BDS movement growing: Labour solidarity with Palestine

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Israel’s bloody assault on Gaza earlier this year has also led to new initiatives by organized labour in solidarity with Palestine.

Not surprisingly, support for Palestine and the boycott movement is particularly strong in South Africa. Many South Africans see Israel’s oppression of Palestinians through the prism of their own experience under apartheid. Dock workers have led the way in labour solidarity.

Several major national labour federations have endorsed the call for boycott, divestment and sanctions against Israel. COSATU in South Africa was the first to do so, followed by the labour federations in New Zealand and Ireland. On April 24 the convention of the Trade Union Congress of Scotland voted overwhelmingly in favour of BDS after an extensive debate. A few weeks later the Norwegian Confederation of Trade Unions, which represents more than a third of the country’s work force, urged its government to lead an international boycott of Israel if it continued to violate Palestinian rights.

Individual unions and labour organizations in many countries have also taken a stand. To cite only two, in June 2007 the national conference of UNISON, the largest union of public sector workers in the UK, with more than 1.3 million members, called for “concerted and sustained pressure upon Israel including an economic, cultural, academic and sporting boycott.” More recently, in the wake of the assault on Gaza, the leadership of the largest teachers’ union in France, the Fédération Syndicale Unitaire, endorsed the BDS campaign and called on the European Union to impose sanctions on Israel.

On the other side of the Atlantic, in April 2008, the Canadian Union of Postal Workers became the first country-wide union in North America to adopt a BDS policy.

The Ontario division of the Canadian Union of Public Employees, (CUPE) which represents more than 220,000 workers in the public sector, has played a key role in blazing the trail for labour solidarity in Canada. The decision of CUPE Ontario’s May 2006 convention to endorse boycott, divestment and sanctions sparked massive controversy, thereby drawing international attention to the Palestinian appeal for BDS.

Supporters of Israel in various quarters including government officials, editorialists, and even leaders of other unions, directed a torrent of abuse against the union, alleging that the decision was anti-Semitic, undemocratic, and outside the union’s jurisdiction. Sid Ryan, the president of CUPE Ontario, received numerous death threats and his family was also threatened but Ryan and the union have stood firm against the pressure. Union activists organised an extensive grass-roots education campaign.

Quebec teachers, students support boycott

Various unions in Quebec have been active on the solidarity issue and have participated in delegations to Palestine.

A year after the CUPE Ontario convention, Quebec’s largest union of teachers in higher education (the FNEEQ) joined the boycott, divestment, and sanctions movement.

Already in October 2004 the FNEEQ had sponsored a delegation of 20 Quebec teachers who attended an international conference on Education, Globalization and Social Change in Ramallah, Palestine. It also joined forces with the Association pour une Solidarité Syndicale Étudiante (ASSÉ), which represents 42,000 Quebec students, in organizing campus workshops on the Palestine issue.

In May 2008 the ASSÉ endorsed the boycott, divestment, and sanctions campaign, the first major student union in Canada to do so.

Cuba, Venezuela, Bolivia: No ties with Israel

One of the aims of the international boycott-Israel movement is to induce governments to break all economic and diplomatic relations with Israel, treating the Zionist state as an international pariah. This is starting to become a reality in Latin America.

In recent years a process of transformation has been unfolding across the region as radical, popular movements have emerged in many countries. One important result has been the creation of the Bolivarian Alliance for the Americas (ALBA), an alliance of seven countries that promotes fair trade and mutual aid based on principles of solidarity rather than profit. ALBA also champions respect for national sovereignty and unity of the region against U.S. domination.

The rising tide of struggles in Latin America has been accompanied by a rise in support for the Palestinian people, including by the governments of the region. ALBA has led the way on this.

In September 2008 the ALBA countries were instrumental in securing the election of Father Miguel d’Escoto Brockmann as president of the General Assembly of the United Nations. D’Escoto is a well-known supporter of Palestine. As foreign minister of the Sandinista government of Nicaragua during the 1980s, he played a prominent role in exposing Israel’s role in the “dirty war” that Washington organized against his country.

D’Escoto told a 2008 meeting at the UN that 60 years after partition, “the failure to create a Palestinian state as promised is the single greatest failure in the history of the United Nations.” He went on to say: ‘Although different, what is being done against the Palestinian people seems to me to be a version of the hideous policy of apartheid.’ Addressing the UN General Assembly later the same day, he repeated the apartheid characterization and urged the member states to consider implementing sanctions against Israel.

Soon after Israel began its attack on Gaza, Venezuelans took to the streets in protest. Speaking to a rally in Caracas on January 9, 2009, Foreign Minister Nicolas Maduro announced that his country would send 80 tons of medicine, water, and food aid to Gaza, as well as 30 doctors and a humanitarian work brigade.

On January 14, Venezuela and Bolivia, both members of ALBA, broke off diplomatic relations with Israel. When Israel retaliated by expelling Venezuelan diplomats, president Hugo Chavez responded that “it is an honour for this socialist government and this revolutionary people to have our representatives expelled by a genocidal government such as Israel.”

Bolivia’s president, Evo Morales, announced that his country would formally indict Israel’s leaders for war crimes in the International Criminal Court. "They’ve made the world move backwards with crimes against humanity that we haven’t seen since Rwanda and Yugoslavia," he said.

On April 27 Venezuela and the Palestinian Authority established formal diplomatic relations and opened a Palestinian embassy in Caracas. Palestinian foreign minister Riyad al-Maliki said that the embassy would coordinate solidarity with Palestine across Latin America. A Palestinian embassy has functioned in Havana, Cuba for decades. (Cuba broke diplomatic relations with Israel in September 1973.)

Important struggles ahead

The BDS movement now includes its first national Jewish organization. At its first annual general meeting on June 14, the Independent Jewish Voices (Canada) overwhelmingly endorsed boycott, divestment and sanctions against Israel. IJV has chapters in seven Canadian cities.

Initiatives promoting an academic and cultural boycott of Israel have also won increasing support in the recent period, even in the face of fierce opposition.

Israel’s prestige and moral standing in the world has suffered a serious setback as a result of its barbaric attack on the besieged population of Gaza. The protests against Israel’s actions in many countries were unprecedented in their size and duration. New forces are joining the movement in solidarity with Palestine. As part of this process, the international campaign for boycott, divestment and sanctions against Israel is emerging as one of the most important ways to demonstrate this solidarity.

Art Young is a member of the Coalition Against Israeli Apartheid (CAIA) in Toronto. This is Part II of an article which will also appear in the U.K.-based magazine Socialist Resistance and is published here by permission.

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