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Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs
Strategic Alliances for a Secure, Connected, and Prosperous Region

Trade Union and Other Boycotts of Israel in Great Britain and Ireland

Filed under: Antisemitism, Europe and Israel, International Law, Israel, World Jewry
Publication: Post-Holocaust and Anti-Semitism

No. 76,

  • The United Kingdom more than any other country in the world has embraced the Palestinian call for academic, trade union, media, medical, architectural, and cultural boycotts of Israel. The driving force for this campaign is Britain’s trade union movement and its anti-Zionist activists on the far Left, such as the Socialist Workers Party (SWP).
  • The Palestine Solidarity Campaign (PSC) actively works for a general boycott of Israeli goods as well as a cultural and sports boycott of Israel and has forged links with the far Left and the unions to publicize their cause. All the major UK trade unions are affiliated with the PSC and several of them actively promote PSC policies and literature.
  • In Ireland as in Britain, the most prominent supporters of the Ireland Palestine Solidarity Campaign (IPSC) are the academics and the trade union movement. The call for a boycott of Israel has been endorsed by the Irish Congress of Trade Unions (ICTU); IMPACT, the largest public-sector union in the Republic of Ireland; and the Northern Ireland Public Service Alliance (NIPSA), the largest public-sector union in Northern Ireland.Israel is a soft target in Ireland as there is very little organized opposition to the boycott calls.
  • An agreement between the Histadrut and the Palestinian General Federation of Trade Unions (PGFTU) may help ease the tension. It aims to protect the rights of Palestinians working for Israeli employers and to base future relations on negotiations and dialogue.

The United Kingdom more than any other country in the world has embraced the Palestinian call for academic, trade union, media, medical, architectural, and cultural boycotts of Israel.[1] The current status and history of the academic boycott have been well documented,[2] and this essay focuses on the other British boycott calls as well as Irish boycott activity. The driving force for the campaign is Britain’s trade union movement and its anti-Zionist activists on the far Left, such as the Socialist Workers Party (SWP).

None of the boycott campaigns have yet succeeded in gaining mainstream support. Yet, in terms of international policy for trade unions or professional bodies, these campaigns have created an atmosphere in which Israelis-whether they are academics, trade unionists, or professionals such as doctors or architects-can easily be shunned, with possible negative implications for trade, cooperation, research funding, and invitations to conferences. This has also affected Jewish and non-Jewish union members who are opposed to boycotts by creating an atmosphere of discrimination against Jews and Israelis. That atmosphere has been most pronounced in the academic boycott campaign of the University and College Union (UCU), which has resulted in many members resigning from the UCU.[3]

The Palestine Solidarity Campaign (PSC) in Britain has understood this and in recent years has employed a fulltime trade union organizer to forge links with the unions and publicize their cause. As a result, many of the resolutions passed at union annual conferences use similar wording and rhetoric. The far Left and their partners in the PSC are not concerned that a boycott may not be effective, but seek the publicity value of yet another union decision to boycott Israel. Their campaign, which depends on media coverage, aims at continually telling the world to boycott Israel and that Israel is a racist apartheid state so that eventually people will believe this. The PSC is part of the worldwide boycott, sanctions, and divestment movement, which is not concerned with reasoned criticism or debate on Israeli policy but, rather, with the state’s delegitimization.

As a consequence of their links with the PSC, many of the unions have direct contact with their Palestinian counterparts. Far fewer, however, have any real contact with the Israeli trade union movement, the Histadrut. This survey concentrates on groups supporting an Israeli boycott as well as union resolutions to boycott Israeli goods or services. It does not deal with the many trade union motions passed since 2002 that solely address Israeli actions toward the Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza, the settlements, the security barrier, Palestinian refugees, or the right of return.

The Trade Union Movement

The British trade union movement, which is the oldest and most respected in the world, has a long historical tradition of providing solidarity with any cause in the world where a trade union or working people find themselves under threat. The boycott movement has won much support in Britain because the British unions are more organized than in the United States or Western Europe and they allow the activists, many of them left-wing, to decide their policies. Other reasons include the linkage of Israel with Britain’s colonial empire, guilt over the Balfour Declaration, and Britain’s longtime support for the Arab nations of the Middle East.

