Aug 9, 2011 By
Shahar Ben-Khorin, Socialist Struggle Movement (CWI Israel/Palestine)
"Just look at this ground shaking everywhere…"
August 6, 2011 saw 300,000 people flooding the streets of Tel-Aviv, Jerusalem and other cities in Israel roaring: "The people demands social justice!" – echoing the slogans of the revolutionary upheavals in the Arab World. In real terms, it was the largest ever demonstration in Israel. With officially low unemployment and a growing economy, Israel is now shaken by an historic mass movement. Not yet by the oppressed Palestinian masses, but mainly by Israeli Jews, putting the support for the regime into question.
What is left of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s words of the end of March, "there’s only one country in the heart of the Middle East that has no tremors, no protests ... Look at this. Earth shaking everywhere, west of India right up to the Straits of Gibraltar. Everything is shaking and rocking and the only stable place, the only stable country, is this democracy Israel - a developed country, prosperous country, everybody is equal under the law, it has a strong military because it has a strong society"?
Netanyahu’s government admitted offering Mubarak a political refuge in Israel. Now, militant youth are shouting at roadblocks: "Mubarak – Assad – Bibi Netanyahu!" indicating their wish to see the toppling of the Israeli face of the dictatorship of capital.
Partially influenced by the movements in southern Europe, a few protest tents were set up by a group of middle-class youth in the rich Rothschild Avenue in central Tel-Aviv on 14 July against the high cost of housing. Some of them talked about staying there for just a few days. But their initiative became the signal to let out the floodgates for the long accumulated revulsion against the heavy cost of living and the rule of capital in the country. Within days, there was talk among government officials that the coming social protest might bring down the government.
In tents across the country there are discussions on the way to change society and people everywhere dare to think of a different, brighter future. It is not a revolutionary situation but everybody would agree of the need for a ‘social revolution’ for ‘social justice’. Compared with the regular alienation and agony offered by capitalism and militarism, it is no wonder that in Tel-Aviv and some other ‘tent cities’ there is a festive mood, with music, movies and satirical displays.
From boycott to strike
A few weeks before the tents protest began, a successful mass symbolic boycott of cottage cheese, organized via Facebook, forced the milk industry cartel corporations to reduce its price. But it took the blinking of an eye for the idea of a consumer boycott bringing a solution to the heavy cost of living to be put to one side and replaced by a strategy of active mass protests, with tents, protest marches, road blocks, etc. Protest tents spread like mushrooms after rain all across the country. They have become the magnet for almost all other social protests that have united in this dramatic movement, which is drawing many into the first protests of their life – not only youth and kids, but also parents who march in protest at their rising cost of living. Not only "privatized" teachers and taxi drivers, but even the police and prison guards, who are banned from joining trade unions, participated in some of the protests to shed a light on their low pay. During the 300,000 demo, ‘leftist’ sports fans set up a building-high giant poster of a soldier from the Russian Revolution with the English title ‘working class’. These are just some examples of initiatives taken.
The government juggled its tactics for coping with the movement, zigzagging between failing attempts to dwarf and de-legitimize the movement in an attempt to contain it by appearing sympathetic to it and to colour planned aggressive neo-liberal steps as "solutions" to the protesters’ demands, and then returning again to blunt arrogance and incitement. The movement as a whole does not yet demand clearly the bringing down of the government, but none of the government’s tactics actually worked. The attempt to accelerate the privatization of land (held in majority by the state) and to hand it out almost for free to the real-estate sharks, stirred up an outcry across the movement and it only grew stronger. From around 30,000 at the central demo after the first week, it grew within a week to five times bigger when parallel protests where held across the country. Another week and 300,000 were mobilized!
From the early stages, there was a significant layer of protesters reaching the conclusion that all the various demos were not enough in themselves against this government, and strike action was necessary. Within days 20,000 joined a Facebook call for an all-out individuals’ strike on 1 August. The organization of local authorities, controlled by the capitalist mayors, was swept in to join in the initiative and hold partial shutdowns on that date in order to increase pressure on the government to solve the crisis. Finally, the dormant Histadrut, the main workers’ organization, was dragged into the movement.
Intervention of the Histadrut
Sensing the mood, the Histadrut chairman Offer Eini, highly influential in his ’Labour’ Party, began his intervention by trying to paint himself in radical colours, attacking all previous governments, including ’Labour’ ones, for turning the state "in one day from socialist policies, where the state guarantees its citizens, to the capitalist market". He praised the young leaders of the protest, and threatened the government that the Histadrut would use all its means if the government did not begin to take seriously the protesters’ demands. But as soon as those demands took the shape of calls for radical reforms, including free public education and health, Eini outrageously joined the capitalist choir by ridiculing these demands as groundless and "unpractical", as if he wasn’t standing at the top of the strongest workers’ organization in Israel. He also emphasized that the protesters needed to respect the prime minister and that he hoped that the government did not fall!
