Boycott the Histadrut!

By Kathy Newnam

On March 29, the Israeli Manufacturers Association (IMA) reported that Israeli exporters are losing markets because of the boycott campaign that has been gathering momentum internationally since Israel’s 22-day assault on Gaza. The chairperson of the IMA’s foreign trade committee told the Jerusalem Post: “In addition to the problems and difficulties arising from the global economic crisis, 21% of local exporters report that they are facing problems in selling Israeli goods because of an anti-Israel boycott, mainly from the UK and Scandinavian countries.”

Unsurprisingly, the impact of the growing boycotts, divestment, sanction (BDS) campaign has met with opposition from supporters of the Zionist state in the trade union movement, who not only rehash the Israeli government’s lies, but also perpetuate myths about the Israeli labour unions in order to cloak their support for Israel in the rhetoric of worker solidarity. In February, for example, the Australian Workers Union (AWU) congress heard a recorded address by Israeli Federation of Labor (Histadrut) chief Ofer Eini in which he defended the Zionist state’s 22-day murderous assault on the 1.5 million Palestinians of the Gaza Strip and called on the AWU to condemn the BDS campaign.

Taking up this call, AWU national secretary Paul Howes condemned the BDS campaign, telling the media: “We don’t believe a union campaign to boycott Israel helps advance the peace process, especially because unions in Israel and Palestine have made important, if tentative, steps to build cooperative, working alliances.” What Howes doesn’t mention is that the Palestinian unions are part of the BDS campaign, including the call for a boycott of the Histadrut, which is a trade union in name only.

A colonising agency

Histadrut was founded in 1920, not as a trade union federation, but in order to promote the creation of a Jewish colonial-settler state in Palestine. It formed various departments, including employment services and health services for Jewish people only. Golda Meir, who was appointed to the Histadrut executive committee in 1928, and who later became Israel’s fourth prime minister, described Histadrut as a “great colonising agency”.

From its formation, Histadrut campaigned against Jewish employers who employed Arab workers. It also broke strikes by Palestinian unions, including the 1936 general strike that was part of the 1936-1939 Arab uprising against British colonial rule over Palestine. Histadrut’s official policy was for segregation of Jewish and Palestinian workers.

After establishment of the State of Israel in May 1948, Histadrut was the second largest Israeli employer — owning major companies engaged in the dairy industry, construction and retail trade. It also organised the funding and the formation of kibbutzim — communal farming settlements that are commonly romanticised by “left” Zionists as expressions of “socialism”, even though the kibbutzim were an integral part of a racist colonisation project, being established on land seized from Palestinian farmers. From the early 1950s, the kibbutzim began exploiting the labour of Mizrahi Jews (dark-skinned Jewish immigrants from Arab countries), hiring them to work the kibbutzim’s fields.

Segregation, repression and super-exploitation

After the establishment of the State of Israel, membership of Histadrut became a precondition for employment. Similarly, to be a member of the main health fund required membership of the Histadrut. In this way, the Histadrut ensured the development of Jewish-only employment and access to services — it was not until 1959 that a labour shortage led the Histadrut to allow membership to Palestinian citizens of Israel, though they were segregated into an “Arab section”.

Histadrut deliberately did not invest or create factories in Israeli Arab towns or villages. Histadrut racist policies were one of the primary causes of Israeli Arab unemployment and poverty, a situation that continues to this day. According to the National Insurance Institute, 52% of Israel’s Palestinians citizens live below the poverty line, as opposed to 16% of its Jewish citizens.

