The TUC Boycott or Oy Britainia!

About two lifetimes ago, when I was a journalist covering Margaret Thatcher’s third election victory in Great Britain, I remember tuning into the annual conference of the Trade Union Council (or TUC), the umbrella group which encompasses most of the British union movement (an even bigger tent than America’s AFL-CIO).

A vote was cast and the speaker announced the results: 6,453,211 for and 3,290,150 against (or something thereabouts). “That must be one big conference hall!” I said to someone, before they corrected their Yank, rube colleague by pointing out that it’s the union leaders who attend the conference and their votes are tallied as the vote of the entire union they represent. In theory, these leaders will only do what the membership wants, but in practice there is little to prevent a decision made on the floor of the TUC as being “voted on” by millions of workers who have never even been presented with the issue.

Thoughts of this structure came flooding back to me when I heard that the BDS crowd in the UK had finally, after several years of failed attempts, gotten the British Trade Union Council to pass some type of resolution supportive of a boycott of Israeli goods.

The vote was highly qualified, and only achieved after a huge amount of rancor and back-room politics, but it would be unfair to call this one a hoax, like the Hampshire College or TIAA-CREF frauds that have characterized most BDS “successes” this year. As I’ve mentioned before, Europe is different than the US with regard to support for divest-from-Israel projects (and attitudes towards the Arab-Israeli conflict in general). In fact, I’ve often wondered why calls for “even-handedness” in this conflict are always directed at countries (like the US) that are generally supportive of Israel, rather than nations or organizations (such as the UN) whose un-even-handed support for just one side of the conflict (and not the Israeli one) are never asked to budge in their beliefs.

Back to the TUC vote, this will no doubt be used by divestment activists around the world in the coming months as “proof” that British labor stands against Israel (with the corollary that other unions and similar institutions should do the same and boycott the Jewish state). And while those battling boycotts abroad can point to the qualified and non-binding nature of the TUC’s boycott call, we cannot make the case that BDS has not worked its way into TUC policy (at least between now and when the group meets again in twelve months).

In this respect, the TUC is not like Hampshire College (which BDS activists claimed was a supporter when it actually wasn’t). Rather, they resemble the Presbyterian Church in the US (PCUSA) which found itself making the same mistake just made by the TUC last week (Britain tending to follow American fashion trends about five years late).

Like the PCUSA, the TUC had divestment forced onto their agenda by a small, militant group (in this case the Fireman’s union of all people) with a partisan agenda, but no actual stake in the Middle East conflict. And like the PCUSA, they felt that a measure that included mild boycott recommendations represented a compromise between opposing request of the membership. Like PCUSA, they will soon be surprised that their efforts at compromise with single-issue radicals will be portrayed around the world as “the TUC agrees that Israel is an Apartheid state.” And like the PCUSA, they will have to deal with the anger of “comrades” (such as Britain’s Labor Party leadership and fellow unionists in Israel, the US and even Europe) over what they’ve done not to Israel, but to the labor movement.

It’s interesting that declining organization (such as the shrinking and aging Mainline Protestant churches or the struggling union movement in the UK) seem to be the ones that grasp at the Middle East conflict as a way to make themselves seem internationally relevant. For the truth is that these attempts to portray partisan hostility towards Israel as an example of solidarity (with fellow Christians or fellow union members) – while ignoring the plight of those same comrades in places like Egypt, Iran and Saudi Arabia (not to mention Gaza) – simply points out the hypocrisy and irrelevance of those who, like the TUC, managed to be tricked into thinking their deeply immoral position is an example of virtue.

BDS Countdown! – Be Still My Heart

According to their countdown clock, the 8th Annual Organizer’s Conference will be taking place in downtown Chicago in ten days, three hours and 43 minutes (whoops! make that 42 minutes). While the innocuous title is likely to have been chosen in the hope that the group won’t get thrown out of their venue before this gig begins on September 12, the Annual Organizer’s Conference promises to be THE place where the boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) “movement” targeting Israel will coordinate their activity for the year.

Scuttlebutt on campuses seems to indicate that BDS will be the chosen tactic for the “Israel is wrong about everything, always” crowd this academic year. In some ways, this is a pain (who wants to fight the same battles over and over again, after all). At the same time, it’s nice that Israel’s foes have chosen to revisit the only thing I know of that is more unpopular among the American public than Israel’s political rivals: the tactics of boycott, divestment and sanction.

Given how little the divest-niks have to show for themselves after eight years of trying to hijack respected institutions, the noise level at this year’s conference is sure to be high-decibel and shrill. After all, colleges and universities have already given divestment the heave-ho, and last year’s Hampshire hoax is not likely to endear the “movement” to college administrators. The closest the BDS crew got to success in cities and towns was five years ago in Somerville, MA, after which municipal leaders pretty much had their number. Despite boasts of union support, the US labor movement continues to rival Evangelical Christians in their devotion to the Jewish state. And speaking of Christians, the final holdouts among Mainline Churches calling for Israel divestment have spent the last two weeks reversing those positions by overwhelming majorities.

So where does that leave BDS in ’09? I could continue to make fun of their feeble attempts to turn normal business transactions (i.e., Motorola) or corporate presidents telling them to screw themselves (i.e., Caterpillar) into “victories,” but that misses a larger point that today BDS mostly represents a way for anti-Israel activists to create cohesion among themselves, a human-to-human “social network” of individuals blinded by their own self-righteous fury, impervious to any truths that contradict a vision of the world that is endlessly re-enforced by spending time only with the like-minded.

Of course, the last several years have taught us that the BDS crew does have one skill: the ability to turn even shallow victories (such as the Presbyterian Church’s two-year flirtation with divestment) into media-driven “momentum” that can require months or years agita to turn around. Still, while it’s always hard to pull an apathetic public into any political project, it’s particularly difficult when that project has proven to be as big a loser as divestment.

Anyway, it’s now ten days, three hours and twenty-eight minutes until those who know better than the rest of us gather in Chicago. If anyone is interested in attending and sending me back material I can broadcast, I’ll be happy to pick up the $35 entrance fee.

The Union Label

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).