What follows below is a a letter of concern about the recent CUPE resolution with respect to Israel. It is important to point out that this letter was written by a member of CUPE local 3903 whose activists were key players in the drafting and motivating of the resolution. It is also important to stress that the author does think that the symbolic and substantive sanctioning of Israel is warranted but that the comparision with Apartheid obscures far more than it clarifies.
An Open Letter of Concern Regarding CUPE Resolution 50
I have had reason to feel proud of many of the past CUPE motions with regards Israeli state policy. However, while I support a strategic boycott of some Israeli institutions as well as those who invest in Israel, I am concerned with the language of resolution 50 passed recently by CUPE Ontario. To be honest, I am conflicted and confused by the choice of language used in the resolution and I believe that this is a substantive issue that gives one reason to pause and ask what, indeed, is the motivation, overt and otherwise, behind the resolution.
My problem with the motion is the way it equivocates Israeli state policy with the policies stemming from both the British and Dutch colonial interests in Southern Africa. In my mind, the Israeli state is many things, but the South African apartheid state it is not. To call one the other is to misunderstand the effects of European colonial policy in South Africa and it is to obscure the ways Israeli state policy has come to affect Palestinians. It seems that such name-calling may allow for a political stink bomb but it hardly motivates one to take a serious political position towards Israeli policy or the history of the Israeli state.
To be sure, current Israeli and Middle Eastern self-understanding are part of a political process whose roots lie very much with British colonial policies in the Middle-East, yet what is fascinating about the present equivocation CUPE Ontario makes between Apartheid and Israeli policy is that it uses language that inadvertently refuses to look at the real, historical and political processes that have produced the current Israeli and Palestinian situation.
My own family is, broadly speaking, from the Middle Eastern region, my Ethiopian mother grew up in Jerusalem and my Ethiopian father grew up in Cairo. Both were also caught up in the process of state formation that the region underwent in the period following the Second World War. Yet, for me, and for anyone who seriously studies the legacy of the end of the British and French empire, an area of investigation that remains important is the manner in which the demise of said empires forced people to articulate and reproduce, in the guise of nationalism and self-determination, highly racialized and ethnizised notions of citizenship and belonging–identities that would inevitably force formerly colonized and dominated peoples to be at loggerheads with each other. What becomes important here is, how, in carving out modern nation-states, the British and the French empires were able to craft political identities that would have a lasting effect for the generation immediately following the dissolution of these empire.
In my mind we are living the consequences of this in Darfur as much as we are in Israel, and, I find it equally unhelpful to equivocate Israeli policy with Southern African colonial policy as I find calling the Darfur situation a catastrophe of Arab racism. This is not to deny the atrocities facing the Fur people. My problem is that, in both cases, people find it easier to call something racist, rather than find out how societies are constituted. This of course is not to deny that the foundations of some societies are race–South Africa under colonial rule is one such example.
However, it seems important to emphasize that what lies at the heart of the new states of the Middle East is a nationalism based on an identity that in many cases was carved out by the “Native authority” in the colonies, as well as the denial that these new states were constituted in very deliberate ways that left certain groups purposefully disenfranchised. But, this is why internal critiques of the constitution of the complicated topographies of these societies cannot be emphasized enough.
Clearly, today, nationalists in the region have convinced nearly a whole generation of young people that their identity formation has neither a history, nor a political-economy, but rather, is something carved in an ancient stone–a previous generation, at least had a living memory of something else. Indeed, the cosmopolitan world that my parents once lived in, only sixty years ago is probably unimaginable for most people in the region today. But then, this proves that the current mystification around identity formation is actually part of the political process in areas formerly dominated by colonial powers. Thus, in my mind a serious political discussion around current Israeli policy would entail a constant effort to excavate this story. I also believe that evading history through political equivocation is very much part of the problem when it comes to excavating this story.
Ultimately, that is why I find the CUPE resolution not only unhelpful, but also divisive–it repeats and takes for granted political identities that need to be exploded. Perhaps this is too much history for a union to take on, but I must say that some key intellectuals in the Darfur debate have managed to shift the language surrounding that crises to a less racialized one and thus corrected the kinds of interventions people were once proposing. Perhaps this can be true of Israel as well, even if the regime there likes to pretend they are in Europe and not right next to the Sinai. Lastly, given that in my mind the CUPE Ontario resolution uses language that reduces history to good guys and bad guys, how can I not feel that this inevitably feeds into historical prejudice, whether or not people intended it to do so? This, to, is unhelpful.