The Left’s support for the Palestinian independence movement began during the 1960s and was complete by the time of the First Lebanon War in 1982. This in turn has led to outspoken criticism of Israel by the trade union movement, which sometimes has crossed the line into anti-Semitism. Many left-wing union members who support a boycott of Israel deny the existence of anti-Semitism from the Left or the Middle East, believing instead that anti-Semitism only exists on the Right. They also reject many of the recommendations of the UK’s All-Party Parliamentary Committee Inquiry into Anti-Semitism.[4]

In 1982, nearly thirty-five years of often unquestioned British trade union support for a Jewish homeland in Palestine and for the Histadrut came to an end when the Trades Union Congress (TUC), the umbrella body for Britain’s trade unions, passed its first-ever resolution critical of Israel, which also recognized the Palestinian people’s right to self-determination.[5] This was the turning point for the UK trade union movement; subsequently most of the unions have given their support to the Palestinian people rather than Israel. Since the 1980s many unions have sent delegations to the “occupied” territories and have passed resolutions highly critical of Israeli actions there. Yet at the same time there has only been limited criticism of Palestinian actions.

The unions’ current willingness to pass boycott resolutions contrasts with the TUC’s attitude in 1982. At that time the Transport and General Workers Union (TGWU) proposed a boycott of Israeli aircraft and shipping until all Israeli forces were withdrawn from Lebanon. The TUC decided not to support the call because, though it had occasionally supported international boycotts in pursuit of trade union and overseas objectives, it had never done so for a political purpose.[6]

The British Labour Party

The British Labour Party was established in 1900 as the political wing of the trade union movement in order to protect workers’ rights through political action. In return the unions supported Labour financially and were able to control its policies for the next seventy years through the block voting system at the party’s conferences. The unions’ power and influence within Labour was eventually curbed by Tony Blair, who moved the party away from its socialist roots and into the political Center. This change in status, along with the unions’ current inability to successfully look after their members’ interests, led the unions as well as some left-wing activists to look elsewhere for issues where they could make a difference. The two issues where they have focused their energies are globalization and the Middle East conflict.

Although the trade unions no longer have the sort of political clout and influence they had in the 1940s and 1950s, they are still important in today’s Britain because they represent 6.5 million workers and are involved internationally in bodies such as Education International or the International Trade Union Confederation. The work of groups like the Trade Union Friends of Israel (TUFI) is vital because they publicize the activity of the Histadrut as well as Palestinian-Israeli union cooperation, which often involves UK unions.[7]

The PSC campaigns for a general boycott of Israeli goods as well as a cultural and sports boycott of Israel.[8] All the major UK trade unions are affiliated with the PSC and are members of the PSC’s Trade Union Advisory Committee. Affiliating with the PSC does not commit the unions to unquestioned support for all PSC policies as some unions favor a two-state solution, but they are all committed to some extent to promoting PSC policies and literature.[9] Most of the trade unions and their leadership, however, do not want their unions to suffer similar problems to those of the UCU, which may face legal action over possible infringement of UK discrimination legislation by its academic boycott campaign.[10]

Instead they have gone out of their way not to pass boycott motions as such but instead affiliate to the PSC and promote PSC policies that include boycott and divestment. This is effectively a backdoor endorsement of the boycott strategy. Many senior union officials are aware of this arrangement, which allows them to work with the Histadrut and the Palestinian General Federation of Trade Unions (PGFTU) while at the same time supporting the PSC.[11] The 2008 motion on Palestine by the clerical union TSSA is typical of this trend toward boycotts as it calls on the TUC to organize a boycott of Israeli goods.[12]

The PGFTU has welcomed the support and solidarity shown by British trade unions and asked that activity such as boycott campaigning should focus on the occupation and the sustaining of the occupation. The PGFTU has specifically suggested focusing on the arms trade and on those companies that have been involved in building the security barrier, the checkpoints, and the “settler-only” roads, and that this could be coupled with boycotting Israeli goods produced in the West Bank.[13]

