The Lessons of the AUT Boycott Reversal


I am not in a position to comment upon the details of what took place in England with regards to the outcome of the 26 May special vote within the Association of University Teachers, and its result of rolling back a previous resolution calling for a selective boycott against Bar Ilan and Haifa Universities. Nor do I wish to engage in the propriety of the boycott itself, especially when there have already been sufficient articles written explaining why indeed a boycott against these institutions is necessary – the most convincing of which have actually emerged from Israeli academic and activist circles.  I do however wish to delve into the question of what the lessons of today’s reversal are for the Palestinian national movement and what the salient questions it poses for future activism are.

First, let it be acknowledged that the attempt to selectively boycott a particular manifestation of Israeli colonialism through the avenue of a Western trade union cannot be understated. Although critics might argue that though the cause of solidarity with the Palestinian national movement has made small advances through this campaign, the end result places us squarely back in the position we were in before the boycott – perhaps even a step back, considering the demoralization that might emerge amongst activists given the result of today’s election. But it is important to cut against such sentiment. The process of attempting a boycott in the first place, whatever its final results, have exposed a veritable panoply of strategic questions which the activists in solidarity with the Palestinian question are long overdue in addressing, and which I will argue, are necessary to take up if the Palestinian national cause is to make real tangible advances.

Perhaps the most significant aspect of the attempted boycott in the first place was its efforts to link the just cause of the Palestinian national movement – its right to self-determination, for return of refugees, and for freedom from racism, exclusionism and colonialism practiced by Israel – to the domestic struggles of the Western working class, in this case, the struggle of university lecturers in the UK. No doubt the enormous mobilization witnessed by pro-Zionist forces to help overturn the vote is evidence of the degree to which Israel and its allies perceive the strategic threat of initiatives like this in the future. This cannot merely be attributed to the conspiratorial powers of Zionist lobbies or the arm twisting that may or may not have taken place behind closed doors, and which are yet to be exposed. Rather, Israel and its allies perceive attempts to build an international boycott campaign against them as a strategic threat, precisely because it mobilizes a force that has largely been absent from the traditional theatre of struggle – the working classes in the West.

Though university lecturers are hardly the stereotypical representation of working class struggles, they do represent a sector with considerable moral weight in setting the agendas of class struggle in their given social, political and economic manifestations. Furthermore, the possibility of selectively boycotting Israeli institutions, organizations, and universities, remains a possibility amongst wider sectors of the Western working class, including amongst its productive/ industrial/ service sectors. Here lies a crucial strategic weakness of Israel and its US partners. UK and US complicity in the crimes of Israel can indeed be threatened if “industrial quiet” which facilitates profit making, is disturbed and interrupted domestically. This relates to the classic power of the working classes whose interests – distinct from any other class – are to resist its own exploitation and the machinations of its capitalist elites.

Though the discourse of class struggle has largely receded in the modern era, too often eschewed as a defunct atavism, this does not take away from its relevance. Whether in regards to the daily exploitation suffered by billions of workers around the world at the hands of their own employers, or the broader political oppression which results as a consequence of imperial practices in Palestine and else where – class analysis and struggle remain crucial frameworks for actualizing real goals. Unfortunately, the weakness of genuine Left forces throughout the world, and the towering disaster of the legacy of Stalinism have left their impressions upon all sectors of progressive activism. In the Palestinian context, this has objectively resulted in the expunging of the discourse of imperialism, capitalism and class struggle, even from the Palestinian national movement actors themselves, not least amongst the Palestinian Left. When combined with a similar expunging of this lexicon and organizing from many progressive circles in the West, the net result has been the restricting of Palestinian solidarity activism within the confines of liberal discourse and forms of activism. Though incredible energies have indeed been invested since the onset of the Intifada in exposing the crimes of Israel, at times resulting in fiery demonstrations witnessed throughout the world, the net result of these actions have not resulted in significant tangible losses to the US-Israeli hegemony.  This is not to discredit the fact that indeed great advances have been made in delegitimizing Israel and its practices, or in stressing the underdog, oppressed nature of the Palestinians who are fighting for their rights. But allowing Palestinian activism to stop in the realm of public opinion – though necessary – is clearly not sufficient in ending US-Israeli practices themselves.

The fact remains that US, and more broadly speaking, Western imperial interests in supporting Israel stem from the crucial significance these capitalist elites have attribute to the region and the role Israel can play in this regard.  It is long overdue that Palestinian solidarity activism does away with conspiratorial theories about the power of AIPAC or of “world Zionism”. Though no doubt Zionist forces are organized and have considerable powers, this is not sufficient to explain why the US, and the EU as well, support Israel as a “Jewish state”. If indeed these forces were the reasons for US or EU policy, why is it that a famous anti-semite like Richard Nixon would ensure that Israel was airlifted supplies during the 1973 October War? Or why Israeli spy Jonathan Pollard is still in prison? Or why the US has at times directly intervened to stop Israeli arms sales to India and China? Egypt receives the second largest amount of US foreign aid – almost comparable in size to Israel – but nobody has ever raised the question of “the Egyptian lobby”. It is finally time to do away with these ideas as they actually tend to play into the hands of the Zionists who can then paint Palestinian solidarity activism as a re-articulation of genuine anti-Semitism – something we must be vigilantly opposed to both morally and organizationally.

