Labor for Palestine: Interview with Michael Letwin

By Matthew Davidson

Over the past six years, Israel has waged three different wars against the Gazans, killing thousands in the process. The current war has killed nearly 2,000 civilians and made a quarter of Gaza’s 1.8 million people homeless.

Drawing inspiration from the labour-backed boycott of Apartheid South Africa, Palestinian civil society groups have renewed their call for an international campaign of Boycotts, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) against Israel’s apartheid regime.

Palestinian trade unions and workers have been participants in this call for an international BDS campaign against the Israeli state until the occupation of Palestine ends. Workers across the globe have responded to this call by passing BDS motions within their unions and by taking other actions in solidarity with the Palestinian people. recently spoke with American labour activist Michael Letwin from Labor For Palestine about what is happening in Israel and Palestine and the various labour solidarity campaigns that are being organized in response.

Michael is a lifelong social justice activist who was involved in the anti-apartheid movement around South Africa beginning in the early seventies. He became involved with Palestine solidarity activism around the same time. In 1990 Michael was elected president of his union local – United Autoworkers Local 2325; the Association of Legal Aid Attorneys. He was also one of the co-founders of New York City Labor Against the War, which was started in the days following 9/11, and from which Labor for Palestine emerged.

The following transcript has been edited for length and clarity.

The most bedrock principle of labour is that “an injury to one is an injury to all.”

R&F: Why should workers here in Canada or the US care about the situation in Palestine, especially when so many workers are facing an already overwhelming struggle to maintain hard-earned victories on things like basic working conditions or decent wages?

ML: I think it’s the same answer as to any international solidarity issue. The most bedrock principle of labour is that “an injury to one is an injury to all.” Today Palestinian workers, working people and their families, are under a tremendous, almost genocidal, attack against them. So, first, it is a matter of principle to come to the aid of workers anywhere and everywhere where they need to be supported.

Secondly, it is our own tax dollars, both in the US and in Canada, that are paying for and arming the Israeli regime to carry out these massacres. So, for example, there are $9 million a day that go from the United States to the Israeli military. That’s money that workers need to have spent on their needs in this country, not spent on killing and massacring other workers elsewhere. Those are two very good reasons, I think, why this is very important to workers, whether they are aware of it or not.

Where trade unions themselves have invested in Apartheid Israel, it is the equivalent of investing in Apartheid South Africa or the Jim Crow South. And so, there are many reasons why this is directly of interest to workers, and there are a growing number of trade unionists and rank and file activists, who are looking for a way to express that, just like they were looking for a way to express that during Apartheid South Africa.

R&F: What are the labour conditions like Palestinians living under occupation?

ML: There are three tiers of Israeli apartheid. The first, or one tier, is the 1967 occupation, which is the occupation of the West Bank and Gaza. For workers in those situations, it is very much like what working people in South Africa experienced during apartheid in terms of living in restricted, segregated places and having to try to go from one place to another having to look for work under those conditions. It is also similar in some ways to the border between the United States and Mexico, which regulates immigrant labour here in a very repressive way. Workers in the West Bank, for example, have to line up for jobs in illegal Israeli settlements and work under virtually unregulated conditions there. There is very little in the way of trade unionism and they really have no rights under that system. As well, they and their families – and really their entire existence – are regulated by the apartheid which breaks up the West Bank with barriers and checkpoints, which makes life so insufferable for people there.

Workers in the West Bank…have to line up for jobs in illegal Israeli settlements and work under virtually unregulated conditions there. There is very little in the way of trade unionism and they really have no rights under that system.

And then you have Gaza, which is really just strangled – not only militarily, but economically – where people don’t really have jobs, except perhaps for the government. Only a very restricted number of people would have that work, and of course when a war is going on against them, there is nothing. Fishermen in Gaza, even when they are not being attacked militarily, are not allowed to go out beyond a mile or two by the Israeli navy to do their fishing. They are extremely restricted. Farmers who live along the Israeli-imposed border that cuts of Gaza from the rest of historic Palestine are not allowed to farm their land. So there is that whole economic impact of the 1967 occupation.

Then you have the 20% of the population within the Israeli state who are Palestinians. They typically have been subject to the worst economic and social conditions. There are over fifty laws which discriminate against Palestinian citizens of Israel.

Finally, you have the 70% of the Palestinian population who are refugees, who cannot return to their homes anywhere in historic Palestine, who are living in Syria, or Lebanon, or Jordan, and all around the world. Even in Gaza, 80% of the population comes from the refugees from the Nakba – the Catastrophe – in 1948 when 750,000 Palestinians were expelled from their homes and from their country. There are so many ways by which Palestinian workers are affected by this. Palestinian workers are also affected by violence, not only during the wars, but by routine violence by the Palestinian state and by settlers, and so forth.

The position of white workers in apartheid South Africa and in apartheid Israel is quite similar…the Jewish working class in Israel is not, and really cannot be, an ally of the Palestinian working class…It gains enormous benefits by virtue of depriving those same benefits to the Palestinian people.

R&F: How about Israeli workers? One of the arguments that has been made against using boycotts, divestment, and sanctions as a tactic is that it would unfairly punish workers within Israel who, regardless of what they think about the occupation, are trying to make a living.

