American Labor Can Help Right Anti-Israel Left

Opinion

By Stuart Appelbaum

Published March 27, 2008, issue of April 04, 2008.
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For more than two years, Israelis living in Sderot and other towns near Gaza have been the target of choice for Hamas terrorists. Launching its arsenal of Qassam rockets from residential neighborhoods and even schoolyards, they have as much as dared Israel to fight back. Now it has.

Predictably, much of the world is expressing its dismay — and those of us who call ourselves progressives are fuming that much of it is coming from our counterparts on the left overseas. However, it’s not enough for us to be indignant. Absent the involvement of the American labor movement, any effort to build worldwide support on the left for the Jewish state will be extraordinary difficult.

To grasp the enormity of the challenge facing Israel’s friends on the left, one need only look at the Socialist International’s condemnation last month of “the excessive use of force by Israel in Gaza.” The umbrella body of social democratic, socialist and labor parties went on to point out that it has “consistently denounced the attacks against Israel coming from Gaza as well as the incursions into Gaza by Israel, for both serve only to worsen the cycles of violence that in the end harm innocent people the most.”

Of course, those who have even a passing familiarity with Hamas understand that their raison d’etre is the creation of a chain of violence and retribution. Suggesting that Israel and Hamas are both to blame for the bloodshed in Gaza is akin to saying that the would-be victim who fights off a mugger bears equal responsibility for the violence as the assailant.

Statements like the Socialist International’s, however, are salutary compared to some of the venom generated by the left abroad.

For example, Australia’s Construction Forestry Mining and Energy Union and the Maritime Union of Australia joined forces recently to condemn a parliamentary resolution congratulating Israel on its 60 years of statehood . Their words speak for themselves: “We, as informed and concerned Australians, choose to disassociate ourselves from a celebration of the triumph of racism and the ethnic cleansing of Palestinians since the al-Nakba (Catastrophe) of 1948.”

Why do voices that so often cry out for social justice serve up these kinds of diatribes against Israel? Why do they hold Israel to standards that no other nation in the world would ever be expected to meet? And why do so many of them claim that, in the final analysis, Israel is responsible for everything Hamas does or will do?

It is the triumph of instinct over intellect, and one can only conclude that, at least in part, what we are increasingly witnessing on the left overseas is antisemitism cloaked under the veil of anti-Zionism.

Why, then, has this worldview remained so marginal among American progressives? After all, no serious contender for this year’s Democratic presidential nomination has offered anything less than total support for Israel.

The answer may be found in the labor movement.

Faced with an alarming growth of anti-Israel boycotts and divestment efforts among unions across the United Kingdom, last year the Jewish Labor Committee launched an aggressive campaign to protest the move by British labor leaders. In the space of two weeks, every major American union had endorsed the effort. In fact, the show of American labor opposition to Israel-bashing was so strong that unions in Germany followed our lead and took a similar stance.

The leadership demonstrated by America’s unions last year ought to send a powerful message to Israel’s allies at home and overseas.

First, it should remind American Jewish leaders that they have a vital stake in building and maintaining a strong alliance with organized labor. This is particularly true now that Israel’s conservative Republican supporters are in the minority on Capitol Hill and seem well on their way to losing the White House. By this time next year it will likely be far more important for Jewish leaders to have a working relationship Change to Win’s Anna Burger and the AFL-CIO’s John Sweeney than with Pat Robertson, John Hagee and others on the right.

Second, it ought to embolden Israel’s supporters in foreign unions and encourage them to make their voices heard. As German activists demonstrated, American leadership is fundamental to challenging Israel bashing within the labor movement globally — and there can be no effective campaign to build support for Israel on the left internationally absent labor support.

Historically, American progressives have been bit players in the global left. Some might say that our biggest contribution was creating May Day.

However, the continuing assault against Israel by the left in other countries demands that we make our voices heard. With the support of the American labor movement we can. I know this much: We owe it to the families living in Sderot to try.

Stuart Appelbaum is president of the Jewish Labor Committee and of the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union.


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