Tiptoe Through the TULIP – Paul Howes and the BDS

Today I had a very interesting Twitter conversation with the National Secretary of the AWU, Paul Howes, a man about which I have been critical on many occasions.  I took particular issue with his flippancy in relation to Marrickville Council’s BDS work – especially with his false claim that Marrickville was about to boycott / shut down Max Brenner, because boycotting it is part of the global BDS campaign.

I made comments to him about his frequent attacks on Greens such as those on Marrickville Council and Jamie Parker, calling him a “snake oil salesman”.  He responded – something I have not been used to getting from him before – and sent me the transcript of a very interesting speech he made to the Zionist Federation in Melbourne.  In it, he outlines to his Zionist audience the reasons why the AWU is opposed to the BDS campaign, identifying it as not being from people “in the Territories”, rather from the Palestinian diaspora and therefore suspect – for these reasons:

“The Palestinian Diaspora is less willing to compromise, more willing to keep the fight going,  because they don’t have to actually live the oppressive life suffered by those in the Territories.  Living comfortably in Australia, Canada, USA, UK or Europe these Diaspora activists are happy to fight to the last blood of Palestinians who actually have to live under the Occupation”.

This statement could be seen as dismissing the efforts made by any members of either diaspora in question – Israeli and Palestinian – for example, the work of Daniel Barenboim or the rise of Avigdor Lieberman.  However, it more accurately reveals a mistrust of a “foreign” movement shows a continuation of the union tradition of not trusting outsiders.  It also shows the same contempt for middle class activists in 1st World countries that we see from Miranda Devine and Andrew Bolt.

The speech also shows just how Paul Howes applies his eternal pragmatism in everything he does.  To him, the only important body to listen to is another set of trade unions.  In this case, the PGFTU.

“I think I am upholding that union tradition when I work to support the development of the Palestinian General Federation of Trade Unions as an independent, democratic, civic society institution… I stand with the union movements of both Israel and Palestine, as they fight for workers rights on both sides of the Green Line… I support the trust-building co-operative projects that the Israeli trade union movement – led by the Histadrut – and the Palestinian trade union movement – led by the PGFTU – are promoting”.  

This trust of the local union over the diaspora movement is outlined with this statement:

“The PGFTU has been explicit in their rejection of any call for a general BDS, or one that extends to companies which operate only in Green Line Israel and not the West Bank”.

And finally, an anecdotal union leader reason to trust the PGFTU:

“The leader of the PGFTU, Shaher Saed, is respected around the globe for his street smarts. People tell me that he is a realistic, pragmatic trade unionist – who knows when to compromise to achieve a deal. Now in my view they’re the types of trade union leaders who best succeed in representing workers”.

In other words, Howes had heard that Shaher Saed is a Palestinian Paul Howes, so that’s good enough for him.   This call for pragmatism is also present in the speech where Howes seeks to demonstrate that what is important is co-operative projects as well as the old union adage…

“If you truly believe that a-worker-is-a-worker-is-a-worker then the function of any trade union is to ensure fair pay for a fair day’s work and a safe and healthy workplace”.

As long as the workers get paid a proper wage, then it’s all OK.  In the speech, we see one mention of the word “oppressive” in terms of the lives of those in the Occupied Territories – but not a lot about other negatives in regards to the treatment of the Palestinian people by Israel.  There is, however, a lot of demonisation of the founder of the BDS – “university student” Omar Barghouti and the lack of legitimacy of speakers for the BDS.  I imagine that would have played well to his audience.

What was interesting, though, was Howes’ point that the actors who refused to perform in the Ariel Cultural Centre are not part of the BDS (including Daniel Barenboim) – more they are part of a peaceful solution to “winning the two state solution” as Howes puts it. This does raise a question of approaches to the question of Israel and how those outside can place pressure to help the peace process along.  It is a question that the NSW Greens have asked, and answered with the BDS.  With Howes it is this –

“It is because of these principles that I joined with fellow union leaders in the UK and the USA to establish Trade Unions Linking Israel and Palestine (TULIP)”

Ultimately, what I learnt was that Paul Howes isn’t the caricature he has made himself to be this past year, and Twitter seems to make it worse for him to be able to articulate his messages – as he said to me – it’s “hard to be detailed in 140 characters (also Twitter does bring out the worse in me)”.  The speech showed interesting thoughts and ideas, as well as a pragmatic approach to ensuring a sustainable future for Palestinian workers.

However, I can’t see how a tiptoe through the TULIP is going to place enough pressure on Israel to stop building more settlements on Palestinian land or ensure a transition to a two state solution that seems to be as far away as ever.  It’s similar in its over cautiousness to opposing major reform like a carbon tax because it might cost jobs in the short term.

Howes’ speech, though, does ask crucial questions about the BDS movement and its effectiveness, as well as its motives and leadership.  Questions much too complex to be handled in Australia’s media and political landscape as it is at this moment.  As with most Australians, I still don’t really know enough about the BDS to be able to counteract Paul Howes’ accusations.  Maybe someone else can.

In the meantime, I’ll end this two part examination of the BDS with a bit of flippancy of my own – some lyrics from TISM –

AUSTRALIA – THE WORLD’S SUBURB

Maybe it makes you more intense
When your county’s small and you live in tents;
Kurds get gas and die to win
Land from Yass to Deniliquin.

Israel is the merest sliver,
Fits between Hay and the Murray River;
My map don’t show Condamine,
But it’s probably bigger than Palestine.

Imagine if old Yasser Arafat
Was given everything east of Ararat?
Make the middle east far less hairy,
And none of us would miss Port Fairy.

Let’s solve the whole Arabic mania,
Let’s sling ’em – what’s it called? – Tasmania.
Put all of Israel east of Broome –
Double the size! We’ve got the room:

But nationalism’s so damned myopic
When you’re on the atlas but microscopic –
All those guys would rather blow it up
Than move their home to Koo-wee-rup.

Of all nations, the most superb –
Australia, the world’s suburb.

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