However, according to TUFI, the Histadrut and the PGFTU are involved in many mutually supportive activities. The Histadrut’s 2007 annual congress included an official PGFTU delegation that affirmed its commitment to maintain and extend constructive relations with the Histadrut. They also declared their wish to cooperate in campaigns to improve the economic and social wellbeing of both Israeli and Palestinian working people.[14]

Trade Union Activity

The TUC, which is the umbrella body for the British trade union movement, has in recent years pursued a policy of working with both the Histadrut and the PGFTU while at the same time encouraging unions to affiliate with the PSC.[15] Since 2002 many UK unions have been highly critical of Israeli policies, but before 2007 with the exception of the academic unions they rarely called for direct action or anything other than a general boycott of Israel. In 2007, however, the journalists union (NUJ), the transport workers union (TGWU),[16] and Unison, Britain’s largest union, all passed boycott resolutions.

The NUJ voted at its annual meeting in April 2007 for a boycott of Israeli goods as part of a protest against the 2006 war in Lebanon.[17] Three months after the initial vote and under pressure from many journalists including several at the BBC, the NUJ Executive Council committed the union to continuing to work with Israeli journalists unions and stated it would take no action on the boycott motion.[18] The motion was formally overturned by an overwhelming majority at the NUJ’s 2008 conference.[19]

Unison Ignores Fresh Calls for a Boycott

Unison supports and funds trade union projects in many parts of the world.  Along with the lecturers union NATFHE, Unison has supported the Palestinian trade union movement and the PGFTU since the 1980s. Its current work includes the training of Palestinian trade union officials and the development of an education pack designed for UK trade union members that explains why Palestine is a trade union issue. This work has the full support of Unison’s leadership and is led by them rather than by the activists as in other unions. As a consequence Unison does not have a boycott policy; they acknowledge that they neither have the power to enforce a boycott nor the ability to adopt one especially as a boycott would be divisive among their membership. They do, however, support a two-state solution and generally follow PGFTU advice.[20]

Since 2002 Unison has adopted a series of resolutions at its annual conferences that have included calls for an arms embargo on Israel, for Israel to withdraw to its 1949 borders while allowing the 1948 refugees to return, for the demolition of the security barrier, and for the removal of all West Bank settlements. Their 2007 motion states that “ending the occupation demands concerted and sustained pressure upon Israel including an economic, cultural, academic and sporting boycott.”[21] Shortly thereafter Unison’s general secretary wrote to the Histadrut to say the motion was not really a boycott motion and hopefully they could continue to work together in the future.[22]

At its next conference in 2008, Unison adopted a composite motion supported by 65 percent of the delegates that did not include a boycott call but instead instructed their leadership to continue working with both the PGFTU and the Histadrut to promote civil society, dialogue, and the peace process. The resolution also called on the union to give the PSC maximum publicity and support and raise the issue of Palestine with unions abroad and the global and European trade union federations to which Unison is affiliated.[23]

The UK transport unions including Unison are aware of and support the work of the International Transport Workers’ Federation (ITF), which in June 2007 hosted a number of meetings between the Histadrut and the PGFTU that have improved the passage of lorry drivers at West Bank checkpoints and roadblocks.[24]

RMT Abandons Boycott Policy, GMB Adopts Balanced Resolution

The realization that boycotts do not help the Palestinians has been reflected in the actions of both the Rail and Maritime Transport Union (RMT) and the GMB, the general workers union.

At its 2008 annual general meeting, the RMT voted by a two-thirds majority for a two-state, prosolidarity, antiboycott, anti-Hamas position on Israel/Palestine, overturning existing proboycott policy. The motion rejected “passive and divisive tactics such as boycotts,” which it called “inconsistent with the principles of unity and solidarity between workers that our union stands for and wishes to promote.”       

