Labor Strike Against Israel-American Prison Society Inc.
Israel isn’t just a violent, colonial state. It is also a driving force of the global carceral economy, and its private security industry directly impact the living conditions of Muslims, black and brown people in the United States. ¶ Zaina Alsous on what contemporary solidarity organizing with Palestine can learn from the 1973 Arab worker strike in Detroit.
“Bonds Murder Black Brothers in South Africa,” “Jewish People Yes, Zionism No” read protest signs held by around two thousand mostly Arab workers who had gathered outside Cobo Hall in Detroit on November 28, 1973. Inside the hall was a fundraiser where the Jewish organization B’nai B’rith was giving its Humanitarian Award to Leonard Woodcock, the president of the American labor union United Automobile Workers (UAW), for his ongoing support of Israel. Woodcock had purchased hundreds of thousands of dollars in Israeli bonds with union member dues without rank and file approval. Arab autoworker union members, mostly from the Detroit Chrysler, Dodge, and Ford plants, formed a picket line outside of the hall demanding their union dump the Israeli bonds. “We can shut Chrysler down” read another sign in Arabic. So many Arab workers left work to join the demonstration that an assembly line over at the Dodge Main plant was forced to shut down.
The strike lasted only one afternoon, and while it failed to coerce UAW’s national board to take a critical stance against Israel, organizing by the Arab Workers Caucus did eventually push UAW Local 600 in Dearborn to divest from Israeli bonds. It also did something else. It brought attention to the ways in which the Palestinian crisis is connected materially and economically to the livelihoods of black and brown workers in the US and elsewhere outside the occupied territory of Israel-Palestine.
Over forty years later this framing still feels remarkable because it happens so rarely. Mainstream narratives around Israel/Palestine almost always frame the conflict as something local and contained, concerning only Jews and Palestinian Arabs. In reality, Israel isn’t just a violent, colonial state. It is also a driving force of the global carceral economy.
Since the 1990s, private security has been one of the fastest growing industries in Israel. As Antony Loewenstein and Matt Kennard write in “How Israel Privatized Its Occupation of Palestine,” “Israel was following the model set by Ronald Reagan’s America and Margaret Thatcher’s Britain. Indeed, the US military industry encouraged the Israelis to privatize their weapons industry.”
New security technologies, and repressive police tactics the US and other states use to crush dissent, particularly from black workers, regularly originate in Israel, and Israeli defense corporations continue to profit. In 2017 Elta North America, an Israeli-owned defense manufacturer, was one of four corporations chosen to help build a prototype for the border wall between the US and Mexico. As one of the leading developers of border security technologies in the world, Israel directly benefits from the escalation of deportations of immigrants in the United States. According to the German newspaper Der Spiegel, Israel exported $2.4 billion in military equipment in 2012. With a population of roughly 8 million, that comes out to $300 in weapons export sales per resident. The development of US and Israeli military technology are substantially intertwined, from collaborative missile defense manufacturing to sharing military intelligence. Both the United States and Israel are also overseeing mass deportations of black and brown migrants; Israel has even pledged to pay civilians who help hunt African migrants and refugees.
Since the early 2000s, thousands of US police and border patrol officers, including ICE and FBI agents, have traveled to Israel to be trained by Israeli police and military forces. For example, every year, the international Jewish NGO The Anti-Defamation League (ADL) invites American law enforcement executives to Israel to participate in a week-long counter-terrorism seminar. The ADL itself reports that, since its inception in 2003, “more than 200 law enforcement executives have participated, ... representing close to 100 different federal, state and local agencies across the country.”
Former Chicago Police Superintendent Garry McCarthy, who oversaw the department during the high-profile police murder of black 17-year-old Laquan McDonald, participated in Israeli police training in 2009, and in 2014 led a delegation of law enforcement officials to Israel. McCarthy was particularly interested in training Chicago police officers in Israeli security force “counter-terrorism” tactics, which retired US Army Major Todd E. Pierce describes as “‘pacifying’ a population through aggressive intelligence gathering and the application of military force.” This training and collusion is firmly rooted in the booming security and prison industries.
