Support Israeli protest movement without illusions

Tony Greenstein argues that there is no such thing as the Israeli Jewish nation

Almost unreported in the British press, there have been mass protests in Israel against the housing crisis. Some parts of the left will undoubtedly see in these the harbinger of social revolution. Instead of Zionism, socialism will be ushered in through protests against economic and social conditions.

The problem with this is that these are confined primarily to the most privileged Jewish sector of Israel, with little Arab involvement. The other problem, as is brought out in many media interviews, is that the occupation of the territories is barely mentioned for fear of dividing the social movement. The settlers have established a tent base on the periphery of the movement - physically and metaphorically.

Nor is the revolt of a settler working class and its underclass anything new. The white South African working class was far more militant in its heyday - so much so that in the 1920s Jan Smuts bombed them from the air! The Australian and Canadian working classes, whilst demanding the exclusion of foreign and Chinese labour in particular, were extremely militant. Militancy in itself is not a sign of socialist or class awareness. It is the precondition for such an awareness, but political factors will determine whether or not the settler working class is capable of reaching out to the most oppressed sections.

The most remarkable fact of the protests is that they are occurring at all. That in itself is a sign of the deep political malaise and economic problems that have beset the Zionist state. The other remarkable fact is that the Arab spring has clearly had a marked influence on the Israeli psyche, despite the fact that all we have heard from Israeli commentators has been a fear of Muslim fundamentalism and the gripe that ‘At least Mubarak brought peace’. It is clear that this Zionist consensus and the continuous targeting of Israel’s Arabs has not been as effective as the racists and the Netanyahu-Lieberman-Barak government hoped.

And this is important because the stock response from many ‘socialists’ is that we are really in favour of the military conquest of Israel - presumably by all those pro-American Arab regimes! What this protest tells us is that Israel’s Jewish population, despite itself, is a part of the Middle East, not Europe. That its fate is bound up with the Palestinians, not apart from it. That a radical and far-reaching Arab revolution would have a very significant resonance inside Israel itself and this too is something the Zionist regime fears. We should not imagine that the Israeli Jews will always remain quiescent. Far from there being a separate Israeli Jewish nation, the Jews of Israel are very much a part of the region and the people they live amongst and have expelled, despite their own desires.

But in its present form, although this is one of the most significant protest movements among Israeli Jews since 1948, it is unlikely to challenge even the present Netanyahu regime. For that to happen the revolutions in the Arab states would have to go beyond a change of ruling personnel to overthrowing the state itself - in Egypt last week we saw the velvet glove being taken off the army’s mailed fist, as demonstrators were cleared out of Tahrir Square by thugs and the military.

There have, of course, been major protests before in Israel - the Black Panthers in the late 1960s, the Ashdod and seamen’s strikes of 1951 and 1969, the dockers’ struggles. The current protests have not broken with the pattern of protests within the Jewish community. These go back to the conflicts between David Ben-Gurion, later to become Israel’s first prime minister, and the Gdud-Avodah work brigades in the 1920s, when for the first and last time a revolt by major sections of the Jewish working class also raised the question of Zionism itself.

And this is why, despite its crudity at times, the position of the International Socialist League for the mass protest in Israel, as outlined in its leaflet, With the Arab masses, for a socialist revolution, is correct when it says that “The problem is that most of the Jewish working class in Israel is incapable of joining the struggle against Zionist oppression.”

It is significant that the head of the racist Histadrut ‘trade union’ - in reality a scab organisation that was founded with the purpose of sabotaging any unity between the Arab and Jewish working class - has come out against the protests. As Histadrut secretary general Ofer Eini has stated, if the aim of the strikes is to remove Netanyahu, then he opposes them. This reveals the utter bankruptcy of Histadrut and what is left of the Zionist labour movement, faced with Israel’s most overtly rightwing and racist government. Eini, who is an Israeli Labour Party MK, also reveals the bankruptcy of what is left of that party.

This protest is to be welcomed, but it would be dangerous to have any illusions in its potential. As long as it is incapable of challenging the state, which under Zionism is an object of awe and reverence, then it will be unable to challenge the fundamental features of Israeli society, not least the domination of Israel’s economy by an oligarchy, a handful of ultra-rich families.

Hamas and Fatah are, of course, incapable of any response, such is the limited and reactionary nature of their politics. To them Israel is one undifferentiated mass. However, the Arab masses, who have yet to complete their revolutions, have a duty to break from the nationalist and chauvinistic rhetoric of the Arab rulers, who proclaim their opposition to Zionism, whilst collaborating in practice. Instead they must reach out to their Israeli brothers and sisters to forge an alliance against imperialist domination of the region.

The Israeli Jewish masses have made it clear that the Arab spring has indeed given them hope and strength, but it has also revealed their weaknesses. On the Israeli Occupation Archive website Moshé Machover quotes uncritically from an Israeli journalist, who remarks: “At long last we have learnt something from the Arabs.”[1] In fact this racist statement betrays the fundamental weaknesses of this movement. Arabs have always had a great deal to teach Israel’s Jews. Unfortunately the latter have never listened to anyone bar themselves. This statement betrays the political backwardness of Israel’s protestors and its weaknesses.

But the fact is that possibly the biggest ever Israeli protest movement had to be inspired by the Arabs that Israeli Jews have long despised. That in itself is worth something.


  1. www.israeli-occupation.org/2011-08-02/israeli-journalist-at-long-last-we-have-learnt-something-from-the-arabs