[P2P-F] Fwd: [Networkedlabour] The Gradual Transformation of British Labour Attitudes on Israel/Palestine

Michel Bauwens michel at p2pfoundation.net
Fri Jan 9 06:11:55 CET 2015

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From: peter waterman <peterwaterman1936 at gmail.com>
Date: Fri, Jan 9, 2015 at 5:42 AM
Subject: [Networkedlabour] The Gradual Transformation of British Labour
Attitudes on Israel/Palestine
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<https://www.middleeastmonitor.com/articles/guest-writers> Palestine and
the British trade unions
 Palestine and the British trade unions
 Stephen Bell
Thursday, 01 January 2015 06:30
   9  19

 9  37
 [image: Stephen Bell]

Stephen Bell
MEMO's important book "The Battle for Public Opinion in Europe" analysed
changing perspectives in Europe towards the Palestinian struggle. A look at
the trade unions in Britain reveals that a similar process is underway.
Given that these bodies are the largest social movement in the country,
with approximately 7 million members, the change is not unimportant.

On closer examination, the policy shift is particularly notable. Strong
support for Zionism and the Israeli state characterised the union position
for almost the whole of the 20th Century. Equally, from its earliest days,
the Labour Party, funded by the trade unions, was the strongest supporter
of the Zionist project amongst British political parties.

In his authoritative study, "The British left and Zionism", Paul Kelemen
wrote: "In August 1917, two and a half months before the Balfour
Declaration committed Britain to support the setting up of a 'Jewish home'
in Palestine, the Labour Party took the first step to adopting a new near
identical policy in its War Aims Memorandum. The document drafted by a
subcommittee of the party's executive included a proposal that Palestine
should be set free from Turkish rule in order that this country may form a
Free State under international guarantee, to which such of the Jewish
people as desire to do so may return and work at their own salvation." (p12)

This policy was endorsed by the Labour Party conference in December 1917,
shortly after the Balfour Declaration. It may be thought that this was
simply the work of politicians. Not so, for the trade unions registered 90
per cent of the vote at the conference. In addition, there were prominent
trade union leaders at the heart of Labour's leadership, such as Arthur
Henderson and Ernest Bevin, who had a direct part in framing policy on

The "socialist" case for this support was not so surprising. Most of the
parties of the Second International had come to accept the supposedly
progressive argument for colonialism. The imperial bargain for this
acceptance was the tolerance by the ruling class of trade union and
socialist party agitation on domestic matters; colonial super-profits,
meanwhile, allowed for concessions at home to be funded.

The Zionist project was seen as a logical extension of the civilising
mission of European society. This could also be presented conveniently in
labour movement circles as a particularly progressive example. The pioneers
amongst the Jewish settlers in Palestine were drawn from the Israeli Labour
Party, a sister of its namesake in Britain. The organisation of the labour
market in the settlements was under the control of the Histadrut, the trade
union centre of the Zionists.

Even Zionism's discriminatory practices were presented in a progressive
light. The Jewish National Fund, for example, permitted land leases for
"the cultivation of the holding only with Jewish labour." The Histadrut
made sure that its role was to ensure that this policy was enforced. This
was presented as preventing labour from being undercut, and raising living
standards for all workers.

The labour movement in Britain believed in the advanced nature of Zionism
over Arab or Palestinian nationalism. The Palestinian rebellion of 1936 was
not supported. The assumption was that there could not be a conflict of
interest between Arab and Jewish workers. Instead, it was argued by Harold
Laski that the source of the problem came from "the effendi and such
trouble makers as the Grand Mufti." (Kelemen p31)

A small minority, including Stafford Cripps, Michael Foot and the British
Communist Party, opposed this view. The dominant position was expressed
most strongly in 1939 when Labour's Front Bench opposed the Cabinet White
Paper, which sought a Palestinian state in ten years and a limitation on
Jewish immigration for five years. At the 1939 Labour conference this
opposition was endorsed with only two votes registered against.

The position at the end of the Second World War was hardly more favourable.
The statement adopted at the 1944 Labour Party conference read: "...there
is surely neither hope nor meaning in a 'Jewish National Home', unless we
are prepared to let Jews, if they wish, enter this tiny land in such
numbers as to become a majority. There was a strong case for this before
the War. There is an irrefutable case now, after the unspeakable atrocities
of the cold and calculated German Nazi plan to kill all Jews in Europe...
let the Arabs be encouraged to move out as the Jews move in."

This can only have been carried at the conference because the trade unions
voted for it.

It is obvious that the experience of the British labour movement was also
reinforced by the impact of the Holocaust. Sections of the armed forces
were involved directly in liberating the Nazi concentration camps, along
with Russia's Red Army from the East. It is impossible to imagine the
effect that this had upon those who experienced it, but it meant that the
case for a sovereign Jewish state became absolutely conclusive in the eyes
of many progressives.

