The question of what position to take over the ongoing conflict in Palestine has been a serious political flashpoint in the UK trade union movement for as long as I can remember.
Like many ordinary union members, I have always been appalled at many actions of the Israeli state, particularly in relation to the impoverished people of Gaza. But I have always also been extremely uncomfortable about the shrill ultra-left trendies in yashmags who remain curiously ambiguous on the question of Israel's right to exist and seem to treat trade unions as simply a vehicle for their Palestine hobbyhorse.
The enormity of the strength of feeling on the issue really hit home to me during the NUJ conference in 2007. Delegates narrowly voted in a sleepy afternoon session to instruct the TUC to explore boycotting Israeli goods.
A few hours later, I opened my NUJ inbox to an unsolicited flood of abuse and ranting from various bedroom Zionists who had trawled the union website to aggressively complain to every email address they could find. It hit the mainstream media. Within a week, hundreds of NUJ members had threatened to resign over the issue, and some high-profile members actually did – such as Channel 4 anchorman Jon Snow and now Education Minister Michael Gove. The debate still rumbles within the NUJ to this day.
It is a pattern that has been repeated across the wider labour movement, causing bitter schisms at several union conferences. The latest episode was played out at the recent TUC in Manchester where delegates voted on working towards boycotting goods produced in illegal Israeli West Bank settlements. The motion itself was very targeted. This was no Israel-wide boycott, and in actuality will probably have little actual impact on the ground, but was symbolically important.
The Trade Union Friends of Israel held a fringe meeting in Manchester just hours before the motion on the boycott entitled “What can Trade Unions do to aid peace?” It was effectively a last-ditch attempt to influence any un-mandated delegates into changing their voting position.
Speakers included Roger Lyons, the former Amicus/MSF luminary who famously claimed his bathroom radio on expenses, Eric Lee of the Labourstart website, Terry McCorran a Unison activist from Northern Ireland and Alon Roth-Snir, a senior Israeli diplomat in the UK.
The meeting was small. It was later very clear that aside from the handful of unaffiliated delegates and Palestine Solidarity Campaign supporters engaging in a spot of masochism, the majority of attendants had come to the TUC specifically for the TUFI event.
Each speaker began, ostensibly at least, to be conciliatory. Indeed, the stated aim of TUFI is to “promote Israeli-Palestinian Trade union Co-operation”.
Sadly, the pacifying tone was not borne out. As things wore on, the various axes to grind appeared. Mr McCorran, for instance, clearly had issues with Unison decision-making structures by suggesting the recent Unison conference decision to call for a boycott had been undemocratic because it had not been put to “all” members and went off on a personal tangent about the powers of Unison branches. Eric Lee somehow managed to bring up the Iranian nuclear power issue.
By the end of the meeting, having been egged on by some of the bussed-in delegates from the floor, Roger Lyons suggested that there was more than a whiff of naked anti-Semitism around some trade unions in the UK – a very serious and preposterous allegation.
As someone who relishes Israeli culture through my Krav Maga obsession, I was hoping the meeting might lend its way towards showing a level of understanding of the complexity of the issue and towards addressing the actual question posed.
In the end, I walked away feeling that it was just more of the same - another attempt to brush over the abject crimes of the Israeli state with not one mention of the flotilla scandal and nothing on the internationally condemned settlements, instead suggesting that any move towards a boycott was driven by anti-Semitic sentiment. Eric Lee proudly proclaimed that TUFI would be happy to have an open public debate with the PSC over the issues, without seeing how this would do precisely nothing to solve the problem.
It is a debate that, for now at least, TUFI is losing heavily. The TUC voted unanimously for the boycott that afternoon. I witnessed a large gang of Lyons’ entourage slinking off after the vote in spite of having loudly decreed that unions should be more bothered about addressing issues like pay and the cuts. Clearly, they were not bothered enough to hang around to listen to the other debates.
While genuine attempts to build cross-cultural workers' co-operation are to be welcomed and urgently encouraged by any serious trade unionist, it is no good if those attempts are dressed up in a strident defence of Israeli state policy. TUFI and their allies should stop moaning about various perceived persecutions, diverting attention from major global political issues, calling for debates with the PSC and turning up mob-handed to hold fringe meetings that nobody goes to. TUFI and the PSC should instead stick to the task about bringing workers together on the ground and engaging UK trade unionists in facilitating that. Then maybe they might find many more ordinary union members would come around to their way of thinking.
Until that day comes, the pointless arguments and bitter debates will continue and in doing so turn off the vast majority of workers from engaging in trying to build for a labour movement solution in Palestine.