Recently the Israeli press has been especially candid about the fact that Israel is deeply emerged in providing services for its main Western backer – the US, and which compose the main reasons for this support in the first place. Top Israeli political commentator Aluf Benn openly acknowledges that Israel has been cast in “the role of the rottweiler”, particularly with respect to its regional role in policing the rise of anti-US imperialist currents across the region : “Washington is using Sharon’s renowned image as an unscrupulous bully in an effort to intimidate the Iranians and put pressure on the Europeans. It is hard to explain otherwise the statements of Vice President Dick Cheney and others who are publicly warning of an Israeli attack on Iran’s nuclear facilities. Their message is simple: If diplomacy fails, Sharon will run amok.”

Harel continues: “The administration’s announcement last week that it was supplying 100 “bunker-buster” bombs to the Israel Air Force was the most blatant sign that America is likely to sanction an Israeli attack on the underground uranium-enrichment facilities in Iran. For now, it’s only a deterrent: It will be months before the bombs arrive in Israel and the pilots are trained to drop them. But everyone is fully aware of the intended use of such armaments, which until today have not been supplied to any country outside the United States.”

Yoram Ettinger, writing for the Israeli daily Yediot Aharonot was even more frank in revealing the role of Israel as an essential part of US hegemonic control in the region: “Statements made by and the conduct of Israel’s leaders since 1993 create the false impression that Israeli-American ties constitute a one-way relationship. The presumption is that America gives and Israel receives, leading to Israel’s inferior position and the alleged compulsion to follow the State Department dictates. However, Former Secretary of State and NATO forces commander Alexander Haig refuted this claim, saying he is pro-Israeli because Israel is the largest American aircraft carrier in the world that cannot be sunk, does not carry even one American soldier, and is located in a critical region for American national security.” 

Ettinger continues: “On our 57th Independence Day, Israel and the United States enjoy a two-way relationship. Israel is like a start-up company that enjoys the kindness of the American investor, but yields much greater profits than the investment. Every day, Israel relays to the U.S. lessons of battle and counter-terrorism, which reduce American losses in Iraq and Afghanistan, prevent attacks on U.S. soil, upgrade American weapons, and contribute to the U.S. economy. Senator Daniel Inouye recently argued Israeli information regarding Soviet arms saved the U.S. billions of dollars. The contribution made by Israeli intelligence to America is greater than that provided by all NATO countries combined, he said.”

For Ettinger, the list of services Israel provides goes on and on, and is a matter to be spoken of with pride.  Palestinian solidarity activism must therefore internalize this strategic priority of Israel in the architecture of US imperial objectives, when it assesses what it will do to attempt to counter this. Attempting to force a wedge between US capitalist interests and Israel is all but impossible if we struggle to lobby Washington. Both the Democrats and the Republicans (not to mention Tony Blair’s Labor party) are structurally tied to the interests of their domestic capitalist classes. A moralistic argument exposing the arguments of the brutality of Israel is insufficient and structural contradictory, as it demands that these parties break away from the class interests which they represent, and which indeed were brought into power to defend.

Here lies the significance of the latest boycott campaign. The working classes in England or the US, have structurally different interests than those of their ruling capitalist elites. While their labor creates the profits for their capitalist classes, they are also fundamentally exploited in this regard, and therefore have strategic interests in opposing both their domestic capitalist elites, and in supporting the efforts of others engaged in this battle (in Palestine or Iraq, for example). This means that on all fronts of Western capitalism, any advance or retreat from working class opposition domestically, or anti-imperialist activity in the periphery, are dialectically related to one another. Exposing the connections provides the blue print for building an anti-imperialist, anti-capitalist movement which can genuinely challenge both the domestic and international crimes of US capitalism (and EU capitalism in secondary fashion).

Admittedly this is a simplification of strategies for class struggle, and surely many questions remain which need to be answered. Furthermore class struggle is not always embodied in classical work-place frameworks. There is no avoiding understanding on a deeper level the interrelationship between racial, gender, ethnic, religious, and sexual oppression within the context of a broader framework of class struggle. But with this said, an understanding of capitalism and US imperialism must be the basis from which Palestinian solidarity activity emerges if it is to wage effective struggle.

What does this look like on the ground? The recent boycott attempt represents the opening salvo in what must be a long term “war of position” and “war of movement” (to use the Gramscian terminology).  There will be more such attempts in the future, which must have at their backbone the direct connection between the fights of Western workers against their employers and elites, and the fights of Palestinians and Iraqis to live free from colonialism and occupation. The same company which sells military bulldozers to Israel (Catepillar) is the same company which bulldozed its union (the UAW) in the mid- 1990s. These kinds of connections are crucial to building real solidarity for both just causes, and the responsibility lies upon us to “connect the dots” between “the war abroad” and the “war at home”. They are one struggle and one fight, and the sooner solidarity forces make these connections and internalize them in their organizing and propaganda routines, the more effective we will be in all these fights.

To close, there can be no room for Palestinian solidarity forces to conclude from the reversal of the AUT boycott, that boycotts, and making links between what happens in Palestine and Western class struggle is ineffective. On the contrary, it represents the best chance that Palestinians have to be able to stop the sociocide and slow transfer waged against them. Furthermore, organizing and mobilizing Western workers in this struggle will be no easy task, as the AUT efforts have shown. Within this analysis, the state of the Western Left and the union movement in particular, become immediately thrust into the forefront of our minds. Building working class solidarity with union rank filers, both for their just fights against their bosses, and for the Palestinian cause, is crucial if we are to build a movement that cannot be decapitated, or reversed as easily as we have just seen. There is no substitute for patient explaining, and the elbow grease of fighting in solidarity on the picket lines, shop floors, and in mass mobilizations in the streets. We must promise the US capitalist classes and the Israeli government, a thousand battles on a thousand fronts. No doubt they are organizing and preparing for this battle. The question then is, are we?

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