The GMB does not have a policy on boycotts, never having voted on the issue. In 2008 the GMB’s annual congress passed a motion calling on the union to actively campaign to relieve the “desperate suffering” in the Gaza Strip as well as demanding that the “ruling leadership of Hamas act decisively to prevent further Qassam rocket and mortar attacks being launched from within Gaza against civilians targets within Israel.”[25]

The Scottish TUC

The Scottish TUC (STUC) has since 2001 been very critical of Israeli actions toward the Palestinians and in 2002 called for a temporary boycott of Israeli goods and services until Israel complied with UN resolutions.[26] As a result of the call made at the 2007 conference to explore the issue of boycott, disinvestment, and sanctions (BDS) against Israel, the STUC General Council has begun a process to consider the implications and practicalities of such a move. A motion calling for a boycott of Israeli goods was remitted at the 2008 conference because the General Council argued that, as there had been no clear call for a boycott by the PGFTU, the STUC needed to investigate the situation further and continue working with its Palestinian and Israeli counterparts. In addition, it is currently organizing a delegation to Israel and the Palestinian territories.[27]

Boycott Calls in Ireland

Irish attitudes toward Israel are not straightforward.

In Irish politics sympathies are very much with the Palestinians…. Yet Irish politicians are pragmatic. Many believe that Israel has much to offer their country in the economic field and thus think Ireland should not burn its bridges with it. Moreover, Irish politicians would not be willing to break ranks with the EU and adopt a tougher position on Israel than its European partners.[28]

The Irish gave the English language the word boycott when in 1880 the Irish Land League successfully called on the Irish farmers to ostracize Captain Charles Boycott, an English land agent. Since that time boycotts have been used as a strategy to try and force change, and the British trade union movement was one of the main supporters of the boycott movement against South Africa in the 1980s.

In Ireland as in Britain, the most prominent supporters of the Irish Palestine Solidarity Campaign (IPSC) are the academics and the trade union movement. The similarity does not end there; many of the activists in both the Republic and Northern Ireland are on the far Left with several involved with both the unions and the IPSC. The call to boycott Israel has been endorsed by the Irish Congress of Trade Unions (ITUC); IMPACT, the largest public-sector union in the Republic of Ireland; and the Northern Ireland Public Service Alliance (NIPSA), the largest public-sector union in Northern Ireland.

At its 2007 annual conference, NIPSA unanimously passed five motions on Palestine. These claimed it was “outrageous that the Palestinian people should be forced to recognize as legitimate” an Israeli state that had defied numerous UN resolutions, and that Israeli policies were akin to those of apartheid South Africa. NIPSA also called for divestment from Israeli companies and a boycott of Israeli goods and services. Its counterpart in the Republic, IMPACT, passed two similar motions at its 2008 biennial conference.

The Irish Congress of Trade Unions (ICTU) is a unique organization in the British Isles as it is the umbrella body for fifty-five trade unions in both the Republic and Northern Ireland. At its 2005 biennial conference, the ICTU committed itself to “campaign in solidarity with the Palestinian people.”[29] The next biennial conference, in 2007, approved two motions proposed by the Belfast Trades Council and by the Derry Trades Council that were highly critical of Israeli actions toward the Palestinians.[30] They committed the union to a series of measures, one of which was an ICTU delegation’s visit to Israel/Palestine in November 2007. Their fifty-two-page report on the visit recommended supporting and promoting a “boycott campaign of Israeli goods and services and a policy of disinvestment from Israeli companies…in order to encourage Israeli compliance with International Law and to cease its violation of the human rights of the Palestinian people.” The critical stance was not surprising as the delegation included the leaders of the ICTU, Impact, and NIPSA as well as two IPSC representatives.[31]

Israel is a soft target in Ireland as there is very little organized opposition to the boycott calls.  Individual trade unionists, academics, and members of the Jewish community write to the newspapers, but overall the small Irish Jewish community has a policy of keeping quiet.[32] It is a very similar situation to that in Britain six years ago when the boycott calls first surfaced. Britain’s TUFI helps Irish trade unionists wherever possible as there is no similar body in Ireland. As in Britain where the call for an academic boycott of Israel has been abandoned at the moment because of concerns that a boycott may violate discrimination and equal-opportunities legislation, a similar situation may also apply in Ireland as Northern Ireland is part of the United Kingdom.

