An advertisement published in the Australian on March 12 rightly condemned an Australian parliamentary motion that celebrated the 60th anniversary of the establishment of the State of Israel.
However, the unions who signed on to the statement contained in this advertisement have come under fire from right-wing union leaders in both Australia and the US.
Prime Minister Kevin Rudd moved the motion to "celebrate and commend the achievements of the State of Israel in the 60 years since its inception" and to pledge the federal parliament's continuing support for Israel.
Rudd praised the "robust parliamentary democracy" of Israel and stressed the historical role that Australia — and particularly ALP politicians — played in the process that led to the founding of the State of Israel.
However Rudd's address failed to mention that this founding was based on the dispossession of the Palestinian people and that Israel's 60-year colonial history centres on a brutal, ongoing war on Palestine.
The motion received bipartisan support in the House of Representatives, with federal Coalition leader Brendan Nelson rising to speak in support.
There was not unanimous support for the motion, however. Labor MP Julia Irwin boycotted the vote by absenting herself. A protestor was removed from the public gallery after heckling Rudd.
The newspaper advertisement read that "we as informed and concerned Australians, choose to dissociate ourselves from the celebration of the triumph of racism and ethnic cleansing of Palestinians since the al-Nakba (Catastrophe) of 1948". Among the 70 signatories were the NSW Branch of the Construction, Forestry, Mining and Energy Union (CFMEU) and the Sydney Branch of the Maritime Union of Australia (MUA).
International criticism of the CFMEU and MUA's position began with publication of an article entitled "American Labor can help right anti-Israel left" in the US Jewish daily Forward on March 27. The author, Stuart Appelbaum, is president of the US Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union and of the Jewish Labor Committee.
Appelbaum's article expressed the anger of so-called pro-Israel progressives in the US at the fact that much of the criticism of Israel's aggression comes from the international left. He singled out the CFMEU and the MUA as examples of "some of the venom generated by the left abroad" and accused those criticising Israel of anti-Semitism.
Tim Vollmer, media officer for the NSW branch of the CFMEU, rejected outright such a claim. The CFMEU "is not anti-Semitic", he told Green Left Weekly. "We are committed to criticising any governments where human rights abuses occur. We also oppose the war on Iraq and the oppression of West Papuans."
Paul Howes, the national secretary of the Australian Workers Union (AWU) and Jeff Lawrence, secretary of the Australian Council of Trade Unions (ACTU), have both distanced themselves from the left-wing unions who endorsed the advertisement.
Howes wrote a piece entitled "AWU stands up for Israel's sovereign rights", published in the Australian Jewish News on April 3, in which he praises the "democratic" nature of the Israeli state and boasts of the close relations that the AWU maintains with the Histadrut (the umbrella group of the trade union movement in Israel).
Likewise, MUA national secretary Paddy Crumlin has also dissociated himself and his union from the advertisement, despite the Sydney branch of the MUA endorsing it.
However CFMEU national secretary John Sutton has backed the NSW branch of his union in adding its endorsement. In a statement on the CFMEU website he noted that "We look forward to the day when a Labor Federal Government can also celebrate the birth of a Palestinian state".
As Vollmer told GLW, "A lot of independence struggles are not well known and it is the role of unions to be proactive about making sure that these struggles become well known".