This is the speech I gave proposing the resolution on Solidarity With Israeli And Palestinian Workers at RMT's Annual General Meeting 2008 - followed by my reply to points made in the debate. The anti-boycott policy was superceded by a pro-boycott policy at the following year's AGM.
Israel’s oppression of the Palestinian people is terrible.
This year, we have seen Israel blockade and bomb the Gaza strip, killing innocent Palestinians and blighting the lives of everyone who lives there.
In February, Israeli F16 jets fired 3 heavy rockets that completely destroyed the Palestinian General Federation of Trade Unions’ ‘folk house’ – a building that administered union-organised health care as well as being a base for union organising and administration. That attack killed one Palestinian and injured 37 more, including many children.
This is just one story among many – one of particular concern to trade unionists. This year, we have had appalling atrocities by the Israeli military in Gaza; a couple of years ago, we had the bloody and merciless assault by the Israeli army on Lebanon.
Back in the 1990s, I visited the Palestinian territories occupied by Israel on a solidarity visit. I can tell you that the refugee camps of the West Bank and Gaza are among the hell holes of the world. I saw:
- the rubble of houses destroyed by the Israeli military because they thought a stone might have been thrown from there, the Palestinian families who lived there left homeless
- children playing in the open sewers that flowed through the camps
- everyone living in fear of when the next Israeli military attack might come
This union must condemn this barbarity and demand peace, rights and liberation for the Palestinians. We must demand an end to Israel’s oppression of the Palestinians.
But more than that, we must also demand that Israel completely withdraws from the territories that it occupies and has occupied since 1967. The Palestinians must be allowed to form their own state alongside Israel.
The Palestinian state that this resolution demands should be given massive aid and international support, not just left to sink or swim and be bullied and dominated by Israel (or, indeed, other neighbouring states).
We must fully support the Palestinians in their struggle against oppression and for national liberation.
We support the Palestinians’ right to fight back, resist and defend themselves against Israeli attacks.
But even if we can understand the motives, we can not support rockets into civilian areas or suicide bombers on buses. This resolution remembers the victims of one of these attacks – 8 railway workers in the Israeli city of Haifa killed in July 2006 when rockets fired from Lebanon hit the train depot where they were working.
We approach this issue on the twin working-class principles of unity and solidarity.
These two things are principles at the heart of RMT and the trade union movement.
Unity means that we support and encourage Palestinian and Israeli workers and trade unionists to unite for workers’ rights and against oppression.
Solidarity means that we positively and practically support our brothers and sisters in Israel and the occupied territories.
Arab and Jewish workers are uniting in projects such as the Workers Advice Centre.
This excellent organisation visited our union last year, and told us of the work they are doing to defend workers against employers and against the effects of the military occupation. This resolution asks the union to continue and extend the support that we give to them.
Promoting and supporting unity means that we have to oppose the racism that people from both nations can be the targets of. This resolution rightly commits RMT to opposing both anti-Arab and anti-Jewish racism.
That means we condemn the attitude of the Israeli right, who dehumanise and discriminate against Arabs. It also means that we condemn the anti-semitism of Hamas. The resolution says that Hamas’ Charter is anti-semitic, and I wouldn’t expect you to vote for that unless I proved it to you by quoting it. I apologise in advance for the offence that this passage may cause:
The Hamas Charter states: “The Prophet … has said “The Day of Judgement will not come about until Moslems fight the Jews (killing the Jews), when the Jew will hide behind stones and trees. The stones and trees will say O Moslems, O Abdulla, there is a Jew behind me, come and kill him. Only the Gharkad tree would not do that because it is one of the trees of the Jews.”
As a trade union, and in our Rule Book, we oppose all forms of discrimination, and that includes blatant anti-semitism like this.
As I and others have said on other issues this week, there is no point in passing resolutions without committing ourselves to action.
There is no point in us just sitting in Britain expressing sympathy with the Palestinians. That won’t help to end the appalling oppression they face. We have to take practical action to support their struggle.
We are trade unionists. Because of that, we have a particular job to do – to support our fellow trade unionists in this struggle.
This resolution proposes various things that we can do:
- support the initiative organised jointly by Palestinian and Israeli trade unionists under the auspices of the ITF to set up a helpline to assist Palestinian drivers to get through checkpoints and roadblocks more easily. At present, Israeli soldiers can keep them waiting for hours, even days, while they are not being paid and their load may get into a condition not fit to deliver
- increase our links with the labour, trade union and peace movements
- set up a solidarity appeal to raise money and material aid for an appropriate workers’ advice centre of other TU initiative
- support and build protest actions in this country
By doing these things, we can genuinely help in the struggle against oppression.
