Supporters of Israel want to undermine union support for the Palestinians. The left must be clear about imperialism's role in the region, and about how to maximise solidarity, writes Chris Harman.
A big debate has broken out after the annual congress of the lecturers' UCU union voted to hold discussions in branches around the country on how best to show solidarity with the Palestinian people. This has come just as the plight of the Palestinians has gone from bad to worse, with civil war between the elected Hamas administration which controls the Gaza Strip and the Fatah regime based in the West Bank.
Although the motion passed by UCU merely called for discussion over forms of support for the Palestinians, including debating the possibility of some sort of boycott of Israeli institutions, it has caused a furore. The journalists' NUJ union has also faced criticism after its annual conference passed a motion in favour of boycotting Israeli goods. A three to one vote at Unison's conference, in favour of a motion that talked about boycotting and putting sanctions on Israel caused far less controversy.
A very powerful pro-Israel lobby has gone to work to denounce these decisions with the support of the pro-war "left". Meanwhile arch Zionist and Harvard lawyer Alan Dershowitz has threatened to "devastate and bankrupt" any organisation which commits to a boycott of Israel. These figures want to block discussion of Israel's actions. We must defend the right of trade unions to democratically pass resolutions and hold political debates without being subjected to such threats.
Faced with these attacks, those of us who want solidarity must be clear about the arguments. For instance, campaigners are asked, why do we highlight repression in Palestine more than, say, in China or Sudan? It is because of the role played by the British and US governments. That role is summed up by four dates:
- November 1917
the British government's Balfour Declaration committed it to creating a Jewish national homeland in a territory where fewer than 8 percent of the population were Jewish, most of them recent settlers.
- November 1947
the US pushed a resolution through the United Nations giving 60 percent of the land to the 30 percent of the population who were recent settlers from Europe. The settlers then used arms supplied by the US and Czechoslovakia to seize 78 percent of the land, driving out most of the Arab population and establishing Israel.
- June 1967
the Israeli state received US support as it attacked the neighbouring Arab countries, occupied the rest of Palestine and began establishing settlements, taking the best land and most of the water there.
- January 2006-June 2007
Western governments began attempts to overturn the result of the Palestinian elections, cutting off aid, creating terrible hardship among the Palestinians and encouraging the ousted Fatah faction to use force against the winners, Hamas. Hamas succeeded in establishing itself in power in Gaza, but Israel, the US, Britain and the European Union all said they would work with Fatah to defeat it.
These dates show that far from there being two sides with equal rights in the Middle East conflict, there is systematic oppression on one side and justified resistance on the other.
The Western powers claim their support for Israel comes from hostility to anti-Semitism. Their real motive is to defend Western interests across the Middle East, with its huge oil wealth. Support for Israeli conduct today is inseparable from the attempt by the US and Britain to compensate for the terrible defeat they face in Iraq. It was this which led them to back Israel's war on Lebanon a year ago.
The Palestinians are not the only victims of this imperialist strategy. So too are the 200 million other people in the region who live in poverty while enormous wealth flows to the oil companies, the ruling families of the Arabian peninsular and the upper classes in countries such as Egypt and Syria.
So we have a particular responsibility for solidarity. But it is also important to understand the problems we sometimes face in winning it. The memory of the Holocaust in Europe made many people turn their eyes away from what was happening in Palestine until recently.
Things have begun to change in recent years as two great intifadas - mass uprisings - by the Palestinians have met with monstrous repression by the Israelis. Television broadcasts have shown Israeli troops killing civilians and destroying people's homes. And the huge movement against the Iraq War has drawn in hundreds of thousands of people who have heard arguments over Palestine for the first time.
However there are those who want to defend Palestinian rights but do not agree that the proposal of a boycott is the way forward. When we are discussing tactics we must avoid playing into the hands of the pro-Israeli lobby by treating everyone who is not automatically with us as against us. Such an approach could sink our chances of winning any form of solidarity with the Palestinians.
Passing resolutions is one thing, getting solidarity is another. Enormous confusion remains among the great mass of people, including union members. People genuinely horrified by Israel's actions are still influenced by the mainstream media's interpretation of events. Most believe the Israeli state has a right to exist on Palestinian land and that it therefore has the right to defend itself. This easily leads to acceptance of the claim that Hamas is blocking peace by refusing to accept the idea of a state encompassing just one fifth of historic Palestine. And others believe engaging with ordinary Israelis to influence them is better than boycotting their institutions. The fighting between Fatah and Hamas increases the confusion. For the moment, even the tactic of twinning towns and institutions in Britain with those in Palestine is made more difficult by this clash.
The hardcore supporters of Israel believe they can exploit such confusion if the argument centres on calls for a boycott. That is why they have been bombarding the UCU leadership with calls for a referendum over the issue. They believe that people will vote with them over an academic boycott even if they would not in a vote over Israeli repression or over the wider issues raised by the "war on terror".
It is very easy when you feel strongly about something to fall into ways of fighting that might play into the hands of your opponents. But to allow this to happen would be a disservice to the Palestinians. The left must put forward positions that can draw together the greatest possible support for the Palestinians - winning over those who might be swayed by arguments from either side. Whether solidarity with a particular struggle takes the form of a boycott is a question of tactics, not of principle. It is a myth that a boycott, in itself, ended apartheid in South Africa. The boycott was merely one way, among many, of showing solidarity with the struggles that did bring down apartheid, those of black South Africans.
The motion passed at UCU congress called for a discussion about solidarity with the Palestinians and this will take place in union branches around the country in the months ahead. We must not let the media backlash stop trade unionists using their democratic organisations to discuss political questions. We want to put the Israeli government in the dock. We have to ensure that these debates focus on the barbaric behaviour of US, British and Israeli governments and are not simply reduced to a single tactical question. If we approach the issue in this way we can forge the solidarity so desperately needed by the Palestinians.