Contemporary solidarity organizing with Palestine should emphasize the ways worker conditions are connected to colonialism and mass-incarceration, and the mutual benefits of linking different struggles across race, class, religion, and nationality. As Angela Davis said last year in a speech at George Washington University on the need for social movements to support Palestine: “The US is a prison nation....if we call the US a prison nation, Palestine under Israeli occupation is certainly the worst possible example of a carceral society.” Creating a carceral society requires cultivating profitable technologies to further enable never-ending violent extraction. One embodiment of this extraction is that all of us who exist as workers in the US have had part of our labor stolen to uphold the settler colony of Israel. Since the beginning of the occupation, the United States has given more than $120 billion to the state of Israel. In 2016 President Obama pledged $38 billion to continue supporting the Israeli military, the largest aid package of its kind the United States has ever offered. This expenditure was followed by the US regime rewriting tax law to create what Cooperation Jackson co-founder Kali Akuno described as “one of the greatest transfers of wealth from working class to the rich in history.” Economic deregulation alongside ethno-nationalism, bolstered by advanced military policing in Israel provides a blueprint for the US under Trumpian fascism.
Few contemporary trade unions in the US have spoken out to acknowledge the harmful impacts of upholding the settler state of Israel on workers. In 2015 the United Electrical, Radio & Machine Workers of America was the first national union in the United States to endorse the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) Movement. The Palestinian Postal Workers Union wrote to UE in response, “Your active solidarity warms our hearts and gives us hope that one day the working class all over will mobilize as one to help us end this brutal colonial occupation, and bring down the blockade, walls and checkpoints.”
One reason organizations, unions, and public figures so rarely take a critical stance against the state of Israel is perhaps that they’re afraid of being labeled antisemitic. Faced with any disapproval, Zionists often accuse their critics of demonizing Jewish people who support Israel and exceptionalizing Israeli aggression. During the 2017 Dyke March in Chicago, a small group of individuals were asked to leave the march for expressing Zionist views – what the organizers called a violation of “the march’s anti-racist core values.” An avalanche of articles and statements were written in response, with many mainstream media outlets sharing pieces accusing the march of being antisemitic. Solidarity statements were also written, many by Jewish leftists, to counter this allegation and show support for both Dyke March organizers and Palestinians fighting for liberation. Yet few if any of the solidarity statements emphasized Israel’s harmful impact on black, brown, and Jewish workers right here, in the United States, and in other parts of the world beyond Palestine.
By commonly limiting our language to Jewish settlers and Palestinian victims when critiquing the Israeli occupation, and not more thoroughly explaining that our opposition to Israel is rooted in a material analysis, we fall into the trap of propagating mythologies invented by Israel to further its cause. The perpetually expanding state of Israel has never limited its harm to indigenous Palestinians. This detached narrative of Palestinian oppression inadvertently minimizes the severity of global colonial damage Israel perpetuates.
Recently, Sharon Nazarian, Senior Vice President of International Affairs at the Anti-Defamation League, published an op-ed called “By Rejecting Jews Intersectionality Betrays Itself.” While it’s clear from the title alone that Nazarian does not know what the concept of intersectionality – first coined by black feminist scholar Kimberlé Crenshaw in 1989 – actually means, she’s not the first Zionist to use manipulative language claiming that an intersectional lens is used to foment an “irrational hatred” of Jewish people. The significance of the black feminist contribution of an intersectional analysis is that it allows us to understand that oppressions are never isolated, what harms you inevitably harms me. Antisemitism is deeply intertwined with class, racial, and gender oppression. The roots of antisemitism will only ever be resolved by also working to understand and destroy the roots of anti-blackness, classism, and misogyny.
By applying an intersectional analysis to the state of Israel one might be able to better understand that creating an ethno-nationalist “Jewish” state, through ethnic cleansing and forcibly occupying the land of indigenous Arabs, cannot possibly free Jewish workers from the real and severe harms of antisemitism. At best, the Israeli colonial project merely allows resources for temporary domination by a settler class. It’s imperative that we refuse to allow the necessity of confronting antisemitism to be weaponized by right wing Zionists who have increasingly aligned with white supremacists. Recently, Israel even went as far as to ban members of Jewish Voice for Peace, an explicitly Jewish-led organization, from entering the country. By colluding with white supremacists, and legally barring the entrance of anti-Zionist Jews, the state of Israel poses a direct threat to the well-being and self-determination of Jewish workers. Here again, the political framework and analysis of the Arab Workers Caucus proves instructive.
