CUPE “Boycott Israel” Debate Rages On


As trade union and community activists, socialists, and officials in our respective union organizations, we strongly support the recent Canadian Union of Public Employees (CUPE) Ontario resolution supporting the international Boycott Israel campaign.  The resolution criticizes Israel’s continuing occupation of Palestinian territory, characterizing it as “apartheid.”  It calls on the union to develop an education campaign; supports the international campaign of boycott, divestment, and sanctions against Israel, until it fully recognizes Palestinian national rights — including the right to return to their homes and properties; seeks CUPE National to undertake research into Canada’s role in the occupation; and calls on the Canadian Labour Congress (CLC) to join in lobbying efforts to oppose Israeli apartheid.

The unresolved Israeli occupation of Palestinian lands lies at the root of much of the political turmoil in the Middle East.  It is the smouldering coal that continues to ignite resentment of the West and contributes to the hateful fires of anti-Semitism.  It gives unwanted currency to the regime of the Iranian mullahs and fundamentalists of all religious stripes.  Resolving this dispute through the granting of full national rights to the Palestinian people is a key to reducing the tensions between the Muslim, Jewish, and Christian communities in the region, and more widely.

CUPE Ontario, like its sister organization in BC before it, should be congratulated for acting decisively, arguing that the working-class and trade-union movement should take the lead and help to deepen and widen our collective understanding of the real nature and costs of the Israeli occupation.

1. The Opposition to CUPE and the Boycott Campaign

CUPE Ontario’s resolution has raised a furor amongst the supporters of Israel’s governing establishment — and those who justify its policies and practices.  From the Israeli establishment itself, pro-Israel organizations, to Conservative and Liberal politicians and even some NDP parliamentarians and labor leaders, there has been an angry response, with similar themes and arguments.  Let us look at some of these.

Israel and Middle East Democracy

Pro-Israel organizations and individuals raised a series of common arguments, such as: “Israel is the only democracy in the Middle East — a bastion of Western values — why does CUPE attack it?”  One spokesperson from the Toronto Board of Rabbis claimed: “No other country facing terrorism and military threat in thehistory of the world has behaved in a more legal and ethical manner than Israel” (Rabbi Aaron Flanzraich, “CUPE Wrong to Boycott Israel,” Toronto Star, 1 June 2006).

Israel claims to support democracy, human rights, and the peaceful solution of differences.  The reality is very different.  Israel’s brutal occupation of the West Bank and Gaza is rife with some of the worst forms of oppression and violence.  As Vicki Obedkoff, a United Church Minister, reported after a recent visit to the West Bank:

Our introduction to the brutality of Israel’s military occupation was on Orthodox Easter Sunday when, just a few blocks from our hotel, Israeli agents in an unmarked car fired 200-300 bullets on 3 Bethlehem young men who apparently were on Israel’s “wanted” list.  Assassinations like this are common, we found out: 50 young men in the resistance movement to the Israeli occupation were assassinated in the past six months.  The “wanted” persons are not arrested nor tried.  They are killed without even an incident report required to be filed.  It is official Israeli government policy to authorize the army to perform such assassinations, without reports nor trials being required. (unpublished report, June 2, 2006)

Certainly, the Middle East is full of non-democratic regimes, but this doesn’t excuse the horrific reality of the Israeli occupation.  Israeli democracy actively suppresses the democratic rights of another peoples.  This is the most basic violation of democratic practice.

Israel and Peacemaking

Another theme is that “Israel is the true peacemaker.”  The claim is that Israel recognizes the self-determination of the Palestinian people and has tried to make peace with the Palestinians for years.  The latter have refused to “walk through the door” opened by Israeli promises of peace.  Former Israeli cabinet minister and Soviet Jewish dissident Natan Sharansky writes that the Palestinian Authority “squandered (the) opportunity” when Israel “unilaterally withdrew from Gaza and parts of the West Bank” (“This Boycott Call Is Un-Canadian,” Toronto Star, 1 June 2006).

This is one of the biggest falsifications of all.  It flies in the face of the entire history of Israel’s relation to Palestinians.

