An inconvenient revolt: the movement no-one wants to talk about

Massive protests, talk of a general strike, the roof of the stock exchange occupied, parliament blockaded. No matter how high your standards are, the current revolt in Israel is pretty impressive. So why is it not getting more attention? I’m not going to try and summarise everything that it involves – for more background, Infantile Disorder and Truth-Reason-Liberty both had reports on the situation as it stood last week, Alternative Information Centre, Anarkismo and 972 mag have indepth and up-to-date coverage – but I want to try and work out some lessons, and especially tackle the question of why it’s not seen as being a bigger story. Overall, I think the emerging Israeli social movement is problematic for almost all existing political forces, which means it’s good news for those of us seeking a total transformation of society.

The West

To start off with, it’s obviously not great for the Israeli government. But beyond that, it’s also a problem for the established European and American powers in general, since they’ve been pursuing a strategy of trying to distinguish between revolts in Middle Eastern dictatorships and protest movements in European democracies. When supporting the existing regime is no longer a viable option, it’s simple enough to denounce a dictator – even if, like Gaddafi and Mubarak, they have embarrassing ties to the west – and praise the the opposition, who be presented as solely seeking liberal political freedoms; those rebelling in Europe or America can be belittled by presenting them as spoilt and ungrateful in comparison with the heroic freedom fighters elsewhere. Trying to draw connections between the two is “worse than silly”.
The movement in Israel doesn’t fit neatly into that story. The fact that Israelis are no more content than their neighbours in less democratic countries reveals what the real story is: in every country in the world, a wealthy and powerful minority is trying to make everyone else pay for the ongoing economic crisis, and in many of those countries, there’s some kind of a fightback going on. That is to say, the Israeli revolt is one expression of a global class struggle.

The Middle East

There’s no love lost between Israel and most of its neighbours, so it might seem that a challenge to the Israeli state would be welcomed by Iran and the Arab regimes. But it’s not as simple as that: the image of the Zionist threat provides a useful scarecrow to use against internal dissent, in much the same way that the threat of Islamism is used to prop up national unity throughout the West. The development of solidarity between the Israeli and Arab working classes would be as disastrous for the Arab regimes as it would be for the Israeli government. If the situation develops into an open confrontation between the Israeli working class and ‘their’ state, other regimes will be faced with the unacceptable choice of supporting working-class demands against the rich, which would leave them vulnerable to attempts to raise the same demands at home, or to back the hated Zionist state. Staying out of it isn’t really an option, because when an unarmed population takes on the power of a state, to remain neutral is effectively to side with the army and police. It may seem like we’re a long way off from that kind of confrontation, but a few weeks ago the idea of blockading the Knesset, occupying the roof of the stock exchange and seriously discussing a general strike must also have seemed impossibly far off. Overall, anything that helps the Israeli state seem menacing and strong is useful for its rivals’ attempts to suppress internal dissent; anything that makes it looks weak, divided and unthreatening undermines those efforts.

The left

That a rebellious working-class movement should be unpopular with the world’s ruling classes is perhaps unsurprising. But surely any class struggle should be able to count on support from elsewhere. Given their much-publicised opposition to Israel, you might that think groups like the Socialist Workers’ Party would jump at the chance to support other workers actively challenging  the Israeli state. But again, things aren’t quite that simple.
The “anti-imperialism” common on the left is not an attempt to unite ordinary people across all national boundaries, but an expression of support for those elements of the ruling class, such as the Iranian regime or Hamas, whose interests happen to clash with other, more powerful factions. The ideas of anti-imperialism and national liberation are not about class struggle, but about the hope that the “good” rulers – or, more precisely, the working-class people fighting on behalf of the good rulers – will be able to militarily defeat the “bad” rulers – that is to say, will be able to kill a great number of working-class people who are in the wrong army. Independent working-class movements like the one starting to emerge in Israel can be very problematic for this kind of simplistic analysis, which might explain why the SWP seem to be currently just pretending the protests aren’t happening. The flaws of this kind of “Palestinian good, Israeli bad” rhetoric can be seen when we consider the lack of support from Palestine solidarity campaigners for things like the war refusers jailed for disobeying the Israeli state, or the notorious censorship of a placard carrying the inflammatory message “No to IDF, no to Hamas, solidarity with women, workers and the left”*. With the emergence of mass class conflict in Israel, these contradictions are going to become a lot more difficult to ignore. As the Israeli working class comes into conflict with their state, those who claim that “The Israeli working class is a hopeless case” or “the Israeli left has very rarely shown any sign of wanting to seriously overcome the colonial/racial injustice at the heart of the Zionist project… there is no chance whatsoever of the Israeli working class becoming a revolutionary class” or “the reforms are baseless and the protests are useless” risk ending up making propaganda for the Zionist state they hate so much. To say that the housing revolt is worth supporting is not to deny that many individuals involved in it will still have deeply reactionary attitudes towards Palestinians, but to assert that everybody should have somewhere affordable to live, and that building up networks of mutual support is the only way for those of us who are currently powerless to turn ourselves into a power capable of transforming society.

