Monday, July 30, 2007

labor & boycotting Israel

Following efforts by British unions to boycott Israeli goods and imports, the Jewish newspaper Forward ran an editorial about the U.S. labor movement 's "angry rise in defense of the Jewish state."

I'm kind of conflicted here. Not because I support the boycott -- the ubiquitous amnesiac comparisons to South African anti-apartheid boycotts drive me crazy, and the strategy is flawed if not outright inhumane. No, I'm conflicted because on one hand, the editorial reminds readers (both Jewish and not) of how crucial a role Jews play in the labor movement, and how crucial a role unions play in creating the just and decent society envisioned in the Torah. On the other hand, the piece slides a little too effortlessly between generalizations about supporting Israel and generalizations about what constitute progressive values.

Here's what I liked about it:

It points out that left-wing doesn't necessarily mean anti-Israel, and that there's no reason for people who support Israeli sovereignty to make that assumption in dealing with the American left. These distinctions need to be made more often, because the kind of moral absolutism that informs leftist ideology encourages them (us?) to assume a consensus about who is and is not an "oppressor" or a "victim." I've certainly encountered the expectation that people in the labor movement should "support Palestine" and be angry at some amorphous combination of Zionism and Israel (it's never quite clear which). And I can't blame them for assuming we all agree on the Middle East, since most of the coalitions on the left rely on the same kinds of pre-established consensus: HMOs are bad, the Iraq war is a bloody, greedy mistake, corporations are anti-union, rich neighborhoods hate homeless people, etc. By the way, "supporting Palestine" among leftists usually means "opposing Israel," and, I'm equally disappointed to say, vice versa. So it's good to have the balancing viewpoint highlighted by the Forward, though the labor movement remains divided on this issue. Or, divided to the extent that anyone considers it during the normal course of his/her campaign work, which, I have to say, I hope for the sake of the near-50 million people living without health insurance is an extremely rare occurrence.

I loved the description of Jews in the labor movement, harkening back to the early days of the the
Forward and recalling just how many Jews lead America's unions. It's a good reminder that Jews in America are not uniformly wealthy, well-educated bankers, jewelers, economists, and professors -- we also "work for a living" and try to help others do the same. And obviously, it's rare for a major newspaper to refer to unions as "the single largest force for social justice and progressive values within American society." So that was nice to read.

Now what I didn't like so much:

Though the article stayed fairly clear of ideological issues in the Middle East conflict, it did present to the reader an subconscious (yet perhaps deliberate) conclusion, using a twist on the transitive property. If American labor is "pro-Israel," and American labor holds a truly progressive worldview, then true progressives should support Israel. After all, unions are the single largest force for social justice and progressive values in American society. If those progressive folks support Israel, you should too. Maybe that's a stretch, maybe not, but the editorial's narrative leads in that direction, and as I read it I wondered which of the articles subsidiary conclusions the Forward cares about the most, and what their aim was in writing an editorial that attempts to connect/unify pro-Israel and pro-union sentiments.

Personally, I don't believe that a truly progressive worldview -- one focused on the preservation of human rights, equality of opportunity, and a fair distribution of wealth throughout society -- would ever produce a pro/anti-type judgment on Middle East politics. In fact, the parts of the Jewish Labor Committee letter that appealed most to me were the paragraphs explaining why this kind of boycott doesn't work, and why the more humanitarian and rational course is to pro-actively support those organizations and leaders in both societies that are working towards peace and solidarity. Given the political volatility and addiction to violence that characterize discourse and action in the region, I'm increasingly of the opinion that a surge of progressive activity in the labor/social movements of both Israel and Palestine will be necessary to achieve any sustainable, enduring peace. And I wish the Forward had highlighted that aspect of the JLC statement a little more. As it was, the editorial kind of claimed the American labor movement for the pro-Israelites, which was neither accurate (I know 'cause I work in it), true to the JLC statement itself, or productive to the Jewish community's understanding of unions.

As for the deep connection between Jews and the labor movement, it always gratifies me to see that history preserved and (when appropriate) exalted. But, as the editorial rightly observes, that connection has frayed and somewhat disappeared over time. Now, I'm no expert on how the Jewish community makes decisions, or why it has evolved in the ways it has. I don't know enough Jewish history or have enough experience dealing with the most powerful Jewish institutions. But it doesn't seem to me that perceiving anti-Israel sentiment amongst unions would really explain why most Jews -- along with most Americans -- have little use for the labor movement.

The real reason is that most American Jews have embraced the American versions of capitalism, government, international trade, immigration, and neo-liberal economics. Our community has done well through those means, and with the exception of that progressive Jewish minority, we haven't done much to challenge them. So I'm very glad to see the
Forward arguing that "guaranteeing general welfare" and "dispensing equal justice" are/should be core Jewish values and points of connection with the labor movement, but most synagogues shrink from active political participation in the community, let alone the kind of courageously progressive stands that we need and expect from progressive organizations. Of course, the same could be said for the moribund sections of the labor movement. But it's worth pointing out that American unions haven't just "declined" due to their own inaction or obsolescence. They've been abandoned by the American people, Jews included.


