Eric Lee

Why Israel is losing the battle in Britain’s trade unions

Britain’s trade unions were not always hostile to Israel.  

One doesn’t have to go back very far to remember a time when they would invite representatives from the Histadrut to speak at union conferences.  And the Trades Union Congress, the umbrella body representing 6.2 million union members, is still on record supporting a two-state solution and Israel’s right to exist.

Pro-Palestinian groups struggled for years to get unions to embrace the campaign of boycotts, divestment and sanctions (BDS) targetting the Jewish state. Pro-BDS activists were unable to even get the issue discussed at the TUC annual conference.   Where the issue did arise, as it did in 2005 in the Association of University Teachers, members rose up and defeated it, following vigorous debate.

In the global labour movement, the British TUC played the role of honest broker between competing factions on the question of Israel and Palestine.  When the International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC) held its second congress in Vancouver, it was TUC General Secretary Brendan Barber who led the voices of moderation, burying a violently anti-Israel resolution that had been proposed by COSATU, the South African union federation.

Many trade union movements outside of Britain have consistently been pro-Israel and remain so even today — including the giant and powerful trade unions in Germany and the USA.

But that all seems a very long time ago.

British trade unions today stand in the forefront of the fight to cut off arms to Israel and to punish the Jewish state in other ways.

Last week the general secretary of Britain’s giant public sector union Unison, Dave Prentis, called on the UK government to “immediately end the arms trade with Israel”.

Early in July, just as Israeli air strikes were beginning in Gaza and before the large losses of life, Unite, Britain’s largest private sector trade union, issued a statement that was unprecedented in its level of hostility towards the Jewish state. Referring to Israeli “aggression” it demanded UN and EU sanctions.  The union also noted John Kerry’s warning that apartheid might feature in Israel’s future unless a peace deal is agreed.  It commented: “In Unite’s view, Israel is already an apartheid state.”

Unite and Unison together represent nearly half the membership of trade unions in the UK.

For many years, Trade Union Friends of Israel (TUFI) has been a voice of moderation and reason in British unions.  But TUFI’s voice is growing weaker.  For several years now, some of the largest unions such as Unison have prevented TUFI from having a stall at their annual conferences.  Attendance at TUFI fringe meetings at the union conferences, when these happen, is small and getting smaller.  TUFI struggles to find British trade unionists willing to speak out against the rising tide of anti-Israel sentiment.

A recent attempt to pressure the large University and Colleges Union (UCU) by accusing it of anti-semitism in a court battle ended in defeat.  The Jewish lecturer who claimed that the atmosphere in the union had turned hostile for its Jewish members now faces the possibility that the union may try to force him to pay their legal expenses.

For years, even as the unions increasingly moved into the orbit of the pro-Hamas Palestine Solidarity Campaign, the Labour Party acted as a kind of brake on the worst examples of extremism.  Just five years ago, Labour’s Foreign Secretary, David Miliband told unions openly that BDS was a dead end and encouraged them to engage with Israelis and Palestinians in the pursuit of peace.

But under the leadership of David’s brother Ed, the Labour Party itself has moved into the anti-Israel camp and Labour leaders can no longer be reliably expected to restrain the unions.

The British Jewish community, and the state of Israel, cannot allow this to continue, and the first step needs to be an acknowledgement that what used to work no longer does.

Organizations that have “Friend of Israel” in their name are never going to prove popular at a time when Israel faces increasing isolation.  The close links between TUFI and the Israeli Embassy, which would send ambassadors to speak at trade union events, help no one.

Trade unionists who want to challenge the PSC and its pro-Hamas narrative must develop one of their own, one which might be independent of the official Israeli government line.

I’m certain that an organization which called for an independent Palestinian state with its capital in Jerusalem, and which opposed the building of settlements in the West Bank, would have an easier time than one which seemed to be the voice of the Israeli Right in Britain’s unions.  Only an organization like that stands a chance of being heard today in Britain.

The vast majority of trade union members in Britain care very little about Israel and Palestine.  A small minority of activists have stepped in and have almost unchallenged moved their unions into a more extreme position.  When it was proposed to TUFI several years ago that it should challenge its rival, the PSC, to a public debate, TUFI’s leaders balked.  That turned out to be an historic mistake.

Those in the British unions who cheer on Hamas and think that Israel is no better than apartheid South Africa are often ill-informed and unaware of the counter-arguments.  When I’ve had the opportunity to challenge some of their beliefs, I’ve found opportunities to shift the debate.

What Britain’s unions need today is a group willing to stand up, expose and challenge the pro-Hamas narrative, to isolate those who openly support terrorism and extremism, and then to defeat them in the unions, using their existing democratic procedures.

Those are the three stages of the process — expose, isolate and defeat — that must be pursued if we can bring Britain’s unions back to where they were just a few years ago, seeing themselves not as pro-Palestinian, but as pro-peace.

That is still achievable, but we must start by recognizing just how bad things have become.

About the Author
Eric Lee is the founding editor of LabourStart, the news and campaigning website of the international trade union movement. He is a fellow of the Royal Historical Society and the author of several books about 20th-century history. His next book is The August Uprising 1924: Georgia and the Birth of Democratic Socialism. He was a member of Kibbutz Ein Dor from 1981-1998.