Israel systematically expelled Palestinians from their homes — providing a textbook case of “ethnic cleansing” — in order to establish and consolidate the existence of the new state in the 1940s.  This created the Palestinian diaspora, a process that continues in different forms in both Israel and the Occupied Territories till this day.  Throughout most of its life as a country, Israeli leaders denied the very existence of the Palestinian people.  It is not at all clear that Israel actually accepts the building of a Palestinian state, as it undermines its administration, government, and sovereignty at every turn.  The latest is the rejection of the democratically elected Hamas government of the Palestinian National Authority (PNA) and the military incursions into Gaza (incursions at different levels which occur daily across the PNA).

After the 1967 war, when Israel conquered and occupied the West Bank of the Jordan River and Gaza, it became the political and economic master of tens of thousands of Palestinians.  It was during this time that the Palestinian resistance movement arose, and earned worldwide recognition for the legitimacy of their struggle for national rights.  Since that period, Israel was forced to change its approach.

While acknowledging the existence of Palestinians and their right to some form of self-determination, Israel consistently denied them sovereignty on the West Bank and Gaza.  Instead, Israel has worked to create a relationship of economic and political domination over the Palestinians, with certain similarities to the relationship between the Afrikaners of South Africa and the black majority.  This similarity of structural and legal racial discrimination and domination by an “external” settler-colonial society has been noted by South African anti-Apartheid heroes such as Nelson Mandela and Desmond Tutu, as well as Israeli anti-occupation organizations and movements.

Palestinians were used as a cheap labor source in Israel, and the economies of Gaza and the West Bank became dependent upon the more developed Israeli economy.  Israeli settlers — motivated by fundamentalist religious values — were encouraged to occupy areas, controlling key water resources and were protected by the Israeli state, in the West Bank and Gaza.  Israel also maintained — and continues to maintain — a dense network of military bases and checkpoints, along with the settlements, to control the lives of Palestinians.

Even after a series of key struggles — the “intifadas” — where Palestinian children were reduced to throwing stones at Israeli armored vehicles, Israel refused to grant full political rights to the Palestinians.  The creation of the Palestinian Authority in 1993 was not an act of full sovereignty.  Palestine did not have its own army and continued to rely on the military overlordship of Israel and was subject to Israeli economic and political control.

At Camp David and Oslo, the Israeli government, along with the US, argued for maintenance of the disconnected and disjointed “Bantustan-like” arrangement of limited Palestinian sovereignty over a system of small, disconnected communities in Gaza and the West Bank.  That is why the negotiations broke off.  In fact, the Israeli political establishment never moved off of this intransigent refusal to grant complete sovereignty to the Palestinian people over the areas Israel conquered in the 1967 Six Day war.

Ariel Sharon, associated with the murderous attacks on the refugee camps in Sabra and Shatila in Lebanon in the 1980s, came up with a scheme to withdraw settlements from Gaza in exchange for a fortification of the West Bank and further occupation of key parts of the latter.

Although this was packaged as being a significant move by Israel, military incursions and interference remain an everyday reality of Palestinian life in Gaza.  All exits and entrance points to and from Gaza by air, sea, and land are controlled by Israel.  Gaza remains under Israeli control, one of the most densely populated areas in the world sealed like an open-air prison.

On the West Bank, under this so-called “convergence plan,” Israel maintains the vicious and humiliating occupation.  Demolitions of thousands of Palestinian homes continue — as collective punishment for families of those who either resist or are implicated in terrorist attacks on Israelis.  Highways connect Israeli settlers with Israel, while transportation and communications links amongst Palestinians lie in ruins.  Israel controls Palestinian airspace.  The plan appears to be to annex somewhere between 10 and 30% of the West Bank.

Ehud Olmert, Israel’s current Prime Minister continues to impose the “Sharon solution” on the Palestinian population and refuses to recognize the Palestinians’ right to a self-governing state.

Then there is the so-called “Security Wall.”  Pro-Israel organizations claim that it is a reasonable strategy to protect Israelis against terrorist attacks.  Other defenders of Israel simply try to avoid references to it.  The wall, known around the world as the “Apartheid Wall,” does not respect the pre-1967 borders of Israel.  It annexes part of the West Bank land claimed by the Palestinians.  It protects major settlements and almost one-half million Zionist settlers.  It removes the richest agricultural lands and water resources from the Palestinian people and carves the West Bank Palestinian communities further into small, disconnected enclaves.  It separates families (as does the racist Israeli law that prevents Palestinians from living with their Israeli-Arab spouses) and makes everyday life extremely difficult.

