The Mass Movement in Israel, the Occupation in Palestine and the Left
Sep 16, 2011
Leon Pinsky, New York City
Over 400,000 workers, youth, unemployed and middle-class people joined in a wide range of demonstrations throughout Israel on Saturday, September 3 in what is the biggest mass movement ever seen in Israel.
Tent Cities and Mass Demonstrations
This mass movement didn’t come out of nowhere. Workers across Israel are facing a massive attack against their living standards with price increases, privatization, a wage freeze, and worsening work conditions along with the continued occupation of the Palestinian territories.
Officially, 27% of Israeli workers are earning minimum wage or less. In reality, the numbers are much higher. About 25% of Israelis are considered officially poor. In fact, 60% of poor families have at least one working adult. About 10% of workers are hired by temporary agencies or contractors with no benefits, pensions, or an adequate salary. Officially, unemployment in Israel is 5.5%, but these numbers do not take into account the underemployed and those who, after months of searching, stopped looking for a job altogether.
Earlier this year, people throughout the country demonstrated against steep increases of gas prices - which are about double the U.S. price - and the prices of dairy products. These protests were successful and forced the government and big business to lower prices. Strikes and workers’ demonstrations have been on the rise. This is the backdrop to the massive outpouring of anger.
Tahrir Square in Tel Aviv?
The leaders of this movement, mostly youth and a newer generation of activists from the left movement and students’ organizations, are celebrating the fact that the masses are out on the streets. For now, they plan to continue with mass demonstrations and calling for modest reforms in housing, health care and education. However, it will take more than that to achieve victory over the policies of the rich and their government. “The Answer to Privatization – Revolution,” is one of the main slogans in the protests. Many Israelis are already identifying this movement as “a revolution.”
The National Question and the Housing Question
While the construction of public housing in Israel has ended and state lands are being privatized, settlers in the West Bank are enjoying a “welfare state” that includes public housing, price controls of basic products, cheap public transportation, and soldiers to protect their settlements. The occupation is depriving Palestinians from work by stealing their land and forcing them to find a job in the Jewish settlements, in factories on the border, or inside Israel. By doing so, the Israeli state is securing cheap, captive Palestinian labor, with no benefits and with wages way below the minimum wage - many times under temporary agencies or private contractors. The occupation also forces the Palestinians to purchase mainly Israeli products. Most of the profits are going straight into the pockets of the millionaires.
A consistent struggle against the exploitation of Palestinians is the common fight of Jews and Arabs against their joint exploiter: the Israeli and Palestinian ruling classes. For instance, a cement company owned by Palestinian millionaire Abu Alaa supplied cement for the building of Jewish settlements and the segregation wall. A mass movement of both Jews and Arabs could defeat not only poverty and poor work conditions, but also racism, nationalism, and war. The attempts by some movement leaders to avoid making the movement “political” and to hold back from putting forward clear demands against the occupation only plays into the racist divide-and-conquer approach of the Israeli ruling class.
On August 18, some attackers from Egypt crossed the border with Israel and shot a civilian bus in south Israel, killing civilians. The Israeli government attempted to prove that the shooters were actually terrorists from Gaza, and they bombed Gaza heavily, killing Palestinian civilians. That was an attempt by the government to cynically shift the discussion in Israel from one of social struggle to one of national defense.
In response to this, on Saturday, August 20, some tents’ leaderships decided to cancel the weekly protest in honor of those who died in the attack in the south. In Tel Aviv it was decided to have a “silent march.” However, Socialist Struggle Movement decided to take a different approach. Socialist Struggle Movement (Tnuat Maavak Sotzialisti) is the Israeli section of the Committee for a Workers’ International (CWI). This group, commonly known as Maavak, is in political solidarity with Socialist Alternative in the U.S. through the CWI.
