John McGhee, FBU National Officer, spoke to Martin Thomas about the FBU’s “boycott Israel” motion to TUC Congress.
We’re glad there was debate at the TUC about Palestinian rights. But we think that the boycott of Israeli goods which the FBU motion proposed as its main practical measure would be counterproductive.
British unions could do a great deal in the way of positive solidarity through making links, rather than boycotting. For example, the RMT, when it had a policy of solidarity rather than boycott, organised a demonstration to protest against Israeli Railways’ treatment of Arab workers — a battle where the workers have so far been successful — and hosted a visit by an Israeli army refuser, Tamar Katz. It discussed giving support to the Workers’ Action Centre, a group in Israel which helps Israeli Arab workers. Isn’t that sort of activity better than a boycott?
We think that sort of activity would not be effective on its own. As a union, we’re involved in a number of solidarity activities. Later this month, and into November, we have eight firefighters coming from Nablus. We’ve made arrangements with the Scottish Goverment and two of the English Fire and Rescue Service authorities to provide practical training to them.
We have sent three delegations to visit Palestinian workers. On each occasion they have said that they wanted professional assistance in training for fire and rescue.
We’ve had discussions with the Palestinian unions, primarily through PGFTU [the Palestinian General Federation of Trade Unions]. We’ve raised the issue of boycott with them and they have been calling for us to support boycott. This is something which we believe is being pushed for by Palestinian workers.
What good reason is there to suppose a consumer boycott will have a big positive effect? The Arab states have been boycotting Israel for sixty years, and that hasn’t helped. Even the boycott of South Africa — where I think the issues were different — went on for a very long time without visible effect, and what actually changed things there was the movement inside South Africa.
It took some building for the boycott of South Africa to become effective, but it played its role in effecting change in South Africa. Boycotting goods from Israel puts them under considerable pressure.
Boycott from the Arab states doesn’t necessarily do that, because Israel’s target in terms of trade has not been the Arab countries. The pressure that the Western countries can put on Israel is considerable.
Of course Israel doesn’t trade with the Arab states, because it’s been subject to a boycott. But that boycott hasn’t produced progress.
It hasn’t produced progress because Israel continues to be able to trade with the West. I don’t think Israel is concerned about whether it can trade with the Arabs or not. They are certainly not interested in trading with the Palestinians. All they’re doing is stealing land and stealing goods from the Palestinians.
This sort of boycott activity has a long history of spilling over into anti-semitism. That has certainly been the case in the Arab states. In this country there is a history of student unions banning Jewish societies on the grounds that they would not renounce all links with Israel. That sort of thing is much more immediate than any positive effect of a boycott.
We’ve tried to work with a number of Israeli organisations. We haven’t called for cutting links with the Histadrut. We have written to the Histadrut asking them to give a position in terms of condemnation of what happened in Gaza in January. They produced a statement which pretty much supported the Israeli state’s attack on the people of Gaza, and that’s something which we can’t condone.
The minute that you criticise Israel as a state, you’re immediately labelled as anti-semitic. The Fire Brigades Union has a long history of fighting fascism and supporting Jewish rights. Our members defend communities against attack by fire. We have had no reports of anti-semitism by firefighters around the country.
I have Jewish family members who live in Israel. I’ve got family who are in the armed forces in Israel. I have the argument with them. Taking a stand against the Israeli state does not make you anti-semitic.
It seems to be the default position that when you try to take action against the Israeli state, you’re labelled anti-semitic. This is not about being anti-semitic. This is about trying to force the Israeli state to recognise the injustice that it is imposing on the Palestinian people in the Occupied Territories, including Gaza.
Everyone has condemned the continued building of settlements in the West Bank, and yet it is still going on. The settlements continue to grow. Criticise that, and you’re called anti-semitic.
But it’s quite possible to criticise Israel and oppose the boycott. Most of the Israeli activists who oppose the settlements and the Occupation don’t want a boycott. They want links with supporters abroad.
We’re not arguing for a boycott of Jews. We would not support boycotting student Jewish societies. It’s a boycott of Israel. Bear in mind that something like 40% of the population of Israel are Arabs...
Not 40%, I think. [In fact the figure is 20.6%.]
Anyway, there is a high percentage of Arabs in Israel. This is a boycott against the Israeli state, against the Israeli government who are continuing to support the land-grab and the oppression of the Palestinian people.
We believe that the time has come to put as much pressure as possible on the Israeli government in order for them to comply with UN resolutions and reach a peaceful settlement which allows for a two-state solution. We’re not arguing against the recognition of an Israeli state.
We’re saying that the Israeli state is not treating the Palestinian people properly and we need to deal with that before those two groups of people can live peacefully together. Supporting a boycott helps put them under pressure to deliver the changes that are needed.
Would you support the academic and cultural boycotts of Israel, which obviously are directed against Israelis as people?
We’re supporting a boycott of Israeli goods. That’s not a boycott of Jewish goods. There’s been discussion on the academic boycott, but yes, we’re calling for a boycott, an academic boycott, a sporting boycott.
But most of the people who fall foul of academic and cultural boycotts are Israeli opponents of Israeli government policy, because they tend to be the people most likely to want relations with left-wing or liberal or labour-movement people abroad...
The Israeli foreign minister argued around the time of the TUC that a boycott would only hit the poorest people in Israel, including the workers from the Occupied Territories who work in Israel. The workers in Palestine tell us that is nonsense, that life can’t be a lot worse for them. If we can put pressure on the Israeli state to bring about a peaceful solution, then that is what they will support.
We faced the same sort of argument from opponents of the boycott in South Africa, who kept on telling us that it was only affecting black people in South Africa. But in fact the boycott played its part in forcing change.
You’ve made the comparison with South Africa several times, but isn’t there an essential difference? You favour the right of the Israeli Jews, as a nation, to have their own country, whereas in South Africa it was a matter of a privileged social layer, the white minority, which we wanted to get rid of as a separate privileged group. And, over the years, a lot of the energy for the boycott policy has come from people who say Israel should have no right to exist, and there should simply be an Arab state in all of pre-1948 Palestine.
That is not the position of the Fire Brigades Union. The FBU supports a two-state solution. We work with the PGFTU, which also wants a two-state solution. We have no difficulty with recognising the state of Israel, but we would like Israel to recognise the state of Palestine. Of course there are differences with South Africa. We had a white minority in South Africa which set the laws and discriminated against a black majority. In Israel you could say you have a majority which is exerting pressure on a minority, and on a year-on-year basis are wiping out that minority, and moving them out of their own homelands. It may be much more difficult to get the sort of impact that was imposed on that white minority in South Africa. The pressure on the white minority in South Africa was perhaps a bit more instant, a bit easier to effect. But I think the idea is the same.
People have been very careful to see that the views they are expressing are not anti-semitic. They are about supporting the Palestinian people’s right to exist on their own lands, which the Israelis continue to occupy and continue to take more and more of.