The future?

When faced by lefties saying very stupid things, it can be tempting to assume that the opposite must be true. So, when they concentrate all their energies on unionised public sector workers and write off “lumpen” benefits claimants and other unorganised sectors, it’s easy to overemphasise the importance of those sectors in response, but that would be a mistake; equally, when they fetishise “the intifada” and ignore the potential of Israeli workers, it’s easy to fall into the trap of thinking that everything they say is wrong. When the left tells half the story and ignores the other half, the answer is not to concentrate on that other half and ignore the first bit, but to try and get the whole picture. The fight to create a genuine human community needs to involve the breaking-down of all these barriers. At this point, I risk becoming so abstract that I sound like I’m just spouting half-baked Zen bollocks, so to make things a bit more concrete: as ridiculous as the lefty caricatures that see all Israelis as over-privileged and useless are, they are based on a reality, which is that Israel is a racist state, and that racism gives some groups some advantages and makes it harder for them to unite with others – Ashkenazi (European) Jews have an easier time than Sephardi (non-European) Jews, Sephardis have it easier than Palestinian Arabs, and so on. This doesn’t mean we should write off all white Israelis any more than we should write off all white Americans or British people (or men, or heterosexuals), but it does mean that a movement which doesn’t go beyond these divisions is never going to be able to mount the kind of truly united class challenge needed to take on the state and win. Fortunately, this kind of solidarity does seem to be developing, as Arabs, Druze, and African migrants are all part of the movement.
The idea that Israeli protesters shouldn’t be supported until they develop a fully internationalist consciousness is ridiculous, equivalent to saying that we should only oppose the Israeli state’s massacres of Palestinians if they give up all their sexist and homophobic attitudes first, or checking that all British workers in a given workplace have sorted attitudes towards immigrants and the unemployed before supporting their strike. But the question could become a lot more relevant soon – Israeli politicians are discussing the idea of massively expanding settlements in the West Bank in order to “solve” the housing crisis, which would make the question of Palestine unavoidable – if a new programme of settlement-building started, we’d see if the movement was prepared to see Palestinians suffer in order to make their own lives easier, or whether there’s the potential of Israeli-Palestinian unity against all politicians and landlords, of whatever nationality. The other option, which can’t be ruled out, is another war – a solution that the rulers of nations have often relied on as a way of defusing external tensions. A war would raise the stakes even further – it’s easy to imagine the class resentment of the protests being drowned out in nationalist fury if one of Israel’s rivals could be provoked into killing a few civilians, but on the other hand, wars like World War I and Vietnam demonstrate how this strategy can backfire and result in massive social upheaval, as well as new movements of international solidarity. This situation is definitely one to watch.
* At this point, it may seem as though I’m supporting the politics of the Alliance for Workers’ Liberty, creators of the offending placard. I’m not. I respect the fact that they are at least attempting to come up with a class analysis, but their two-state solution is ultimately about providing soft support for both Israeli and Palestinian nationalism, whereas I reject them both.

