Published by the Electronic Intifada. Protected by copyright, republished with permission.
Tag Archives: BDS
The idea of boycotting Israel has gained more and more currency in the West over the last ten years or so, and one of the most frequent requests from new recruits to the boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) movement is for a “boycott list.” Just tell us the companies to avoid, they say.
Published by Ceasefire magazine. Protected by copyright and republished with permission.
Exclusive to The Electronic Intifada, 30 Nov.
Over the last few years, UK trade unions have expressed solidarity with Palestine more and more explicitly. Union after union has overturned a previous orthodoxy of balance between “two sides” when it comes to policy on Israel and the Palestinians. So many unions have now passed motions in support of the Palestinian boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) movement that even the often conservative Trades Union Congress (TUC) has been compelled to change policy.
In 2009, TUC policy on Palestine was — for the first time — brought closer to the policy of member unions. A motion calling for a targeted boycott of Israeli settlement goods was passed at the September congress. It instructed the TUC to “develop an effective Boycott, Disinvestment and Sanctions campaign by working closely with the PSC [Palestine Solidarity Campaign] to … encourage trade unionists to boycott Israeli goods, especially agricultural products that have been produced in the illegal settlements.”
Each year since has brought progress on BDS, according to trade union official and Palestine solidarity activist Hugh Lanning. “Big players who’ve not had positions before, say like Unite, the largest union — but also little ones — are discussing the issue for the first time,” he said.
Lanning is deputy general secretary of the Public and Commercial Services union (PCS), and also chairman of the Palestine Solidarity Campaign. He has a relaxed air about him, but constructs persuasive arguments. It’s clear to see why he has been able to win so many union activists over to the BDS movement.
The 2010 TUC motion on Palestine moved the focus to “companies who profit from illegal settlements, the occupation and the construction of the wall” Israel is building in the West Bank, rather than just companies based in the settlements.
In September of this year, the TUC annual meeting passed a motion reaffirming previous boycott policy, with an amendment calling for unions to “review their bilateral relations with all Israeli organizations, including Histradrut,” the Israeli trade union federation. This latter point marks this year’s slow, but steady BDS progress in UK unions.
But it’s not the first time Histadrut has come in for criticism from UK unions for its involvement with Israeli war crimes. The 2010 motion stated that TUC “condemns the Histadrut statement of 31 May which sought to justify” the deadly Israeli attack on the Mavi Marmara, while that Turkish ship was attempting to break the blockade of Gaza.
PSC’s director Sarah Colborne said the 2008-09 Histadrut support for the Israeli attack on Gaza was another turning point: “You don’t expect that from any trade union — to be supporting a war of aggression. So I think that was quite a shock for people.”
But after several years of bitter battles, the pro-Israel wing of the unions has dwindled to such a degree that it seems to have given up the battle against BDS. At congress, no one even spoke against the 2011 TUC motion, said Lanning.
Israel lobby’s backroom tactics
But this does not mean the Israel lobby has given up. Backroom tactics, appeals to union official to “see sense” and smearing activists as anti-Semitic seem to be the order of the day.
This year, the Board of Deputies of British Jews wrote to Brendan Barber, the TUC general-secretary, calling for him to revoke the leadership’s support for the motion. “This is a moment for principled leadership to prevail,” the Board wrote in conjunction with the Jewish Leadership Council (another pro-Israel group) (Press release, “Board and JLC write to TUC General Secretary,” 13 September 2011).
In June, there was a landmark defeat for the pro-Israel camp. At their conference, the leadership of the Community union (an recent amalgamation of remaining steelworker and knitwear unions) attempted to pass a motion pushing back against the BDS movement.
The text was a throwback to the era of “balanced” TUC policy on Palestine, including the line “there must be full engagement with both sides.” Eric Lee of the anti-boycott Trade Unions Linking Israel and Palestine (TULIP) admitted afterwards there was “no point in trying diminish the size of this defeat … we have a lot of work to do” (“What happened at the Community union conference,” TULIP, 8 June 2011).
Community’s chairman Michael Leahy co-founded TULIP in 2009. Lanning describes it as a “global trade union friends of Israel.” In an email to The Electronic Intifada, Lee responded that this characterization was inaccurate: “We are what we say we are … That having been said, I think we would consider TUFI [Trade Unions Friends of Israel] to be an ally, as we would similar groups in other countries,” he wrote.