Click on the poster for a larger view.
The Apartheid Wall
SOURCE: Anti-Apartheid Wall Campaign.
Download the poster: PSD; and PDF.

Palestine and Israel

Critics claim that the right of Palestinian refugees displaced by Israel to return to their homes and properties is an unwarranted attack on Israel.  The CUPE resolution argues that this is a right guaranteed by the United Nations.  Pro-Israel interests say it would lead to the destruction of Israel “as a Jewish state.”

The overwhelming majority of the Palestinian movement argues for a two-state solution, where Israel’s pre-1967 borders are secured, with a Palestinian state in the West Bank and Gaza given full sovereignty, and a shared capital in Jerusalem.  Israel refuses to grant that sovereignty, and fully claims Jerusalem as its capital and continues to displace the Arab residents of East Jerusalem.

Even so, many question the idea of a state that identifies with one religious or ethnic group, denying fundamental rights to others.  The questioning is informed by a vision that underlines Western — and other — democratic societies: a secular civic state, apart from religious and ethnic identities.  The West claims to be pursuing such a state in its rejection of Islamic clerical states.  Why should there be an exemption for an Israel and its Jewish citizens from this basic measure of democracy, considering that, in reality, Israel is a state with a wide plurality of religions and ethnicities?

For historical reasons, involving efforts to escape anti-Semitism, Israel does claim to be “Jewish” and Jews from the around the world have the right to “return” to a country they have no material links with.  It shouldn’t be all that surprising that Palestinians — whose lands were stolen through war and terrorism in order to make room for Israel 50 years ago — should find this to be a problem.  In the long run, many Palestinians and other progressives argue for the eventual transformation of Israel into a secular, democratic state where people of all religions and ethnic backgrounds are guaranteed equal rights and participation.

Whatever the long-term goals of people in the area, there is a fairly wide consensus around movement to a two-state solution that will guarantee the rights of both Israel and the Palestinians.  In this context, the meaning of the Palestinian right of return must be negotiated between Israel and the Palestinians.  Israel refuses to do so.

It must also be emphasized that challenging the very notion of a Jewish state — or a religious-based state of any kind — in no way justifies charges of anti-Semitism.  While there are anti-Semites that challenge Israel and its policies, they are a tiny minority of Israel’s critics.  Israeli actions themselves have given rise to anti-Semitic responses around the world.  This is tragic and, like all racism, must be fully condemned.  It is perverse to fault those who raise legitimate criticisms of Israeli apartheid practices and accuse them of the effects Israel’s practices have.

Terrorism and Justice

Critics also claim that CUPE’s resolution ignores terrorist attacks and suicide bombers.  In response, CUPE-Ontario President Sid Ryan noted in a Toronto Star op-ed piece (“CUPE Has History of Defending Human Rights,” 2 June 2006) that the union “approved a resolution requesting the Canadian government call for, and actively work toward, an end to suicide bombings and other violence against innocent people.”  Progressive voices around the world condemn both the state-sponsored terrorism of Israel, and the suicide bombings of elements of the resistance movement.  Calling for an end to Israel’s occupation of Palestinian territory and the tearing down of the wall is in no way linked to the use of suicide bombings that harm civilians in the resistance movement.

Unions and International Solidarity

Many of the Israeli government’s apologists have complained that unions have no business commenting on issues such as this.  They have a difficult time accepting the fact that CUPE sees a deep and unshakeable link between social justice in the Middle East and at home.  The same forces that oppress working people in Canada operate everywhere.  That’s why CUPE — and other unions — have taken positions supporting struggles for social and political justice in Palestine, Iraq, Afghanistan, Iran, China, South Asia, Europe and the United States.

International solidarity was one of the keystones of the establishment of unions in the 19th century to deal with employer discrimination against union workers.  This long tradition of “naming” international issues of social justice and acting on them was reflected in the international trade union campaigns against South African apartheid.  Unions were among some of the first and most persistent civil society organizations to take up the issue and organize around it.

The criticisms of international union solidarity are not honest.  The real point is that they don’t want working people and their most important organizations of self-defence, trade unions, to challenge Israel’s policies and Canadian government complicity.

