Standing up to the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement

Speech by Paul Howes to Zionist Federation of Australia conference in Melbourne, Sunday October 10 2010

Thanks for inviting me to speak to the Zionist Federation of Australia conference.

We are here at both an exciting time: — the new round of peace talks between the Palestinian leadership and the Israeli leadership;

And at a time of a new threat to Israel: —- a spreading international de-legitimisation campaign largely under the banner of the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement.

I am proud to join you here because like you I am a firm supporter of the State of Israel.

I believe that the Jewish people have a right to a homeland.

No ifs.

No buts.

I believe that the best way to deliver on that right to a homeland is the two state solution.

Can I say that this support for the State of Israel – and the two state solution - is part of a long tradition in our union.

I am proud of the fact that our union believes in, and supports, democratic societies, democratic institutions.

I am proud to say our union has a long history of supporting the building of democratic civil society groups – like unions.

We have always been ready to stand side-by-side with those who fight against authoritarian, dictatorial regimes.

I am proud of the fact that our union actively backed the creation, growth, and eventual success, of the Solidarity movement in Poland in the 1980s.

Well, how am I to apply AWU tradition in the context of the Middle East?

I think I am upholding that union tradition when I work to support the development of the Palestinian General Federation of Trade Unions as an independent, democratic, civic society institution.

I think I am upholding that union tradition as I stand with the union movements of both Israel and Palestine, as they fight for workers rights on both sides of the Green Line.

I think I am upholding that union tradition when I support the trust-building co-operative projects that the Israeli trade union movement – led by the Histadrut – and the Palestinian trade union movement – led by the PGFTU – are promoting.

If you truly believe that a-worker-is-a-worker-is-a-worker then the function of any trade union is to ensure fair payfor a fair day’s work and a safe and healthy workplace.

This applies to an Israeli worker , this applies to a Palestinian worker.

I can’t see how you can discriminate between an Israeli worker and a Palestinian worker. (Let alone a foreign worker from Asia or Africa working in Israel)

Our task now is to support and ensure that trade unions – Israeli or Palestinian – have the capacity to address these issues; and to do so co-operatively.

It is because of these principles that I joined with fellow union leaders in the UK and the USA to establish Trade Unions Linking Israel and Palestine (TULIP).

That leads me to the new threat to Israel – Boycott,Divestment and Sanctions (BDS).

In this room I don’t think there is much need for an explanation of BDS.

It is an attempt to demonise Israel; to undermine its legitimacy by suggesting its people:

the working families;

the companies seeking to export;

academics wanting to take part in intellectual pursuits with colleagues everywhere

…… None of them should be treated fairly, decently and equally in the global marketplace.

On that basis I can’t see how any unionist can back the international BDS movement.

Now I know there has been a lot of talk in the media, both here and abroad, about trade unions backing the BDS movement.

But let’s take a step back from the headlines.Take an overview of the global situation.

The reality is that despite the headlines most of the trade union movement in Australia, and across the globe, has not backed BDS.

The bulk of the international trade union movement, and in particular unions in countries like the USA, Germany and Austria, are rock-solid in their support for Israel.

Let’s remember just a few months ago,in Vancouver, Canada, the World Congress of the global union movement, the International Trade Union Confederation - the ITUC - stared down attempts to label Israel an apartheid state.

The international trade union movement delivered a stinging rebuff to advocates of the campaign to boycott Israel.

In an even-handed response – this was supported by both the Palestinian and Israeli trade unions – the World Congress praised the landmark agreement between the Histadrut and the PGFTU on the rights of Palestinian workers.

The ITUC – now led by my former ACTU colleague Sharan Burrow - of course played a key role in delivering that Palestinian-Israeli agreement.

The ITUC Congress statement declared: “This agreement and other actions to promote decent work and end discrimination is crucial to building the basis for just and equitable economic development.”

Most importantly - in a stunning blow to BDS activists in some unions – the Israeli national trade union centre, the Histadrut, was honoured by the global trade union movement.

Its leader, Ofer Eini, was elevated to the ITUC’s 25 member Executive Board, as well as its General Council.

Mr. Eini was also elected as one of the global union groups Vice Presidents.

And now we are seeing a range of new, admittedly small at the moment, initiatives by global unions in different industrial sectors supporting co-operation in defence of workers’ rights in Palestine and Israel.

None of this means there are not real threats; that the social movement traditions of the union movement will not be turned against Israel using the language of the international BDS movement.

But the majority of unions are with Israel.

We should use this majority to maintain support for a peace process which delivers security to Israel and justice to the Palestinians.

I know later this month there will be a conference here in Melbourne to build the BDS movement in Australia – and especially to create strategies to get Australian unions backing BDS.

We have to be clear-eyed about this conference.

I’ve looked through the speakers list.

There is not one person of significance in the Australian union movement speaking here.

There is not one person from the 50-plus ACTU Executive speaking here.

That should give you an indication of the status and importance of the Melbourne meeting, at least as far as Australian unions are concerned.