In recent years, the right-wing pro-capitalist collaborationist leadership under Eini has led a declared policy of industrial peace and brought the number of strikes in Israel to an historical low, as part of a formal alliance with the industrial capitalists and destructive deals with different governments. Against this background, the very limited rally of 10,000 workers organized by the Histadrut was nevertheless a rare event. Many among the thousands who came did not identify with the Histadrut slogan "the workers FOR the protest", as if workers should not be the main player in the fight against high costs and the rule of capital. At the rally, Eini paid some hypocritical lip-service to the rage against the rapid deterioration of working conditions in recent decades. This was too much for some of the dock workers, the bay lifeguards and others who were standing along with Socialist Struggle Movement (CWI) activists; they shouted "Workers demand a general strike!" and shouted against the hypocrisy of this false leader. These shouts were forcefully drowned out by the ‘Zionist socialist’ No`al youth who were there. Apart from attempts to snatch megaphones, they turned to shout "Workers demand social justice", which in that situation became an empty phrase.
For a significant layer of the organized working class, Eini and his likes are hated to the bones for the policies of betrayal that they promote, handcuffing workers and serving them as an easy meal to the capitalists and the government of capital. With the increased costs of living biting, different workers’ groups began to take the route of struggle in recent months before the current movement. Social workers even rebelled loudly and unprecedentedly against an attempt to dictate a sell-out agreement to them by Eini following their strike in March. This led to the setting up of an opposition movement inside the social workers’ union. The ongoing medical doctors’ strike was almost sold out during the first days of the tents protest, when the interns followed the example of the social workers and rebelled against the leadership of the doctors’ separate organization, gaining the entire strike a new momentum and overwhelming popular support. In parallel, inside the Histadrut, for quite some time there has been a trend of workers mostly threatening, and at times fulfilling, to take the route of leaving to join the new small militant union ’Power to the Workers’ – among them are the Haifa Chemicals North factory workers, who are currently engaged in a difficult 3-months strike. These trends are initial signs of the potential for development of an independent workers’ movement for the first time in Israel.
The government clearly hopes that given the strike-breaking record of Eini, including the betrayal of the recent social workers strike, he will assist it in steering the protest towards a ‘soft landing’. That, of course, is not guaranteed, as Eini and his bureaucracy won’t simply commit ‘suicide’ but will try to navigate their own survival through the conflicting pressures of the workers and the bosses and their government. That’s why the leadership supported a quite militant rail workers’ strike recently. Although this is not likely to happen immediately, they might even be pushed to declare a general strike at a later stage, if the movement does not die down in August. The Socialist Struggle Movement promotes the call for an active warning 24-hours general strike by the Histadrut, and calls upon workers’ committees to become directly involved in the protests wherever possible, and to discuss the demands of the movement and its possible next steps, including partial strikes.
Significantly, a few Arab-Palestinian tents were set up in Israel, using the momentum to raise demands for decent housing and against the nationalist-racist discrimination which inflicts the worst housing problems upon the Palestinian and Arab population of Israel. This happens despite the fact that many of the Palestinian residents of Israel feel that it is not ‘their’ protest – partially a reflection of the strongly-supported idea of ‘unity between right and left’, which in reality on the ground means no mention of resistance to the occupation, and so the hidden yearning for peace is not surfacing at the moment alongside the shouts for "social justice". It stems on one hand from an understanding that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict has served the ruling class by weakening all previous social protests. However, an approach which ignores the national conflict is a dangerous trap, precisely because it plays into the hands of the Israeli ruling class, and works to isolate this upheaval on living conditions from all the rest of the struggles in the region, particularly the Palestinian struggle for rights and independence.
So far, no attempt by the ruling establishment to de-legitimize the movement itself has succeeded (one of the organizers in central Tel-Aviv was even accused by an anonymous far-right video of being a member of the Socialist Struggle Movement, which allegedly is controlled by a leftist Non-Governmental Organization fund). But as long as this movement and the ones that will definitely follow do not embrace a solidarity approach with the Palestinian masses and against the occupation and settlements, they will tend eventually to sharply spilt when facing escalation of the conflict between Israel and the Palestinians or Israel and the countries in the region. The deceptive security alerts by the Israeli ruling class to the Jewish population will serve to fracture the movement, and to use parts of it to oppress the Palestinian struggle, which is on the road of heroic escalation as well.
