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UNISON, UK's biggest union, supports a boycott of Israel
Added by David Hirsh on June 20, 2007 07:33:21 PM.
UNISON, UK's biggest union, supports a boycott of IsraelUNISON, the public service workers' union in the UK, has voted today, by a majority of roughly 4-1, to support the campaign to boycott Israel. Motion 53 includes the following:
"Conference believes that ending the occupation demands concerted and sustained pressure upon Israel including an economic, cultural, academic and sporting boycott."
It also says, using the usual code, that it is for the dismantling of Israel and it opposes a two state solution:
"Conference continues to consider that a just solution to the Palestine-Israel conflict ... should: ...
2) allow the refugees of 1948 to return home;
The Workers Liberty website report is here:
That we won a quarter of the conference against the boycott, from a standing start - the union's Executive unanimously endorsed the boycott motion, and the Unison United Left backed it too - was an achievement.

Still, the boycotters got away with presenting themselves as the people proposing something practical to help the Palestinians - though Helen Jenner, speaking for the union Executive recommendation, stated that she did not interpret the motion as mandating Unison itself to operate a boycott (and so it committed the union to nothing practical at all).

They got away with presenting themselves as the people calling for effective pressure to win the Palestinians the right to a state of their own - though one of the speakers for the motion, from Birmingham Unison, explicitly endorsed Hamas. (Ismail Haniyeh, the Hamas ex-prime-minister, told the Guardian on 18 June that "we want the creation of a Palestinian state on the 1967 borders, that is Gaza and the West Bank, with East Jerusalem as its capital" - but there is really no reason to suppose that this is other than a negotiating stance on the way to the declared aim of Hamas, "to raise the banner of Allah over every inch of Palestine").

With just a few short speeches on each side, I'm not sure how clearly the fact came across to the majority of delegates that the gist of the motion was not to commit Unison to anything, but to give licence and encouragement to the ardent boycotters, the sort of "smash Israel" enthusiasts who picket Marks and Spencers and who in the 1980s banned student Jewish societies that would not formally condemn "Zionism".

None of the five anti-boycott speakers - Anita Downs (AWL) from Guy's and St Thomas's; Dave Bennett from Bristol Unison (ex-SWP, and now associated with Engage; Stephen Lintott from Peterborough; Garry Freeman (SP) from Nottingham; and a Devon delegate of Israeli origin - endorsed Israeli government policy in any way; all of them explicitly supported the Palestinians' right to a state of their own; some, like Anita, explicitly declared their condemnation of Israeli government policies. They said that the boycott would cut against all hopes of Jewish-Arab working-class unity and chime in with the tradition of previous anti-Jewish boycotts.

Nevertheless, and despite their own contradictions, the boycotters evidently got away with depicting the anti-boycotters as wishy-washy, artificially even-handed, or people who valued abstractions of working-class unity, or such ineffectual things as Unison's official links with the Israeli trade unions, above practical action to help the Palestinians.

One of the pro-boycott speakers, Caroline Bedale from Manchester, is a well-known (non-SWP) leftist in Unison. She declared that her interpretation of the boycott would allow continued links with "progressives" in Israel, without saying who would decide, and how, which Israeli Jews are "progressive" and thus win exemption from the general rule that Israelis are to be shunned.

Generally the active pro-boycott left in Unison, the SWP/ Respect, kept a low profile on this issue, letting others speak, some of whom could say sincerely that they support "two states".

I would guess that the pro-boycott speakers, other than Helen Jenner, were broadly speaking leftists, but only because of their style and manner, not because they said anything about socialism, the working class, democracy, or even imperialism. This was the soft-sell, not the "Zionism-is-imperialism" hard-sell (though it is the latter that will inform the active boycotters). (Read this whole report, from Workers Liberty, here).
A pro-boycott blogger, Jon Rogers, who is on the national executive committee of UNISON, reports excitedly as follows:
The debate on Palestine is considerably more controversial with strong views on both sides around the question of a boycott of Israel. Tony Greenstein from Brighton and Hove branch has just won thunderous applause for an impassioned speech in support of the motion from Wolverhampton which the National Executive Council are (rightly in my view) supporting. This is a wide ranging motion about solidarity with the Palestinians - however the focus of the debate is around the question of a boycott of Israel. The motion calls for an immediate arms embargo and expresses principled support for an economic, cultural, academic and sporting boycott.

Leftwing opponents of the boycott proposals appear to me to cling to a very abstract view of class politics, leading them to believe that there could be some unity, in current circumstances, between Israeli and Palestinian workers. Helen Jenner, speaking on behalf of the NEC has explained that UNISON policy is absolutely in favour of dialogue, but that we have to respond to the appalling way in which the Palestinian people are being treated. UNISON is not opposed to the Israeli state or the Israeli people but to the policies of the Israeli government. Boycotts are a tactic to be considered and employed as appropriate.

Speakers in support of the motion are generally speaking from experience of the situation in Palestine, whereas opponents are giving generally more abstract presentations of an argument about workers unity, with a subtext of warnings about anti-semitism (and some exaggeration of exactly what the motion is calling for). Caroline Bedale from Manchester Community Health has given a characteristically measured response to the exaggerations from opponents to the motion.

Calls for a boycott of Israeli goods and institutions is not an attack upon the Israeli people - it is a legitimate tactic to seek to influence the practice of the Israeli government in oppressing the Palestinian people. The Conference has just overwhelmingly supported Motion 53 including the tactic of a boycott.
The whole of motion 53 is as follows:
Motion : AgendaID 053 - Palestine

Conference continues to consider that a just solution to the Palestine-Israel conflict must be based upon international law and Israel should:

1) withdraw to its 1949-67 borders;

2) allow the refugees of 1948 to return home;

3) remove all its settlements from the Occupied Palestinian Territories and Occupied Syrian Al-Joulan;

4) take down the Apartheid Wall; and

5) respect the Palestinian people's right to national self-determination and to establish a state in the West bank and the Gaza Strip with its capital in Jerusalem.

Conference notes that the Israeli occupation has now continued for 40 years. It welcomes the formation of the "Enough!" coalition to focus protest on this anniversary.

But Conference believes that ending the occupation demands concerted and sustained pressure upon Israel including an economic, cultural, academic and sporting boycott.

Conference condemns the economic sanctions imposed upon the Occupied Palestinian Territories following Palestinian Parliamentary Elections of 25 January 2006, which make worse the appalling economic circumstances of the occupation. It is a unique example of economic sanctions imposed, not upon an occupier, but upon a population struggling against illegal military occupation.

Conference instructs the National Executive Council to:

a) continue to campaign with the Palestine Solidarity Campaign and others as appropriate;

b) continue to develop capacity building projects with the Palestine General Federation of Trade Unions (PGFTU);

c) call upon the United Kingdom government to end the arms trade with Israel;

d) produce UNISON's own material on Palestine to build knowledge among members;

e) consider inviting a PGFTU delegation to tour regions;

f) seek ways to work with the Trades Union Congress (TUC) and other trade unions on the basis of the TUC 2006 Congress resolution;

g) raise the issue of Palestine with UNION's overseas partners and with international trade union federations with the aims of:

i) suspending the European Union/Israel Association Agreement; and

ii) a mandatory United Nations Arms Embargo on Israel of the kind the Security Council imposed on South Africa in 1977; and

h) encourage branches and regions to affiliate to the Palestine Solidarity Campaign (PSC), help build PSC branches and consider twinning with PGFTU organised public sector workers in Palestine.
Hat-tip Bob from Brockley".

Workers Liberty here.