Not a Flaneur, I Just Walk A lot said...

Alek, here's another related blog post i came across today I think you may find interesting.

I have no objection to boycotting Israeli goods. I think an academic boycott has no strategic value and is actually counterproductive, but i would like to see U.S. unions stop towing the same cold war lines they've been following since Taft Hartley and instead adopt some agressive, progressive international political agendas, including calling for an end to the occupation in Palestine.

But i think a discussion of the history of the labor moevemnt, whether or not it involves Jews' place in that movement, also has to deal frankly and critically with the problematic and troubled place of race in those histories and prompt a more critical working analysis of twentieth century Jewish history in this country by those of us Jewish people committed to struggling for social justice.

alek said...

I wrote a long thing about why a boycott of "Israeli goods" is non-strategic and inappropriate, but then I decided that I'm actually more ambivalent than I thought about this.

So I'll ask: Why are you all for it? Is the type of Israeli goods boycott promoted by Gush Shalom, various Muslim groups, and European unions legitimate and strategically sound? (I assume we want it to be). And if so, why?

How, in your view, does the boycott play out, or how does it contribute to the ultimate objectives for change in Israel/Palestine? I assume that the ultimate objective is different from the immediate result -- economic withdrawal from those who produce Israeli goods -- so what is it and how does the boycott get us there?

As I said, I see a few problems with how this boycott has been articulated and strategically conceived, especially in the relationship between the vaguely-defined immediate targets of pressure and the vaguely-defined ultimate objectives. But rather than go into them, I'm curious how you would characterize the whole thing.

I'm open to persuasion on this, since I do believe that military and diplomatic solutions are continuing to prove inadequate and destructive. I would like to see large-scale political and economic action towards peace, but that requires a thorough analysis of who holds power, what we want them to do, and how we get them to do it.

If that's too tall an order for this humble comment thread, maybe you (or someone else reading) can point me towards some good arguments supporting an Israeli goods boycott. That would be great too.

Not a Flaneur, I Just Walk A lot said...

I'm wary of facile comparisons between South Africa and the middle east, but i think a boycott of Israeli goods is strategic because it does the same kinds of things that the south africa boycott mike morand fought so staunchly for did in the 80s, which is to say it's a way to call attention to the gross human rights violations involved in Israeli occupation of the west bank and entanglements in the north, as well as the gross injustice of the "security fence" as land grab and as "apartheid wall."

There are aspects of a goods boycott which also give me pause - the easy slippage in the U.S. between opposition to israel and certain strains opf anti-semitism, which people like Larry Summers and Abe Foxman then cynically turn around and try to claim renders all anti-zionism as de-facto anti-semitism.

An economic boycott is clearly not enough on its own, because the main target has to be the state and the military, but I think if it's done well, it helps demonstrate to the israeli citizens who serve in the military and vote for the Sharons and Olmerts and Baraks the moral urgency of peace. I'm not familiar enough with currently circulating boycott calls to decide whether i think they're viable, but in principle i think a goods boycott can be strategically useful here.

alek said...

That's a good explanation. One issue I'm struggling with is legitimacy. Obviously, the call for a boycott can come from anywhere, and its use as a strategic tool can't be confined to situations where there's been a democratic/consensus decision by some certified body representing "the oppressed." Nothing about boycotts, economics, or politics is that simple. However, the sheer scope of the damage that can be done through economic withdrawal seems to beg for some assurance of legitimacy and strategic analysis. In the case of the South African boycott, I understand that there was a clear call from the ANC leadership for boycott/divestment from the country -- which to me shows that they had accepted the sacrifice, and had strategically decided that the economic withdrawal would "hurt" the people it needed to hurt for their campaign to succeed.

I share your view that goods boycotts can be strategically useful, provided they're strategically pursued. The South African example offers strong evidence that non-targeted, "blanket" goods boycotts can be strategically useful, but I don't know if that same strategy travels well to the Middle Eastern conflict.

Like you, I don't have a great deal of familiarity with the Boycott Israel campaigns, but I haven't seen much to establish legitimacy or strategy therein. I don't know how representative the folks calling for a boycott are of the people who'd be affected. And, if a boycott's not gonna be representative (like when we boycott non-union establishments without worker authorization), you want to see that those calling for it have a strategic vision for how the damage done translates into pressure. For that reason, I'd prefer to see a targeted boycott of particular companies, but I think that the situation there makes targeting extremely difficult. The truth is, that the Boycott Israel campaigns are intended to create the threat and/or reality of economic hardship for everyone in Israel who's in some way connected with foreign investment -- which a pretty broad sector of the population, I believe. I don't doubt that, if successful, a blanket boycott on Israeli goods would produce a social and economic crisis. What's left unclear is what kind of crisis that would be, what would be its result, and what vision for the region would emerge out of it.

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