Jewish community organizations have slammed the decision by UNISON, the public service workers union and largest trade union in the UK, to support a boycott of Israel campaign at its annual conference in Brighton on Wednesday. Helen Jenner, spokesperson for the National Executive of UNISON, suggested Thursday that the vote was not decisive in its impact: "The motion recognizes the position but it does not commit the union to a boycott," she said.
British labor union okays Israel boycott
UK Jews concerned over student safety
But Stop the Boycott Campaign, a coalition of Jewish community groups formed to respond to the boycott calls, slammed the move, which it said boiled down to a call for an economic, sporting and cultural boycott of Israel.
Jon Benjamin, chief executive of the Board of Deputies of British Jews, said: "The same anti-Israel activists who have promoted the boycott agenda elsewhere were at work here, as is apparent from the praise and support given to the 'Enough!' coalition and the Palestine Solidarity Campaign. Doubtless they were buoyed by their apparent success at the University and College Union, but as then and as with the National Union of Journalists' boycott policy, this decision will hold the union and, sadly, Britain up for derision and ridicule."
Jeremy Newmark, chief executive of the Jewish Leadership Council, said the vote was "not in Britain's or the Palestinians' interest. We might see a tit-for-tat boycott of British goods. At a time when Israel and the Palestinians are engaging with each other at last, this UNISON vote flies in the face of common sense. We should all condemn this impractical and foolish decision."
Uriel Lynn, president of the Federation of Israeli Chambers of Congress, said a boycott would be an "economic and psychological blow for Israeli manufacturers," and expressed surprise the Israeli Foreign Ministry had not done anything to stop it.
Motion 53, passed by annual delegates conference, states that a just solution to the Palestine-Israel conflict must be based on international law and that Israel should withdraw to 1967 borders. It also calls for allowing the refugees of 1948 to return home.
The motion calls for Israel to "remove all settlements from the Occupied Palestinian Territories and Occupied Syrian Al-Joulan; take down the Apartheid Wall; respect the Palestinian people's right to national self-determination and establish a state in the West Bank and Gaza with its capital in Jerusalem."
The motion supports a full boycott to pressure Israel to end the occupation and condemns the sanctions placed on Hamas following the 2006 elections. It reads: "Conference believes that ending the occupation demands concerted and sustained pressure upon Israel including an economic, cultural, academic and sporting boycott."
Steve Scott, policy director of Trade Union Friends of Israel, said: "Boycott, divestment and sanctions motions have been commonplace at UNISON conferences for at least the last five years. Once again, a British trade union has voted for a boycott. We think this is bad for Britain and bad for Palestinians. But at least there has been a debate and many people agree with the new [Gordon] Brown government, who believe that the best thing for Britain and the trade union movement is to economically engage with Israel and Palestinians."
UNISON has had a policy of supporting a boycott of Israeli goods for at least the last five years. In 2002, UNISON's Executive Committee called for "a boycott of Israeli goods and services" and urged the UK Government and European Union to "instigate economic and trade sanctions against the state of Israel."
The 2005 conference directed the union to support a boycott of Israeli goods and work "with other like-minded organizations to bring this about."
However, implementation of any boycott policy has been scarce to non-existent, suggesting that there is little appetite among the vast majority of members for such action.
Pro-boycotter Caroline Bedale of Manchester declared that her interpretation of the boycott would allow continued links with "progressives" in Israel, without saying who would decide, and how, which Israeli Jews are "progressive" and would thus win exemption from the general rule that Israelis are to be shunned.
Lorna Fitzsimons, chief executive of the British Israel Communication and Research Center (BICOM), said: "The whole thrust of rebuilding Israel and a new state of Palestine is about economic engagement, economic reconstruction. The area needs investment and this call by one of Britain's largest trade union is a kick in the teeth to Palestinians. And how is this going to help the new emergency government in the Palestinian Authority? Just as all the democratic countries come to their aid, UNISON appear to be urging everyone to implement a policy which will actually hurt the Palestinians. This is silly. This is bad for Britain and bad for the Palestinians."
UNISON represents over 1.3 million members working in the public sector, private contractors and the utilities.