The Architects’ Boycott

A group called Architects and Planners for Justice in Palestine (APJP), which included prominent architect Lord Rogers and the architectural critic Charles Jenckes, met for the first time in February 2006. The meeting discussed boycotting Israel and targeting Israeli-made construction materials, Israeli architects, and construction companies. The group issued a call for an economic boycott of Israel’s construction industry in protest of the building of Israeli settlements and the separation barrier.[33] Shortly afterward, as a result of pressure from the United States, Lord Rogers dissociated himself from the APJP.[34]

Since 2006 the APJP, which receives regular exposure in the UK architectural press, has placed an advertisement in The Times calling on the Israeli Architects Association to end their participation in the building of settlements.[35] It also presented a petition to the Venice Biennale art exhibition to protest the inclusion of the display “Life Saver: Typology of Commemoration in Israel.”[36] In 2008 the APJP attempted unsuccessfully to persuade the International Union of Architects to expel the Israeli Architects Association.[37]

A Cultural Boycott

The current Palestinian cultural boycott campaign is inspired by the 1980s cultural boycott of South Africa when musicians and artists from around the world were discouraged from performing there. The PSC regularly publishes open letters to musicians and artists asking them not to perform in Israel and uses its worldwide connections and the Internet to publicize its efforts; most recently it failed to persuade Paul McCartney not to perform in Israel.[38]  Previously in December 2006, ninety-six authors, filmmakers, musicians, and performers published a letter in The Guardian calling for a cultural boycott of Israel.[39]

The Medical Boycott

The medical campaign has its origins in the First Intifada. Its main support comes from the field of psychiatry and it is led by psychiatrist Derek Summerfield, who has published a number of articles and letters in the British Medical Journal (BMJ) charging Israel with war crimes. The medical campaign is not a boycott call as such but accuses Israeli physicians of complicity in the use of torture against Palestinian prisoners. This is similar to the charges of complicity against Israeli academics to justify the academic boycott call. The medical campaign also focuses on the humanitarian crisis in the territories, which also affects medical care for the Palestinians.

There have been several unsuccessful attempts to have the Israeli Medical Association banned from the World Medical Association.[40] Although this boycott campaign, like others, is supported by the PSC, it has never had the worldwide impact of others such as the academic boycott. It is limited to the medical world where Summerfield and his colleagues regularly hold events in the UK and publish articles and letters in The Lancet [41] and The Guardian as well as BMJ.[42]

In July 2007 BMJ held an online poll and debate on the question “Should we consider a boycott of Israeli academic institutions?” Tom Hickey of the SWP and proposer of the academic boycott was asked to make the case for a boycott of Israeli physicians and Michael Baum, professor emeritus of surgery at University College London made the case against. The proposal was soundly defeated with 93 percent of the 8500 votes cast opposing a boycott.[43]

The Future

Supporting a boycott of Israel is often a token gesture that does not involve any effort or commitment, especially if like the majority of union members one does not have any direct contact with Israel. However, the trade union movement by promoting a boycott of Israel could find themselves in the position of the UCU, which found out that by actively promoting a boycott they could be liable under discrimination legislation. It is much easier for a union to pass a general motion condemning Israel or expressing support for the Palestinians, which are symbolic gestures.

If the unions really want to help the Palestinians, though, they can do so in much cheaper and more practical ways as some unions have already discovered. Some unions such as Unison have already realized that there is no point in pursuing a boycott policy if it does not help the Palestinians or does not have the support of the PGFTU. It is, however, clear that whereas the unions welcome input from groups such as the PSC, they are not inclined to involve either the Histadrut or TUFI, restricting their contact with the Histadrut to union-related issues. Although the National Union of Teachers has been highly critical of Israel’s actions in the past, they are currently working on separate projects with both the Palestinian Teachers Union and the Israeli Teachers Union (ITU). Their work with the ITU involves joint meetings of teachers from the UK and Israel and developing materials for teachers in relation to anti-Semitism and Islamophobia.

