“There is another way”

The following are the remarks prepared by Arieh Lebowitz of the Jewish Labor Committee for the Irish Congress of Trade Unions conference on the Middle East, held last week in Dublin.

President O’Connor, Brother Bunting, Sister McEown, Brother Bregg, and the many people who helped organize this gathering. Thank you for the opportunity to present some ideas for consideration and discussion, either today at this panel, or later. Clearly the overwhelming majority of people on this program, and its organizers, are supportive of and focus on a specific approach, of boycott against Israeli and divestment from Israeli companies and sanctions against Israel as one of the most effective ways to ensure that the Israeli government is made aware of the extent of opposition to its policies with respect to the Palestinian people. Calls for boycotting Israeli goods and services are similar – intentionally – to the boycotts of South African goods and services during the era of apartheid.

We would like to share another approach, and believe it is worthy of consideration here.

Well, here we are, two Jews from New York – well, we work in New York, but I’ve learned both commute from New Jersey to work – he would never set foot in my organization, nor I in his. A left-wing anti-Zionist, and a left Zionist, both committed to upholding what we see as important parts of our culture and heritage, and both grappling with the challenges confronting Palestinians and Israelis.

This is my third time in Dublin. Each time, I had the good fortune to be treated in a collegial and one might even say comradely fashion by trade unionists. First, back in 1987, by someone now working with SIPTU, who I had known when he as an activist in the Democratic Socialist Party, formerly the British and Irish Communist Organization, trying to grapple with the idea of a two-state solution to the Irish question somewhat analogous to the two-state solution then advocated by among others Mapam, Israel’s United Workers Party. And two and a half years back, in November 2008, when I participated in a small delegation of about a dozen Irish-American trade unionists, labor attorneys and Jewish Labor Committee people to speak with the Irish Congress of Trade Union about its support for calls to boycott Israel, divest from Israel and sanction Israel. And now here at this conference.

You know in essence the recent history of the Irish Congress of Trade Unions’ involvement in taking positions on and developing relationships with the Palestinian people – their trade union movement, diverse non-governmental organizations over there, and their supporters over here.

The organization I represent, the Jewish Labor Committee, which is not a Zionist organization, although a good number of its central figures are, was formed back in 1934 to oppose the rise of Nazism in Germany. Initially formed by socialist Yiddish-speaking immigrants and children of immigrants in New York, most of its leaders were from the anti-Zionist Jewish Labor Bund, although there was, and still is, a significant left Zionist presence. The newly-appointed Executive Director of the Jewish Labor Committee has worked for many years in the Workmen’s Circle, now over a century old, a founding affiliate group of the JLC, which was a mutual aid association for left and liberal Jewish immigrants and their children. Today, we help the organized Jewish community and organized labor work together on a range of issues of shared concern.

As most people here know, ethnic nationalism comes in a range of tendencies, left-wing as well as right-wing, secular as well as religious, some committed to the formation and strengthening of an open, pluralistic society, and others to an inward-looking, chauvinistic society. I myself have been committed to working to building bridges between Jewish and Arab citizens of the State of Israel as far back as 1979, and have been working with kindred souls in Israel and around the world from then to now in support of a progressive and just Israeli society.

As a left Zionist, it has long been my belief that a necessary condition to a peaceful and just realization of that movement’s goals would be the realization of Palestinian national aspirations as well, in the form of a two-state solution of an independent State of Israel and independent State of Palestine.

In 2007, and even before, we were concerned to note the growing phenomenon of resolutions being brought up in trade union venues, either directly or indirectly calling for divestment from and boycotts of Israel. Virtually all of these resolutions focused solely on objections to actions or policies of the Israeli government, and never on actions or policies of Palestinian or other Arab governments, parties or movements. Characterization of the Palestinians as victims and Israel as victimizer has been a staple of such resolutions. That there are victims and victimizers on all sides, and that many if not most of the victims of violence and repression on all sides are civilians, are essential items often not mentioned in these resolutions.

A statement to this effect was signed in the summer of 2007 by over 40 U.S. trade union leaders, including many union presidents, and the heads of the two labor federations, the AFL-|CIO and Change to Win. It stated that “we believe strongly in a two-state solution, brought about through meaningful negotiations, with the involvement and encouragement of the world community, and added that “rather than divestment from Israel, we believe that investment of time, energy and material aid is the best means to alleviate the ongoing suffering of Palestinians and Israelis. Engagement, rather than disengagement, with the Israeli people and the Palestinian people is needed, so that a just and fair resolution of this conflict may be pursued, and so that meaningful progress towards achieving the legitimate needs of Palestinians and Israelis can be made.

We still believe this today.

Trade unionists and their organizations seeking such a just and fair resolution should be assisting those working to bring the two sides together in direct talks and then negotiations. In this regard, we call for increased engagement of trade unions with their counterparts on all sides of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. We support efforts of Palestinian and Israeli trade unionists and their organizations to maintain contact and cooperative and mutually supportive activities, even in the midst of tumult and political change within their respective communities and polities.”

