Schwere Vorwürfe gegen den DGB-Chef
[Serious Allegations against the Chair of theGerman Confederation of Trade Unions (DGB)]
By Susann Witt-Stahl, Hintergrund, 06.12.2013

Michael Sommer: background to the article

The president of the German Federation of Trade Unions (DGB) and president of the International Trade Union Confederation, Michael Sommer, is one of the most powerful union leaders worldwide.  For years he has been a strong supporter of Israeli politics. On a congress of his German Federation of Trade Unions and the Deutsch-Israelische Gesellschaft (DIG), the German version of AIPAC, with the leader of the Israeli union Histadrut in 2009 Sommer harshly attacked especially the South African Union COSATU and the UNISON of UK. He said their campaigns for boycott of Israeli products after the Lebanon war 2006 and Gaza war 2008/2009 reminds him on the Nazi slogan “Kauft nicht bei Juden!” (“Don’t buy from Jews!”):

In November 2013 he was awarded the Arno-Lustiger-Prize (former “I-Like-Israel-Prize”) on the Israel Congress ( which is patronaged by the Ambassador of the State of Israel in the Federal Republic of Germany, the Chairperson of the Friede Springer Foundation and Publisher and President of the Central Council of Jews in Germany and Vice-President of the World Jewish Congress and held at 10th of November 2013 in the Berlin Congress Center.  In his acceptance speech Michael Sommer combined the remembrance of the November anti-semitic pogroms against jews in Germany 1939 with the demand to be in solidarity with Israel. He  praised Israeli entrepreneurs on the occupied Palestinean Wetbank and blamed international unionists, who criticize the Israelian politics and support the BDS campaign.

In his speech at the Israel Congress Michael Sommer said:
 “I accept the Arno Lustiger Price in the name of the many trade unionists who have campaigned for German-Israeli friendship and continue to do so.” […]
“Today, a lot of people mentioned that it is part of the German reason of state to accept Israel’s right to exist and its right to be free. I would stress that this is also the common sense of German society.”
“As for a difficult question which I do not want to avoid: no doubt there are voices in the German trade unions–and particularly in the international trade union movement–which speak very critically of Israel, especially with regards to the settlements in the West Bank. There are different ways to look at this, and my judgement differs from that of many of my colleagues. In my view, there is a need for an honest peace, and for that to happen we need a situation where nobody needs to fear for their future and their existence anymore. As long as Israel’s future is at risk, I’m on Israel’s side, full stop.”

About a motion which called for a boycott of Israeli goods particularly from the West Bank, submitted by South African, Scandinavian and British unions to the congress of the International Trade Union Confederation in Washington:

“Without a doubt, the atmosphere at the meeting was anti-Israel (…) My South African colleague argued that Israel was guilty of collaboration with the Apartheid regime (…) I told him I could emotionally comprehend where he was coming from, and that I could see he came from a tradition of anti-Apartheid resistance. But at the same time, I told him that “Don’t buy from Jews” was not a motion that I would allow to be passed. Not as long as there is a German trade union president in this confederation. Never again!” (applause) […]
When reporting from a recent visit to Israel: […]
“I had the opportunity to meet with the president of the Israeli employer association. He spontaneously invited me to visit his factory in the West Bank, which gave me the chance to speak to his workers in one-on-one conversations. I asked them: “what will you do if the Israelis decide to stop investing in you and employ Israeli workers instead of Palestinian ones? “ They replied: “That wouldn’t be very nice for us, because we would then suffer the same fate as our fathers–at best, we could go to the Arab states and look for employment as very underprivileged migrant workers. That isn’t something we want. We really want to work here.” […]
“I mentioned this to a Palestinian colleague. Of course, he has to take a different standpoint on these things, not least because he is under so much pressure.” […]
“Quite rightly, we have a policy in our international trade union congress which supports the peaceful coexistence of the two states in the region. Let me just mention that I asked the Israeli employer president – whose factory, by the way, produces textiles for carpets and exports them worldwide–“what will you do if this becomes Palestinian state territory in the future?” He replied: “What can I do? I’ll stay here. Whatever treaty is signed, I hope that my property and my future will be protected just as much as Israeli capital that is exported to Germany is protected and vice versa.” I have to say I was incredibly happy about this kind of pragmatism. I was happy about the way he said: it can be done. I think that is the decisive message.” […] 
“Finally, let me say that there are a lot of trade unionists in this country who really work hard to ensure that the Nazis never rear their heads again. I want to ask all of you–but also to new coalition government in this country–to make sure that initiatives like these are supported and really have a future.”

