Israel’s attack on the Gaza aid flotilla – an atrocity which saw nine unarmed aid workers killed – occurred during the lecturers’ UCU annual conference.
The day before, delegates debated the question of boycotting Israel and reaffirmed UCU support for the policy of boycott, disinvestment and sanctions (BDS). Delegates agreed the sidelining of the Israeli trade union, the Histadrut, and opposition to the EU-Israel trade agreement.
On the day of the atrocity delegates passed an emergency resolution condemning this act of murderous piracy in international waters.
The conference called on the British government to uphold the rules on universal jurisdiction so that Israeli ministers and senior officers can be brought to justice.
But even before this act, there had been a sharp shift in perspective within the trade union movement on the question of Israel. Israel and Israeli policy have been condemned in a series of British trade unions including Unite, Unison, the FBU, the RMT and the UCU. Last year both the Irish and Scottish TUC backed a policy of BDS.
The latest Israeli attack has changed things further – demonstrating to the world what the Palestinians suffer on a daily basis and focusing attention on the plight of the 1.5 million Palestinians kept in the open prison that is Gaza.
The BDS call came from the Palestinian Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel and has won support in Europe, Africa, Australia and North America. It is supported by 170 Palestinian organisations.
Within Palestine it is organised by the Boycott National Committee that brings together Palestinian resistance in Gaza and the West Bank.
BDS represents a significant shift within Palestinian opposition to Israeli – the boycott call is not based on either a one or two-state solution, but is an alternative to the illusions in either a purely military or purely negotiated solution.
The BDS strategy is to seek international support and solidarity until Israel complies with international law: that means Israel must end the occupation of the West Bank and the blockade of Gaza and apply its own laws equitably and universally to Jew and to Arab alike.
BDS is about building an international movement to isolate Israel economically, culturally and academically. It is about persuading artists, writers, and performers not to work in Israel – following the examples of Gil Scott-Heron, Elvis Costello and others.
It is about identifying Israeli products that are imported into Britain – not just those produced by settlements on illegally confiscated Palestinian resources – and pressing importers and outlets not to stock them.
It is about gathering from supermarket shelves all products illegally produced in the West Bank and presenting them to the managers to help them avoid prosecution for selling stolen goods.
It is about boycotting academic conferences in Israel, not publishing in journals funded by Israeli institutions and not collaborating with Israeli universities and colleges.
But BDS is NOT about boycotting individual Israeli scholars or academics. It is an institutional boycott, not an individual boycott.
It is a campaign in which the trade union movement will prove pivotal. Unions provide continuity and a level of organisation that can help consumer boycott movements. They have structures that can facilitate the debate and raise the general awareness among their members.
The call to unions is to adopt a BDS policy, set up a joint trade union international research centre to track all trade and contacts with Israel, establish an annual international BDS-focused trade union conference and set up a website.
These are the things that every activist and socialist should be pursuing in their union over the next year – making sure there is an appropriate motion at their annual conference.
As the fight against apartheid in South Africa was in the 1970s and 1980s, the fight against Israeli apartheid in Palestine will be the central moral and international political issue in the first decades of the 21st century.
Tom Hickey is a member of the national executive committee of the lecturers’ UCU union