Solidarity with the oppressed

Tony Greenstein calls on socialists to support a boycott of Israel

2007 has been the year when the boycott of Israel finally gathered critical mass and momentum within the British trade union movement. And not only in Britain. In May delegates to the Union of Public Employees, Canada's largest trade union, at its Ontario convention voted to support a boycott of Israel; and in July the Irish Congress of Trade Unions passed a motion calling for boycott and disinvestment.

For years the Histadrut, Israel's apartheid 'trade union', has performed the conjuring trick of sending a tame Arab member as part of its delegation to the British Trades Union Congress, whilst refusing to lift a finger to defend the rights of Arab workers in Israel.

Slowly but surely, as the inhabitants of Gaza are sealed off hermetically from the outside world and the Nazi-style weapon of hunger is employed against them, ordinary trade unionists have realised that international solidarity means supporting the oppressed, not the oppressor; Palestinians, not Zionism.

The right in the trade union and labour movement have come out in solid opposition to a boycott. Blair, Brown and Brendan Barber of the TUC have declared their opposition, as, of course, has the Alliance for Workers' Liberty. According to Barber, in a letter to The Independent, although the international boycott of South Africa "played an important part in ending apartheid", a boycott of Israel will merely mean "destroying Israel's economy, when it is clear that in a two-state solution Palestine and Israel will need strong economic ties".

There are times in history when popular movements against oppression take root, regardless of the machinations of the petty bureaucrat and bourgeois politician. The first great boycott movement was that against the buying of slave-grown sugar in Britain in the early 19th century. When the Nazi government came to power, the international labour movement launched a Boycott of Germany - a boycott that was successfully undermined when the Zionist movement concluded an economic agreement, Ha'avarah, with the Nazis, which resulted in Palestine being flooded by German goods. Some 60% of capital investment in Jewish Palestine between 1933 and 1939 was from Nazi Germany. The apartheid boycott was also a movement that began slowly in the wake of the Sharpeville massacre.

Socialists are nothing if not the tribunes of the oppressed. It is the duty of socialists to lead the movement to boycott the Israeli state, not because a boycott by, in and of itself will cause the walls of Jericho to crumble, but because a boycott serves notice on the Israeli state and its imperialist backers that a state that is built on systematic and entrenched discrimination against the indigenous population is unacceptable.

Within Palestinian society it is workers and academics, grassroots organisations and trade unions which are calling for a boycott. It is Fateh's Palestinian General Federation of Trade Unions and its unelected leadership under Shaheer Saed who oppose it. Likewise quisling 'president' Abbas is against. Hamas chooses to say nothing about it. It is one of the tragedies of the Palestinian struggle that there is no equivalent of a national liberation movement such as the ANC. As Ronnie Kasrils, a Jewish ANC minister, noted on a recent visit to Israel, the situation of the Palestinians is far worse than that of black Africans under apartheid.

In June I was privileged to speak at Unison's national conference in support of the boycott resolution. As a Jewish speaker in support of the motion I was overwhelmed by the fact that it was black delegates predominantly who came up to me afterwards to thank me for speaking out. Because it is black people who understand the similarities between Israel and apartheid South Africa. It is black people who most of all resent the accusations of 'anti-semitism' which come from the lips of the Bush supporters and the neo-conservatives in the movement - like Dennis McShane MP, chair of the all-parliamentary committee on anti-semitism who when junior foreign minister supported Bush's attempted coup against Hugo Chávez.

'Not the worst'

There were two main arguments that the Zionists use against boycott. The first is that the Israeli state is not the worst abuser of human rights in the world! This is a strange argument, which, of course, the South African regime deployed. Yes, we are bad, but not as bad as our neighbours! And who can deny the tyranny in China, Iran and Burma?

However, there is a crucial difference. Each of these states oppresses their own citizens and a boycott would indeed be meaningless, unless workers within those states called for a boycott. They do not. But Israel is not a state of its own citizens. Like South Africa under apartheid it is a settler colonial state, a state that defines itself as Jewish, whose Arab citizens are the Untermenschen, and which claims to be a state of the Jewish people, regardless of whether they live in Israel. It is a state where I have the right of 'return', whereas Palestinians born there do not.