The fact is that CUPE-Ontario isn’t the only union in Canada to take a position challenging Israeli policies — although its references to apartheid and support for boycotts pushes the Palestinian solidarity movement in Canada into new territory.  At the CLC Convention in 2005, the delegates demanded “that the Canadian government pressure Israel to uphold international law and implement the International Court of Justice decision by dismantling the Israeli separation wall on occupied Palestinian territory.”  As well, in March 2004, the Canadian Auto Workers (CAW) National Executive Board endorsed the World Council of Church’s call to “stop and reverse the construction of the wall in the Occupied Palestinian Territories.”

More recently, Willy Madisha, president of COSATU, the central union of South African workers, publicly defended CUPE-Ontario’s resolution.  He clearly underlines the imperative for supporting CUPE-Ontario’s stand:

Despite the action of some Western governments and big business, workers and democrats of the world including the citizens of Canada, heeded our call when we struggled against apartheid. Boycotts, disinvestments and sanctions against the apartheid regime in South Africa hastened our march to democracy. Why should it be different for Palestinians? In the face of an intransigent, arrogant, racist and brutal Israeli state, this strategy of isolation — particularly since the vast majority of Palestinians support it — should be applied to Israel as well. It is a peaceful option.

CUPE and Democracy

Many of the critics of the resolution complain that the vote was held on a Saturday — the Jewish Sabbath, or that the resolution was passed without a referendum vote.  Union conventions are responsible bodies and the delegates who make decisions there are elected by the membership.  They are empowered to pass resolutions which become the policy of the union.  They don’t have referenda on every policy issue.  These are generally accepted principles of practical democracy in this country.  These conventions are secular affairs and members of every religion and creed participated in the debate.

CUPE-Ontario sends out the resolutions to the delegates before the convention, so they can consider and discuss them in a timely manner.

It may be true that all delegates to union conventions don’t necessarily follow the outcome of every resolution, especially on the last day.  But one can hardly claim that this vote was undemocratic.  The problem is that some people didn’t like the outcome.

2. Union Opposition to CUPE

Although the CUPE resolution has generated much discussion and favourable comment amongst union activists, there have only been a few public responses from the rest of the Canadian union movement on the CUPE-Ontario resolution.  The CLC, of course, has not commented.  On June 13th, the Steelworkers Toronto Area Council passed a resolution expressing solidarity with CUPE’s stand (available at

The resolution has started a heated debate within different sections of CUPE.  Some members and locals in Ontario have criticized Resolution 50 and have called for disaffiliation from CUPE Ontario.  CUPE National has somewhat distanced itself.  They note on their Web site that it “respects the right of its chartered organizations to take a stand on all issues” but goes on to say that the union “will not be issuing a call, nor have we been asked by our members in CUPE Ontario to call local unions across Canada to boycott Israel.”  It continues: “CUPE encourages democratic debate on international issues.  Debates focused on the Middle East should respect the legitimate aspirations of both the Palestinian and Israeli people.”

The CUPE resolution was also criticized by CAW President Buzz Hargrove, the single major labor leader to speak out, in a Toronto Star op-ed (“CUPE Boycott of Israel Won’t Help Cause of Peace,” 5 June 2006).  The article’s central argument is that the resolution undermines positive moves for “genuine dialogue and exchange,” by engaging in what it called “simple rhetoric — like the claim that Israel is equivalent to the former South African apartheid regime.”  It calls on the labor movement (and the left) to support the peace efforts of PNA President Mahmoud Abbas, condemn Hamas for its support of terrorism and its refusal to recognize “the right of Israelis to exist within secure borders,” and boycott Iran instead of Israel.  While it is clear that the article reflects a genuine desire for a peace, we respectfully but profoundly disagree with its basic thrust.

No Balance between Israel and Palestinians

Reading the article, one would get the impression that there is somehow a balance between Israel and the Palestinians.  There is no reference to the overpowering military might of Israel, the essential powerlessness of the Palestinians, the brutal occupation and the daily humiliation and destruction that Israel wreaks on innocent men, women, and children.  No wonder it rejects the description of Israel as an apartheid state.  It ignores the case made for the parallel in the assessments of COSATU, Nelson Mandela, and Desmond Tutu.  The daily real material realities of Palestinian life, as set in Israeli law and administrative practices, illegal occupation, labor market structures, and human rights abuses that are catalogues by the United Nations agencies in the region and that underpin the apartheid label simply disappear.

