The Union Label

4 May

When divestment began to get its hooks into UK labor unions 5-6 years ago, local BDSers crowed that it would only be a matter of time before American labor took up their anti-Israel calls. “Good luck with that,” I recall thinking at the time, remembering my visit to AFL-CIO headquarters back in college where I was greeted in the lobby by a gigantic bronze statue of former Israeli Prime Minister Golda Meir.

Because of their self-image as warriors attacking Israel from the left-end of the political spectrum, the boycott brigade spends much time gnashing its teeth about the support the Jewish state receives from Evangelical Christians. Lost in this posing and positioning is the fact that there is one group even more dedicated to Israel’s success and survival than religious Christians: the US labor movement. The AFL-CIO continues to be the nation’s large holder of Israeli bonds, labor leaders are routinely on the speaker’s list at national and local pro-Israel events, and the missing variable explaining why both the Democratic and Republican parties remain equally supportive of the Jewish state is that both parties have key constituencies (unionized workers for the Democrats, Evangelicals for Republicans) solidly friendly to Israel.

The friendship between US labor and Israel is longstanding, dating back to the years when Israel’s founders (primarily Labor Zionists) created a nation devoted just as much to labor as to Zionist principles. The fact that the US union movement (unlike their equivalents in Europe) never succumbed to the lure of radical politics also immunized them from far-left influence once the Soviet Union decided to become the key sponsor of Israel’s foes in the propaganda wars that heated up in the 1960s and 70s. When US unions have briefly entered the divestment camp, they’ve tended to come from “alternative” professional unions (like the Lawyer’s Guild, a left-wing alternative to the more mainstream American Bar Association).

This brings up an interesting issue, given that divestment activity tends to also be strongest abroad among professional unions (notably academics, such as the British University and College Union or UCU) vs. traditional workers groups. While I’m no class warrior (given that I represent the middlest of the middle class myself), it’s hard not to notice that divestment (and anti-Israel agitation in general) tends to primarily be a bourgeois affair.

In a way this makes sense since radical politics in the 21st century tends to be strongest in middle class institutions (notably expensive universities or East and West Coast “high” Protestant churches). Noam Chomsky (a neighbor of mine in the Massachusetts suburbs), the late Edward Said (whose pro-Palestinian politics always took a back seat to his comfortable New York life), and the rest of the Israel-bashing professorate represent the ultimate example of the “bourgeois jihidi:” highly-paid, highly-comfortable loudmouths whose every utterance is protected behind the blast shield of tenure (a life employment deal that even the most powerful unionized American auto worker would envy).

Having more than a passing familiarity with the stability that the growth of a middle class brings to a society, I am in no way dissing the class into which I was brought up and where I firmly remain. And yet, having lived all my life in a middle class milieu, I also recognize that some of the worst ideas I’ve ever encountered (ranging from simply wrong-, to full-fledged dick-headed) tend to emanate from my fellow suburbanites. Perhaps the comfort we (or, more accurately, our predecessors) achieved gives many of us the free time or lack of perspective to demand others (such as Israelis) take risks that we would never think of putting ourselves (or our families) in. Or perhaps we have forgotten the lessons taught by those who came before us (like our grandparents who started the US labor movement), assuming instead that our current blessed state is something we achieved by our own righteousness, an amnesia that allows a small subset of us to dedicate its considerable free time to politics based on attacking those who would defend themselves, simply to work themselves into the ignorant self-righteous fury that is the alpha and omega of their political self image.

Clearly the labor movement in America, Israel, Europe or anywhere else in the world is startlingly different at the beginning of the 21st century than it was throughout most of the 20th. And yet even when faced with challenges and decline, even when tempted by those who still dangle revolutionary baubles in their faces, American labor continues to be part of the vast majority of Americans whose support for the Jewish state is deeply embedded in both their heads and hearts.

One of my favorite moments during a five-year battle against divestment took place at a meeting in City Hall at Somerville, MA where the aldermen were debating a municipal divestment motion. Along with various other pro- and anti- divestment speakers, the group that stood out consisted of a half-dozen burly pipe-fitters, carpenters and machinists from a local labor federation who expressed in the clearest possible words the monstrosity of the divestment resolution the city was debating. While I didn’t know it at the time, the jig was clearly up the moment the only people in the room who worked with their hands for a living told divestment advocates to stuff their resolution where the sun never shines (except perhaps on those nude beaches where divestment’s academic backers occasionally vacation during six- or twelve-month sabbatical breaks from work).

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