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About nothingiseverlost

"The impulse to fight against work and management is immediately collective. As we fight against the conditions of our own lives, we see that other people are doing the same. To get anywhere we have to fight side by side. We begin to break down the divisions between us and prejudices, hierarchies, and nationalisms begin to be undermined. As we build trust and solidarity, we grow more daring and combative. More becomes possible. We get more organized, more confident, more disruptive and more powerful."
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9 Responses to An inconvenient revolt: the movement no-one wants to talk about

  1. Ben Brucato says:

    You write that this is a working class movement, and connect it to other uprisings in the Middle East and Northern Africa, and also label those as working class movements. This is an empirical claim that I think has yet to be established. The leadership, political demands, and the original motivations for many of these uprisings appear as bourgeois as they do working class. It seems to be too much of a reduction of the complexity of the movements to characterize them as either, which precludes the labeling of these as “working class.” For instance, in Egypt, private property ownership and ability to start businesses was a major motivating factor for this almost exclusively cosmopolitan uprising, mostly generated among more educated individuals. I think it’s an error in the analysis from the outset to hope these exemplify working class revolt — especially when the assumption is on ideological grounds — and then position it as such. Remember, bourgeois capitalism in Western Europe was borne from revolution, too.

    • Fair enough, it’s possible I’m being over-optimistic here. I’d certainly agree that the revolts across the Arab world are hard to generalise about – there’s been much less scope for independent working-class activity in Libya than elsewhere, for instance. I also think it’s the case that, whatever the roots of the Egyptian protests, their effect has been to open up a space in which it’s much more possible for working class organisations to operate. What demands in the Israeli movement would you specifically see as being non-working class?

  2. One has to laugh at this sort of thing – not entirely derisively, but certainly disbelievingly. The ‘revolt’ you’re describing is a social movement over housing, that has emerged as the first serious eruption of class conflict in Israel’s history as a state. Now, I take this movement seriously, as it could potentially open such sort of space for a real Israeli left to emerge. (I notice you didn’t address this aspect my post, which you seem to have misrepresented). But if it took them over fifty years to get round to this, if for more than half a century they were completely coopted by racist chauvinism, colonialism, etc., and if they still aren’t breaking with the pro-occupation consensus (never mind with Zionism as such), then what on earth licenses this kind of clucking? It’s a first step, and naturally the extant Left is pretty sceptical about it – for some perfectly correct, or at least comprehensible reasons. Instead of pretending you know better than that Left how this is going to turn out, and belabouring them with the usual charge sheet, why not simply explain where you differ with their analyses in all humility?

    I also note this: “The ideas of anti-imperialism and national liberation are not about class struggle, but about the hope that the “good” rulers – or, more precisely, the working-class people fighting on behalf of the good rulers – will be able to militarily defeat the “bad” rulers – that is to say, will be able to kill a great number of working-class people who are in the wrong army.”

    That is, of course, an implausible caricature of a very complex tradition that deserves more from Anglophone leftists than this. Anti-imperialism is everything from the Great Indian Rebellion to the Boxer Rebellion, the Filipino resistance, the Cacos insurgency, the Battle of Adwa, the Omar Mukhtar rebellion, the Huks, the Viet Minh, the Cuban revolution, the Sandinistas, the Mau Mau, the defeat of Portugal in Mozambique and Angola, FREITILIN, etc etc etc. The idea of anti-imperialism has been expressed variously in the US Anti-Imperialist League, the communist-led League Against Imperialism, the British Anti-Colonial Movement, the Nonaligned Movement, the Tricontinental Congress, and so on. Anti-imperialism has been central to some of the most thrilling, radicalising moments in our history. A great many actually existing anti-imperialist movements have had powerful class dynamics, contrary to your assertion. There is no one political purview that characterises or exhausts anti-imperialism, and to traduce it in the simplistic, dogmatic, sneering way that you have is an insult to those who have fought under its impress – and often won.