You can download and hear the whole speech of Michael Sommer here:
Here is a critical report of the weak protests (for example from the European Jews for a Just Peace Germany) in Germany:

English-language statements, some quoted in the article

Ken Loach (film director):
I am shocked to read the statement of Michael Sommer concerning Israel. Has he not heard of Israel’s many illegal actions? The unlawful occupation of Palestinian lands? The brutal treatment of Palestinian children? Shame on him. He demeans his trade union and all he claims to represent.

Michael Warschawski (Alternative Information Center, peace activist):
Boycotting a country that is not respecting international law is a very old practice: I remember my family boycotting Franco’s Spain, Greece of the colonels, and of course South Africa. Even states have boycotted other States (Moscow Olympics games for example). Boycotting Israeli colonial state has nothing to do with boycotting Jews, and one needs all the dishonesty of Mrs. Alliot Marie, minister in the Sarkozy right wing French government to assess the big lie that the BDS campaign was calling to boycott Kosher foods. Moreover, the BDS campaign never boycotted individuals but Israeli institutional initiatives.

Congress of South African Trade Unions (COSATU) (Bongani Masuku, International Relations Secretary):

We appreciate the opportunity to respond to this important matter. We shall make it simple by saying that we know and have known that Michael Sommer is a staunch supporter of the occupying regime of Israel, which is a colonising power and practising the policy of apartheid against Palestinians.

It would be a good reminder that apartheid South Africa was helped by apartheid Israel to build its nuclear capacity and is one of the few countries to burst sanctions as did German and Sommer.

In the South African Newspaper, the Rand Daily Mail of 23 November, 1961, this is what one of the Chief architects of apartheid, Prime Minister Hendrik Verwoerd had to say about this matter, “Israel, like South Africa is an apartheid state”.

According to a statement by the End the Occupation, South Africa Group, “He was irked by the criticism of apartheid policy and Harold Macmillan’s “Winds of Change” speech , in contrast to the West’s unconditional support for Zionist Israel.

To be sure Verwoerd was correct. Both states preached and implemented a policy based on racial ethnicity; the sole claim of Jews in Israel and whites in South Africa to exclusive citizenship; monopolised rights in law regarding the ownership of land, property, business; superior access to education, health, social, sporting and cultural amenities, pensions and municipal services at the expense of the original indigenous population; the virtual monopoly membership of military and security forces, and privileged development along their own racial supremacist lines – even both countries marriage laws designed to safeguard racial “purity”.

The so-called “non-whites” in apartheid South Africa, indigenous Africans, others of mixed race or of Indian origin – like second or third class non-Jews in Israel – were consigned to a non-citizenship status of Kafkaesque existence, subject to bureaucratic whims and the laws prohibiting their free movement, access to work and trade, dictating where they could reside and so forth.

Verwoerd would have been well aware of Israel’s dispossession of indigenous Palestinian in 1948 – the year his apartheid party similarly came to power – of the unfolding destruction of their villages, the premeditated massacres and the systematic ethnic cleansing.

Within a few short years the apartheid regime was ruthlessly clearing South Africa’s cities and towns of so-called “black spots” – where the “non-whites” lived, socialised, studied and traded – bulldozing homes, loading families onto military trucks, and forcibly relocating them to distant settlements. Unlike the “native reserves” – soon to be reconstituted as Bantustans – not too far away from industrial areas because the economy thrived on a quota of cheap black labour”.

In summary, Sommer is well known to never have supported even the struggle against apartheid and colonialism in Africa and why would he support it in Palestine. He is clear where he stands, on the side of those who support colonialism, racism and occupation. The murder of Palestinians, the ethnic genocide and the chemical warfare against the people of Gaza are all nothing to him because he believes in the racial superiority of the Israelis who are daily being condemned by the whole world for their dastardly acts of cowardice and colonial apartheid.

