument and agree that hostility towards the Jewish state runs very deep, regardless of who is in power.

So to sum up, Israel is losing ground in the world’s trade unions because of some long-standing hostility, because of the success of pro-Hamas campaigning organizations, because those of us who oppose BDS have not been effective in our campaigns and our messages.

But also Israel itself under the right-wing Netanyahu government has been part of the problem and needs to become part of the solution.

What we can do about it – how we can turn the tide

We must begin by acknowledging that the old way of doing things doesn’t work.

The days when a group like Trade Union Friends of Israel could hold a fringe meeting at a TUC event, serving little pitas, hummus and glasses of Israeli wine, attended by the Israeli ambassador and the TUC’s General Secretary, are gone.

In fact, the close links between such organisations and the Israeli embassy have not helped so long as Israel’s government is widely seen as part of the problem.

We must understand the importance of winning over the trade unions as part of a broader strategy of changing how people in Britain see Israel and Palestine. The unions are central to that strategy.

But to be honest, the Jewish community in Britain doesn’t seem to get it.

A couple of years ago, the community held an enormous event in London attended by thousands of people who support Israel. They decided to have workshops on a wide range of issues — including the trade unions.

This followed a series of reports, including one by the prestigious Reut Institute in Israel, saying that the fight against BDS in the unions was absolutely central to the fight against the demonisation and isolation of Israel. Everyone understood this.

But that workshop had almost no people attending, it was an empty room, in part because many of those at the event were not union members, but also because many in the community didn’t understand just how important the fight was in the unions.

So the old ways of working, the “friends of Israel” groups, don’t work.

And the community has not awakened to the importance of winning the fight in the unions – and by extension, in the Labour Party.

What would work?

Let’s start by saying that our side has the better arguments.

If we can make ourselves heard, we can win over hearts and minds – even in the unions.

When I read the website prepared by those university students in California, I found it full of compelling arguments against BDS. When they discussed their strategy with me, I told them it was a great website – but asked how much traffic it was getting and how it was being publicized. It turned out they’d done very little, and very few students were aware of their arguments.

I’m certain that an organization of trade unionists which called for an independent Palestinian state with its capital in Jerusalem, and which opposed the building of illegal settlements in the occupied West Bank, would have an easier time than one which seemed to be the voice of the Israeli Right in Britain’s unions.

Only an organization like that stands a chance of being heard today in Britain.

An organization like TULIP, Trade Unionists Linking Israel and Palestine. As wrote in TULIP’s founding document:

“The solution to the conflict between Israel and the Palestinians is clear – and has been accepted in principle by both sides. Israeli and Palestinian states living side by side, within secure and recognised borders, is the only workable solution to a conflict that has dragged on for decades.”

The vast majority of trade union members in Britain care very little about Israel and Palestine. A small minority of activists have stepped in and have almost unchallenged moved their unions into a more extreme position.

If we challenge them, I am certain we can defeat them politically.

Those in the British unions who cheer on Hamas and think that Israel is no better than apartheid South Africa are often ill-informed and unaware of the counter-arguments. When I’ve had the opportunity to challenge some of their beliefs, I’ve found opportunities to shift the debate.

But we must have the courage and strength to challenge them.

When it was proposed to Trade Union Friends of Israel several years ago that it should challenge its rival, the PSC, to a public debate, TUFI’s leaders balked. TUFI preferred to hold its own fringe meetings at union events which were growing smaller every year, while the PSC held its fringe meetings which grew larger every year.

TUFI decided not to challenge the PSC to debate.

That turned out to be an historic mistake.

What Britain’s unions need today is a group willing to stand up, expose and challenge the pro-Hamas narrative, to isolate those who openly support terrorism and extremism, and then to defeat them in the unions, using their existing democratic procedures.

Those are the three stages of the process — expose, isolate and defeat — that must be pursued if we can bring Britain’s unions back to where they were just a few years ago, seeing themselves not as pro-Palestinian or even pro-Israeli, but as pro-peace.

And the same applies to unions in South Africa and the USA and everywhere else.

That is still achievable.

That is why we founded TULIP.

And that is what I hope we can do together in 2015 and the years to come.

Thank you.