In Israel, over the last three weeks, hundreds of thousands have taken to the streets to protest against the dizzying cost of living, the growing impossibility for the average person to afford accommodation, the dismantling of welfare services. The demonstrators are calling for “social justice”, but many are also talking about “revolution”. They make no secret of the fact that they have been inspired by the wave of revolts in the Arab world, now spread to Spain and Greece. Israel’s premier Netanyahu, whose brazenly right wing policies appeared to have had gained a popular following, is suddenly being compared to the dictators of Egypt (Mubarak, now facing trial for gunning down protesters) and Syria (Assad, now ordering atrocious massacres against a population increasingly exasperated with his regime).
Like the movements in the Arab world and Europe, the demonstrations and tent cities now springing up in numerous towns in Israel, but Tel Aviv in particular, seem to have come out of nowhere: messages on Facebook, a few people pitching tents in town squares... and from this, on one weekend there have been between 50,000 and 150,000 marching in Tel Aviv, (with more than 200,000 on the most recent Saturday) and perhaps three or four times that number have been involved in the country as a whole, the majority of them young.
As in the other countries, demonstrators have clashed frequently with the police. As in the other countries, the official political parties and trade unions have not played a leading role in the movement, even if they are certainly present. People involved in the movement are often associated with ideas about direct democracy and even anarchism. A demonstrator interviewed on the RT news network was asked whether the protests had been inspired by events in Arab countries. He replied, “There is a lot of influence of what happened in Tahrir Square… There’s a lot of influence of course. That’s when people understand that they have the power, that they can organise by themselves, they don’t need any more the government to tell them what to do, they can start telling the government what they want.”. These views, even if they only express the conscious opinions of a minority, certainly reflect a much more general feeling of disillusionment with the entire bourgeois political system, whether in its dictatorial or its democratic form.
Like its counterparts elsewhere, this movement is historic in its significance, as noted by an Israeli journalist, Noam Sheizaf: “Unlike in Syria or Libya, where dictators slaughter their own citizens by the hundreds, it was never oppression that held the social order in Israel together, as far as the Jewish society was concerned. It was indoctrination - a dominant ideology, to use a term preferred by critical theorists. And it was this cultural order that was dented in this round of protests. For the first time, a major part of the Jewish middle class - it’s too early to estimate how large is this group - recognized their problem not with other Israelis, or with the Arabs, or with a certain politician, but with the entire social order, with the entire system. In this sense, it’s a unique event in Israel’s history.
This is why this protest has such tremendous potential. This is also the reason that we shouldn’t just watch for the immediate political fallout—I don’t think we will see the government fall any time soon—but for the long term consequences, the undercurrent, which is sure to arrive”. ‘The real importance of the tent protest’
Playing down the significance of these events
And yet there are those who are only too happy to play down the significance of these events. The official press has to a large extent ignored them altogether. There is an 800 to 1,000-strong foreign press corps in Jerusalem (second in size only to that in Washington) which only began to show any interest after the movement had already been under way for a couple of weeks. You would have to search long and hard for any mention of this movement in ‘progressive’ papers like The Guardian or Socialist Worker in the UK.
Another tack is to label this as a ‘middle class’ movement. It’s true that, as with all the other movements, we are looking at a broad social revolt which can express the dissatisfaction of many different layers in society, from small businessmen to workers at the point of production, all of whom are affected by the world economic crisis, the growing gap between rich and poor, and, in a country like Israel, the aggravation of living conditions by the insatiable demands of the war economy. But ‘middle class’ has become a lazy, catch-all term meaning anyone with an education or a job, and in Israel as in North Africa, Spain or Greece, growing numbers of educated young people are being pushed into the ranks of the proletariat, working in low paid and unskilled jobs where they can find work at all. In any case, more ‘classic’ sectors of the working class have also been involved in the demonstrations: public sector and industrial workers, the poorest sectors of the unemployed, some of them non-Jewish immigrants from Africa and other third world countries. There was also a 24-hour general strike as the Histradut trade union federation tried to deal with the discontent of its own members.
But the biggest detractors of the movement are those on the extreme left. As one of the posters on libcom put it: “I got in a big argument with one of the leading SWP people in my union branch, whose argument was that Israel did not have a working class. I asked her who drove the buses, built the roads, looked after the children, etc and she just dodged the question and ranted about Zionism and the occupation.”
The same thread also contained a link to a leftist blog which put forward a more sophisticated version of this argument: “Certainly, every level of Israeli society, from trade unions to the education systems, the armed forces and the dominant political parties, are implicated in the apartheid system. That was true from the very inception, in the very germinal forms of the Israeli state built up in the British Mandate period. Israeli is a society of settlers, and this has enormous ramifications for the development of class consciousness. As long as it thrives on building colonial outposts, as long as people identify their interests with the expansion of settler-colonialism, then there is little prospect of the working class developing an independent revolutionary agency. Not only is it a settler-colonial society, it is also one supported with the material resources of US imperialism”.
