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The AFL-CIO Needs to Wake Up

A timid and sorry response to Hamas butchery

Louis Nayman
October 19, 2023

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I’m a retired union organizer and the son of Holocaust survivors who has been abandoned by the leadership of the movement to which I dedicated my entire working life. Following the vicious slaughter of Israeli innocents by the terrorists of Hamas, it took the AFL-CIO nearly five days to issue a response which, when it came, proved to be inadequate, tepid, and reeking of false moral equivalency. When infants are murdered at point blank range and Holocaust survivors are kidnapped, held hostage, and threatened with execution, the appropriate moral response is not even-handedness and a misplaced concern for balance.

If it’s true that you can be disappointed only by a friend, this is such a case.

AFL-CIO: Statement on the Situation in Israel

October 11, 2023

(Washington, D.C., Oct. 11, 2023)—There can be no justification for the unspeakable atrocities and carnage carried out by Hamas against Israelis over the past several days. The labor movement condemns and stands resolute against all terrorism, and we are concerned about the emerging humanitarian crisis that is affecting Palestinians in Gaza and throughout the region. We call for a swift resolution to the current conflict to end the bloodshed of innocent civilians, and to promote a just and long-lasting peace between Israelis and Palestinians.

The statement begins with the assertion that there can be “no justification” for Hamas’ atrocities, then pivots to a condemnation against “all terrorism,” followed by concern “about the emerging humanitarian crisis affecting Palestinians in Gaza,” and concludes with the call for a “swift resolution” to the current conflict “to end the bloodshed of innocent civilians ...”

The AFL-CIO leadership would do well to Google the 1988 Hamas Covenant (Charter), the terrorists’ founding document, which explicitly calls for a war of extermination not “only” against Israel, but against Jews as individuals and as a people. Hamas, remember, is not a stochastic ragtag band of outlaws but a de facto governmental regime ruling over its own nation state. Its military forces station rocket launchers beside and beneath apartment buildings, schools, and hospitals, and stockpile ammunition in mosques.

There is no recognition in the AFL-CIO statement of Israel’s right to self-defense or Israel’s obligation to rid its neighborhood and the world of Hamas terror. By calling for what amounts to an immediate armistice, the AFL-CIO statement would freeze in place the Hamas regime in Gaza, only for their terror squads to live to massacre innocent Jews some other day.

How to account for the AFL-CIO’s moral timidity when it comes to endorsing Israel’s right to self-defense?

Some of it can be traced to the AFL-CIO’s 1995 change in leadership with the election of John Sweeney as president. Sweeney’s narrow victory over Tom Donahue depended on the support within the movement of a small but vocal activist base, many of whom come straight from academia or so-called social justice organizations and have never held union cards as actual workers but were selected to fill important slots in the labor federation’s headquarters bureaucracy based more on ideology than on authentic roots in labor. Today it appears that some in union leadership, like their counterparts in academia, are more concerned about appeasing a vocal ideological left wing in their midst than in standing up for the only democracy—flawed as it is—in the entire Middle East.

This is not the AFL-CIO I grew up with, the AFL-CIO that fought fascism and Soviet communism, smuggled funds and communications equipment into Poland in support of Lech Walesa and Solidarity, sought to help workers build democratic trade unions in former Iron Curtain countries, and unapologetically stood behind Israel’s right to self-defense even while disagreeing with some of its internal policies and politics. That AFL-CIO would never have issued something as morally muddleheaded as its “Statement on the Situation in Israel.”

As a lifelong trade unionist, a refugee, the son of survivors of the Lodz ghetto, Auschwitz, Buchenwald, the slave labor camp at Bad Kudova, and Terezin, I implore labor’s leadership at the AFL-CIO to clarify their stance. They can start by endorsing the $100 billion military aid package for Israel and Ukraine that will soon be proposed by President Biden promptly, unequivocally, and without reservation or conditions in a voice loud enough for the entire world to hear.

If it’s true that you can be disappointed only by a friend, this is such a case.

It’s important to note here that the leadership of two unions—my own, the American Federation of Teachers as well as the Retail Wholesale Department Storeworkers Union—immediately issued strong statements of support for Israel and its right to self-defense as soon as the news broke concerning Hamas’ invasion and war crimes. The Jewish Labor Committee, a coalition of trade unionists supporting a democratic Israel and a two-state solution for Palestine and Israel, has been in touch with Histadrut concerning support for our Israeli brothers and sisters in the labor movement. A similar outreach by the AFL-CIO, which has not occurred to date, would be appropriate and very much welcomed.

With the rapidly escalating violence in Gaza, Israelis can be expected to be accused of perpetrating the war crime of targeting innocent civilians. These deaths and injuries are a tragedy, and my heart goes out to the innocent victims and their families. Let’s be clear, though—the tragic mistaken firing of an errant missile or misdirected bomb are not the moral equivalent of a bullet intentionally fired at point blank range into a toddler’s skull or to the kidnapping of aged Holocaust survivors and other noncombatants.

These are perilous times for Jews around the world and for Israeli Jews in particular. The Hamas-produced videos of Jews being hunted down house to house by armed invaders, then marched barefoot through the streets—invalids in wheelchairs, old people, babies in their parents’ arms—to be murdered in cold blood recall the eyewitness accounts and black and white films we’ve all seen of events in Europe during the 1940s. Let the complacency with which the world observed the murders of my grandparents, aunts, uncles and cousins back then not be repeated in the timidity of our leaders today.

Immediately following the Hamas attack, Al Sharpton—not always regarded by the Jewish community as a supporter and friend—organized the nation’s leading civil rights organizations in issuing a statement of support for the people and nation of Israel. The National Black Empowerment Council published a similarly full-throated statement. The leadership of the AFL-CIO and its constituent unions could learn a lesson in moral courage from their counterparts in African American leadership.

I have no doubt that the vast majority of union members in this country are repulsed by the war crimes committed by Hamas and support the right of Israel to defend itself. Their leaders should not continue to be cowed by a vocal minority of ideological activists inside the movement—but primarily without—into equivocating over Israel’s right to end the terror visited upon its civilians from the murderers in Gaza.

Louis Nayman is a retired labor union organizer whose writing has appeared in In These Times, Tablet, Washington Jewish Week, and The Times of Israel.