Israel is also the largest recipient of US aid and is the lynchpin of imperialist interests in the Middle East. Israel's first prime minister, David Ben-Gurion, outlined Israel's role very succinctly: "'We have to explain that the whole of Israel - strengthened, in military and industrial terms - is a base ... available to the free world on a day of need.' Ben Gurion was now prepared to go further than ever before in identifying Israel with the west ... His statement featured a contention that was to become the cornerstone of his future policies: Israel is the bastion of the west in the Middle East."

Zionists claim that we are singling Israel out as unique. Indeed we are. It is a country subsidised by imperialism in order to guard over its interests. It is the last major settler colonial state in the world. The Jewish working class is the most chauvinist section of society.

Histadrut is a reflection of this extreme chauvinism. As another Israeli premier, Golda Meir, explained, Histadrut was no ordinary trade union: ""¦ then [1928] I was put on the Histadrut executive committee at a time when this big labour union wasn't just a trade union organisation It was a great colonising agency."

And Golda Meir was right. It was Histadrut which helped form the Israeli state. Created in 1920 as a Jewish-only union, it set its face against those who wanted to see a joint Arab-Jewish struggle against the British colonialists. Its major campaign in the 1920s and 1930s was for Jewish labour: ie, a boycott of Arab labour. Where it was unable to prevent the employment of Arab workers, as in the civil service, Histadrut demanded higher wages for Jews.

After the May Day riots of 1921 in Jaffa, Histadrut cooperated with the British in the expulsion of 15 MOPSI (Communist Party) militants from Palestine. This was condemned by the 4th Congress of the Communist International in 1922.

As Yitzhak ben Zvi, Israel's second president, put it in 1921, ""¦ whenever we come across a contradiction between national and socialist principles, the contradiction should be resolved by relinquishing the socialist principle in favour of the national activity. We shall not accept the contrary attempt to solve the contradiction by dispensing with the national interest in favour of the socialist idea."


The other argument against boycott that is regularly deployed is that it is anti-semitic. This is a favourite argument of the right today, who not only redefine anti-semitism, but in the process render it all but meaningless. Promoted by Bush, Blair and their echo-chamber in the AWL, it declares that opposition to racism against the Palestinians equates to hatred of Jewish people. This is rightly rejected by most anti-racists.

Yet this has been a hot summer for supporters of Israel. In July the Israeli knesset passed by 64 votes to 16 the first reading of the Jewish National Fund Bill. The JNF, together with the Israeli Lands Administration, own 93% of Israeli land - land which Arabs can neither lease nor rent. The bill was occasioned by the fight of the Ka'adans, an Israeli Arab couple, to buy a flat in a Jewish settlement. On July 20 Ha'aretz, Israel's most respected daily, railed against it in an editorial entitled 'A racist Jewish state'. Even Britain's staid Jewish Chronicle conducted a debate under the headline, 'Is it racist to set aside Israeli land for Jews only?'.10 

Hidden for so long behind euphemistic formulae about 'mutual recognition' and 'two states for two peoples', the racism of Zionism has become every more stark and with it the shrill cries of 'anti-semitism'. Yet this blackmail did not succeed at the TGWU conference of Unite, where Barry Camfield drew a clear comparison between what Jews had suffered at the hands of the Nazis and the experience of the Palestinians. People understand that the holocaust also started with segregation and legally sanctioned racism. They also understand that one of the lessons of the holocaust is the need to fight racism, not perpetrate it.

The levels of racism in Israeli society are typical of a settler colonial society. Even the anti-racist laws and multiculturalism of western Europe are alien to Israel, where a whole society is structured around racism. 75% of Israeli Jews do not wish to live in the same apartment block as an Arab, 60% would not admit an Arab into their home and over half believe that marriage between a Jew and an Arab is "national treason". 55% want Jews and Arabs separated in places of entertainment and 40% want to remove from Arabs the right to vote.11 

No less than 62% of Israel Jews want to see the removal or 'transfer' of Israel's Arabs.12  When a similar question was asked 20 years ago, 41% supported transfer.13  This type of racism - not least the belief that Jewish-Arab sexual relations is a form of "treason" - brings to mind the Nuremberg laws of 1935 and the Law for the Protection of German Blood and German Honour, and of course apartheid South Africa.