In its founding statement, TULIP lists its first goal as to unite groups “fighting within the labor movement against the boycott of Israel.”
Asked to comment on the successes of BDS in the unions, TULIP’s Lee said: “I agree with Hugh Lanning that the BDS campaigners have scored some impressive victories … This doesn’t mean that the average British trade unionist [is] more, or less, committed to BDS now than he or she was last year. It means that the Palestine Solidarity Campaign has done an excellent job of mobilizing and lobbying British union conferences, including the TUC’s.”
The Electronic Intifada then asked Lee if TULIP has received or solicited funding from any of the following: the Israeli government or any of its embassies; pro-Israel lobby groups in the West; Israeli think tanks such as theReut Institute; or the Histadrut.
Lee responded: “TULIP receives — at the moment — no funding from anyone and is run on a volunteer budget. There are no links between TULIP and any of the groups you mention, though of course we were delighted that Histadrut leader Ofer Eini spoke positively about TULIP, as we have reported on the website. TULIP — like many other organizations — was interviewed by Reut as part of their research projects; I think they cite us but I’m not sure.”
Lanning was invited to debate Lee at the June Community conference. He said that the pro-Israel camp had set him up to be the fall guy at whom members were supposed to be disgusted and therefore vote against. Instead, some seemed open to BDS. During the debate, one delegate, Simon Brears, attacked the leadership for aligning the union to Israel.
“Since 2009, Community has been part of TULIP without a mandate from members.” Brears said. “This motion is a retrospective mandate for TULIP, which acts as an apologist for war crimes and human rights abuses committed by the Israeli government … [rejection of TUC policy would] isolate the union and send a message to the movement that Community is a nasty, right-wing union” (“Keep boycotting Israel say delegates,” Morning Star, 7 June 2011).
The motion was defeated. “I think they were overconfident,” said Lanning, who added that the leadership was expecting the motion to be approved.
But this failed anti-BDS strategy in the unions has been only one strand of the campaign by Israel’s advocates. This year, there has been a detectable return to an old strategy by Israel’s supporters: accusing critics of Israel of anti-Semitism.
Smear campaign revived
The main thrust of the Board of Deputies’ letter to Brendan Barber was to accuse the PSC of anti-Semitism. Lanning said these attacks are just an example of the pro-Israel camp “believing their own mythology” and emphasized that the vast majority of support for Palestine comes from people who simply don’t like the crimes of Israel. People demonstrating against Israel’s attacks on Gaza, for example, took to the streets because they didn’t like what they saw on TV, not because of supposedly latent anti-Semitism.
Lanning told The Electronic Intifada that these attacks will only make the movement stronger, because they are purely negative and often backfire. He also acknowledged that “there are people who attach themselves around Palestine who are driven by the wrong thing” but that it was PSC’s job to make it clear they are not part of the solidarity movement, which is based on solid anti-racist principles.
Colborne is all too aware of the negative strategy. She described it as the anti-BDS camp’s “delegitimization strategy … they are trying to distance people from PSC.” She pointed out that an influential Israeli think tank, the Reut Institute, dedicated five pages to the PSC in a key 2010 report on Palestine solidarity campaigning in London (“Building a Political Firewall Against the Assault on Israel’s Legitimacy,” Reut Institute, November 2010).
“You can almost see the cogs being put into place from the Reut Institute report,” said Colborne.
That report branded London “the ‘hub of hubs’ of the delegitimization network.” It also argued that a successful anti-BDS strategy should challenge BDS campaigners “by forcing them to ‘play defense’ … The goal is to eventually frame them, depending on their agendas, as anti-peace, anti-Semitic, dishonest purveyors of double standards.”
BDS goes mainstream
Since BDS is “becoming a mainstream issue,” said Colborne, the pro-Israel lobby wants to drag Palestine solidarity campaigners into an “Alice in Wonderland world” so that they focus on reacting to attacks, rather than pushing forward the BDS agenda.
“We’ve issued very clear statements opposing anti-Semitism,” Colborne stressed, but despite that, the PSC continues to be attacked constantly. Unions have mass appeal, which is why the Israel lobby is worried at the inroads BDS is making, added Lanning. Reut seems to agree: “With millions of members and a national presence, trade unions can potentially … turn BDS into a potent economic weapon against Israel” stated its report.