In any case, the British trade union movement remains the driving force behind the British obsession with boycotting Israel. Being affiliated to the PSC they actively promote PSC boycotts, divestments, and sanctions policies. If the unions can be persuaded that boycotts will not work, are counterproductive, and harm the chances of peace and reconciliation, then the British obsession with boycotts should diminish and the unions will adopt other causes. Argumentation against boycotts should, however, be planned in terms of the legitimacy and legality of a boycott. Since there are no calls for professionals in other countries to be boycotted, it is up to those favoring a boycott to prove beyond doubt that Israel is more blameworthy than any other country and that a boycott would promote peace in the Middle East. It is certainly not up to Israel to prove its innocence.

What is clear is that if a union’s leadership actively supports working with the Palestinians, such as Unison has done over the past twenty years, then they are more likely to realize that a boycott is divisive and cannot be enforced. If, however, moves to call for a boycott are led by activists rather than leadership, the call is unlikely to succeed. The Irish call for a boycott is especially worrisome as it is led by its leadership. The British unions have no problem in dealing with the Histadrut on trade union matters and are regularly in contact with them; it is, however, the political issue on which they disagree with the Israelis. They are unlikely to call for a boycott so long as the Histadrut and the PGFTU continue talking to each other, which is what is happening at present.  It is therefore more important than ever that both the leadership of the Histadrut and TUFI maintain regular contact with their counterparts in Britain.

An internal note recently circulated to the twenty-seven European Union member states by the British government suggests that among measures “aimed at curbing settlement building” they should follow Britain’s example by running more thorough checks to see whether goods from the West Bank settlements are “illegally” entering the EU without paying the required duties. The government has been under pressure from nongovernmental organizations to prevent goods being designated as being from the West Bank in ways that could lead consumers to believe they have a Palestinian origin.[44] This appears to be part of a new Palestinian strategy to concentrate on the settlements as the PGFTU has also recently asked

that [union] activity such as boycott actions should be focused on the occupation and the sustaining of the occupation. They suggested that the arms trade might be a focus for attention, together with those companies who were involved in building the Wall, the checkpoints and the “settler-only” roads and that this action could be coupled with a boycott of goods produced by Israel in the West Bank.[45]

A strategy for dealing with this development has to be a priority for Israel and the Histadrut especially as union cooperation with the PGFTU is likely to increase in the future.

Most people only have a passing knowledge and interest in the politics of the Middle East and what they do know is usually gained from television, newspapers, and the Internet especially in times of crisis. The Lebanon wars of 1982 and 2006 are examples of intense media concentration on the conflict that resulted in increased pro-Palestinian union activity. From the grass roots to the leadership the UK unions are gravely lacking in knowledge about Israel, which is why the priority for pro-Israeli activists must be to start educating the unions about Israel, its achievements, and joint Israeli-UK-Palestinian projects. TUFI does its best but like many of the pro-Israeli groups in the UK it is sorely underfunded.

The political situation in Britain could also have an effect on future boycott calls. Although support for Israel within the Labour Party waned during his premiership, Tony Blair was steadfast in his backing for Israel. Current prime minister Gordon Brown, less secure than his predecessor as Labour Party leader, cannot afford to ignore opinions of the party and the unions. This means that those, especially on the Left of the party, who see Israel as an obstacle to peace may ultimately influence future British government policy toward Israel and may generate increased support for the PSC and its boycott, divestment, and sanctions campaigns against the Jewish state.

In August 2008 an agreement was announced between the Histadrut and the PGFTU that may help ease the tension. It aimed “to protect the rights of Palestinian workers employed by Israeli employers, and to base future relations on negotiations, dialogue and joint initiatives to advance fraternity and coexistence between the two peoples.”[46] This agreement draws on the terms of an initial 1995 agreement that could not be fully implemented in the intervening years and allows for the remittance of 50 percent of the union dues of Palestinians legally employed by Israeli employers, an arrangement that exists nowhere else in the world.

