[Boycott - Academic]
Supporting CUPE’s Israel Boycott - Talking Points for Canadian Unions
31 August 2006
Not many people in North America were paying attention in July 2005 when The Palestinian General Federation of Trade Unions, along with over 170 Palestinian unions, political parties, and organizations called for a global campaign of boycotts and divestment from Israel similar to those brought against apartheid South Africa. Remarkably, however, the Canadian Union of Public Employees (CUPE) was paying attention, and even more remarkably, in June of this year, 896 delegates representing 20,000 public employees unanimously passed Resolution 50 at their Annual General Meeting. The resolution, which is now policy, commits the union
- to implement an educational campaign for members into the apartheid nature of the Israeli state;
- to support the global campaign of boycotts and divestment from Israel until Palestinian refugees are allowed to return to their former homes; and
- to urge the Canadian Labour Congress to join them in opposing Israel’s multi-billion dollar “security” wall, which has been expropriating massive tracts of Palestinian land.
Not surprisingly, within minutes of the passing of the CUPE resolution, the Canadian Jewish Congress was mobilizing Jewish members through e-mail “action alerts” and Israel supporters were scheming to unseat CUPE president Sid Ryan, who has since faced intolerable levels of harassment. Nevertheless, the passing of this resolution by Canada’s largest union has profoundly affected the range of debate within the union landscape. Canadian unions can choose to endorse or reject CUPE’s precedent, but they cannot ignore it, for it has excited too many union activists. Unions throughout the country can expect, or have already experienced, intense debates over the “apartheid” nature of the Jewish state, the role of Israel’s regional aggression within the context of the neo-liberal economic order, and the efficacy of divestment and boycotts as a strategy of resistance. This is a profound achievement, though one that threatens to be undone if the intimidation tactics of the resolution’s opponents are successful in making an example of CUPE and scaring other union leaders from following suit.
Union activists who try to follow CUPE’s lead or support its policy of divestment and boycotts of Israel can expect resistance, not only from members, but from their own union leadership. I can recall from past years the nervous reaction of my own union executive, District 12 of the Ontario Secondary School Teachers Federation (OSSTF), when members brought forth motions – relatively harmless ones, too – against the Israeli occupation. Not everyone has the stomach for this type of fight, especially an elected leadership. However, union activists who are up to the fight will need to be prepared for the inevitable arguments they will have to confront. Logic and reason doesn’t always work on those with strong pro-Israel feelings, and with such people it is mostly useless to engage. It is probably more productive to build allies around them until there is enough of a critical mass to make their position untenable. Nevertheless, for the many who have no strong feelings on the issue, or for the few who are open and willing to listen, I have attempted below to respond to the most common objections against union support for CUPE’s lead. I have personally engaged with these objections so many times and repeated my answers so often that, out of sheer exhaustion, I felt the need to assemble them together into a short, user-friendly form that I could simply hand out. I consider this a resource for union activists.
Objection #1:The function of a union is to negotiate contracts – period. Political action, at least when it is not aimed at working directly to improve working conditions or collective agreements, is a waste of members’ dues that serves only to feed the vanity of union activists.
Unions emerged in the nineteenth century at a time when European imperialism was creating – imposing, actually – a global political and economic integration that we might today call the “globalized economy.” Unions in those days were often called “internationals” because they recognized, even at those early stages, that local labour conditions were tied to global forces that could only be addressed through the formation of international solidarity networks. Indeed, as workers in Canada’s manufacturing sector have learned in recent years, the low wages and oppressive working conditions of countries like Mexico or Haiti can and do have a dramatic impact on job security and the standard of life for workers here. For this reason, international solidarity campaigns should not be considered vanity projects for individual union activists (though they may be that too on occasion); they are, rather, part of that essential function of forming supportive networks capable of addressing the impact of global forces on local labour conditions.
Israel, as even ardent Zionists will sometimes boast, has played a major role in advancing American interests in the Middle East. Since its creation in 1948, it has been the primary force in suppressing popular movements throughout the region. Whether it was fighting a U.S. proxy war against the spread of communism, or waging front-line battles on behalf of U.S. interests in the “War on Terror,” it has consistently worked to ensure the continued impoverishment of the Arab masses. It has done this in various ways, either by forming alliances with corrupt Arab elites (e.g. Egypt, Jordan), fueling regional conflict (e.g. selling arms to Iran during the Iran-Iraq war), engaging in military intervention (e.g. Iraq, Lebanon), or directly occupying land (e.g. Lebanon, the Occupied Territories). Israel’s regional supremacy – or rather, the supremacy of Israel’s Ashkenazi elite, for the majority Sephardic and Mizrachi Jews are disproportionately poor – depends upon the weakness and dependency of its neighbours. Luckily for Israel, as it has pursued its regional ambitions, it has been given diplomatic protection and financial support by the United States – coincidentally, another settler colony that, for over a century, has pursued a similar regional policy in its own Latin American backyard. Israel is therefore a legitimate and important target for workers throughout the world seeking to halt the advancement of a global economic order that makes the rich get richer and the poor get poorer.
