Can the Israeli working class play a progressive role?

Thousands of Israelis demonstrated to oust the prime minister in 2020 (photo UZI D)

The CWI has consistently argued that the working class is the only force that can solve the enormous social and economic capitalist crises in the Middle East, and end the occupation and repression of the Palestinian people.

We call for a new socialist Palestinian intifada (uprising), and for splitting the Israeli state along class lines; issuing a class appeal to Israeli workers to support the Palestinians’ right to have their own state and to join the struggle against the Israeli capitalist class.

But given the deep divisions in Israeli society, is this approach realistic?

Only last month Palestinians were lynched by far-right Israeli groups who rampaged through the mixed cities in Israel torching Arab-owned businesses.

While the Israeli military forces were carrying out atrocities against Palestinians in Gaza and elsewhere, the protests against the latest war by Jewish Israelis were fairly small (a few thousand), mainly middle-class, and were met by hostility from the majority of Israeli society.

In Israel, the education system, the army, and the media carry out a relentless barrage of racist propaganda, which is unfortunately reinforced by the mistaken methods of Hamas (see ‘Who represents the Palestinians?’ – at socialistparty.org.uk). Can a socialist movement overcome the racism in Israeli society?

Class divisions

Until the 1980s, the Israeli state bought a degree of support from the Jewish working class by providing a decent standard of living. Workplaces were unionised and provided tenure, the state provided public housing, and basic goods were subsidised.

This social contract, where Jewish workers would be compensated for military service by having more or less guaranteed living standards, was torn apart by the advent of neoliberalism.

Today, Israeli workers suffer from casualisation, low pay and high prices. Accommodation is unaffordable and large numbers of young Israelis emigrate to seek an easier life abroad.

In July 2011, inspired by the Arab Spring, a mass movement demanding social justice erupted in Israeli society. The movement was started by a Facebook call from Dafni Leef (a young video editor) for people who could not afford Tel Aviv’s extortionate rents to set up tents in Rothschild Boulevard.

Within a week hundreds of tents were set up, not only in Tel Aviv but in every Israeli city. These tent encampments became organising centres, with round the clock political discussions, and became a focus for demonstrations which swelled to hundreds of thousands.

The largest demonstration came on 4 September when a total of 460,000 people (7% of the population) marched chanting “The people demand social justice”.

The demands of the movement were initially limited to the unaffordability of housing. Demonstrators occupied empty buildings in Jerusalem and Tel Aviv.

But as the movement grew in size and confidence, it developed more general demands such as free education; an end to privatisation; a fairer tax system; investment in public housing and transportation; the resignation of the government and an end to the rule of the oligarchs.

A mock guillotine was erected in the Rothschild encampment as a warning to the politicians. The movement cut across national lines with demonstrations in Arab towns such as Baqa al-Gharbiya, as well as in the Jewish West Bank settlement of Ariel.

The Israeli government was terrified by the Arab Spring and this movement, and set up a committee headed by Professor Manuel Trajtenberg to propose a solution to the problems raised by the demonstrations.

The leaders of the movement, in return, agreed to demobilise the demonstrations.

The Trajtenberg committee deliberated for months. But its recommendations were inadequate and were mostly not implemented. The following year, Dafni Leef, realising that she had been deceived, attempted to restart the movement, but faced immediate police repression and did not get much support beyond the core of activists.

Most people felt that the movement had achieved nothing and a second mobilisation would have similar results. But the experience of collective struggle did have an effect on consciousness, with a unionisation drive organising many unorganised workplaces.

Covid crisis

Although the Israeli economy was one of the first to recover from the Covid pandemic, the conditions of Israeli workers have significantly worsened, with 800,000 officially unemployed at the beginning of 2021. Around 150,000 lost their jobs during the most recent lockdown.

The Palestinian population in Israel has the highest poverty rate, but it is also the case that 1.2 million Israeli Jews live below the poverty line.

Before the recent elections, weekly demonstrations took place outside Netanyahu’s residence demanding his resignation.

Netanyahu’s attempts to use the pandemic to ban the demonstrations and suppress them with mass arrests and water cannon failed, only causing the demonstrations to swell to tens of thousands, with smaller bridge-top protests organised at hundreds of places around the country.

In July 2020, nurses took strike action demanding higher staffing levels and better pay. After one day’s strike action, the government conceded thousands of new positions and a pay increase.

Social workers also took strike action on the questions of pay, workload and safety in the workplace. After a 16-day strike, they reached an agreement with the government which acceded to most of their demands. Both of the strikes involved workforces which included both Jewish and Arab workers.

Gaza war

During the recent bombardment of Gaza, gangs of far-right Israelis attempted to attack and lynch Arab bus drivers in Tiberias. The Jewish and Arab bus drivers took immediate strike action and closed the bus garage to ensure the safety of the Arab drivers. They organised a convoy of vehicles to escort the Arab drivers back to their homes and ensure they reached them safely.

Their union, Power to the Workers, issued a statement saying that just as the union defends the jobs and condition of workers in normal times, during war it also defends the safety of all its members, both Jewish and Arab.

The statement explained that while the workers as individuals are powerless, collectively they can effectively defend each other.

Workers’ committees in hospitals and universities also took action to protect the safety of their Arab members and issued similar statements.

Israeli propaganda claims that it is the ‘Jewish homeland’. But experience teaches Jewish workers that Israel is a capitalist state which does not serve their interests, but those of the billionaires.

Israeli capitalism is dependent on the crisis-ridden world economy and is incapable of offering working people, whatever their nationality, a decent future. Working people are forced to struggle to defend their conditions and, in workplaces where there are mixed workforces, these struggles inevitably cut across the national divide.

Whatever prejudices workers bring from wider society, it quickly becomes clear that all workers must strike together as a united force, irrespective of nationality, otherwise the bosses will exploit these divisions and defeat strikes.

And this experience of united action shows the workers in practice who their real allies are – ie Arab and Jewish workers – and who their real enemy is: the employers and the capitalist government that serves them.

The ongoing brutal occupation of Gaza, East Jerusalem and the West Bank, and its resulting cycles of bloodshed, is also showing to Israeli workers that the Israeli capitalists have no solution to the national conflict.

It will only be through workers organising independently against capitalist interests – Palestinians in the occupied areas and Jews alongside Palestinians in Israel – that peaceful, socialist, co-existence will become possible.

 

 

 

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