Since the agreement was signed the PGFTU has received a payment of NIS 11,485,682 from the Histadrut for outstanding dues for the period from September 1993 to May 2008. It is not widely known, either, in trade union circles that the Histadrut petitioned Israel’s Supreme Court on behalf of a Palestinian workers’ complaint of discrimination. On 10 October 2007 the court ruled that Palestinians working for Israeli employers in West Bank settlements should be given work benefits provided by Israeli rather than Jordanian law.

Some UK unions have recently called for highlighting the British support for the Palestinian cause at the international trade union confederations such as the International Trade Union Confederation or the ITF. This is not a new idea as these bodies were first targeted by Arab trade unions from the 1950s onward in their campaign against Israel. Although the TUC no longer gives the Histadrut its unquestioned support, it seems unlikely in the current climate that any of the UK unions would be willing to make a stand at these confederations especially as the British government opposes boycotts and the TUC policy is to work with both Israeli and Palestinian unionists.

Nevertheless, a successful trade union and PSC boycott, divestment, and sanctions campaign would affect the UK Jewish community by increasing discrimination and anti-Semitism. As with the UCU, which has failed to recognize that its boycott motions have brought with them anti-Semitic rhetoric, other anti-Israeli boycott campaigns will do likewise. This is a threat that Anglo-Jewry ignores at its peril; nor should they overlook a poll of key business, cultural, and political leaders finding that 15-20 percent were in favor of boycotts against Israel.[47]

There is, however, a glimmer of hope in that in the current climate of boycott calls possibly being in breach of discrimination legislation, the unions could be persuaded to work positively for peace by promoting joint Palestinian-Israeli projects. However, as today’s trade union movement includes very few Jewish activists who oppose boycotts compared to sixty years ago, any antiboycott education campaign within the unions will mainly depend on the underfunded TUFI, which will have to convince unions to work with them even though many are already affiliated to the PSC.

The British trade unions appear to have reached a turning point. Their future attitudes toward Israel will be influenced, first, by whether there is more UK-Palestinian trade union cooperation, and second, by how the conflict will be portrayed in the world’s media. This will in turn be reflected in the type and tenor of any resolutions and policies discussed at their annual conferences that may include renewed calls for a boycott of Israel.

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[1] “Palestinian Civil Society Calls for Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions against Israel Until It Complies with International Law and Universal Principles of Human Rights,” 9 July 2005,

[2] For a history of the academic boycott campaign, see Ronnie Fraser,The Academic Boycott of Israel: A Review of the Five-Year UK Campaign to Defeat It,” Post-Holocaust and Anti-Semitism 66, March 2008, For current developments in the campaign against the academic boycott, see the Academic Friends of Israel website:

[3] “Who Is Responsible for the Resignations from UCU?”

[4] “Report of the All-Party Parliamentary Inquiry into Antisemitism,”

[5] TUC International Committee meeting, 4 October 1982, TUC archives MSS 292D/901/23.

[6] TUC International Committee meeting, 4 October 1982, TUC archives MSS 292D/956/511.

[7] “Trade Union Boycott Motions against Israel: Weakening the Prospects of Peace,”

[8] Future PSC plans discussed at a June 2008 workshop in London include supporting the academic boycott and the Palestinian call for a cultural and sports boycott, a divestment campaign directed at pension and investment funds, and working through Jewish communities to support the consumer- action, cultural, and divestment campaigns. See

[9] See There, the UK trade unions ASLEF, BFAWU, BECTU, Connect, CWU, FBU, GMB, NUM, NUT, PCS, RMT, TSSA, UCATT, UCU, UNISON, UNITE, and UNITY are all listed as affiliated to the PSC.

[10] On 26 September 2008, Mishcon de Reya Solicitors wrote to the UCU on behalf of a group of UCU members to formally threaten legal action unless the boycott motion is abandoned. See also Peter Kingston, “Lecturers Threaten to Sue Union over Israel Boycott,” The Guardian, 14 October 2008; Peter Kingston “Universities Union Denies Israel Motion Overstepped Mark,” The Guardian, 15 October 2008. In addition, the Stop the Boycott campaign obtained and published a legal opinion on the legality of UCU motion 25, which was passed at the union’s annual congress in Manchester on 28 May 2008. The legal advice states that “it would be unlawful for the union to pass the motion,”

[11] The National Union of Teachers (NUT) passed a resolution at its 2008 conference that committed the NUT to work with the PSC and distribute PSC literature to its membership. The NUT is also currently working with the Histadrut on a joint education program for Israeli and British teachers.