Objection #2:Though criticism of Israel is not anti-Semitic per se, the exclusive targeting of Israel for an international campaign of boycotts and divestment IS anti-Semitic when it targets only Israel.
Anyone who, like me, has ever been a teacher, has probably heard the retort, when disciplining a misbehaving student, “Why are you only picking on me? Other students are misbehaving too.” “Yes,” the teacher might respond, “but at the moment I’m talking to you.” If the response to criticism of Israel is always there are other countries to criticize, when is it appropriate to talk about Israel? Never?
At any rate, Israel is not the first country to be targeted for a campaign of boycotts and divestment; South Africa was. Nor is it the only country that has been subject to criticism. Read the papers. See what columnists and editorial writers are saying every day about Iran or Sudan or Saudi Arabia or Zimbawe or North Korea. The governments of these countries have few or no defenders. Israel has actually gotten off quite easily, especially considering that it has perpetuated the largest refugee crisis in the world for almost sixty years.
Yes, one might say, but why is it that the Left always targets Israel? The fact is that the “Left,” if there is such a homogenous entity (which there isn’t) does not only target Israel. Activists do, however, target centers of power, particularly those within their sphere of influence. North Americans have little control over what, for example, China or Russia do, but they do have a voice (supposedly) in what their own countries do. If you want to effect change, your best strategy is to focus on the policies of your own country, particularly if you’re American and your country is the world’s only global superpower. It’s no accident that the most vocal and articulate critics of Israel are Jewish, if not Israeli.
Objection #3:The CUPE resolution refers to Israel as an “apartheid” state, which is preposterous and inaccurate. Israel is a multicultural democracy. Why is no one proposing a boycott of Israel’s neighbouring Arab countries, which are repressive dictatorships in which no Jew is welcome?
That most Arab countries are ruled by corrupt and undemocratic dictators is a fact no one disputes. Not since Nasser has the leader of an Arab nation had any popular support. Arab leaders are generally despised by their own populations. Anti-Semitism, in many cases, is actively promoted by the state, much as it was in Czarist Russia, and for much the same reason: to refocus anger away from repressive Arab governments, whose only defenders, in fact, are the Western countries that prop them up. Few on the “left” propose boycotting them, either because, like Yemen or Kuwait or the Arab Emirates, their influence does not extend much beyond their borders, or because, like Iraq or Algeria, they are political basket cases ravaged by civil war in a state of self-destruction, or because there is already U.S.-led international pressure against them, as in the case of Sudan, Syria, and Iran (which is not an “Arab” state, but might as well be).
As for Israel being a democracy, that is technically true but inherently meaningless. The United States was a democracy during the time of slavery, as was Canada when a woman was legally deemed to be “half a person” and could not vote. Apartheid South Africa was also, technically, a democracy – but only for whites.
Yet Israel is not like those places, its defenders argue. After all, they point out, Israel has one million Arab citizens who enjoy full citizenship and are allowed to vote. To call this an “apartheid” state is obscene, they are quick to insist.
The problem with this argument, aside from the way it skirts the multiple levels of discrimination faced by “Arab-Israelis” in Israel, is that it makes no mention of the roughly four million Palestinians living in the West Bank and Gaza who are stateless citizens living under the boot of Israeli military occupation. These people have no rights, no access to courts, and no say in the political and military processes that have robbed them of their homes, lands, and livelihoods and have turned them into beggars. For them, Israel is not a democracy. From their point of view, “apartheid” describes their condition quite accurately. To argue that the West Bank and Gaza are “territories” not technically incorporated into the political entity called “Israel” is merely to play with words while ignoring Israel’s annexation of vast tracts of fertile land and water from these territories. To point to past discrimination against Jews in Arab countries, which became particularly virulent after the creation of Israel in 1948, is beside the point, for though it is a real and serious issue, it is also a separate matter with which Palestinians had nothing to do.
Objection #4:Israel is already in the process of disengaging from the Occupied Territories. Just last year it withdrew from Gaza. Why punish Israel when it is already in the process of ending its occupation and granting the Palestinians a state of their own?