The Detroit’s Arab Workers Caucus’ statement “The Basis for Unity: Our General Call” outlined their transnational political program of solidarity, where Arab workers in the US should organize on the basis of challenging both the degradation of racism and corporate exploitation. AsPamela Pennock writes in The Rise of the Arab American Left, “they represented their struggles as in concert with liberation movements throughout the world, as well as with movements with other national minorities in the US and called on their members to educate the American working class about these connections.” One of the most important lessons on insurgent labor to be learned from the Arab Workers Caucus in the 1970s was their attempt to build solidarity with black workers by highlighting connections between Israel and Apartheid South Africa. An ad taken out in November 1973 in the Michigan Chronicle, a black newspaper in Detroit, called for community solidarity with Arab autoworkers organizing to oppose the UAW’s purchase of Israeli bonds reads:
“The UAW has an estimated 15,000 Arab members. Purchase of Israeli bonds is regarded by these workers similarly as would a UAW investment in racist South Africa would be regarded by black workers. While 26 black African countries have severed political relations with Israel in the last two months, Israel and South Africa maintain diplomatic ties.”
Arab autoworkers were influenced by the League of Revolutionary Black Workers who formed out of a wildcat strike in 1968 at Dodge Main and went on to organize revolutionary worker caucuses in Detroit auto plants. Members of the Arab Workers Caucus in Detroit recognized the need to frame narratives of solidarity with Palestine in ways that connected with the needs and politics of black workers who made up 30 percent of the UAW’s membership. Rather than creating a moral narrative around Palestine as an isolated victim of occupation, Arab workers traced the connective thread between Israel and global colonialism and its impacts on black workers outside of Palestine. The program put forth by the Arab Workers Caucus ahead of the 24th UAW Constitutional Convention included a vision of international worker solidarity alongside material improvements in their daily working conditions:
c. UAW should stand firmly in support of all workers and people struggling in Africa, Asia and Latin America. In the Middle East, the UAW should support the principle of establishing a secular, non-theocratic, democratic state in Palestine for all people, Jews and Arabs, and stand against any outside intervention.”
Today, some of the most successful resistance tactics levied against the Israeli occupation have manifested in the BDS campaign organizing to pressure divestment from corporations that profit off of occupation. Modeled after the South African anti-apartheid movement, Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) as a tactic has spread widely even as right-wing Zionism continues to escalate. G4S, a British security company that has operated prisons and military equipment at checkpoints within Israel has long been a key target of BDS. In 2014 Durham activists with Jewish Voice for Peace won an agreement from Durham County, North Carolina to end its contract with G4S.
To be principled in framing our discussions of Israel and Palestine as a global crisis for workers is to also honor the breadth of solidarity with Palestine exhibited internationally, and the opportunities for advancing our multinational resistance to settler colonialism. The same week Somalian immigrants living in the United States experienced “slave ship conditions” on a failed deportation flight, thousands of people gathered in the streets of Somalia in solidarity with Palestine opposing the US announcement to move Israel’s capital to Jerusalem. Similar protests in solidarity with Palestine took place around the world, from Indonesia to Chicago. In 2016, Gazans shared a video expressing solidarity with indigenous peoples protesting the Dakota Access Pipeline. G4S, the same British security company that incarcerated and tortured Palestinians in Israel, including children, was contracted by Dakota Access LLC to provide security to the pipeline corporation during the protests. In April over 1,500 Palestinians in Israeli prisons joined a hunger strike. Palestinian prisoner demands echoed demands by incarcerated workers in the United States organizing hunger strikes, particularly around demanding an end to solitary confinement and rights to visitation. Many of the same black-led organizations in the United States, particularly the Dream Defenders based out of Florida, that have been on the front lines of expanding prison and police abolition organizing, have also dedicated themselves to building solidarity with Palestinian liberation.
The struggle against the state of Israel is the struggle against the extractive carceral economy at large, and the violent future capitalism has in store for all of us. “I need to speak about living room” wrote June Jordan in one of her poems inspired by Palestine, “Moving Towards Home”. We need to disrupt pacifying narratives of “civil” wars and speak more to the larger interlocking forces restraining living room for black and brown workers. As a daughter of the Palestinian diaspora, my demand is not merely to return to the land stolen from my family; my demand is the total destruction of the apparatus and economic system predicated on black slavery, violent exploitation, and ethnic cleansing.