Is it not a shame that a President of an international trade union movement and a national German Federation claiming to fight for the rights of people supports a racist, apartheid colonial policy openly to the point of having helped a member of the openly racist caricature of apartheid Israel, Histadrut, to be part of the Executive Bureau of the ITUC, with no shame. These are the same people who supported racist unions in apartheid RSA to undermine COSATU and its forebears, though they now pretend to have fought apartheid, but we know them.

British Committee for the Universities of Palestine (BRICUP) (Jonathan Rosenhead, Chair):

Michael Sommer, the President of the German Federation of Trade Unions, and of the International Trade Union Confederation, has attacked his fellow European trade unionists for their criticisms of Israel. He is reported to have compared their campaign for the boycott of Israeli institutions, and the disinvestment from Israeli companies, to the Nazi boycott of Jewish shops in 1930’s Germany.

There can be no excuse for giving so wilfully misleading an account on so grave an issue. For, on the contrary, the campaign to hold Israel responsible for its criminal behaviour towards the Palestinian people is motivated by the principles of anti-racism and justice. Those are the same principles that motivated anti-Nazis in the 1920s and 1930s, and which motivate those fighting neo-Nazism and Islamophobia today.

Antisemitism is targeted violence and discrimination against Jews as Jews. This has nothing to do with criticism of Israel. Israel is not criticised for its religious or ethnic make-up. It is criticised for its illegal occupation and colonisation of the West Bank, for the terrorisation of the 1.5 million Palestinians who are forced to live in the open prison that is the Gaza Strip, for the building of an Apartheid Wall that severs Palestinian agriculturalists from their land, for the systematic discrimination against Palestinian Arabs who are citizens of Israel, and for the attempt to extirpate the culture of the Palestinian nation. These are good and ample reasons.

Israel’s policies are indeed supported by some fundamentalist, evangelical Christians in the West. Zionist policies are quite evidently not the prerogatives of any particular cultural, ethnic or religious group. Indeed not all those from a Jewish cultural heritage support the state of Israel, and not all supporters of the state agree with these policies. Opposition to the policies, or even hostility to Israel as a confessional/ethnic state, is opposition to a political process or a political project. It is not hostility to Jews. To describe this opposition as Antisemitism is to propound a falsehood, and, what is more, one that is commonly deployed knowingly and deliberately to divert discussion away from criticism of Israel.

Michael Sommer knows this, of course. His disgraceful accusation is disingenuous. As he accepted the award of the Arno-Lustiger Prize (once known as the ‘I Love Israel Prize’) from the 3rd German Israel Congress, he knew that he was repeating the slander directed against his fellow trade unionists by Israel’s apologists. Because this topic was far from new to him.

It was Sommer who, in 2009 and in conjunction with the leader of the Histadrut (the trade union for Israelis that was designed to discriminate systematically against Palestinians), attacked the South African trade union confederation, COSATU, for criticising Israel, and for drawing attention to Israel’s role in supporting the white minority, Apartheid regime in South Africa. It was Sommer who condemned his fellow trade unionists for their criticism of the barbaric attack on civilians in Gaza in 2008/9, the deliberate sniper targeting of children, and the dropping of white phosphorus on schools and hospitals that were part of Israel’s  ‘Cast Lead’ offensive.

Sommer now commends Israel’s colonising entrepreneurs in the West Bank settlements for giving work to the Palestinians. Doubtless by the same logic he would have commended international investors in Apartheid South Africa for providing work for African labour. He turns a blind eye to the fact that Israel, through its ambassadors in European countries, is urging employers to act against those trade unionists who raise criticisms of Israel or propose BDS (Boycott Divestment and Sanctions). He is thus the trade union President, who is in favour, by default, of political victimisation of his fellow trade unionists.

Can trade unionists avoid a deep sense of embarrassment, of shame even, that Michael Sommer, through the offices he holds, can claim to be speaking for the German, indeed the international trade union movement. In his outrageous pronouncements about Israel he is standing against the proud tradition of anti-fascism and struggle for social justice of the trade union movement world-wide.