Contrary to the spin of most Western media outlets, Israel never withdrew from Gaza; it merely redeployed its troops from inside to outside Gaza’s borders, keeping the tiny, densely populated strip in a state of siege. Military incursions into Gaza, which had long been constrained by the presence of Gaza’s 6000 Jewish settlers, actually intensified once the settlements were shut down. Israel maintained control over borders and airspace, strangling the region’s economy, and then it cut off funds to the Palestinian Authority, creating widespread famine and a humanitarian crisis requiring international aid. In July, it destroyed Gaza’s only power facility, leaving the population without electricity or clean water during the hot summer months. As Dov Weisglass, senior Israeli minister and aide to Ariel Sharon, admitted last year about the Gaza pullout, "The significance of the disengagement plan is the freezing of the peace process. When you freeze that process, you prevent the establishment of a Palestinian state, and you prevent a discussion on the refugees, the borders and Jerusalem."
A similar form of “withdrawal” is currently being planned for the West Bank. Palestinians are not in the process of being granted unilaterally by Israel their own “state,”as many believe; they are being confined, rather, in something resembling an Indian reservation, one in which they will be caged like animals with no water, little fertile land, no control of borders or airspace, no mean of self-defense, and no opportunity for economic independence.
Objection #5:In demanding that Israel grant roughly six million Palestinian refugees the “right of return” to their ancestral lands, CUPE is, in effect, demanding the destruction of the Jewish state.
This is basically correct, and it is possible that from a strategic point-of-view CUPE may have overreached itself. But only from a strategic point-of-view, not a moral one. In defense of their position, it should be noted that calling for the end of a Jewish state is not to be confused with calling for a “second Holocaust” or, say, the replacing Israel with an Islamic state. The international campaign of boycotts and sanctions against South Africa called for the “destruction” of the apartheid state, but also its replacement with something that was more in line with international standards of equality and pluralism. Apartheid South Africa was, in fact, “destroyed” – and it was replaced by something better. The destruction of a state structure is not the same thing as the destruction of a people.
Admittedly, the legacy of the Holocaust has made the prospect of losing the world’s only Jewish state unthinkable for most Jews, and indeed, as a Jewish person, I have had to wrestle with it myself. It is a difficult and painful issue. However, the loss of a Jewish state is not synonymous with the loss of Israel as a Jewish homeland. Early Zionists like the German-Jewish philosopher Martin Buber and Hebrew University’s founding president Judah Maganes spent their lives, in fact, arguing for the separation of concepts such as “state” and “homeland” in the hopes of creating a bi-national Jewish-Arab state. (This was sometimes called “cultural Zionism.”) Moreover, it is also not true that the influx of six million Palestinian refugees would create an “Arab state.” Demographically, such a thing would be impossible when balanced against five million Jews whose elites have the advantage of controlling most of the region’s wealth and resources. Some Palestinians, in fact, oppose an immediate one-state solution out of fear that they will find themselves entrenched as a permanent underclass, akin to the majority aboriginal and Mestizo people of countries like Bolivia and Peru.
It’s a matter of opinion as to whether a one-state or a two-state solution is the best way to end the oppression of Palestinians. If unions wanted to support CUPE without treading into opposition of a Jewish state, one possibility is to endorse a more moderate resolution such as the one passed by the United Church of Toronto, which calls for targeted boycotts and divestment only from companies that profit from the occupation (such as Caterpillar) or who do business in the Occupied Territories (such as McDonald’s).
Objection #6:There is no equivalence between the blacks of South Africa and Palestinians. The blacks of South Africa sought equality with whites. Palestinians and their Islamic supporters, by contrast, are intensely anti-Semitic and desire the subordination of Jews under an Islamic state. Well-meaning liberals who support the Palestinians are, in fact, supporting groups like Hamas whose program is comparable to the Nazis.
Of all the entrenched beliefs that I have to confront when discussing mideast politics with supporters of Israel, this one is the hardest to untangle because it is so wound up with emotional fears and the web of misinformation and selective facts in which not only Jews but most North Americans are raised. The way we see the world is a product of the intersection of power, interests, and privilege that frame the picture of the world created by socializing institutions like schools, universities, and the media. As Noam Chomsky has famously argued, all of us are socialized in a world that is disseminated and framed by elites, and our understanding of the world is inevitably shaped by their point of view.
Most of us understand how the creation of Israel gave Jews throughout the world a sense of security and pride that their ancestors for centuries had only dreamed of. But it is difficult for many of us, especially those of us who are Jewish, to see past our own interests and glimpse the impact of our acquired privileges on others. Yes, at a certain level, we might know that the creation of a Jewish state required the dispossession of hundreds of thousands of people off their land, turning them into refugees and reducing them to beggars. Maybe we acknowledge that this was unfortunate and unfair but we try not to dwell on it. Or maybe we try to rationalize it by convincing ourselves that life is unfair, that war is ugly, or that those whose lives we destroyed would have destroyed us first. Or maybe we try actively not to look too deeply into things. Do we really want to know that Palestinians are denied water so that Israelis can take long showers and water their lawns? Do we really want to know that Israel’s beautiful parks were planted over the sites of Palestinian villages and graveyards that were emptied of their inhabitants and bulldozed off the face of the earth?