In the article, there is no reference to the illegal wall cutting through the West Bank that separates families and enforces the control over water and land for the Israeli state and fundamentalist settlers that serve as its shock troops.  How is it possible to talk about the CUPE resolution without confronting the terrible reality of the apartheid wall?

There is no acknowledgement of what most of the world — and almost everyone on the left knows — that Israel is the principal aggressor.  Israel expelled most of the Palestinians in 1948, and it is Israel that occupies the West Bank and continues illegally to exercise sovereignty over the Palestinian National Authority and the Occupied Territories, condemned repeatedly in the United Nations and international courts.

Phoney Peace Moves

The Hargrove article is also wrong about the role of the “old warhorse,” Ariel Sharon, the now comatose former Prime Minister of Israel.  With a military record that qualifies for being a war criminal for numerous incidents, but especially for the atrocities in refugee camps in Lebanon under his military watch, Sharon hardly qualifies as a peacemaker.

The unilateral moves by his government were made in order to avoid having to bargain with the Palestinians.  Sharon’s principal adviser, Dov Weisglass, in an October 2004 interview in the Israeli newspaper Haaretz, admitted that the unilateral disengagement policy was designed to freeze the peace process, deny the Palestinians a viable state, and counter growing demands within Israel to restart negotiations for a permanent peace accord.  The withdrawal from Gaza still maintains ultimate Israeli control and the partial withdrawal from the West Bank is bogus, especially given that settlements continue to expand.

Iran Red Herring

The references to Iran in the article only create a diversion from the fundamental problem of Israel — a country that already has nuclear weapons and other weapons of mass destruction in violation of numerous international treaties.  Iran has been a major irritant in the area since the victory of the Ayatollahs in the 1970s.  Everyone on the left or in the trade union movement has denounced the Iranian regime, its repression of labor, lack of democracy, its appalling president, and its possible moves to build nuclear weapons.  But it is principally George Bush and his buddies who have edged the world closer to a potential new war over Iran over the development of nuclear energy research and capacities in line with its international treaty obligations, while other countries allied with the US are aided in further developing their nuclear arms capacities or to pursue secretly nuclear weapons research.  (In recent European polls, Bush is considered to be a greater threat to world peace than Iran!)  Canadian trade unionists have a responsibility to distance ourselves from this latest US hysteria campaign and not abet it.

Peace and Justice

That brings us to the issue of peace, the central part of the article’s argument.  Israel continues to ignore the numerous UN resolutions that have called for its withdrawal and the destruction of the wall.  At the UN, Israel is almost always amongst a tiny minority — along with the United States (and now Harper’s Canada) — defending its indefensible policies.

The article implies that the principal obstacle to peace is Hamas’s intransigent refusal to recognize Israel and renounce terror.  Certainly the election of the fundamentalist movement complicated the already difficult situation.  Religious fundamentalism is to be deplored in whatever form — Christian, Jewish, or Muslim.  But most observers acknowledge that Hamas was not elected because of support for fundamentalism.

Hamas was elected democratically by the Palestinian people.  Israel and its backers in the West — including the Canadian government — refuse to recognize their democratic decision.  This is incredibly hypocritical.  For years the US and others have been demanding that Palestinians hold new elections, and now that they have been held, they find the results illegitimate, because the choice wasn’t to their liking.  Isn’t this similar to the response of employers when workers actually vote for a union?  Employers have no right to dictate to workers, and we have no right to dictate to the Palestinian people.

This is not to mention the ongoing boycott of the Palestinian government and cut-off of aid programs has caused terrible hardship amongst the Palestinians, denying food, medicines, and other necessities — a desperate humanitarian crisis.  One wonders: why doesn’t the article call for an end to this horrific and hypocritical boycott?

Hargrove rightly opposes the horrors of terrorism.  Suicide bombing or rocket attacks against innocent civilians are not acceptable and should stop.  But blowing up houses, torture, arbitrary arrests and detention, illegal assassinations, and military strikes that routinely kill innocent families and children (as in the horrific slaughter of a family at the beach in Gaza by the Israeli military on June 9th) are also terrorism.  The state terrorism of Israel must also stop.