A warning sign has been given with the infiltration of far-right elements that disguise and leech upon the movement, whip up nationalism, promote the settlements enterprise, and viciously incite against Arab-Palestinians, African refugees and immigrant workers. A joint Jewish-Arab protest march by impoverished neighbourhoods from Southern Tel-Aviv, Jaffa and other locations was cancelled following threats by the far-right Kahanists. Joint Jewish-Arab tents in Tel-Aviv were subjected to physical attacks. These far-right elements are recognized as a danger by a minority of the most radical layers of the movement, who are looking for a way to kick them out. For example, some militants have burnt tents of the far-right. But effective cleansing of such elements could be successful only through the open adoption of the ideas of a united solidarity struggle between all the exploited and oppressed, Jews and Palestinians, and of opposition to racism and the occupation. For the meantime, the head of the Students Association has felt confident enough to warmly welcome the main Settlers’ organization for "joining the protest", even though it is another chief servant of reaction.
Putting socialism on the agenda
A letter by some top capitalists to the prime minister dared to express support for the protest and shamelessly expressed concern for the cost of living of working people. In reality, these top tycoons fear the eruption of rage against the rule of capital. Shortly before the movement erupted, some of them tried to promote a law to ban a common term for employers in legislation which literally means "those who enslave / make others work"! Now, more desperately, they express willingness to sacrifice the head of Netanyahu in order to divert the fire.
For his part Netanyahu is clearly hoping to use either the spectre of an economic recession, or use the coming UN vote on Palestinian statehood as an excuse to blunt the movement in the name of Israeli Jewish "national unity".
The capitalist media tended in the main to give very ‘sympathetic’ coverage to the movement from the beginning. The financial press has tried to present it in a way as a rebellion against the "centralization of the market" and for "more competition" between capitalists. These are the same voices that work to ridicule calls for actual social reforms.
Clearly not a few of the capitalist class ponder on the possibility that they could channel this class-social storm towards replacing the coalition government with one that might be more reliable for them both geo-strategically and for appeasing social unrest – maybe even with the fig-leaf of a new ‘social’ political party growing out of this movement that still appears to attract almost 90% support in different opinion polls. A supposed party that grew out of the movement was suggested by one poll could win 20 out of 120 seats in parliament and become one of the major parties!
But there is confusion over that point, and only a few would immediately support the founding of such a party. This is part of the general gigantic gap between the yearnings of workers and youth for a radical change in the situation and the concrete steps and demands being put forward at this stage. The general perception is still that the best thing to do is to continue the increasing mobilization for protests, with one initiative talking about a one million-strong demo on 3 September. Many are doubtful whether this could prove to be effective to achieve thorough change but see no other way. Without a clear socialist alternative on the table, many have nostalgia for the past quasi-welfare state in Israel, as working and living conditions were massively more secure, but even with that vague and unrealizable concept of ‘correcting’ Israeli capitalism, there is confusion as to the steps for the struggle to take to get there.
There is obviously growing support for the ideas of the need for strike action, the need for a ‘different’ party to represent the voice of such struggles, the need to drastically cut indirect taxes, and the need for the government to intervene for ‘affordable housing’. Yet the demands for nationalizations and for strong steps against the tycoons are not central (for that reason, for example, the Socialist Struggle Movement replaces the popular "the answer to privatization – revolution!" with "the answer to privatization – nationalization!"). One of the youth who organized the central Tel-Aviv tents and, incidentally, became one of the leaders of the movement, has declared over and over that solutions to the problems should involve the "free market" and does not contradict capitalism.
Though it is still unclear how far it will go, this great movement, the great rebellion against the rule of capital, is in many senses just the beginning. One of the best fruits of this movement is the leap in interest in genuine socialist and Marxist ideas as serious solutions for a bankrupt society.
The Jewish and Palestinian members of the Socialist Struggle Movement are intervening around the clock in the movement to contribute to it as much as possible, including slogans for solidarity between Jewish and Palestinian workers and youth, and against the occupation and for peacee (for example: "the answer to the ’divide and rule’: the occupation must also fall!").
One of our newer comrades, 12-years-old Orr Akta, has become a television star, as "the kid of the revolution" – for the establishment media he is just a gimmick and a curiosity, but the comrade explains fluently to the media the ideas of socialism and exposes the Socialist Struggle Movement to many more. In general, we have received special prime-time coverage, including profile pieces on our organization.
People of all ages are making contact and want to discuss socialist ideas. This includes a 9-years old kid who sent us a request to join: "I am a socialist, I know everything about socialism, my brother taught me, I’m serious and I come to demos"…
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