The late Tony Benn had an outstanding record in supporting the movements
for colonial freedom from the 1950s. Yet as a former member of the wartime
Royal Air Force, he could not let go of his support for the Israeli
government until Israel's invasion of Lebanon in 1982, and the resultant
expulsion of the Palestine Liberation Organisation and the massacres at
Sabra and Shatila.

Critics of Israel on the left were effectively silenced when the government
of the USSR became the first government in the world to recognise the
nascent State of Israel in 1948. Stalin may well have regarded the
foundation of Israel as a blow to British imperialism but, in truth, its
conflict with Britain was purely momentary. The damage to the Palestinian
people because of the Soviet government's position is of another order. A
large section of the international anti-colonial movement was disorientated
by Moscow's move.

In these circumstances, there was no effective support for the Palestinians
from the international, or British, labour movement. It took Stalin's
death, the Egyptian victory at Suez in 1956 and the subsequent turning to
the USSR by Nasser before the left within the labour movement became more
supportive of the Palestinians.

However, this support would definitely have been a minority inside the
labour movement in Britain, Europe and North America. When I first started
arguing the case for the Palestinians in 1973, as an activist in the
Transport and General Workers' Union, the position was seen by other union
members as very threatening. The image of the Palestinians being presented
then was based on aircraft hijackings and the Black September operation at
the Munich Olympics in 1972.

Obviously, the Israeli government position was more or less supported by
the labour movement in the 1967 and 1973 wars. The TUC Congress carried
motions of support for Israel in 1967 and 1976.

A first shift may well have begun when the UN General Assembly debated the
issue after 22 years of treating the Palestinians as purely a refugee
problem. Yasser Arafat's 1974 address to the UN and the subsequent majority
vote for Palestinian self-determination and national independence was an
important change in international perception of the issue.

As has often been the way, the Conservative Party proved to be more adept
at recognising the significance of this development for British commercial
interests in the Middle East. Reginald Maudling, then Shadow Foreign
Secretary for the Tories, told parliament in 1975 that the PLO "is the
voice of Palestinians."

Margaret Thatcher's government voted for the European Community declaration
in 1979 which supported the Palestinian "right to self-determination".
Labour leader James Callaghan opposed this in parliament, and suggested
that the Palestinians should be placed under Jordanian jurisdiction.

Between 1974 and 1981 there were only 3 resolutions placed before the
Labour Party conference on the Middle East. Two these were from Poale Zion,
a Marxist-Zionist movement. Out of the 268 Labour MPs in the 1979 intake,
140 were members of Labour Friends of Israel. George Galloway and Ken
Livingstone were exceptions amongst Labour politicians at the time in their
readiness to support the Palestinians.

Without doubt, Israel's 1982 invasion of Lebanon had a big impact. At the
TUC Congress that year a motion from the Fire Brigades' Union (FBU)
deplored the invasion and supported Palestinian self-determination. Despite
General Council opposition this was carried.

Two weeks later 46 emergency motions critical of Israel were placed before
the Labour Party conference. A National Executive Council statement was
carried, which was broadly critical of the Likud government and supportive
of the Israeli Labour Party call for a judicial enquiry into the Sabra and
Shatila massacres. Further, the conference also carried two radical
resolutions: from Dundee East came the call for an independent, sovereign
Palestinian state, without making this conditional upon Israel's
"security". The other, from Norwood, demanded recognition of the PLO and
supported the establishment of a democratic secular state in Palestine.

A number of union conferences also passed pro-Palestinian resolutions: the
National Association of Local Government Officers (NALGO), the FBU, the
Amalgamated Union of Engineering Workers-Technical, Administrative and
Supervisory Section (AUEW/TASS), the Society of Graphical and Allied Trades
(SOGAT 82), the National Union of Public Employees (NUPE) and the National
Union of Teachers (NUT). This was a growing influence, but still a
minority. My own experience was probably more typical. At the 1990 Union of
Communication Workers conference (UCW), a motion was debated in support of
the Palestinians. The left delegates supported the motion strongly in
debate, but received only about 10 per cent of the vote.

In many ways, the issue was subject to a left/right divide inside the
labour movement. Neil Kinnock, Tony Blair and Gordon Brown were (and
remain) all enthusiastic supporters of Israel and carried much support with

The Oslo process generally slowed down the debate inside the British labour
movement. The assumption was that this process gave some parity to the
Palestinians; that it brought them into a political process and away from
violence; and that it had an independent state guaranteed at the end.

The grinding inertia of the process did not really create much disillusion
within the labour movement until the eruption of the Second Intifada in
2000. The media coverage renewed interest, with some unions increasing
their involvement in the Palestine Solidarity Campaign (PSC).

