Helping Forward move forward

On July 22, E. J. Kessler, deputy managing editor of the oldest and most revered American Jewish weekly, Forward, reported that “a far-left pro-Palestinian group” sought to pass a divestment resolution at the AFL-CIO quadrennial convention, which takes place in Chicago next week. As a co-founder of this “far-left group,” Labor for Palestine (LFP) — which is not a “group” but a campaign as its Web site’s watermark indicates on every page — I find it worth noting some errors and points of conjecture that my colleague’s article contains.

Before starting, I should explain why I refer to Ms. Kessler as a colleague, rather than an adversary, and why this article is not a defense, an indirect attack, or anything remotely in the field of antagonism. Despite the 107-year age difference between LFP and Forward, both institutions support trade unionism and social justice, according to their respective Web sites. Similarly, Forward’s self-proclaimed “conscience of the ghetto,” is a sensibility shared by Palestinians in places like the Gaza Strip and Qalqilia. Such ghetto scenarios have inspired Jews of conscience to pledge allegiance to campaigns like LFP, or to groups like Al-Awda, Not In My Name, Brooklyn Parents for Peace or Jews Against the Occupation, to name but a few.

Finally, in the spirit of the LFP’s national educational conference, which takes place as this article goes to electronic “press,” Ms. Kessler’s piece is an excellent example of why campaigns like LFP emerge and why they hold educational conferences.

Like the American consciousness on Occupied Palestine, the general tenor of Ms. Kessler’s article is dismissive. She refers to LFP’s alleged failure “in an earlier attempt to get a local union to pass a similar [divestment] resolution,” then suggests that the AFL-CIO resolution “is likely to fail on the floor of the convention … ecause [sic] it conflicts with the AFL-CIO policy.” In another paragraph, Ms. Kessler gets to the bottom of the LFP “group” by revealing its affiliation with Al-Awda, The Palestine Right to Return Coalition (like LFP’s campaign status, the Al-Awda affiliation is stated all over its Web site, and in several articles written about it). Ms. Kessler then unearths the dirty truth about Al-Awda, that it is a “broad-based, nonpartisan global democratic association of thousands of grassroots activists, including students and organizational representatives, concerned for the Palestinian refugees right to return,” and that it “has links with leftist Palestinian factions and the Marxist dominated anti-war coalition International Answer.” Ms. Kessler’s story closes with a quote by Raphael Rothstein of the Israel Bonds corporation, who believes the “misguided” LFP concept “will fizzle out.”

As a disclaimer to the apparent journalistic one-sidedness, Ms. Kessler adds that “[m]essages to Labor for Palestine and Al-Awda asking for comment went un-returned.” In reality, Ms. Kessler’s query was passed from Al-Awda members in San Diego, to an LFP organizer in San Francisco, who, though stretched thin from convention-planning tasks, left an un-returned message with Ms. Kessler on Wednesday morning, 48 hours before the article was published.

Since weekly publications usually face advanced deadlines, I will let her disclaimer stand. But allow me to address her “findings” in order: Labor for Palestine has never, as a campaign, made a resolution attempt on a local union. Many of the campaign’s endorsers have undertaken such initiatives on local levels, particularly the Bay Area Local Committee For Peace and Justice, but these did not stem from a grander LFP agenda. Although LFP is a growing network of progressive labor activists which might one day serve as an umbrella organization that lobbies for such actions, its ability to act as an hierarchical group has not been determined. This will be one of many topics presented at today’s LFP convention in Chicago, along with a proposed Israel Bonds divestment resolution (the AFL-CIO has an estimated $5 billion invested in Israel Bonds through pension funds). This resolution too will not be imposed on the AFL-CIO by the LFP “group,” which doesn’t exist, but by rank-and-file trade unionists who have affiliated with the LFP cause.

To this end, LFP represents one of many organized movements that are dissatisfied with the AFL-CIO’s well-documented complicity with US foreign policy, or “labor imperialism,” since the early 20th century. Examples range from counteracting the Mexican revolution, to attempts at thwarting South Africa’s anti-apartheid movement, to the recent temporary coup on democratically-elected Hugo Chavez of Venezuela. Lying at the core of these accusations is the phenomenally undemocratic nature of the AFL-CIO’s foreign policy decisions, as demonstrated by their involvement in Advisory Committee on Labor Diplomacy, or by their relinquishing of the so-called Solidarity Center to the State Department’s purse strings. The AFL-CIO’s unrelenting support for Israel’s racist policies — which directly target Palestinian workers — are yet another notch in this imperial history, not to mention a boiling point for anti-American sentiment in Middle Eastern countries.

With this background in mind, let us consider the conclusions that Ms. Kessler draws without it. First, Ms. Kessler notes the AFL-CIO’s anti-divestment policy, which is entirely accurate, as I can attest from telephone conversations with Phil Fishman, the AFL-CIO’s assistant director for International Affairs. But given the oppositional trend against people like Mr. Fishman, and the oft-cited remark that next week’s AFL-CIO convention could be its last, shall we take their foreign policy for gospel? Not a terribly intuitive move by Ms. Kessler.

Rather, she punctuates her argument by saying that the AFL-CIO invests in parties “seeking peace, including Israel and moderate Palestinian forces.” Apparently, Ms. Kessler reads the available worldwide media even less carefully than she reads Web sites. To call Israel a peace-seeking party is at best questionable, and I can only hope that she does her homework before writing this again. Meanwhile, the “moderate Palestinian forces” she refers to could perhaps take notes from Mangosuthu Gatsha Buthelezi.

Finally, as one of perhaps millions of Forward readers who are not brazen, anti-Arab racists, I’m perplexed as to why Ms. Kessler pinpoints Al-Awda’s self-described “nonpartisan global democratic, [etc.]” status in the context of an article that very clearly serves to marginalize a political idea. Is she suggesting that an Arab-based grassroots organization — with an Arabic name — is incapable of democratic values? Such an open-ended association is susceptible to any number of dangerous conjectures. Ms. Kessler’s article merely grants them occasion. To avoid my own conjectures, and until Ms. Kessler moves forward with a better explanation, I will leave this inquiry here.

Zachary Wales is a masters student at Columbia University’s School of International and Public Affairs. He is also a co-founder of Labor for Palestine, and he currently takes summer courses at Birzeit University.

Related Links

  • Labor for Palestine
  • Forward
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