ML: Well, I think that is kind of like saying that we shouldn’t have used tactics of divestment from apartheid South Africa because it would have hurt white workers. The position of white workers in apartheid South Africa and in apartheid Israel is quite similar. It’s not a situation like in the US or Canada where there are different racial groups, but where there is still a possibility for cross-racial solidarity between the two – and in fact, we have a history of that, as well as other histories that are not so positive. There is no real history of that in apartheid South Africa, and there is no history of that in apartheid Israel, because the entire regime is based upon legalized, ongoing, and permanent apartheid. And so, the Jewish working class in Israel is not, and really cannot be, an ally of the Palestinian working class. It is totally and thoroughly committed and invested in Israel’s apartheid system. It gains enormous benefits by virtue of depriving those same benefits to the Palestinian people.

The other argument you hear, especially from liberal Zionists, is that you are only hurting the Palestinian workers by boycotting. That, too, is like an argument that was made against divesting from Apartheid South Africa; that you are only hurting black workers because they are going to lose their jobs if there is divestment, and who is that really good for? The answer of course, for both situations, is that the workers in black South Africa and workers in Palestine both unanimously have called for the boycott. It is up to them to decide what is in their best interest, and once that call has been made – which has been made for quite some time – then it is up to workers and movements abroad to support it, not to come up for reasons why it is not a good idea. Besides, it’s not like there are many other effective means of solidarity for workers and others to employ. It is extremely important to support the boycott movement; it is a matter of respect for the solidarity that has been asked for.

R&F: What is Labor for Palestine, and what does it do?

ML: Labor for Palestine has been in existence for nearly ten years. It is a network that issues numerous statements during the time of various wars against Gaza. Typically what we try and do with these statements is ask trade unionists, both in this country, in Canada, and around the world, to sign on, which is an organizing tool to encourage trade unionists to take on the issue of Palestine.

Our focus has been not just to condemn Apartheid Israel, which we do, but to support the BDS movement in particular, especially in regard to labour and trade unionism’s own relationship to the issue. In the United States – I’m not sure about in Canada – all the major trade union leaderships are deeply invested in Israel and the Israeli regime, usually through the Histadrut, which is the Israeli trade union federation [equivalent to the Canadian Labour Congress – R&F editors]. It is very much part of the Israeli apartheid system, and always has been going back to the 1920s, as part of the so-called labour Zionism movement. In the United States it is now called the Jewish Labour committee, which presents itself as a progressive trade union solidarity group, but really it is just a way to get the trade unions in the US to support Israel.

Another way the trade union movement is connected to Israel is through the ownership of billions of dollars in Israeli bonds, which are owned both by trade unions and by major union pension funds throughout this country. We ask unions to divest themselves from that, which is along the lines of both BDS but also the South African divestment movement of earlier times.

We’re also trying to connect to efforts by dockers around the world, including in Oakland, California, who have refused at various times to handle cargo for Israel. That took place most recently in the United States in 2010 in Oakland, and there are talks about doing something like that again in the context of the current massacre.

R&F: How has the labour movement in the US responded to Israeli apartheid?

ML: In the United States all the trade union leaderships are very much in support of Israeli apartheid; no matter what their stance is on other issues, that’s pretty much the case. For example, the only trade union bodies that we have signing on to our statements are a local of the United Electrical Workers in North Carolina, Local 150 of the UE, and an endorsement from UNITE in New Zealand, which is a major union there. We do however have a growing number of former local labor elected officials as well as a few current local presidents. That’s the way things are going to happen; it’s not going to come from the top. Like most things in the labor movement, if it is going to come at all it is going to come from the bottom, from rank and file organizing efforts.

One of the unions that has addressed this issue here in the United States is UAW local 2855 in California, which represents 13,000 graduate students at the University of California. They are going to hold a membership vote on a resolution which calls for BDS. That is the kind of thing which is very significant to have a local do – even one particular local – which begins to open the gates to other people thinking about doing the same thing.

Every time that the Israelis carry out the massacres like what is happening in Gaza, it further delegitimizes the Israeli regime, and that creates more support for BDS. It has begun to happen within the ranks of labour in the United States. It has already happened to an extent in Canada, where certain unions have already adopted motions in favour of BDS, but that is only just beginning to happen now in the US. This is opposed to a number of other countries, like South Africa, or the UK, or any number of other places, where many trade unions have begun to take really strong BDS positions. For example, in Britain, UNITE has repeatedly adopted various BDS motions, and that’s the largest union in the UK and Ireland, so things are much further along down there. COSATU, the South African trade union federation, has long taken really strong position, and just this week they issued a joint statement with Palestinian trade unions calling for BDS.

R&F: You’ve alluded to this a few times already, but what can trade unionists do as individuals, and what can the labour movement do as a whole?

ML: We are asking for trade unionists to sign our statement, which is really a way of networking together individuals and hopefully also labour bodies in support of BDS.

Secondly, we are asking that trade unionists propose resolutions in their own labour bodies. We have a model trade union resolution attached to our statement which calls for the same thing: support for BDS and, as an expression of that, cutting all ties with the Histadrut (the Israeli labour federation, which is totally complicit in the apartheid regime).

Most specifically of all, we are asking workers to take the example from the dock workers, both in the United States but mostly in South Africa, who in the past have refused to load Israeli cargo. That is the most immediate way to have an impact on the ability of the Israeli state to carry out the kinds of regime which it imposes on Palestinians.

In connection with all of that, we can demand that the US and other foreign governments immediately stop supplying Israel with weapons and any other form of aid.


More information on Labor for Palestine can be found at:

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