There are innumerable examples of the complicity of the Histadrut in the Israeli state’s racist oppression of Palestinian workers. Just some examples:

  • It never spoke out against the Israeli crackdown against Palestinian unions formed in the late 1970s, during which Palestinian unionists were assassinated, tortured and interrogated and their union offices attacked and shut down.
  • It actively opposed the 1976 general strike of Palestinian workers in Galilee against land confiscations. During the strike the Israeli military and police attacked a demonstration, killing six young Palestinians, injuring 96 and arresting over 300 people (this attack is commemorated each year on March 30 as Palestinian Land Day).
  • It has never objected to the mass arrests of Palestinian workers from the West Bank and Gaza who reach their workplaces without proper “permits”. The permit system is used as a method of control, with the flow of workers without permits tolerated in order to create a cheap and unprotected labour force for Israeli employers.
  • It did not oppose the mass lay-offs of Palestinian workers that took place after the second intifada began in 2000.
  • In 2004 Palestinian construction workers in the Knesset (Parliament) grounds were required to wear helmets marked with a red X to identify them for assassination in the case of an “emergency”. Histadrut made no objection.

Histadrut has also facilitated the super-exploitation of Palestinian workers to its own benefit. In 1970 the Israeli military administration took over supervision of the employment of Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza. With the collaboration of Histadrut, 10% of Palestinian workers’ wages went to the “Equalisation Fund”, supposedly to fund social and cultural services in the Occupied Palestinian Territories (OPT), but actually used to fund the occupation. As part of this deal, Histadrut received 1% of all Palestinian workers’ wages, for which these workers received nothing in return. In 1995 Histadrut signed an agreement with the Palestinian General Federation of Trade Unions (PGFTU) to repay 8 million shekels to compensate for this stolen money — a tiny fraction of the over 1.5 billion shekels it owed.

‘New Histadrut’

The agreement with the PGFTU was part of the Histadrut’s propaganda campaign associated with the “New Histadrut”, as it was renamed in 1995. In that year, Histadrut sold off most of its business enterprises and membership of the national health fund was delinked from Histadrut membership. This was part of the overall restructuring of the Israeli economy led by the Israeli Labor Party as it embraced neoliberal “free market” policies. This sell off of its businesses, ostensibly to pay for Histadrut debt, heralded the creation of a less-directly state-subsidised Israeli capitalist class — a “nation building” program that was once again aided by the “New Histadrut”. One example of the assistance Histradrut gave to this program was the sale of Histadrut’s real estate company (Shikun v’Binui). Sold for 300 million shekels, within a few months its stockmarket value reached 1.2 billion shekels.

The Arab-Israeli “peace process”, beginning with the 1979 peace treaty with Egypt, was an important part of the restructuring of the Israeli economy — which required the ending of the Arab countries’ boycott of trade with Israel and a ban on Israeli investments. This has been largely successful, with Israeli companies now producing goods in industrial zones in Egypt and Jordan — goods that are able to be exported to the US without incurring any tariffs or quotas. As a result, Israel has been able to reduce its dependence on cheap Palestinian labour from the OPT. Between 1988 and 2000 there was a 60% drop in the Palestinian labour force working inside Israel, with Palestinian workers being replaced by 250,000 foreign “guest” workers, half of whom are there illegally.

Until the early 1990s, Histadrut had used its influence in the international labour movement to keep Palestinian unions isolated. After the signing of the 1993 Oslo Accords, Histadrut altered its position toward the Palestinian unions. It sought to take control of them and use them to gain acceptance in the Arab world. This is the context for the Histadrut’s claims to be working with Palestinian unions.

The rhetoric of labour solidarity is used by many Western union officials to cover-up real history and policies of Histadrut. Those union leaders who oppose the boycott of Histadrut are only too well aware of this history. Their support for Histadrut is part-and-parcel of their collaboration with the Western capitalist rulers’ support for the Zionist colonisation of Palestine.

At the height of the movement against South African apartheid, Histadrut unsurprisingly offered its support to labour unions sponsored by the apartheid regime. It carried out joint ventures with apartheid companies, including weapons manufacturers. This demonstrated Histadrut’s true nature — thoroughly racist and in stark opposition to the principles workers’ solidarity. The same is true for those trade union leaders here who support Histadrut and the Israeli apartheid regime.