But despite such attacks, Colborne said that there is still a great deal of interest amongst trade unionists on Palestine. “Palestine has become this iconic struggle internationally,” she explained. This is not an achievement to be sniffed at, especially in a year that union activists are focused on more bread-and-butter issues of pay, conditions, pensions and the general climate of austerity coming from the UK government.
Despite these successes, Lanning said that although union policy on BDS is now strong, “what we haven’t yet done is translate that into activism at the local level” on a mass scale. Unions are “sort of oil tankers” that take a long time to change, he argued.
Lanning said the next stage of the BDS movement’s advance in the unions will be on the level of global union federations, which have been the “traditional stronghold” for the pro-Israel camp, with the Histadrut being present. In 2016, the International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC) meets again, and Lanning is hoping for a better debate by then.
South African union federation COSATU raised BDS with the ITUC last year, but it was rebuffed. TULIP’s Lee said that “the Histadrut’s leader was elected a vice president” of the ITUC during its most recent congress. Winning the debate is a long term goal that could take five to ten years, said Lanning. But he considered it a good sign that Israel’s only support in the unions now is largely based in the “Anglo-world” — mainly the US and Australia.
Both Lanning and Colborne are hoping for advances on the level of activism, building on the strong policy victories. They are pushing for individual unions to start organizing members to address links their companies have with Israeli firms. For example, the Communication Workers Union has spoken out against British telecommunications firm BT’s links with Israel’s Bezeq over its services to illegal settlements in the West Bank.
To build towards such activism, Colborne said the PSC has started to organize trade union delegations to Palestine, with the next such trip likely to take place during Easter next year. The PSC had also been planning to hold a conference of union activists last month to discuss BDS tactics. But after a 30 November joint day of action on saving workers’ pensions was agreed, the conference had to be postponed so that activists’ efforts were not split. Lanning is hoping it will push ahead early next year.
Asa Winstanley is an investigative journalist based in London who has lived in and reported from occupied Palestine. He edited the book Corporate Complicity in Israel’s Occupation. His website is www.winstanleys.org.
A spokesperson for David Cameron on Friday refused to comment on the rationale behind the British prime minister’s decision to step down from his position as honorary patron of the Jewish National Fund (JNF). The move comes as pressure on the JNF steps up in Britain, and is being hailed by activists as a big victory in the boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) campaign.
Campaigners with activist group Stop the JNF had written to Cameron earlier in May calling on him to cut his links with the JNF. Registered as a charity in the UK, the JNF is involved in development of illegal settlements in the Israeli-occupied West Bank, the destruction of Palestinian Bedouin villages in the Naqab (Negev) inside Israel and stands accused of institutionally racist practices and complicity in ethnic cleansing since 1948.
Cameron’s press office told The Electronic Intifada that the decision had been made after a review of all the charities Cameron supported: “This is not a particularly recent decision,” said a spokesperson on Friday. In a short statement Thursday, the prime minister’s office had said the JNF was one of a “number of charities” Cameron stood down from following the review which was undertaken “[f]ollowing the formation of the Coalition Government last year.”
The statement did not specify any reason for the move. When asked if it was related to the JNF’s involvement with Israeli settlements in the West Bank (which the British government, in line with international law, considers illegal) the spokesperson said they were “not going to get into any further details.”
The spokesperson implied that Cameron is only involved in local causes: “The charities that he’s currently involved with will normally be charities in his [local parliamentary] constituency … or a couple of national campaigns. There aren’t really any that deal with specific issues in specific foreign countries,” he stated. He would not comment on why this had changed after Cameron had become prime minister.
The JNF’s UK office refused to comment on the matter. A report in The Jewish Chronicle on Thursday suggested “time constraints” were behind the move, although the email statement did not mention this (“Cameron leaves the JNF,” The Jewish Chronicle, 26 May 2011). On the Spectator website Monday, staunchly Zionist columnist Melanie Philips used her blog to describe the move as “the latest act of aggression against Israel by HMG [Her Majesty’s Government],” and suggested that the time constraints justification are “unconvincing” (“Cameron drinks the Kool-aid,” Spectator blogs, 30 May).