Because of what we don’t see – either because we chose not to see it or because it is hidden from view – the anger and violence of those whose lives have been ruined for our benefit seems unreasonable, even irrational. We do see that Hezbollah kills “Jews,” that Hamas’s charter quotes from the Protocols of the Elders of Zion. These are indisputable facts, even if they are framed in problematic ways. But how many of us are prepared to accept that violence, and even anti-Semitism, are entirely predictable, if unfortunate responses by those who are oppressed in the name of a Jewish state and whose very existence is posed as a “demographic threat”? For that matter, how often do those who decry Arab or Muslim anti-Semitism also decry the Islamophobia and vicious racism that is so often invoked in defense of the Jewish state?
The bottom line is that all conflicts lead to a distortion of those whose interests collide. This is the classic vilification of the “Other,” to borrow the Freudian term popular in post-colonial circles. Nazi Germany justified its genocide of European Jews as an act of self-defense, and not all of those who perpetrated such egregious nonsense did so cynically. Many Germans really believed it. “You don’t understand,” they’d say. “The Jews would have destroyed Germany if they were not stopped. They are not an ordinary enemy.” In 1941, Joseph Goebbels wrote of the Jews, “They want to destroy the German Reich and our people,” a statement that drew its power from the fact that it was technically true. (What Jew of the time didn’t want to see the end of Nazi Germany?) Many ordinary Germans in the 1940s saw themselves as victims who were only trying to regain their national dignity after their victimization in an earlier war, but their old enemies wouldn’t let them. More than a few believed Germany’s actions were defensive, that even the invasion of Poland was sold as a “pre-emptive strike.” Take this excerpt from a 1943 article by Goebbels.
“Our state's security requires that we take whatever measures seem necessary to protect the German community from threat. That leads to some difficult decisions, but they are unavoidable if we are to deal with the threat. This war is a racial war. The Jews started it and they direct it. Their goal to destroy and exterminate our people. We are the only force standing between Jewry and world domination.”
Substitute “Jews” for “Islamic terrorists” in this piece and it would sound eerily contemporary. So would Goebbels’s 1941 warning, “The Jewish spiritual leaders of today, the rabbis, have ensured that to this day the Jewish people is educated in…hatred.” Just substitute “imam” for “rabbi” and change Goebbels’s name to “Daniel Pipes.”
The fact is, all people engaged in conflict believe their case is different, their enemy more implacably violent and uniquely adverse to reason. Yet one thing that offers hope is how easily such misconceptions, fears, and real hatreds have been known to dissipate when there is a realignment of interests and a just resolution of grievances at the political level. The end of apartheid in South Africa or slavery in the United States, for example, did not result in violent black-on-white retribution, as many whites of both societies feared. Moreover, sixty years after the Holocaust, Germany now has the fastest growing Jewish community in Europe. Once the boot of oppression is lifted, formerly oppressed people generally tend to concern themselves with rebuilding their lives, not with revenge.
I am not suggesting that Israel is like Nazi Germany, but oppression is oppression, even if it varies in method and degree, and people who are oppressed tend to react by hating their oppressors. No doubt there are genuine anti-Semites who support a campaign of boycotts and divestment from Israel, and supporters of divestment will have a particular responsibility to sniff out and challenge anti-Semites in their midst. But it is important to note that there are also real anti-Semites who fervently support Israel. Some, like France’s Jean-Marie Le Pen, see Zionism as a way to rid their own country of Jews. Others are evangelical Christians who believe the return of the Holy Land to Jewish control is a precondition for the return of the Jesus, after which Jews will either convert en masse or burn in hell. Anti-Semitism has no single political position vis-à-vis Israel. Moreover, the rightness of a political stance is not negated by the fact that bad people support it. The fact that Hitler was a vegetarian has not discredited vegetarianism.
In conclusion, I will repeat that it only pays to engage in reasonable arguments with those who are willing to listen. It is not worth wasting breath and raising one’s blood pressure on those incapable of listening – who, from my experience, prefer to shut you up through intimidation and rarely engage directly with those whose opinions they don’t want to hear. What I have provided here, therefore, are talking points for the reasonable. For the unreasonable, it is best to simply say politely, “We will have to agree to disagree,” then walk away and do your work without them.
Jason Kunin is a teacher in Toronto and a former branch president of the Ontario Secondary School Teachers Federation (OSSTF), District 12.
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