Solidarity is at the heart of our movement. Solidarity is better than what some people advocate: a boycott of all things Israeli.
A boycott is passive – it is all about individuals not shopping at particular shops or having no contact with anyone Israeli rather than about workers and unions acting collectively to support our Palestinian brothers and sisters.
Most importantly, a boycott would obstruct efforts at solidarity – if we boycott any links with Israel, we would be stopping ourselves talking to Israelis who oppose their state’s oppression of the Palestinians
Millions of Israelis oppose their government’s actions, many thousands demonstrate, refuse to serve in Army and give support to Palestinians. A boycott movement would cut us off from supporting them.
Although some Palestinian trade unionists support a boycott, many strongly oppose it. The Workers’ Advice Centre that visited our union last year vociferously opposes the idea of us boycotting Israel because it wants solidarity and it knows that the boycott will get in the way of that.
If we, as this resolution proposes,
- promote direct links with Palestinian and Israeli workers’ and progressive organisations
- raise money and material aid for a workers’ advice centre,
- and build protest actions in this country against Israel’s brutal military oppression
... then that will do a lot more to assist the struggle for the Palestinians’ freedom than refusing to buy an Israeli orange at Marks & Spencers.
In some circumstances, a boycott can be a good idea eg. when a group of workers on strike asks us to boycott their employers’ products or services. There may even be a case for a specific boycott related to the issue of Israel / Palestine. What this resolution rightly wants us to reject is a generalised boycott of all things Israeli.
A boycott may seem like an attractive idea because we all want to ‘do something’. There is another ‘something’ – active solidarity – that is much more effective.
Please support this resolution.
Answering pro-boycott points from the debate:
- “The union is affiliated to the Palestine Solidarity Campaign, and the PSC has a pro-boycott policy”
Affiliating to an organisation does not oblige us to support every tactic and policy they have. After all, RMT affiliates to the TUC, and by its Rule Book to the Labour Party!
- “What else can we do? We can’t get rail and transport workers in Britain to strike against Israel’s treatment of the Palestinians, even if we’d like to. A boycott is something that we can do.”
The resolution contains several proposals of positive action that we can do – protests, an appeal, stronger links. All are more effective than a boycott.
- “Our existing union policy is for a boycott”
It may be a surprise to many that our existing policy is to boycott Israel – the union has not promoted it much.
Had the union actually upheld this policy, we would not have been able to do the good things we have done – would not have been able to:
- talk to the transport union of the Histradut
- talk to or work with Israeli trade unions or Israeli pro-Palestinian, anti-occupation campaigners
… because we would have been boycotting them and the means of communicating with them.
The point of the AGM is to make new policy – sometimes that involves changing old policy. If we never allowed ourselves to change existing policy, why would we bother coming here and how could we ever respond to chaing events and to our experience?
One of the best reasons for changing policy is if your existing policy proves to be unworkable and inappropriate in practice.
- “Israel is in a massive position of strength – a boycott at least levels the playing field a little.”
Sadly, it doesn’t. In fact, it can make things worse, strengthening the Israeli right wing by increasing the sense of siege.
Solidarity is the thing that can genuinely level the playing field.
- “The academic and cultural boycotts are worth supporting.”
The academic boycott leads to cutting links with Israeli academics who genuinely and actively support the Palestinians.
The cultural boycott led to films opposing Israel’s oppression of the Palestinians being boycotted because they were made by Israelis.
- “Boycotting South Africa was an important part of defeating Apartheid”
I supported the boycott of South Africa. I remember as a student, refusing to bank with Barclays, for example. But this situation is different.
The role of the boycott in ending Apartheid is overstated. The boycott began in the early 60s, but the turning point in the fight to defeat Apartheid was in the 70s and 80s with the growth of black-majority trade unions and the uprising of black people in townships such as Soweto.
The boycott of South Africa was asked for by a majority of the progressive movement in South Africa – unlike ‘boycott Israel’, which only some call for and many oppose.
South Africa did not have a big movement of white people opposing Apartheid (although there were some honourable individuals). Millions of Israelis oppose their government’s actions, many thousands demonstrate, refuse to serve in Army, give support to Palestinians. A boycott movement would cut us off from supporting them, which wasn’t really an issue in South Africa.
And Israel is not the same as apartheid South Africa.
- … and finally …
If you want this union to keep its policy to boycott Israel, you had better be prepared to tell your members at work not to: shop at M&S; take their kids to watch Disney films; support Arsenal … because these are all on the list of targets for the boycott movement.
I’d rather ask members to:
- contribute to an appeal for a workers’ advice centre
- sign a petition or message of support
- come on a demonstration or protest
- listen to Palestinian or Israeli trade unionists speak out against Israel’s oppression of the Palestinians