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/ 14 Teves, 5767
Israel's Next Battle: Labor unions
Abraham Cooper and Yitzchok Adlerstein
Life-saving medical equipment, standing in crates in Galveston, undelivered to waiting hospitals, because truckers refuse to handle Israeli cargo. Tons of Jaffa oranges, dumped into the waters off Long Beach, California, as a labor action against the Israeli 'occupation' gets out of hand.
These events have not occurred yet, but they are not merely part of a speculative doomsday scenario either. There are groups committed to make them happen, as a new front opens up in the war against the Jewish state. The shock troops have already taken their positions, in unions overseas and across America.
Labor unions were once among Israel's most important allies. In the spring of 1948, President Truman sustained intense pressure to vote against the United Nations partition plan that ultimately created the State of Israel. Having originally voted for partition in November 1947, Truman reversed US policy in March of 1948, after intense lobbying by British and Arab interests, and announced to the UN that it supported a trusteeship instead. On April 14th, fifty thousand garment workers packed Yankee Stadium to rally against the shift. Clark Clifford, Truman's advisor, produced a list of interest groups whose support was crucial to his presidential campaign. Jews ranked eighth, but labor placed second. Labor's support for the Jewish state was a force that Truman could not and did not ignore, turning a deaf ear to the entreaties of the Arabists in the State Department.
Labor's partnership with Israel began much earlier, with the American labor movement purchasing land in Palestine for Jewish workers, building trade schools, and lobbying the British to lift barriers against the emerging Jewish State through its clout with the British Labor Party. Jews at the helm of unions - Max Zaritsky, David Dubinsky, Sidney Hillman - agitated on behalf of the Jewish homeland succeeding in bringing non-Jewish colleagues on board, all the way to the top echelons of the AFL and CIO. In 1944, the CIO convention passed a resolution endorsing "the ultimate establishment of a Palestinian Jewish Commonwealth." The contribution of Organized Labor continued after the establishment of the State in May 1948, with the construction of housing and cultural centers in Israel funded by the AFL and CIO. United Auto Workers founder Walter Reuther was close with Golda Meir; at one point, the UAW may have been the largest institutional purchaser of Israel Bonds.
Naturally, the face of the Unions changed over the next decades, as the social and economic makeup of the labor force changed. To be sure, there is strong and steady support for Israel in many unions today, and the Jewish Labor Committee works to maintain that support. The makeup of both the rank and file as well as the politics of the unions has shifted, however. Other minorities have taken the places of Jewish laborers. Union political orientations always had progressive and socialist leanings, which today are bolstered by alliances with left-leaning and third world groups around the globe, many of whom regularly demonize Israel and the United States. Indeed, unions played a prominent role in the single largest hate-fest against Israel at the United Nations' World Conference Against Racism at Durban in August 2001.
The anti-Israel chants hardly stopped with Durban. Recently, the Ontario division of Canada's largest union, the Canadian Union of Public Employees, voted overwhelmingly to support an international campaign boycotting Israel. After the Danish General Workers Union (SiD) voted for a boycott of Israeli goods, Norway's largest labor organization, the Federation of Trade Unions (LO), called for a boycott of all Israeli products, despite the fact that LO has been a long-time supporter of Israel, and has ties with Israel's Labor Party. Calling Israel an "apartheid state" the Congress of South African Trade Unions (COSATU) demanded in July that the South African government drop diplomatic ties with Israel, and participate in a program of boycott and sanctions.
Here in the United States, union leadership has shifted its focus. Where they previously took an internationalist stance - and valued ties with union-friendly countries like Israel - they now often hunker down against the threat of globalism, and worry about basic survival on the local level. Today, individual union members are often disconnected from political posturing of their organizations about non-economic issues, half way around the world. These changes have left room for highly motivated, agendized extremists to fill the vacuum in committee positions, and assume disproportionate prominence. For many years, the progressive wing of the Democratic Party helped keep anti-Israel union extremists in check, but in recent years they have shown an unwillingness or inability to take a stand-up position.
We therefore shouldn't be surprised or view as an isolated incident when the Human Rights Committee of the United Teachers of Los Angeles (UTLA) agreed to host the launch of a campaign of boycott, divestment, and sanctions directed against Israel. The goal of this agenda - known as BDS, and the kingpin of the enunciated strategy of dozens of pro-Palestinian groups working in concert - is to cripple Israel's economy while propagandizing people to treat Israel as a racist, colonialist, apartheid state. The Los Angeles program was sponsored by the Movement for a Democratic Society (where former SDS members go when they are too old to be students any longer) and Café Intifada. Only the public outcry from Jewish organizations in Los Angeles forced the union to move the meeting off-site from its headquarters.
As Union rolls here in the United States swell with members of minority communities, anti-Israel forces waste no time forging alliances with those groups. Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, self-appointed visionary of a new socialist Latin America and bosom buddy of Iran's Ahmadinejad, blatantly tries to drive a wedge between working-class Americans and others by offering Citgo heating oil at reduced prices in Boston and the Bronx. When the Latino Congresso a national umbrella for Latino organizations met in Los Angeles, Chavez' representatives were highly visible on the program and in the crowd. We know that part of the declared strategy of anti-Israel groups is to infiltrate labor unions across America in an attempt to target Israeli goods.
All of these developments should serve as a wakeup call for supporters of Israel.
- First, if you are a member of any union, be informed about its human rights agenda. Find out what positions they take at the bully pulpit that your dues are funding. Don't allow well-organized extremists to speak in your union's name. When the UTLA story broke, union members sent a tidal wave of email overwhelmingly critical of the union hosting an anti-Israel event. Only active participation in the Union can prevent extremists from acting in stealth.
- Take union leaders to Israel. A well-planned trip to Israel - one in which visitors meet ordinary, dues-paying working Israelis- continues to be the single most effective way to get people to understand Israel's predicament and value her democracy.
- Communicate. So many Americans have simply never heard Israel's take on the events in the news. Nor do they understand the scope and depth of American Jewish commitment to Israel. We can't expect them to respect Israel's integrity and interests if we do not let them know how important they are to us.
- Not in our name. Every Palestinian agitprop presentation trots out a Jewish activist who hates Israel. The message they wish to convey is clear: American Jews are divided about Israel; taking a stance against her will not lead to undesirable consequences from the Jewish community. We must let America know that this is not true. Jewish Israel-haters are entitled to speak, but not for us. We should not let America think that they are anything but a small minority, swimming against the current of the overwhelming majority of American Jews. They must be moved to where they belong at the margins and fringes of the community, but not within our mainstream.
- As a case in point, consider Café Intifada, one of the sponsors of the event hosted by the UTLA Human Rights Committee. It is headed by Emma Rosenthal who is also a member of that committee. Rosenthal endorses the infamous International Solidarity Movement - which has refused to condemn "armed struggle" against Israel, and has aided terrorists on the group. Rosenthal also believes that antisemitism "is not much more than a century old, in reaction to the imperialist intentions of Zionists such as Herzl and Jabotinsky, and the terrorist activities of Jewish groups." Should Rosenthal and her ilk be treated as legitimate Jewish voices?
We must never concede that this piece's opening scenario as inevitable. We need not give up on the historic alliance between Unions and the Middle East's only democracy. Ultimately, however, which way the Unions go will depend on how well advocates for Israel connect her core values with those of Organized Labors' card-carrying constituency.
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Rabbi Abraham Cooper is the Associate Dean of the Simon Wiesenthal Center in Los Angeles. Rabbi Yitzchok Adlerstein serves as its Director of Interfaith Affairs. Comment by clicking here.