[12] The TSSA motion can be found at

[13] Report of PSC trade union delegation to Palestine, January 2008, p. 9,

[14] “Trade Union Boycott Motions against Israel Weakening the Prospects of Peace,” April 2008,

[15] See 2007 TUC international report P112-3,

[16] TGWU conference, July 2007,

[17] For more on the 2007 NUJ campaign, see the article on Engage at

[18] “NEC Unites over Israel Motion Boycott Israel Call,”

[19] NUJ 2008 conference motion:

[20] Author’s discussion with Unison International Department official, November 2008.

[21] For the Unison 2007 motion, see; for all other motions, see the Unison website:

[22] For the text of a letter from the general secretary of Unison to the Histadrut saying they did not support a boycott, see

[23] For the full motion, see

[24] ITF press release, 13 February 2008,

[25] Leon Symons, “Major Union Rejects Israel Boycott,” Jewish Chronicle , 13 June 2008,

[26] STUC P73 Emergency Resolution No. 4, 2002,

[27] STUC General Council report to congress, 2008, P64,

[28] Manfred Gerstenfeld, interview with Rory Miller, “Irish Attitudes toward Israel,” Post-Holocaust and Anti-Semitism 49, October 2006,

[29] ICTU 2007 congress proceedings,

[30] ICTU 2007 congress agenda, motions 70 and 71,

[31] Report of ICTU delegation to Israel and Palestine,

[32] Manfred Gerstenfeld, interview with Rory Miller.

[33] Oliver Duff, Rob Sharp, and Eric Silver, “Architects Threaten to Boycott Israel over ‘Apartheid’ Barrier,” The Independent, 10 February 2006.

[34] Eli Lake, “Javits Architect Cuts His Link to Group Pushing Israel Boycott,” New York Sun, 2 March 2006.

[35] A copy of the advertisement can be found at

[36] “Palestinian Group Objects to Israeli Biennale Exhibition,” Building Design, 8 September 2006.

[37] Marcus Dysch, “Attempt to Expel Israeli Architects Fails,” Jewish Chronicle, 1 August 2008.

[38] Two examples of PSC open letters are (1) to Paul McCartney, 4 February 2008, and (2) to Morrissey, 15 April 2008,

[39] Charlotte Higgins, “John Berger Rallies Artists for Cultural Boycott of Israel,” The Guardian, 15 December 2006.

[40] Derek Summerfield, “In Support of a British Campaign for a Medical Boycott of Israel,” Bulletin of Transcultural Special Interest Group (TSIG) of Royal College of Psychiatrists, Winter 2006.

[41] C. Green, “Medical Ethical Violations in Gaza,” The Lancet, Vol. 370, Issue 9605, p. 2102.



[44] Donald Macintyre, “Israelis Bristle at Attempt to Limit Exports,” The Independent, 17 November 2008.

[45] Report of PSC trade union delegation to Palestine, January 2008, p. 9,

[46] ITUC press release, 6 August 2008,

[47] Jonny Paul, “Poll: UK Elite Oppose Academic Boycott,” Jerusalem Post, 27 June 2007.

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Ronnie Fraser is director of the Academic Friends of Israel, which he founded in 2002. He is a lecturer at Barnet College in London, a member of the UCU, and a part-time doctoral student at Royal Holloway College in London. His research focuses on the attitudes and policies of the British trade unions, the Left, and the Trades Union Congress toward Israel from 1948 to 1982. He also has contributed “The Academic Boycott of Israel: Why Britain?” to Manfred Gerstenfeld, ed., Academics against Israel and the Jews (Jerusalem: JCPA, 2007) and “Understanding Trade Union Hostility towards Israel and Its Consequences for Anglo-Jewry” to Paul Iganski and Barry Kosmin, eds.,  A New Anti-Semitism? (London: JPR, 2003