Israel: The ‘red revolution’ for free education

Tens of thousands of student clash with police to protest at government attempts to raise tuition fees

Another massive student demonstration, with road-blocks on Mayday. Thirty-three arrested. Ma’avak Sotzialisti members were among the most radical combative section of the demonstration. This demonstration like the others lasted six hours but this time we had to climb into the hills to escape the baton charges of the cops. A lot of students said, "Its like what the Palestinians face in the territories." Channel 1 TV which is the state channel here said on its evening news bulletin, "The students promise that what we see is only the beginning of the Red Revolution."

There has been a new explosion of student anger against government plans to cut education spending by up to NIS1.2 billion (215€ million) and increase tuition fees. Such a militant struggle would be important in any country around the world but it has particular significance in a country like Israel.

Israeli Palestinian students have always had difficulties in getting jobs after qualifying, given the discrimination they face under Israeli capitalism. But in the early years of the state, university education for Israeli Jewish students was seen as a first step to a secure and guaranteed future. This was because Israeli capitalism relied on its young people to protect and even be prepared to die in defending the country as part of its conscript army. So in order to guarantee support for the state, capitalism was forced to provide an extensive social welfare system for the Israeli Jewish middle and working class. This has all gone now. Neo-liberal policies have meant massive cuts and privatisation. Israeli Jewish graduates have huge difficulties in getting jobs and when they do, they have no security of employment, poverty wages and a brutal work regime.

Israeli Jewish students arrive at university knowing that these conditions will face them once they are finished. One difference with Israeli Jewish students is that many start their courses in their twenties after three years of gruelling army service for men and two for women. In many cases they are cynical about the establishment and have little time for figures of authority, having being forced to pound the parade ground for hours on end or conduct pointless tasks which aim to instil "discipline". In the worse case, many of them have been ordered to the front line to fight when the generals giving the orders live in comfortable mansions in the luxury subhurbs of northern Tel Aviv and have share portfolios which earn them millions on the stock exchange.

So when last year the government put forward a plan proposing to increase tuition fees by NIS 1000 a year (182.5€), anger mounted. Students protested at the time and the government agreed to set up a supposedly independent inquiry called the Shokhat commission. Israeli governments have a history of doing this in order to take the steam out of protest movements. They propose legislation which is strongly opposed. Then they appoint an "independent" adjudicator who, after a number of months, comes back with a decision in the government’s favour. This is exactly what will happen with the Shokhat, a former neo liberal finance minister, commission. In fact they are threatening to come back with a worse proposal – a 4000NIS (730€) increase in tuition fees but applied differentially.

Students knew that they were being sold down the river when the Shokhat commission was formed. But their leaders fell into the trap. When it announced its findings, a relatively small demonstration called by the students on 18 April quickly grew to a protest of over 5 000. The riot police attempted to block the route of the demo and the anger of the students overflowed. And road junction by road junction the protesters took on the police and forced them back. This was a huge boost to the students and their protests.

Ma’avak Sotzialisti has participated as an integral part of the protest movement. On the student protest called for on Mayday, we distributed 1000 flyers outlining how we believe the movement should be taken forward, and sold 60 copies of Ha Ma’avak (The Struggle). We have raised generalising the movement and linking it to other struggles in education and society as a whole. We have also raised demands about how the movement should be organised and democratically run.

Our slogans have become known throughout the movement and also in the media especially: "Free Education – For All", and "Cancel the tuition fees". Another slogan which has arisen in the movement is "The answer to privatisation: revolution".

Today, when the riot police launched vicious attacks against the protesters we came up with another slogan which became popular: "Khinukh khinam – Gam la Yasam" (Free Education – Also for the riot police); and then we found out the the Yassam actually get a free education already, and some of them are students as a result. So we changed it to: "Cops, cops, who are you protecting? Go and arrest the corrupt!" (Referring to the huge wave of corruption scandals which the political establishment is facing)

The original main slogans of the students leaders are quite chauvinist, actually taken from military basic training songs: "What a Balagan [crazy mess], What a Balagan: Whores are screwed for money, Students are screwed for free"; but these kind of slogans are less dominant than last week.

There is an urgent need for a fighting democratic opposition to the leaders of the student’s organisations, and the bureaucracy in the teacher’s unions. High school teachers are also on low level industrial action at the moment (which is true for the majority of the public – sector workers in Israel), but there is no real attempt, on the ground, to link this struggle with the students. We call for the building of democratic strike committees in every campus that will fight for the continuation of the strike, even if the present leadership of the student movement sell out the struggle. We also put forward the idea of an all-out education movement that will link the students with the teachers against the massive budget cuts and privatisations (some of the students are talking about the "Greek example" referring to the recent struggles in the Greek universities). On the basis of these proposals two representatives from Ma’avak Sotzialisti were elected to the student councils in two of the most combative student’s councils: the Tel Aviv University (TAU) and, Seminar Ha’Kibbutzim teacher’s college (SMKB).

This struggle takes place against one of the biggest crises the ruling elite has had to face in Israeli history. While it is not a mortal threat to the capitalist system, all wings of the establishment have seen a catastrophic fall in their authority. The Chief of army staff has had to resign over the debacle the Israeli army faced after its invasion of Lebanon last year. The president and several senior figures are enmeshed in corruption and sex scandals. Olmert, the Prime Minister, has a 2% standing in the opinion polls. And the Winograd commission has just published its report into the mistakes made by the elite in the invasion of Lebanon. Olmert may be forced to resign as a result.

If every there was a need for a mass independent workers’ party then Israel gives that example. If such a party was built on the basis of struggle and a programme of democratic socialist demands, it would soon gain mass support and provide an alternative for students and workers alike to fight for as a replacement for the corrupt stinking mess which is Israeli capitalism today.

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