The members of Maavak decided that a real response to terrorism on both sides would be to address workers from both sides in a message of solidarity. They chanted “Jews and Arabs - Refuse to Be Enemies.” That chant quickly spread to many other sections of the rally, and it even managed to shift the main reformist ideas onstage into an unconditional refusal of racism and nationalism. Only one week later the Israeli working class has proven that the military operations and the government’s cynical right-wing populism could not defeat the largest social movement in the history of Israel.
See the video of the August 20 demonstration here, with Maavak members carrying red flags: http://therealnews.com/t2/index.php?option=com_content&task=view&id=31&Itemid=74&jumival=7199
An example of the mistaken approach of much of the U.S. left can be seen in a recent article published by the International Socialist Organization (ISO), which claims that the struggles in Israel will fail because “in Israel the colonial dynamic still predominates, and because the vast majority of Israeli workers have not begun to break with Zionism." Moreover, "it is delusional to expect the Israeli working class to be the leading agency in overcoming the racialized capitalist system they are integrated into." In a newer article, they claim that “the inconvenient reality is that Israelis live as settlers on another people's land, and this fact weds all Israelis to their own state and ruling class.” In this way, “political radicalization [will be] hampered so long as the working class remains wedded to the Zionist project, and therefore its own ruling class.”
The experience of Maavak is telling a different story.
In January of 2008 Tel Aviv City Hall, led by Mayor Ron Huldai, declared a war on the residents of the poorest neighborhoods in the city. They tried to privatize what was left of the public housing in order to destroy the old buildings and build new ones for the rich only.
Maavak played a key role in the movement that resisted this gentrification. Maavak took the position that without a joint struggle by Jews and Palestinians in Tel Aviv the oligarchs would win. Here, large joint demonstrations of Jews and Palestinians challenged the huge forces of the police and the real-estate tycoons. Racism was defeated and the old tactic of divide and rule was swept aside. It was an expression of the joint interests of people from different backgrounds, religions, languages and political views that partially stopped the attack.
Furthermore, Maavak played an important role in the foundation of the Power to the Workers Union that united Jews and Arabs under the banner of a democratic and militant unionism. The new union is already known as an alternative to the main conservative trade union federation, Histadrut. Maavak has a member in the leadership of the union. Power to the Workers has been a significant participant in the mass protests from the beginning.
Adopting the ISO’s approach of partially blaming Israeli workers for the actions of the ruling class would lead to socialists being isolated in these struggles. It would inhibit Mavaak from playing the role it has played. It would be delusional to expect the left to make any change in society if all it does is wait until the Israeli working class decides to “break with Zionism” before intervening in the struggles and pointing a way forward.
As Marxists, we must always strive to reach and unite the working class across the racial or national divide. Racism that is partially a product of government propaganda should be defeated not by blaming the workers themselves, but by exposing those who divide us.
In another article, the ISO claims that the protests have not taken a stand against the occupation, the police harassment of minority groups, and the government’s new anti-democratic laws. This is true in general, but more and more voices are starting to make these connections as they learn through the experience of the struggle.
Many signs and chants are taking a stand against the national oppression of Palestinians. One of the main chants is “Jews and Arabs – Refuse to Be Enemies.”
Some right-wing organizations are trying to blame Palestinians and immigrants for the problems in society. But they are a small minority, and some of the demonstrators even used physical force in order to drive them away, including lighting their tents on fire and forming “defense groups” against them. As the movement gains steam, many more people will feel their collective strength and shift to the left. The struggle against the right wing is a crucial step forward inside the tents movement and in society. Exposing the right wing’s reactionary role as the foot soldiers of capitalism and racism will help to win the Jewish working class to the fight against nationalism and war. Socialists need to be part of this process.
The ISO and many leftists, while welcoming the struggle in Israel, provide no way forward. They mention no tactics like strike action and no political representation like a new mass workers’ party. Instead, they place the blame for the policies of the Israeli state partially on the working class. Racist ideas can only be defeated through struggle, and socialists need to point the way forward for the movement.
What’s Next for the Movement?
There is a huge political vacuum on the left. This vacuum needs to be filled with a new political party that will be built out of these struggles and represent all workers: Israeli and Palestinian.