But yes we do have to be keep a watching brief if we are to stop that movement gaining strength in Australia.

We must know our arguments against the international BDSers.

The BDS movement likes to compare themselves to the boycott campaign against apartheid South Africa.

We have to explain to people why the two are just not comparable.

The South African boycott apartheid movement was home grown, it originated in South Africa and was run and controlled by Nelson Mandela and his ANC and the peak South African trade union organization COSATU.

Australian unions played a major role in backing the South African boycott. Nelson Mandela travelled to Australia soon after his release and told a union rally here in Melbourne that he specifically wanted to thank the ACTU, and its affiliates, for their work.

Most importantly we must explain that the BDS movement, as it relates to the Palestinian struggle, is not really a home-grown initiative.

Today’s international anti-Israel boycott movement is largely an initiative imposed on the Palestinian body politic by outside agitators who run so-called solidarity groups.

These solidarity groups have little or no institutional connections or support from within the Territories – especially not the West Bank.

The person credited for founding this international BDS Movement, Omar Barghouti, was born in Qatar, grew up in Egypt and moved only relatively recently to Ramallah.

Omar Barghouti is actually now a post-graduate student in Israel at Tel Aviv University. He is due to complete his PhD this year I believe.

When Israeli students at the university raised a petition to protest his presence on campus, and demand he be expelled, the university authorities rejected the petition and announced they would not expel him.

They were not going to boycott Mr. Barghouti because of his ideas – even though Omar Barghouti himself promotes and supports an academic boycott of Israeli universities.

When Omar Barghouti was asked about this irony he told the media “my studies at Tel Aviv University are a personal matter and I have no interest in commenting.”

My Palestinian acquaintances have pointed out to me a number of times that, unfortunately, the Palestinian Diaspora are by far bigger agitators for the BDS cause than the people who actually live in the Territories.

My Palestinian acquaintances also point out that there always has been a difference, a disconnect, between the Palestinians in the Territories, and those in the Diaspora.

The Palestinian Diaspora is less willing to compromise, more willing to keep the fight going, because they don’t have to actually live the oppressive life suffered by those in the Territories.

Living comfortably in Australia, Canada, USA, UK or Europe these Diaspora activists are happy to fight to the last blood of Palestinians who actually have to live under the Occupation.

( Now some of my Jewish friends say that this ‘ hard-line’ anti-compromise phenomena is sometimes also reflected in the Jewish Diaspora – but in their view it is not the dominant trend, as it seems to be in the Palestinian Diaspora.)

It is interesting to note that that all three featured Palestinian speakers at the upcoming Melbourne International BDS conference, whose names I have seen - Rafeef Ziadah; Samah Sabawi and Yousef Alreemawi – all live in the Palestinian Diaspora.

It is easy to promote the international anti-Israel BDS cause if you don’t have to live through the practicalities of the day-to-day lives of the workers in the Territories.

It is easy to oppose the compromises that both sides will have to make to achieve security, justice and peace.

Now even if you have only a passing knowledge of Palestinian politics you will know that the Palestinians who actually live in the Territories are only just now – and ever so slowly - backing a limited boycott campaign.

The Palestinian Authority talks about a boycott against the West Bank settlements – not Green Line Israel.

On the other hand the solidarity groups stress an international BDS against all of Israel. No differentiation at all between Green Line Israel and the West Bank.

If you read closely, between the lines, you will also see that the PA, and its instrumentalities, place many, many qualifications, and adjectives, in front of their boycott statements because they are aware of the pain it will cause their own people.

The Palestinian General Federation of Trade Unions – who are also late, and in my view reluctant, boycott backers – have been at pains to limit their calls to a boycott only of goods produced by companies which operate in the West Bank.

The PGFTU have said they only want the BDS implemented by the Palestinian Authority if alternative jobs can be found for the thousands of Palestinians who daily work in the Israeli West Bank settlements.

The PGFTU has been explicit in their rejection of any call for a general BDS, or one that extends to companies which operate only in Green Line Israel and not the West Bank.

The leader of the PGFTU, Shaher Saed, is respected around the globe for his street smarts. People tell me that he is a realistic, pragmatic trade unionist – who knows when to compromise to achieve a deal. Now in my view they’re the types of trade union leaders who best succeed in representing workers

The reality is that after the peace process is finally settled Israelis and Palestinians, in a region which is a third of the size of Tasmania, will have to learn to live together, work together.

Once peace and justice has come I believe Palestinian and Israeli workers will see a well-spring of new economic and job opportunities for themselves and their families.

But they will need the support of good unions on both sides of the Green Line, to protect them, promote their interests and push for improvements.

To improve the lifestyles of Palestinian workers the PGFTU and the Histadrut will have to build a strong relationship; build co-operative projects.

To do that we need to help establish trust-building exercises between the PGFTU and Histadrut members.

The international BDS solidarity groups, and their spokespersons across the globe may from time-to-time mouth words about their support for a two-state solution.

