Wednesday, July 11, 2007

Palestine union and a tale of two websites

Israeli Soldiers “Trash” PGFTU Offices
report by: Palestine General Federation of Trade Unions (PGFTU)

The PGFTU condemned with strong words the attack against its branch in Ramallah by a group of Israeli soldiers on the night of the 5th of July, by breaking down the main door and spoiling everything inside, computers and files. Shaher Saed, the general secretary of the PGFTU, denounced this attack against the PGFTU office in Ramallah, considering it a crime and a violation of the union freedoms which are secured by the international conventions of the ILO. He added that the aim of this attack was to prevent us from performing our functions for Palestinian workers who are in great need of assistance at a time when they are facing high unemployment and poverty. Saed added that the attack is also considered as part of a series of violations committed by Israeli soldiers against our people and workers through the building of the illegal expansionist wall which will raise the levels of poverty and unemployment in the Palestinian society and through using more than five hundred military checkpoints in the West Bank which prevent freedom of movement and make it very difficult for them to earn their living. Saed appealed to all the international organizations; ILO, ITUC and all the PGFTU's friends and supporting organizations to condemn this attack against the PGFTU unions and to use pressure against the occupation government to stop their practices and to eliminate all the obstacles which prevent workers from freedom of movement and their right to work.

After reading this report on the Labournet website yesterday, I decided to see whether Labour start had anything about it, and found:
Palestine: ITUC protests over reported Israeli Army break-in at trade union offices
Brussels, 6 July 2007 : Acting on a report from its Palestinian affiliate the PGFTU, the ITUC has expressed its grave concerns over a break-in by members of the Israeli Defence Force at the PGFTU’s Ramallah offices early in the morning of 4 July. In a letter to Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, ITUC General Secretary Guy Ryder called on the Israeli authorities to conduct a full investigation into the soldiers’ actions, to compensate the PGFTU for damage done to the premises, and to return any information or documents taken from the offices.
“The ITUC attaches the highest importance to the inviolability of trade union premises, and deplores any intervention into the legitimate activities of a trade union organisation”, said Ryder. “The PGFTU must be allowed to carry out its legitimate work on behalf of Palestinian workers in full freedom and in the absence of any such interference in the future,” he added.

Slightly different approach - note that "reported" break-in -but at least it has covered the incident by quoting the statement from the International Trade Union Confederation.

The reason I wanted to check was not that I doubted what the PGFTU said (such vandalism by Israeli forces against Palestinian civil institutions is all too common), nor the reliability of Labournet. On the contrary. The value of electronic communications and the internet to trade union activity and international awareness continues growing. Eric Lee has been a pioneer in this development, and his efficient Labour Start service of news for trade unionists is widely appreciated. I have used some items relayed by e-mail myself. But I prefer Labournet, run by Greg Dropkin, for taking up broader political issues, being less tied to the official union bureaucracy, more open to rank and file activists (I've occasionally contributed news and views to it myself), and being better by far on the issue of Palestine.

OK, so I happen to share Greg Dropkin's interest, though not always his views. Having known him, mostly agreeing but sometimes arguing, over the years, on issues ranging from Namibia and Bosnia to Palestine, I regard him as a consistent internationalist. Whereas Eric Lee, however sincere, has a gap in his consciousness, to say the least. Some while ago I was asked to support a letter to Labour Start deploring its lack of coverage of Palestinian news and noting the bizarre fact that it carried a link to the Israeli Defence Forces. (Eric Lee had lived on a kibbutz and served in the Israeli military). I don't think I got around to signing, and since then I have if anything made more use of Labour Start. But I could sympathise with the critics, even if only shaking my head at Lee's peculiar affinities and perverse pride in his military service.

Since then Labour Start has started carrying more Palestinian stories and removed the IDF link. But this bow to critics did not prevent Lee writing an article last year saying that the Left should support Israel in its war on Lebanon.

Taking Liberties
At least you could say Eric Lee is honest. Which is more than you can say for a writer in the left-wing publication Workers Liberty. On May 30 it carried an item called "Boycott before the boycott", saying:
The Executive of the public services Unison has rejected a proposal from the relevant union committee to give money to the international trade-union news website Labourstart, on the grounds that one of the people involved in running Labourstart is a “Zionist”.
It is a sort of “boycott before the boycott”, a pre-emptive application of motion 54 to Unison conference, which proposes a boycott of all Israeli institutions.
Labourstart provides an unparalleled breadth of information on workers’ struggles and workers’ organisations worldwide, including in the Occupied Territories.
At the Executive no-one objected to Labourstart’s coverage. The objection was to its founding editor, Eric Lee. Eric is now only one of 79 contributors world-wide to Labourstart.
But - and that was enough to damn the whole project in the eyes of the Executive - Eric is a Zionist. He has been associated with left-Zionist parties in Israel such as Mapam and Meretz.
Nobody proposed checking out the other 78 Labourstart correspondents for their views.
The basic argument is that the union cannot support projects, however worthwhile, if the people running them are Jewish. Supporters of “boycotting” Labourstart will reply that the objection is not that people like Eric Lee are Jewish, but that they are “Zionists”. But to brand left Zionists like Eric as outside the range of people whom we can work with is to “boycott” almost all Jews around the world.