Again, we still believe in this.

Anyone who travels to Palestine, in the West Bank or Gaza, knows that one of – by no means the only but one of the key problems is very high unemployment, and a range of obstacles to securing and sustaining work, both in the territories and regarding work that Palestinians did by commuting to Israel and then back across the Green Line. Palestinians need help, from trade unionists and others, to change these objective conditions. We do not – I do not – see boycotts, divestment or sanctions against Israel making significant contributions towards aiding the Palestinians in this regard.

Ironically – perhaps not so ironically – while the first line of interactions for trade unionists and others concerned about the Palestine / Israel situation are of course the Palestinians themselves, their labor movement, whether one means the Palestine General Federation of Trade Unions or its affiliates, independent unions, worker education and worker empowerment groups such as the Democracy and Workers Rights Center, the next line of allies and potential allies are progressive Israelis, both within the Israeli labor movement – the Histadrut and its affiliated unions, the people of Meretz, the people of Shalom Achshav / Peace Now, the people of Gush Shalom / Peace Bloc, and a range of non-governmental organizations committed toward working not just “mutual recognition” in theory or on paper but more importantly on the ground towards two economically and politically solid, just and decent societies.

Uri Avnery, an Israeli peace activist to the left of the Labor Party, to the left of Meretz which is to the left of the Labor Party, a central figure in the Gush Shalom / Peace Bloc, recently felt it was important t6o examine the calls to boycott Israel, originating in South Africa, and even in Israel. He concluded, as do I, and many of my colleagues and comrades, that the situation confronting Palestine and Israel is not, as some would have it, something quite like South Africa years back, or even something like Belfast in an earlier era. He noted that “the South African struggle was between a large majority and a small minority. Among a general population of almost 50 million, the whites amounted to less than 10 percent. That means that more than 90 percent of the country’s inhabitants supported the boycott, in spite of the argument that it hurt them, too.

In Israel, the situation is the very opposite. The Jews amount to more than 80 percent of Israel’s citizens, and constitute a majority of some 60 percent throughout the country between the Mediterranean Sea and the Jordan River. 99.9 percent of the Jews oppose a boycott on Israel.

They will not feel the `the whole world is with us,’ but rather that `the whole world is against us.’ ”

In South Africa,” Avnery noted, “the worldwide boycott helped in strengthening the majority and steeling it for the struggle. The impact of a boycott on Israel would be the exact opposite: it would push the large majority into the arms of the extreme Right and create a fortress mentality against the `anti-Semitic world.’ ”

I should say it explicitly that just as Palestine / Israel is not South Africa, it is not Belfast. Although we can understand why Archbishop Desmond Tutu, and people in this room, see the echoes of their own struggles in Palestine / Israel. But each situation is unique. I believe Minister Martin shared some profound insights about just such matters in his remarks.

Again, when I was here last, in November 2008, it was with the message that there were people in the U.S. - and elsewhere – who felt that a BDS strategy was simply not the way. At the time, our experience told us that many of Israel’s right-wing political figures, and the parties they represented, would use every opportunity to argue that Israel was under siege from within and without. Boycotts, we believed and still believe, have the effect of validating that message – and, in the process, weakening the democratic left within Israel, both political parties and the Israeli labor movement, its unions, and other unions, who share the basic politics of Israel’s democratic left. Sadly, the political developments in Israel have proven our concerns were justified, although there are many reasons for the weakening of the left-of-center political parties in that country.

A number of months after our visit, the Irish-American participants wrote a letter that appeared in the Irish Independent, expressing disappointment and sadness that the appeal represented by their visit – our visit – had fallen on deaf ears. They wrote that “we believe that the boycott campaign is misguided and runs counter to efforts to promote dialogue and understanding. It contradicts the insistence, based on teh experience of the Irish peace process, on teh value of dialogue as a means of solving conflict.”

We believe then and still believe now that biased resolutions and other calls for boycotts and divestment are – even if not by always intent – diversions from the real struggles towards improving the situation of Palestinian workers. We believe in engagement, not disengagement, and that this must be the priority of trade unionists around the world – including within Palestine and Israel. What is most needed are calls to support “working Palestine” and also “working Israel,” and working to strengthen the voices of the many Israelis and Palestinians prepared to work and live side-by-side in two free, independent and secure states.

It is perhaps impolitic to note that while I appreciate the opportunity to be here, to share my perspectives, and to network with Palestinians, Irish and others to advance our shared and overlapping commitments and interests – some quite small but practical, others larger in basic approach – I do not want my presence to be seen as proof that this is a “balanced” conference. Nor do I think it is being presented as such. Even with the unfortunate absence of a number of panelists as a result of the totally unexpected volcano in Iceland and its effect on air travel, I and the representative of the Histadrut are very much in the minority.

