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.
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.
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.
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.