    • Fair enough, sorry if I misrepresented you, although you were specifically quoting the Machiva/Orr line as being “the best analysis”. I do think it’s a problematic form of exceptionalism to conclude that because “the colonial dynamic still predominates, and because the vast majority of Israeli workers have not begun to break with Zionism, and indeed many could reasonably claim to get some benefit from it, how these social antagonisms and elite fissures work out depends primarily on the regional context”. The first three parts of that sentence may all be true, but I wouldn’t see the class conflict in Israel as being determined primarily by what happens elsewhere any more than class conflict in Britain was determined primarily by events in the empire back when the colonial dynamic predominated here, and the vast majority of British workers could reasonably claim to get some benefit from the empire. In both cases I’d say it’s a factor, but not the primary one.
      You may take this movement seriously, but does your organisation? And if so, when are they going to say something about it?
      The question of anti-imperialism’s too big to go into fully here, but for the record I’d agree with the substance of the Anarchist Federation’s text Against Nationalism. Without wanting to sound like I can’t defend my opinions, I am very very dubious about the possibilty of us actually coming to an agreement on that question, so I suspect that sooner or later we’ll end up having to agree to disagree. (For the record, I am familiar with the arguments for the anti-imperialist position, and was active in Stop the War for a number of years.)

  3. Ben: “For instance, in Egypt, private property ownership and ability to start businesses was a major motivating factor for this almost exclusively cosmopolitan uprising, mostly generated among more educated individuals.”

    It’s certainly true that the middle class played an important role in this revolution, both the secular liberals and the Islamist petty bourgeoisie. Indeed, the role of educated, better off activists in being able to organise and communicate effectively can’t be dismissed. But you’re going a little too far in the other direction. The revolt in Egypt was a long time in the making, and a central component of it was the development of an independent left, beginning with movements over the Nakba and Iraq war, and an independent labour movement, starting with the Mahalla strikes. The middle class youth movements specifically took their orientation from labour – the April 26th movement was named after a major strike, eg. And when it came down to it, the revolution couldn’t have been successful if it didn’t spread to the working class, and particularly to towns and regions well beyond the metropolitan city centres. And the last days of Mubarak were signalled by mass strikes. As soon as that started to happen, practically every seasoned commentator I was following at the time knew it was curtains for the dictator – which it was.

    As for Tunisia, the working class simply led the revolution. There was no question that the organised labour movement, because of a certain space it enjoyed even within Ben Ali’s repressive corporatism, was best placed to mobilise resistance once it decided to break from the regime. And once the main trade union federation came out in support of the revolution, Ben Ali was finished.

    By all means take note of the complexity, but don’t write the working class out of these revolts.

  4. James says:

    You’re quotation from Lenin’s Tomb is a complete distortion of his actual comments, turning a conditional either/or into a simple declaration. This was the actual passage from which you quoted:

    “If the class antagonism is dominant, then the Left should focus its activism first on organising the Israeli working class as the key to breaking the colonial project. The self-organisation of that working class would be central to the downfall of that colonial system. If the colonial dynamic predominates, then Machover and Orr are right to conclude that “as long as Zionism is politically and ideologically dominant within that society, and forms the accepted framework of politics, there is no chance whatsoever of the Israeli working class becoming a revolutionary class”.”

    Suffice to say, this is not at all the same thing as simply stating that “there is no chance whatsoever of the Israeli working class becoming a revolutionary class.”

  5. It may be a bit of a simplification, but I don’t think it really misrepresents his arguments that badly (and besides, I did provide a link so my readers can judge for themselves). The full context is him saying “the best analysis of the latter was supplied by Moshe Machover and Akiva Orr. The core of their argument is that, unlike in many other imperialist societies, the colonial dynamic predominates over domestic class antagonisms…
    Because in Israel the colonial dynamic still predominates, and because the vast majority of Israeli workers have not begun to break with Zionism, and indeed many could reasonably claim to get some benefit from it, how these social antagonisms and elite fissures work out depends primarily on the regional context.”
    So he’s clearly endorsing Machover and Orr’s position, rather than just raising the question as an abstract, undecided possiblity. And the logic of that argument is still an exceptionalism that makes the potential of Israeli workers a product to international affairs, in a way that no-one would accept for any other group of workers.

  6. Chester Just says:

    In south Florida any attempts at in-depth analysis are drowned out in the Jewish community by cries of ant-semitism.
    Even a sugestion of the Israeli state being even somewhat of a theocracy or something less than enirely democratic to all its”inhabitant” is viewed similarly.

  7. Pingback: Direct action and solidarity win in Glasgow, African migrants strike in Israel, and a few upcoming events | Cautiously pessimistic

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