Really? But Greg Dropkin is, if I'm not mistaken, also Jewish, and nobody has suggested boycotting Labournet. In fact, Greg and several other Jewish people were signatories to that Open Letter criticising Labour Start which I referred to, and which the Workers Liberty "comrade" does not mention. One of the signatories, South African labour activist Anna Weekes, has angrily rebutted the Workers Liberty allegation and asked why it was trying to smear a major trade union with the "anti-Jewish" tag.

I think I could answer that, and make an intelligent guess about the authorship of the Workers Liberty slander. Almost 25 years ago I was involved in a clash with one Sean Matgamna over a major article he wrote in Workers Liberty's predecessor, Socialist Organiser, ostensibly accusing Gerry Healy and the Workers Revolutionary Party(WRP) of "antisemitism". Now Healy, about whom I've written before and will write again, was an all-round sonofabitch, and the WRP News Line had done many things wrong (sacking me, for a start!), but the issue was not really about "antisemitism". Along with its support for the Palestinians and (which proved a contradiction) certain Arab regimes, the WRP was influencing some people in the Labour Party. This was the time just after the 1982 Lebanon war when for the first time the Palestinian cause was gaining wide support in the British labour movement, reflected in Labour Party conference resolutions (of which in those days the Party leadership still took notice).

As a corollary, there was also some interest in the Israeli peace camp, which had staged much bigger protests against the Lebanon war than anything the British Left could manage over the Malvinas. There was even visible unrest among Israeli reserve army officers. But at the founding conference of the Labour Committee on Palestine(LCP), "rejectionists" who didn't like this turn or those supporting it walked out - and their attack on the LCP was supported (even if on different grounds) by Socialist Organiser. It was difficult to understand till you realised that the Socialist Organiser Alliance was itself undergoing a split in which Sean Matgamna outmanouvred erstwhile allies and the Middle East had been made an issue. Once that was accomplished he could come out in his true colours.

The cry has been raised 'Clear the Zionists out of the Labour Party', "claimed Sean Matgamna in his article that was supposed to be just about Healy but had a wider aim. "It can only mean clear out the Jews". Once again, that equation which from anyone else would itself be seen as antisemitic. And why isn't it?

I was taken aback by this. I had not heard anybody call for clearing anyone out of anywhere. I had written an article myself called "Labour's Zionist Lobby" in the WRP's Labour Review, the gist of which was Labour leaders like Harold Wilson were close to certain wealthy Zionists (and through them to the Zionist state itself), but that generally Labour support for Israel and Zionism was based on ideology and imperialist links, nothing to do with Jewish votes or influence. I checked with John Spencer, a longstanding WRP member and Middle East specialist. Had the party raised the slogan "Clear out the Zionists"? He looked flabbergasted. "No, the last thing we want is to get diverted into chasing after 'Zionists'". With the Palestinians gaining wide positive support it would clearly be a diversion.

Ironically, a few months after this, while standing talking to a friend after a May Day demonstration, we were approached by a stranger who apparently held pro-Zionist views, whereupon a bunch of people standing over to our left began chanting something about "Zionists Out of the Labour Party!"

"Who are those idiots?" asked my mate. Looking over, I recognised several people who had been Socialist Organiser allies in the walk-ou from the Labour Committee on Palestine.

I have learned to distrust the passive tense in political discourse. "The cry has been raised" - does not tell you who has raised it, but leaves you to suppose, so the person making the accusation can always say he meant somebody else when you call him a liar.

I have also grown tired of the clumsy slight of hand by which a political trickster thinks he can turn an attack on Zionists - an organised political movement supporting -and directed by - a state which is occupying Palestine -into an attack on Jews. Like Anna Weekes, I question the motive of those performing this jiggery pokery. But then when the smear is aimed at a union which happened to be adopting a pro-Palestinian policy, including the boycott tactic, I think the motive is pretty obvious. And it has nothing to do with supporting workers, or the cause of liberty.

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