Peace can only come to Palestine when two things happen: firstly, Israel must first renounce the policies of occupation, oppression, and apartheid and recognize the legitimate rights of Palestinians and the duly elected government and representatives of the Palestinian people.  Such a move by Israel is the key condition.

This will come from a combination of things.  Peace activists in Israel that support the rights of Palestinians must defeat the current political establishment.  There are a number of political movements within Israel that fight for such changes and maintain a continuous dialogue with the Palestinian movement.  The Palestinian people continue their resistance for an end of the occupation and full civil rights for Palestinians in Israel.  And the international solidarity movement, particularly within North America where Israel receives its greatest support for its policies of occupation, settlement, and military deployment, must pressure Western governments and Israel to change.  Israeli peace activist and Palestinian civil organizations and unions see CUPE’s resolution and the campaigns it calls for as a component part of that international pressure, a necessary condition for peace.

Secondly, the Palestinian movement also has to be willing to negotiate with Israel.  Even with the ongoing rejection of Palestinian national rights, this is happening.  Most recently, Palestinian prisoners inside Israeli prisons — from across the spectrum of Palestinian groups (including Hamas) — have forged a “Prisoners’ Document,” which works for a coming together of the Palestinian resistance on the basis of a two-state solution.

Until recent Israeli assassinations of notable Palestinian militants and the gruesome murder of a Palestinian family on a Gaza beach, Hamas held to a cease-fire with Israel.  Hamas is a necessary part of a new peace process (as even former Israeli generals concede!).  But this can only happen when Israel backs off its intransigent position and actually demonstrates it is willing to accept a Palestinian state.

The Israeli military incursions into Gaza over the last few days, with even further destruction of Palestinian infrastructure and the detainment of members of the elected Hamas government (all in retaliation for the kidnapping of an Israeli soldier, while Israel daily arrests and assassinates), only continues the cycle of aggression and violence.  It also reflects the contempt that Israel holds for the sovereignty of Palestinian institutions, world opinion, and social justice.

3. What Can Canadian Unionists Do?

The role of progressive trade unionists in Canada is to build solidarity across the union movement in opposition to Israeli apartheid.  Unions should support the CUPE-Ontario resolution, pass similar ones, take up the kind of education campaign that CUPE is calling for, and participate in the developing global campaign for divestment and boycott of Israel.

CUPE-Ontario is not alone.  Importantly, the United Church of Canada’s Toronto branch has opened a boycott of Israeli products and companies doing business with its military.  It also wants the church and its members to divest from companies supplying the Israeli military and boycott all products from the occupied territories.  It also calls on Ottawa to require that products originating in the occupied territories must have separate labels, identifying their origins.  This is part of an ongoing campaign by the church to oppose Israel’s occupation.  The campaign website is

There is a Global Campaign for Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions.  In Canada, the Coalition Against Israeli Apartheid is building that campaign.  They can be reached at and their website is  That site includes an excellent collection of background materials as well as a list of labor-based statements of support for the CUPE resolution.

Education is a key.  While a growing number of Canadians — and one would assume trade union members — are critical of Israel’s occupation, many really don’t know more than they read in the papers or see on TV.  Canada’s media monopolies, including even the CBC, are mainly controlled now by right-wing political forces.  Their coverage of the Middle East is quite impoverished and imbalanced.  By introducing the idea that Israel is an apartheid state, trade unions can contribute to a deeper understanding of the realities of the Middle East and help further the cause of international solidarity, social justice, and anti-imperialism.

Just like the important role the Canadian trade union movement played in supporting the boycott of South Africa’s apartheid system in the 1980s in Canada — actually changing peoples’ understanding of that important struggle — the union movement can again contribute to a struggle for social justice and legitimate rights national self-determination.

A good start is an excellent pamphlet produced by CUPE-BC in 2005 called, The Wall Must Fall.  Copies can be obtained from the Socialist Project website at or from CUPE-BC at, or  CUPE-Ontario’s resolution is available at their website:

David Kidd and Herman Rosenfeld are trade union activists in CUPE and CAW respectively.  The article was first published in Socialist Project’s e-bulletin The Bullet (No. 26) on 29 June 2006.