The attempt by the ‘Gaza flotilla’ at the beginning of June 2010 to break the Israeli blockade on Gaza coincided with the annual conferences of Unite, Britain’s largest Trade Union and the University and College Lecturers Union, the UCU. Unite called for complete boycott of Israeli goods and services whilst the UCU approved motions on Boycotts, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS), Ariel University College and cooperation with Palestine. The UCU’s BDS motion also includes a call to sever links with the Israeli trade union movement, the Histadrut (the links for all the UCU motions are below).
The UCU have targeted the Histadrut as part of a worldwide BDS campaign to isolate Israel and its organisations. They are not interested in listening to the arguments that the Histadrut is a well established and longstanding member of the international labour movement or that BDS is contrary to solidarity which is the raison d’être of every trade union around the world. All they see is that the Histadrut has been and still is a close ally of the Israeli government, but they do however admit that the good working relationship that exists between the Histadrut and the Palestinian workers union, the PGFTU, does create a problem for their call to sever links with the Histadrut. If the UCU can persuade other unions both in the UK and Europe to take up the call to sever links with the Histadrut they will face opposition from many different trade unions throughout the world who refute the policy of BDS and its counterproductive results.
These conferences have been used by the Far Left year after year to promote their own political agenda, whose ultimate aim is the delegitimisation of the State of Israel. The reality, however, is that for the overwhelming majority of union members Israel/Palestine is not and has never been a priority issue for them nor do they support or are even mildly interested in any boycott campaign directed against Israel. They would prefer instead that the defence of their jobs was a priority for their union.
The UCU BDS motion has presented Sally Hunt, UCU General Secretary, with a conflict of interest as she is also the TUC’s spokesperson on International affairs. Sally Hunt has finally given up the pretence of appearing to oppose boycotts because she addressed the Gaza flotilla protest outside the Israeli Embassy on 5 June, with Palestinian coloured ribbons in her hair, in her capacity as the official representative of the TUC, rather than that of the UCU,.
What was noticeable was that the international trade unions immediate response to the Gaza flotilla tragedy was to call for the ending of the Israeli blockade of Gaza. The Histadrut issued two statements, one on the flotilla and one which backs the lifting of Gaza restrictions. Until last April, when the TUC, announced, with their partners the Palestinian Solidarity Campaign, a boycott of goods from Israeli settlements in the West Bank the TUC have always resisted favouring one side over the other. It would be a very big step for the TUC, which favours a two-state solution, to support the UCU aim to sever contact with the Histadrut as the British Labour movement has had links with the Histadrut for the last 90 years.
The UCU also approved resolutions to build links with Palestinian academics and unions and to start their process to boycott Ariel University College. Their BDS motion, clearly states that any boycott action taken will be within the constraints of the law. So quite how they propose to implement a boycott and remain within the law is not clear as the legal advice the union received in 2008 clearly stated that any boycott of Israeli academics was discriminatory.
Within days of this UCU Congress decision, the Times Higher education newspaper published an article ‘Academic threatens to sue UCU over proposed Israeli college boycott’ in which Geoffrey Alderman, Professor of politics and contemporary history at the University of Buckingham and a guest professor in the Faculty of Social Sciences and Humanities at Ariel University College, said he would seek to take legal action against the UCU, of which he is a member, if any boycott were imposed – We will watch this development with interest.
The buzz that has surrounded previous boycott debates at the UCU Congress was missing this year probably because the delegates from the SWP and the Far Left have a commanding majority when it comes to a vote. As a result very few anti-boycott delegates still attend Congress and those that did had to listen to bucket loads of anti-Zionist rhetoric condemning Israel which several times I felt crossed that fine line between legitimate criticism of Israel and anti-Semitism.
This year’s classic comment came in the debate over the UCU’s invitation to Bongani Masuku, International Secretary of the COSATU to attend the UCU’s BDS conference. You knew immediately which way the vote would go when the seconder for the motion which criticised the invitation was shouted down with cries of “shame” when he said that the BDS conference cannot be considered a success because they invited an anti-Semite. Even though the South African Human Rights Commission had found that Masuku’s statements were directed at local Jewish community and amounted to hate speech, delegates were told that there was no substance to these charges and Masuku was not an anti-Semite because his remarks were not directed at the South African Jewish community – as if this makes a difference. One of Masuku’s supporters, Mike Cushman implied that Masuku was a good guy because he was clear about the difference between Jews and supporters of Israel – Supporters of Israel, he stated whether Jewish or not, had Masuku’s contempt whereas opponents of Israel or those who criticized Israel whether they were Jewish or not had his support. Unsurprisingly when it came to the vote, the motion was lost.
What was noticeable however was that the media no longer seems to be interested in the UCU and its boycott antics as the press section was empty except for one reporter from the Jewish Chronicle. Maybe the media are trying to tell us something that the world is no longer interested in boycotts, as boycotts have had their 15 minutes of fame. If this is the case then perhaps in future we should refrain from giving publicity to our enemies.