The spokesperson refused to name the other groups, saying he didn’t “think it would be very fair on the other charities that he stepped down from to name them.” While the statement claimed a “full list of all the charities and organizations the prime minister and Mrs. Cameron are associated with is published on the Cabinet Office website,” several searches for this list were unsuccessful. The spokesperson declined to provide The Electronic Intifada with a link to the list.
According to a list on the JNF’s UK website, the move leaves former Prime Minister Gordon Brown as the only serving member of parliament left as honorary patron to the group. Other figures on the list include staunch supporters of Israel such as former prime minister and current Quartet envoy Tony Blair and Israeli government figures such as Shimon Peres. An open letter signed by campaigners calling for current Labour leader Ed Milliand to “break from this tradition” of party leaders patronizing the JNF was printed by The Guardian in October. So far he has not followed Brown, Blair or Cameron (who became patron while opposition leader).
The JNF is a quasi-governmental organization that controls large swathes of state land in Israel. This land is reserved for the use of Jews only — to the detriment of Israel’s 1.5 million Palestinian citizens, and the hundreds of thousands of Palestinians who were expelled from that land by Zionist militias in 1947-48.
The JNF has in recent years tried to re-brand itself as an environmentally-friendly charity, an effort critics have branded “greenwashing.” But pressure on the JNF mounted Saturday as Friends of the Earth (FoE) Scotland, at its annual general meeting, voted to endorse the Stop The JNF campaign. Chief Executive Stan Blackley said FoE Scotland was “pleased” to join the call for revocation of the JNF’s charitable status, according to a Scottish Palestine Solidarity Campaign (SPSC) press release (“Friends of the Earth Scotland endorses call …,” Stop the JNF website, 28 May).
The JNF has been connected with ethnic cleansing and abuse of Palestinian rights on both sides of the green line — the internationally-recognized armistice line between Israel and the occupied West Bank.
Journalist Max Blumenthal reported that the fund recently “set its sights” on al-Araqib in the Naqab (or Negev) desert. The Bedouin village has been destroyed 21 times since July 2010 so that the JNF can “develop” the area as part of the government’s Judaization campaign (“On Land Day, the Jewish National Fund’s Racist Legacy is Exposed,” MaxBlumenthal.com, 30 March 2011). The JNF is also involved in funding projects in illegal West Bank colonies such as Sansana in the south Hebron hills.
According to Adalah, the Legal Center for Arab Minority Rights in Israel, as of 2007 the JNF owned a total of just over 2.5 million dunams of land (a dunam is the equivalent of 1,000 square meters), the majority of which was seized from Palestinian refugees.
In the course of a 2004 legal challenge by Adalah, the JNF confirmed in a response to the court its discriminatory policies against non-Jews: “The JNF is not the trustee of the general public in Israel. Its loyalty is given to the Jewish people in the Diaspora and in the state of Israel … The JNF… does not have a duty to practice equality towards all citizens of the state” (“Land Controlled by Jewish National Fund for Jews Only,” Adalah press release, 29 July 2007).
Stop the JNF, which emerged in May of last year, is a working coalition of different campaigning groups including the Scottish Palestine Solidarity Campaign, the International Jewish Anti-Zionist Network and the Palestinian BDS National Committee (BNC). The campaign will be holding a series of workshops in London on 4 June.
Asa Winstanley is a freelance journalist based in London who has lived in and reported from occupied Palestine. He is the editor of a book about the Russell Tribunal on Palestine coming out on Pluto Press later in 2011. His website is www.winstanleys.org.
I wrote this update to the story, and it appeared on the EI editors’ blog on the 9th of June:
Last month Asa Winstanley reported for The Electronic Intifada on how British Prime Minister David Cameron had stepped down as honorary Jewish National Fund patron. Asa, a journalist in London who blogs at winstanleys.org and who can be followed on Twitter, wrote up the following update and analysis after the prime minister’s spokespersons broke the silence on Cameron’s resignation:
When I called the Number 10 press office to get a comment from British Prime Minister David Cameron for my story for The Electronic Intifada on his resignation as honorary Jewish National Fund (JNF) patron last week, the two spokespersons I talked to were polite enough. But it was clear there was a decision not to comment on reasons.