Although I would dare say that our basic approaches are very much NOT the minority within the international trade union movement. Not only is it the case that no national U. S. trade union or labor federation has supported calls for boycotting, divesting and sanctioning Israel, the same is true in the international arena. Ireland, South Africa, Scotland and a few unions in Scandinavia are pretty much alone in their adoption of this approach. There are numerous examples of Global Union Federations adopting positions I’ve articulated: Marcello Malentacchi, general secretary of the International Metalworkers’ Federation, has stated that “lasting peace can only be based on justice and the protection of the rights of all workers is indispensible condition.” He added that “the IMF remains committed to supporting collaboration between metalworkers in Israel and Palestine in the quest for equitable solutions to the dramatic situation affecting workers” in the region. The International Transport Workers Federation played an essential role in bringing together the Palestinian General Federation of Trade Unions, transport section and the Histadrut’s transport workers union to support truck drivers crossing through the Separation Wall between much of Palestine and Israel. The General Secretary of the International Trade Union Confederation, Guy Ryder, has been working to find ways that the ITUC can help advance the work of the PGFTU, and also somehow advance the peace process. All of these are examples of the international labor movement working to find ways of engagement with the Palestinian trade union movement and also the Israeli labor movement, and their allies on both sides of the wall, literally as well as figuratively.

While we are meeting here in Dublin – well, a few hours from now, today and tomorrow — there is an international academic conference at a state university in New Britain, Connecticut, highlighting the contribution that social scientific and humanistic research can bring towards peace and reconciliation between Israelis and Palestinians. Many of you here know of calls to boycott Israeli academics, in the United Kingdom and elsewhere. We feel that the opposite needs to take place – Palestinian and Israeli academics, many of whom are articulating /precisely the need for a just resolution of the conflict, should meet more, not less, and academic institutions should foster more such exchanges of ideas, not fewer. That is why such academic conferences, sponsored by the Israel/Palestine Center for Research and Information and the Jewish Academic Network for Israeli-Palestinian Peace, the American Task Force on Palestine, Americans for Peace Now, the Geneva Initiative, J Street and the Central Connecticut State University, are of value, and should be emulated by the trade union movement, to help Palestinian and Israeli workers and their institutions speak with each other, and help each other move dialogue and hopefully a peace process forward. And as we mature, politically, we should increasingly see this as the way to go.

Trade unionists, more than others in Ireland – and elsewhere – know that negotiations take place between one’s antagonists, or at least one’s counterparts in a dispute. If I thought – if we thought – that B or D or S would help bring about positive change, would bring Israeli and Palestinian representatives to the negotiating table, would bring about a change of heart among Israeli political leaders, we might have a different approach. But there is no indication, as we see it, that this is the way. As a famous cultural Zionist once said, in a different but oh so relevant context, “This is not the way.”

There is another way. What is most desperately needed are calls to support both “working Palestine” and “working Israel,” and sincere work to strengthen the voices of the many Palestinians and Israelis prepared to work and live side-by-side in two free, independent and secure states.

There are many, many groups laying the groundwork for peace by building bridges between these divided people. To “pursue active engagement and collaborative working with Palestinian and Israeli human rights groups and other civic society organizations as necessary,” as the ICTU states, should be the focus of trade unionists sincerely interested in a just and equitable approach to the many challenges confronting the people of Palestine and Israel.

Investment is needed for joint Israeli-Palestinian and other Israeli-Arab business enterprises; for Palestinian businesses; for building Palestinian infrastructure, that a few years ago was more advanced than many neighboring Arab states, but has lagged behind; for development banks involved in micro-finance; for organizations promoting dialogue; and for those providing humanitarian relief.

The trade union movement should stand four-square behind the approach I’ve outlined. Trade unionists and their institutions seeking to build meaningful dialogue and a just peace should be assisting those working to bring the two sides together in direct talks, on a national official basis as well as on smaller yet meaningful levels. In this regard, we urge increased trade union engagement with their counterparts on all sides of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. We of course support – and advocate that others will actively support – efforts of Palestinian and Israeli trade unionists to maintain contact and engage in cooperative and mutually supportive activities.

[1] Arieh Lebowitz, Associate Director (formerly Communications Director) of the Jewish Labor Committee, is a native New Yorker and a graduate of the State University of New York at Binghamton with a Bachelors Degree in Judaic Studies.  He is a member of the Secretariat of TULIP - Trade Unions Linking Israel and Palestine (www.tuliponline.org);  a Senior Correspondent of Labour Start (www.labourstart.org - “Where trade unionists start their day on the net”);  a member of the Executive Board of the New York Labor History Association; and Secretary of Meretz USA.  He is the author of “Why a Labor Movement Matters,” in  Righteous Indignation: A Jewish Call for Justice (Jewish Lights Publishing, 2007) , and his bibliography of the U.S. and British Jewish labor movements appeared in Jews, Labour and the Left, 1918-48 (Ashgate Publishing,  2000).  He has held various editorial positions for Israel Horizons magazine.