AWU National Secretary slams BDS
The following is an abridged version of the speech by Australian Workers’ Union (AWU) National Secretary, Paul Howes, given to the Zionist Federation of Australia on Sunday 10 October.
At a time of a new threat to Israel, a spreading international de-legitimisation campaign largely under the banner of the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement, I am proud to be a firm supporter of the State of Israel. This support for the State of Israel – and the two state solution – is part of a long tradition in our union.
I am proud of the fact that our union believes in, and supports, democratic societies, democratic institutions. I am proud to say our union has a long history of supporting the building of democratic civil society groups – like unions.
Well, how am I to apply AWU tradition in the context of the Middle East? I think I am upholding that union tradition when I work to support the development of the Palestinian General Federation of Trade Unions as an independent, democratic, civic society institution.
I think I am upholding that union tradition as I stand with the union movements of both Israel and Palestine, as they fight for workers rights on both sides of the Green Line.I think I am upholding that union tradition when I support the trust-building co-operative projects that the Israeli trade union movement – led by the Histadrut – and the Palestinian trade union movement – led by the PGFTU – are promoting.
If you truly believe that a-worker-is-a-worker-is-a-worker then the function of any trade union is to ensure fair pay for a fair day’s work and a safe and healthy workplace. This applies to an Israeli worker , this applies to a Palestinian worker. I can’t see how you can discriminate between an Israeli worker and a Palestinian worker. (Let alone a foreign worker from Asia or Africa working in Israel).
Our task now is to support and ensure that trade unions – Israeli or Palestinian – have the capacity to address these issues; and to do so co-operatively. It is because of these principles that I joined with fellow union leaders in the UK and the USA to establish Trade Unions Linking Israel and Palestine (TULIP).
That leads me to the new threat to Israel – Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS).
It is an attempt to demonise Israel; to undermine its legitimacy by suggesting its people, the working families, the companies seeking to export, academics wanting to take part in intellectual pursuits with colleagues everywhere…none of them should be treated fairly, decently and equally in the global marketplace.
On that basis I can’t see how any unionist can back the international BDS movement. Despite the headlines most of the trade union movement in Australia, and across the globe, has not backed BDS. The bulk of the international trade union movement, and in particular unions in countries like the USA, Germany and Austria, are rock-solid in their support for Israel.
A few months ago, in Vancouver, the World Congress of the global union movement, the International Trade Union Confederation – the ITUC – delivered a stinging rebuff to advocates of the campaign to boycott Israel. In an even-handed response – this was supported by both the Palestinian and Israeli trade unions – the World Congress praised the landmark agreement between the Histadrut and the PGFTU on the rights of Palestinian workers.
Most importantly – in a stunning blow to BDS activists in some unions – the Israeli national trade union centre, the Histadrut, was honoured by the global trade union movement. Its leader, Ofer Eini, was elevated to the ITUC’s 25 member Executive Board, as well as its General Council. Mr. Eini was also elected as one of the global union groups Vice Presidents.
None of this means there are not real threats; that the social movement traditions of the union movement will not be turned against Israel using the language of the international BDS movement. I know later this month there will be a conference here in Melbourne to build the BDS movement in Australia – and especially to create strategies to get Australian unions backing BDS. There is not one person of significance in the Australian union movement speaking here.
The BDS movement likes to compare themselves to the boycott campaign against apartheid South Africa. The South African boycott apartheid movement was home grown, it originated in South Africa and was run and controlled by Nelson Mandela and his ANC and the peak South African trade union organization COSATU. Australian unions played a major role in backing the South African boycott.
The BDS movement, as it relates to the Palestinian struggle, is not really a home-grown initiative. Today’s international anti-Israel boycott movement is largely an initiative imposed on the Palestinian body politic by outside agitators who run so-called solidarity groups.
These solidarity groups have little or no institutional connections or support from within the Territories – especially not the West Bank. The person credited for founding this international BDS Movement, Omar Barghouti, was born in Qatar, grew up in Egypt and moved only relatively recently to Ramallah. Omar Barghouti is actually now a post-graduate student at Tel Aviv University. When Israeli students at the university raised a petition to protest his presence on campus, and demand he be expelled, the university authorities rejected the petition and announced they would not expel him. They were not going to boycott Mr. Barghouti because of his ideas – even though Omar Barghouti himself promotes and supports an academic boycott of Israeli universities. When Omar Barghouti was asked about this irony he told the media “my studies at Tel Aviv University are a personal matter and I have no interest in commenting.”
My Palestinian acquaintances have pointed out to me a number of times that, unfortunately, the Palestinian Diaspora are by far bigger agitators for the BDS cause than the people who actually live in the Territories. The Palestinian Diaspora is less willing to compromise, more willing to keep the fight going, because they don’t have to actually live the oppressive life suffered by those in the Territories.
It is interesting to note that that all three featured Palestinian speakers at the upcoming Melbourne International BDS conference whose names I have seen – Rafeef Ziadah; Samah Sabawi and Yousef Alreemawi – all live in the Palestinian Diaspora. It is easy to promote the international anti-Israel BDS cause if you don’t have to live through the practicalities of the day-to-day lives of the workers in the Territories. It is easy to oppose the compromises that both sides will have to make to achieve security, justice and peace.
The Palestinians who actually live in the Territories are only just now – and ever so slowly – backing a limited boycott against the West Bank settlements. If you read closely, between the lines, you will also see that the PA, and its instrumentalities, place many, many qualifications, and adjectives, in front of their boycott statements because they are aware of the pain it will cause their own people.
The Palestinian General Federation of Trade Unions – who are also late, and in my view reluctant, boycott backers – have been at pains to limit their calls to a boycott only of goods produced by companies which operate in the West Bank. The PGFTU have also said they only want the BDS implemented by the Palestinian Authority if alternative jobs can be found for the thousands of Palestinians who daily work in the Israeli West Bank settlements.
The international BDS solidarity groups, and theirspokespersons across the globe may from time-to-time mouth words about their support for a two-state solution. But they are in reality one-staters. Defacto they support Hamas.
The international BDS movement have adopted a strategy which says if you can’t get commitment to a complete anti-Israel BDS in a particular international community, oh well they’re happy with the wedge potential of just targeting the West Bank settlements.
Omar Barghouti – the international BDS movement founder – has been quite explicit in stating that his real aim is not a two State solution but the end of Israel itself. In Barghouti’s own words he supports: “ a Palestine next to a Palestine, rather than a Palestine next to an Israel.”