Cristal farce may hide serious truth

There is something deeply surreal about the Moty Cristal affair. It would be comical if the principles involved were not so fundamental.

In May of this year, Mr Cristal, an Israeli conflict resolution expert and peace activist with a track record of negotiating at a high level with Jordanian and Palestinian officials, was due to speak at an NHS conference in Manchester to advise health service managers and trade union officials.

However, rather than listening to what their guest had to say, Unison decided to boycott the event on the grounds of Mr Cristal’s nationality.

A statement from a mystified Manchester Mental Health and Social Care Trust at the time captured the lunacy of the situation rather well: “The purpose of the proposed event was to improve working relations between management and the unions.

"Clearly, this aim would not have been achieved in the face of a Unison boycott, particularly as Professor Cristal was to be the only speaker.”

Afraid to provoke Unison in the middle of a dispute over pensions, Health Secretary Andrew Lansley refused to intervene. Now the Trust involved finds itself the subject of a legal claim by Mr Cristal, supported by the Jewish Leadership Council.

This case marks a serious escalation of the fight-back against the boycott, divestment and sanctions movement (BDS).

In this instance, the BDS movement has shown that it is not just pro-Palestinian, or opposed to the actions of the Israeli state, but actually prepared to boycott individuals for being Israeli. This is prejudice pure and simple.

Andrew Lansley shamefully tried to turn his back, but the Foreign Office is now directly involved following a meeting between the UK’s ambassador to Israel, Matthew Gould, and Mr Cristal last week.

The JLC has chosen well in fighting Moty Cristal’s corner. This is an important test case which will make trade unions and state bodies think twice before instigating arbitrary boycotts.

Senior figures within the community have long bemoaned the facility with which Israel’s opponents use so-called “lawfare” to close down debate via the libel laws or attempt to arrest politicians and military figures under “universal jurisdiction”.

Other signs that the fightback is gathering pace include the case of Ronnie Fraser, of Academic Friends of Israel, who is taking the UCU union to court over its rejection of a widely-accepted definition of antisemitism.

Meanwhile, traditional anti-Israel sentiment within the British trade union movement about Israel has been challenged by Professor Alan Johnson’s thoughtful and sophisticated Bicom/Trade Union Friends of Israel pamphlet on the Histadrut.

Clearly, it would be absurd to claim any great sea-change in the attitude of the wider labour movement towards the Israel-Palestinian conflict. The TUC remains locked into its relationship with the Palestine Solidarity Campaign and will debate a conference motion to send a delegation to Gaza.

Meanwhile, its relationship with Israeli trade unionists hangs by a thread. Unison’s actions over Moty Cristal have flushed out a serious truth about those within the BDS movement prepared to boycott Israelis per se.

Last updated: 10:39am, August 23 2012