But they are in reality one-staters. Defacto they support Hamas. They do not back President Abbas and his Prime Minister Salam Fayyad.

I like the recent analysis of the Chicago-based Palestinian-American commentator Ray Hanania who abhors the extremists.

He rightfully says that the international BDS movement is playing a pea and thimble trick with their BDS targeting; they are happy to play with perceptions, so you are never quite sure where they are with the BDS ‘pea’.

The international BDS movement have adopted a strategy which says if you can’t get commitment to a complete anti-Israel BDS in a particular international community, oh well they’re happy with the wedge potential of just targeting the West Bank settlements.

But this stance should be seen for what it is – the pea and thimble trick. Confuse people so you never really know under which shell the pea is hidden.

It is of course a variation on the old Soviet strategy of building coalitions with ‘useful fools’ as allies. The ‘useful fools’ in this instance are people who are really, truly, quite genuine and honest peace campaigners.They genuinely only want to target the illegal settlements in the West Bank.But they are being used!!!!!!!

In reality, for the international BDS movement leadership, there is no difference between the West Bank and pre-1967 Israel.For them if the ‘useful fools’ want only to talk about the West Bank that’s OK.

For them this is the first step; part of their broader campaign to demonise all Israel; this for them is just a useful first step to attack the legitimacy of the State of Israel.

It doesn’t take much to find out what the international BDSers actually back: a campaign which wants to see Israel disappears.

Omar Barghouti – the international BDS movement founder – has been quite explicit in stating that his real aim is not a two State solution but the end of Israel itself.

In Barghouti’s own words he supports: “ a Palestine next to a Palestine, rather than a Palestine next to an Israel.”

The international BDSers want to fight the good fight, ready to spill more blood – both Israeli blood and Palestinian blood.

Now I am sure you are all keenly aware of the extraordinary history of Zionist institution building in pre-state Israel.

It is now possible to legitimately argue that the PA, under the leadership of PM Fayyad and his Ministry of the National Economy, are actually mimicking the Yishuv era. The Zionist movement should be flattered that PM Fayyad is copying their tactics.

Mr. Fayyad is demanding Palestinians should prefer Palestinian product over settlement products; and so help create what they call “a solid shield to build and protect the Palestinian economy.” Fayyad – like the leadership of pre-state Israel – is working hard to build up the institutions of a future Palestinian state, building the economic infrastructure for a viable Palestinian state alongside Israel.

That’s why I am saying to you that in developing a strategy to counter the international BDS movement we have to adopt a nuanced understanding of what are really different campaigns.

The international BDSers should be looked at differently from what the Palestinian Authority Prime Minister, Mr. Fayyad is proposing.

The international BDSers should also be treated differently from the Israeli actors who are participating in the active, very loud, very vibrant, democratic argument that goes on in Israel —- all the time.

They choose not to take to the stage at the new Ariel Cultural Centre in the West Bank – that is their democratic right. That doesn’t mean they are attacking Israel, attacking Zionism.

They like many other Israelis are debating the vital issue of how we achieve a secure peace for Israel and Palestine; how we win the two-state solution.

The actors are not like the international BDSers who want to attack Israel. Demonise Israel. Delegitimise Israel.

The PA targets in the West Bank - and let’s remember they are half-hearted - should also be treated as part of the ‘game’ that is international diplomacy and part of an attempt to build healthy economic institutions for the future Palestinian state.

Now the Israel haters want to muddy the waters. They want to play with your perceptions. They want to play the pea and thimble trick. They want to claim the PA and the actors as part of their campaign.

We should not fall into this trap. We should not take part in their pea and thimble game playing.

We need to be smart, nuanced, understand the strategy of the international BDSers – and act to suck the wind out of their effort.

In less than two months I will be visiting Ramallah and Jerusalem so I can get a deeper understanding of how Trade Unions Linking Israel and Palestine can provide more support for the joint work of the Histadrut and the PGFTU.

I will be there to explore what co-operation between Israeli and Palestinian trade unions we can validly back with our meagre resources.

While there I also plan to take time out to visit Yad Vashem the Holocaust Martyrs’ Centre. I am especially interested in checking out the site being prepared for a tribute to William Cooper, the Aboriginal leader who led the Melbourne protest over Kristallnacht.

A ceremony memorialising him will be held at Yad Vashem shortly after I visit Israel.It is unfortunate that I cannot stay on to witness this important event.

A little known fact is that William Cooper, a shearer, was a prominent member of the Australian Workers’ Union. Historians have argued that it was his membership of my union that gave him the skills to organize dispersed Aboriginal communities, as well as the famous Melbourne Kristallnacht protest.

I believe it is part of my role as a leader of my union with strong connections to your community; a national labour voice; and an activist in the international union movement; that during my visit to Israel and the West Bank I look to creating links between Israeli and Palestinian workers; and links between Israeli, Palestinian and Australian workers.

That is the role of Trade Unions Linking Israel and Palestine - TULIP. Thank you.