Union Jacks and Jills and Jews

The TUC’s selective internationalism is in keeping with its history and with the art of empty gestures


By the time you read this, the 142nd meeting of the Trades Union Congress will have taken place in Manchester. These are troubled times for the trade-union movement. There are jobs to protect (not least in the public sector) and job-related benefits to be defended. The Labour Party - the creature (indeed the creation) of the trade unions - has recently suffered an electoral defeat, and is in consequent disarray. The brothers and sisters of the Labour movement are themselves divided over who to support as the party's new leader. Whoever that leader turns out to be will need all his or her diplomatic skills to reunite the party and fight for the issues the party faithful hold dear.

A glance at the TUC's Manchester agenda will confirm the movement's domestic preoccupations. But whatever you may think of the TUC you cannot accuse it of being inward-looking. Congress has always had an international outlook, and delegates have always offered the helping hand to members of the labouring classes in foreign parts, who do not enjoy the rights and privileges of their comrades in the UK.

Currently, the rights of trade unions are being trampled underfoot in (for example) China and Iran. Even where they are not being actively trampled on, these rights are subject to regulatory persecution in (for example) Cuba and Turkey. In many parts of the Muslim world, trade unions have no rights at all, and there is no such thing as collective bargaining. Throughout the Arab middle east, the exploitation of migrant workers long ago reached literally murderous proportions.

You might have expected these topics to have featured on the Manchester agenda. But I could find no reference to them. What I did find were two pages devoted to "Palestine" and the proposal for a boycott of goods originating from the Jewish state.

In my experience, most Israel boycotters are cerebral lightweights

I shall probably get into a certain amount of trouble saying this, but if I - a historian (God help me!) of British trade unions - do not say it, who will? The truth is that the proletarian left in Britain has always had a problem with things Jewish. Long before the TUC was thought of, the Chartists were fulminating against the Jews. During the great immigration of poor Jews (such as my grandparents and perhaps yours) to this country 120 years ago, the TUC happily passed resolutions asking for this unwelcome influx to be blocked.

The Webbs (Sidney and Beatrice), who were the principal drafters of Labour's 1918 constitution, were unashamed Jew-haters. "I can't understand why the Jews make such a fuss over a few dozen of their people killed in Palestine," Beatrice observed to Weizmann after the 1929 Hebron massacre. And dare I mention Ernie Bevin's utter contempt for Holocaust survivors?

So the TUC's obsession with the Jewish state comes as no surprise to me. In my experience, most Israel-boycotters are cerebral lightweights: rather than recognise and confront the underlying issues (such as the status accorded to Jews in Islam and the widespread denial of the right of Jews to self-determination) they take refuge in theatrically dramatic but frankly meaningless and usually self-defeating gestures.

There is no better place in which to observe this than in Israel itself, where a motley collection of intellectuals has hitched itself to one variant or the other of the boycott movement. Prominent among these is Dr Neve Gordon, a professor at Ben-Gurion university, Beersheba, who, in a notorious article in the Los Angeles Times last year damned Israel as "an apartheid state" and, "as an Israeli citizen," called on "foreign governments, regional authorities, international social movements, faith-based organisations, unions and citizens to suspend co-operation with Israel… [as]… the only way that Israel can be saved from itself."

A month ago, I wrote to Dr Gordon, offering to journey to his university and debate with him the issues of boycott and academic freedom. To my great sorrow, he declined this proposal, claiming that he was "not interested". But the good news is that I shall still be travelling to Beersheba where, next spring, the university authorities have generously agreed to permit me to lecture on these themes. Let's hope that Dr Gordon casts aside any shyness and forces himself to join my audience.

    Last updated: 2:18pm, September 16 2010