There has been much hype and nonsense about a 'wave of anti-semitism' in Britain, including a Channel 4 programme War on the Jews, hosted by arch-bigot and racist Richard Littlejohn in June (where my own contribution was cut to shreds). It is ironic, however, that it is in Israel that the most serious bout of neo-Nazi violence against Jews has occurred.14  Synagogues were daubed with swastikas and orthodox Jews attacked. According to a police officer, "It appears these are people living in this country who are talking among themselves about extermination of the Jews."15 

Ironically Russian neo-Nazis were admitted, as of right, to Israel because they had one Jewish grandparent, which is the Nuremberg Law definition of who is Jewish. However, anti-Semitism is not an offence in Israel. And in a society where racism seeps into the pores of everyday life unchecked, is it any wonder that there are some who draw the 'logical' conclusion?


But we are told that Israeli universities are bastions of tolerance and liberalism and an academic boycott would be damaging to the cause of Jewish-Arab rapprochement. The reality is somewhat different.

Imagine, if you will, a spokesman for the University of Sussex Student Union stating that the Jewish Society should be banned and that Jewish students should "realise who constitutes the majority around here". Unsurprisingly there is immediately a silent demonstration by students, who tape their mouths and carry placards saying, "Let the student union know - it is better to shut up than speak racism."

On August 8 2007, Saar Ziv, a Haifa University Student Union spokesman, made the comments above referring to Arab, not Jewish, students. The protest was organised by the student society of the Democratic Front for Peace and Equality (Hadash) or Communist Party, which has three seats in the knesset. What was the reaction of the university authorities? Even the most backward university administration in Britain might be expected, at the very least, to condemn the student union spokesman. Possibly he might be suspended. But Haifa University and its openly racist rector, professor Yosi Ben-Artzi, instead instituted disciplinary proceedings against the protestors.

As Reem Hazan, one of the seven, explained, ""¦ the university officials are keen to shut our mouths by force, for enacting our right to freedom of speech and expression. Had the university been sincere in claiming to uphold pluralism and critical thinking, it would have given us its support, rather than threatening to expel us."16 

This is a university where Artzi could be guest of honour at a conference in 2005 on the 'Demographic problem in Israel' - ie, too many Arabs - organised by another Haifa professor, Arnon Sofer. It is a university where there are no signs in Arabic, even though 20% of the students are Arabs. It is the university where professor Ilan Pappe was physically manhandled by gun-toting security guards when he tried to hold a seminar on the expulsion and massacres of the Palestinian Arabs in 1948, and it is a university that boasts, in its March newsletter, that the military elite are all Haifa graduates and how it tailors its courses to suit the needs of the security services.

Those on the left who argue that a boycott of Israel will alienate the Israeli Jewish working class are making a concession to national chauvinism. In a choice between the demands of the oppressed and that of a settler working class, they side with the latter. As Lenin noted in 'The right of nations to self-determination', Engels wrote, in a letter of October 24 1869, of the "hatred towards the Irish found among the English working class". What was the solution of Engels and Marx? To play down or ignore the national question or bow to the chauvinism of the British and protestant Irish working class? On the contrary, on December 10 1869 Marx wrote a paper for the council of the International, which stated: "It is in the direct and absolute interest of the English working class to get rid of their present connexion with Ireland "¦ The English reaction in England has its roots in the subjugation of Ireland."17 

The boycott of Israel is the least that Palestinians who are starving and workers who are denied even the most basic employment are entitled to expect. Opposition to imperialism and national chauvinism is the bread and butter of any socialist politics. Those who use the arguments of 'workers' unity' as a means of deflecting the call for boycott, when they cannot point to a single example of such unity in the past 80-plus years, are following in the footsteps of those 'Marxists' in the AWL who support the US occupation of Iraq, just as their forebears in the SPD voted war credits to the German army in 1914.