A few days after my story was published, this line changed. The Jewish Chronicle (JC) last Thursday published a new story in which they had managed to coax out new details: “a spokesman confirmed that the reason [for his resignation] was JNF’s links to Israel”
However, Number 10 is also now saying it was about “having an organisation that was specifically focused around work in one specific country. We spoke to JNF to say this had nothing to do with a policy issue.” To make things even more clear: “This has absolutely nothing to do with any anti-Israel campaign … The Prime Minister’s clear views on Israel are on record.”
So what are we to make of this? Was this a victory for the boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) movement or not? Stop the JNF thinks it was, but this seems to be contradicted by the new rationale published in the JC Thursday, 2 June.
In this context, it’s important to clarify two points. Firstly, BDS is about concrete results to challenge Israeli apartheid policies such as those funded by the JNF. It’s not just a list of things to boycott so we can feel good about ourselves. Secondly, it is worth clarifying that The Jewish Chronicle, under its current editor, is staunchly pro-Zionist (remember, this was the paper that recently published a columnist who expressed “pleasure” at the murder of Vittorio Arrigoni, the Italian ISM activist based in Gaza).
On the first point: it is clear that, regardless of the reasons for Cameron’s resignation, the move is clearly a big setback for the JNF in UK. The “Israel: right or wrong” crowd are very much gnashing their teeth about it. As well as the rantings of Melanie “Mad Mel” Phillips that I reported on in my original article, in the new JC piece Zionist Federation chairman Harvey Rose said the decision sent a “terrible message” to Israel supporters in the UK. Former JNF President Gail Seal said that it was “very damaging … It undermines the work we are trying to do for Israel. It’s broken a chain since 1901 where we have always had a British prime minister as a patron. It’s very sad and I’m very upset about it.”
On the second point: As far as I can tell, the first place this story emerged was in the JC on 26 May, in a very short piece buried on the website (I have not had a chance to check if it was in the print edition or not): “Cameron leaves the JNF”.
It seems that these few short paragraphs were essentially based on Stop the JNF’s detective work: i.e. keeping an eye on the JNF UK website, and noticing that Cameron’s name had been quietly dropped. It seems that the JC was caught in a dilemma: they clearly did not want to draw attention to Stop the JNF’s claim of victory, but it was obviously too big to altogether ignore. When the story was picked up and reported on by The Electronic Intifada, Harriet Sherwood in the Guardian and others, it seems the JC decided to try and salvage the narrative.
I think it would be naive for Palestine activists to take David Cameron as a political ally. He has not broken from long-standing British policy in support of Israel (even if he does not seem to be an ideological Christian Zionist like Tony Blair). This is also the man who, while in opposition infamously said “If by Zionist you mean that the Jews have the right to a homeland in Israel and the right to a country then I am a Zionist”.
Rationale aside, in my opinion, this is clearly a material advance in the campaign against the JNF and its funding of apartheid and ethnic cleaning throughout historical Palestine.
By Asa Winstanley
The global boycott divestment and sanctions (BDS) movement against Israel’s apartheid system in Palestine has achieved many victories since it was launched by a broad coalition of Palestinian civil society in 2005. BDS victories seem to have flowed thick and fast in recent times, particularly since Israel’s vicious 2008-2009 assault on the civilian population of Gaza. A small sample: in September 2009 Norway’s pension fund divested from Elbit Systems, an Israeli arms systems company. In May of this year, hip-hop pioneer Gil Scott-Heron cancelled a prospective Tel Aviv gig after pressure to boycott from fans in London who also happened to be pro-Palestine BDS activists.
In what may yet turn out to be the biggest long-term BDS victory in Britain, the TUC voted in September to pass a motion calling for a boycott of goods from Israeli colonies in the West Bank. Although the initial motion put forward by the Fire Brigades Union called for a general boycott of Israeli goods, a General Council statement also passed at the September congress altered this to restrict the TUC campaign to settlement goods.
Despite this dilution, the motion was a clear sign of historical sea change in the British trade union movement – large parts of which tended to support Israel before 1967 because of their illusions about Zionist “socialism” (a “socialism” that happened to exclude Arabs). By now it is clear that the union grassroots overwhelmingly supports the BDS movement.