Increasingly those with views akin to Sommer’s appear as isolated dinosaurs. The tide has turned. Across the globe, trade unions and social movements are now fully aware of the issues at stake in Israel/Palestine, and what Israel stands for. That is why Israel’s strategists, and its public relations experts in the ‘Rebrand Israel’ (Hasbara) operation, are so keen to mobilise their allies, such as Michael Sommer, and so keen to reward them with their prizes and their puff.


Jews for Boycotting Israeli Goods (J-BIG) (Les Levidow):
When Michael Sommer attacks the international boycott of Israeli goods, he combines two forms of racism.  He cites comments from Palestinian workers as grounds to ignore the pro-boycott stance of their democratically elected trade-union leadership; thus he imitates the patronising colonialist attitude of his Zionist ‘friends’. And he associates the anti-Israel boycott with the slogan ‘Don’t buy from Jews’.  By equating all Jews with Israel, he promotes a racist stereotype; by associating the boycott with a Nazi agenda, he conflates actions of a racist regime with protest for and by an oppressed people against such a regime. 

Moshe Machover (Co-founder Matzpen, author):
The idea that Germans should atone for the persecution and extermination of Jews under the Third Reich by supporting Israel’s persecution of the Palestinians and stealing their land is both idiotic and immoral.
The claim that Israel, a colonial settler state, represents all Jews and speaks for them, and that acting against Israeli colonization is the same as acting against the Jewish people – this claim is itself antisemitic, as it implies that all Jews are somehow responsible for the crimes of the Israeli state. 

George Binette (Camden UNISON, Branch Secretary):

While it was not surprising on the basis of Michael Sommer’s record to read sections of his speech, it was still shocking that the president of one of the largest and most powerful union confederations in the world could seek to imply that there was somehow a moral equivalence between advocates of a campaign for Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) against the current Israeli state and the Nazis’ vile ‘Don’t Buy from the Jews’ propaganda of the 1930s.

Leaving aside the all too recent history of the dispossession of hundreds of thousands of Palestinians entailed in the creation of the Zionist state in the late 1940s, Sommer seems prepared to gloss over the current reality of ever expanding settlements on the West Bank. Ironically, though, Sommer is now swimming against the tide across the labour movement internationally, where the BDS campaign has been gaining both rhetorical and practical support –  and  has been having an impact, even in the United States where campaigners including union activists in the city of St Louis recently secured the withdrawal of the French-based multinational, Veolia, with a history of deep involvement in the West Bank and Jersualem, from a competition to win a consultancy contract with that city’s water division. 

Keith Hammond (Professor of philosophy, trade unionist):

When does a trade union leader have the right to say what resolutions will or will not be passed by the membership of a democratic trade union?  Is he the representative of a democratic union or not?  It is telling that a supporter of Apartheid Israel regards democracy with such contempt.  What rights does he have to deny resolutions on boycotting goods produced on Israeli settlements.  He should apologise to his membership or being sacked !

Sommers said, “As long as I am head of this organization, there will never be a resolution that says ‘Don’t buy from Jews,’ ” as he accepted the Arno Lustiger Award at the third annual German-Israel Congress.  Shameless and unbelievably out of order.  What do the members he represents think?   

On hearing this many trade unionists in the UK that I know were shocked. What does his statement have to do with boycotting goods produced in Israeli settlements, which are clearly in violation of international law ?  Is he opposed to activities that seek to further compliance with international law ?  Perhaps Herr Sommer thinks international law should be completely waived when it comes to Israel stealing Palestinian land?

For a trade unionist to be saying the things that Herr Sommer is saying and it not causing an outcry is very worrying for the international labour movement.  Boycotts in themselves do not violate any law.  They are about political and moral choices.  Some people refuse to buy cosmetics that have been tested on animals and others refuse to buy goods that have been made in states that flout labour laws and employ children.  Is Herr Sommer against these activities? 

I would support people boycotting goods that have been made on Israeli settlements.  I would do so because I think international law is important.   Does Herr Sommer acknowledge the right of international law to exist?  Do he think international law irrelevant when it comes to Israel?  Maybe the members of the organization he claims to represent should be asking a few questions and making a few statements themselves.  His comments were offensive to so many people who support the boycott of Israeli settlement goods, many of whom he should note are Jews!