A major fillip occurred through the growth of the anti-war movement against
the 2003 invasion of Iraq. Palestinian slogans were raised and speakers
referred constantly to the Palestinians at mass public demonstrations. Of
great significance was that the trade unions broke with the Blair
government on this issue. The TUC General Council voted on two occasions
against the Iraq war.

A new generation of union leaders had reached positions of authority after
the rise of Bennism. These leaders were also influenced by the growing
diversity of multi-cultural Britain, with its impact on workplace union
organisation. An anti-imperialist sentiment achieved a majority position
inside much of the trade union movement.

The shift from opposition to the Iraq war to support for Palestine became
hardened with each failure of Israel's aggressive policy: in Lebanon in
2006, Operation Cast Lead against Gaza in 2008/9, and the attack upon the
Freedom Flotilla's Mavi Marmara in 2010.

The TUC Congress was marked by a series of pro-Palestinian motions: in 2009
from the FBU, with a General Council statement, and in 2010 a composite
motion from the Transport Salaried Staffs' Association (TSSA)/the
GMB/Unison/the Public and Commercial Services Union (PCS)/the FBU. In 2011
there was another composite from Unite and the PCS and in 2012 the CWU
submitted a motion. An emergency motion from the General Council condemned
Israel's summer 2014 war in Gaza and the events in the occupied West Bank
and East Jerusalem.

The size of this shift was conveyed by Martin Bright in an article in the
Jewish Chronicle on 14 September, 2012: "Supporters of Israel are losing
the battle of ideas in the UK. This has probably been true for some time if
only they would admit it. But after this year's TUC conference there is no
longer any question about it, on the left least... When David Taub was
appointed as Israel's ambassador to the UK he made it his personal mission
to reach out to the trade union movement. But they have no intention of
listening... this motion was passed unanimously. The consensus in large
swathes of the left is quite simply this: Israel is the oppressor and the
Palestinians, the oppressed..."

Earlier, in 2010, the Reut Institute published a document "Building a
Political Firewall against the Assault on Israel's legitimacy". The
document represented a very serious attempt to analyse the growing strength
of the Palestinian solidarity movement in all its key features. Its
conclusions were chilling for supporters of the Israeli government: "The
TUC comprises 58 affiliated unions representing nearly seven million
people. With a constituency of this size, and given the relative political
prominence of trade unions within British society, a trade union brace of
PSC-led campaigns can substantially impact the British mainstream." (p39)

The authors of the document could not avoid a conclusion which looked
decidedly like sour grapes. "The PSC's work in the trade union arena is a
particularly potent example of the ability of a relatively marginal
advocacy organisation to make a substantial impact." (p36)

The shift in the union and labour movement on Palestine is extremely clear
when the whole history of the relationship is examined. Moreover, this
becomes even clearer when the relatively conservative character of the
unions is taken into account.

It is extremely difficult to win a policy change of this magnitude inside
the British trade unions. It takes a great deal of time and effort to
achieve. That same conservative character means that it is going to be
extremely difficult to overturn a change once won. A powerful platform for
Palestinian solidarity has been secured. It is up to all trade unionists to
ensure that this is henceforth delivered effectively.

*The author is head of policy at the Communications Workers Union (CWU) in
the United Kingdom*

   1. 2014. From Coldwar Communism to the Global Justice Movement:
   Itinerary of a Long-Distance Internationalist.

   2. 2014. Interface Journal Special (Co-Editor), December 2014. 'Social
   Movement Internationalisms'. (Free).
* <http://www.interfacejournal.net/current/>*
   3. 2014. 'The Networked Internationalism of Labour's Others', in Jai Sen
   (ed), Peter Waterman (co-ed), The Movement of Movements:
   for Other Worlds  (Part I).
   <http://www.into-ebooks.com/book/the_movements_of_movements/> (10 Euros).
4. 2012. EBook: Recovering Internationalism
   <http://www.into-ebooks.com/book/recovering_internationalism/>.  [A
   compilation of papers from the new millenium. Now free in two download
   5. 2013. EBook (co-editor), February 2013: World Social Forum: Critical
   Explorations http://www.into-ebooks.com/book/world_social_forum/
   6. 2012. Interface Journal Special (co-editor), November 2012: *For the
   Global Emancipation of Labour  <http://www.interfacejournal.net/current/>*
   7. 2005-?
   Ongoing. Blog: http://www.unionbook.org/profile/peterwaterman.???. Needed:
   a Global Labour Charter Movement (2005-Now!)
   8. 2011. Under, Against, Beyond: Labour and Social Movements Confront a
   Globalised, Informatised Capitalism
   <http://www.into-ebooks.com/book/under-against-beyond/>(2011) (c. 1,000
   pages of Working Papers, free, from the 1980's-90's).

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