There was nothing edifying about the sight of trade unionists fighting each other in Liverpool this week over an attempt by the Fire Brigades Union to introduce a boycott of Israeli goods .
Did no one tell the brothers there is a recession on?
Before Congress began, it seemed likely that the leadership would stitch up a deal to avoid passing a motion which would lock Britain’s trade union movement into an unprecedented hardline policy. But when Britain’s largest trade union, Unite, threw its weight behind Motion 76 together with the public sector union, Unison, it was obvious that the ground was shifting under those who had hoped for a compromise.
The reality is that the events in Liverpool marked a profound shift in the culture of the British trade union movement where Israel is concerned. As one senior activist put it to me: “Trade unionists in this country are no longer giving Israel the benefit of the doubt. Gaza put a stop to that and the continued building of settlements has hardened them in their view.”
Perhaps most significantly, Motion 76 called on the TUC to review its links with Histadrut, its Israeli counterpart, because of a statement supporting Operation Cast Lead in Gaza.
An amendment from the GMB union condemned Hamas as well as Israel and called for continued co-operation with Israeli trade unions, but remained highly critical.
It is easy to ridicule individual trade unions when they pass motions condemning regimes of which they disapprove. But this is different. The trade union movement as a whole, as represented by the TUC, remains a powerful voice nationally and internationally. What its members decide collectively has a real effect beyond the symbolic gestures of individual unions.
On one level there should be no surprise that delegates in Liverpool were seriously concerned about the actions of the Israeli military in Gaza.
But it is perverse to believe the correct response is to cut contact with the ordinary working men and women of Israel — at a time when solidarity is needed more than ever.