The idea that the Israeli working class is a special case leads many leftists to argue that the protest movement should not be supported, or should only be supported if it first takes up a position on the Palestinian question: “The social protests have been dubbed Israel’s largest since the 1970s and are expected to result in reformed policies or even reshuffled governmental authority. But until the reforms address all of the issues at the core of Israel’s oppressive and discriminatory housing situation, until the policy changes put Palestinians at an equal footing with Israelis, until eviction notices are no longer dealt out on a whim, then the reforms are baseless and the protests are useless” ‘Israel’s one-sided, ‘liberal’ housing protest is not a movement worth joining or even championing’, Sami Kishawi, Sixteen Minutes to Palestine blog.
In Spain, among participants in the 15M movement, similar debates have been taking place, for example around a proposal “that the Israeli protesters should only be supported if they "take a position as a movement on the Palestinian question, denouncing clearly and openly the occupation, the blockade of Gaza and [calling for] the end of the settlements" (from the same thread on Libcom,)
These leftist arguments are being answered in practice by the movement in Israel. For a start, the questioning taking place in the Israeli streets is already challenging the division between Jews and Arabs and others. Some examples: in Jaffa, dozens of Arab and Jewish protesters carried signs in Hebrew and Arabic reading "Arabs and Jews want affordable housing," and "Jaffa doesn’t want bids for the rich only."
Arab activists set up an encampment in the centre of Taibeh and hundreds of people visit it every night. "This is a social protest stemming from profound distress in the Arab community. All Arabs suffer from the cost of living and housing shortages," one of the organizers, Dr. Zoheir Tibi, said. A number of Druze youngsters set up tents outside the villages of Yarka and Julis in the Western Galilee."We're trying to draw everyone to the tents to join the protest," said Wajdi Khatar, one of the protest initiators. A Jewish and Palestinian joint camp was set up in the city of Akko, as well as in East Jerusalem where there have been ongoing protests of both Jews and Arabs against evictions of the latter from the Sheikh Jarrah neighbourhood. In Tel Aviv, contacts were made with residents of refugee camps in the occupied territories, who visited the tent cities and engaged in discussions with the protesters.
At Levinsky Park in southern Tel Aviv on Monday 1 August, where the city’s second largest tent city has stood for nearly a week, over a hundred African migrants and refugees gathered for a discussion on the ongoing quality-of-life protests taking place across Israel.
No reason to put up with austerity
Numerous demonstrators have expressed their frustration with the way the incessant refrain of ‘security’ and of the ‘threat of terrorism’ is used to make people put up with growing economic and social misery. Some have openly warned of the danger that the government could provoke military clashes or even a new war to restore ‘national unity’ and split the protest movement. As it happens, the Netanyahu government seems to be on the back foot at the moment, taken by surprise and trying offer all kinds of sops to take the heat out of the movement. The point remains that there is indeed a mounting awareness that the military situation and the social situation are very closely linked.
As ever, the material situation of the working class is key to the development of consciousness, and the current social movement is greatly accelerating the possibility of approaching the military situation from a class standpoint. The Israeli proletariat, often portrayed by the left wing of capital as a ‘privileged’ caste living off the misery of the Palestinians, actually pays very heavily for the Israeli war effort in lives, psychological damage, and material impoverishment. A very precise example linked to one of the key issues behind the current movement, housing: the government is pouring a highly disproportionate amount of money into building up settlements in the occupied territories rather than increasing the housing stock in the rest of Israel.
The significance of the present movement in Israel, with all its confusions and hesitations, is that it has very clearly confirmed the existence of class exploitation and class conflict within the apparent national monolith of Israel. The defence of working class living standards will inevitably come up against the sacrifices demanded by war; and as a result, all the concrete political issues posed by the war will have to be raised, discussed, and clarified: apartheid laws in Israel and the occupied territories, the brutality of the occupation, conscription, right up to the ideology of Zionism and the false ideal of the Jewish state. Certainly, these are difficult and potentially divisive issues and there has been a strong temptation to try to avoid raising them directly. But politics has a way of intruding into every social conflict. An example of this has been the growing conflict between the demonstrators and representatives of the extreme right – Kahanists who want to expel Arabs from Israel and fundamentalist settlers who see the demonstrators as traitors.
But it would not be an advance if the movement rejected these right wing ideologies and adopted the positions of the left wing of capital: support for Palestinian nationalism, for a two state solution or a “democratic secular state”. The present international wave of revolts against capitalist austerity is opening the door to another solution altogether: the solidarity of all the exploited across religious or national divisions; class struggle in all countries with the ultimate goal of a world wide revolution which will be the negation of national borders and states. A year or two ago such a perspective would have seemed completely utopian to most. Today, increasing numbers are seeing global revolution as a realistic alternative to the collapsing order of global capital.
 One of the Israelis taking part in these meetings describes the positive effects the discussions have had on the development of awareness and solidarity: “Our guests, some in pious head gear, listen attentively to the story about middle class Jewish youngsters with no place to live, to study and to work from. The tents are so many, so small. They nod in amazement, expressing sympathy or perhaps even some pleasure over the new potential for solidarity. The sharp tongued one is quick to come up with a punch line none of us would have thought of: "Hada Muchayem Lajiyin Israeliyin!" – "A refugee camp for Israelis", she exclaims.
“We laugh at this smart crack. No similarity at all, to be sure – or maybe just a little something, after all. The young people of Rothschild (may Allah help them, may their protest yield fruit), are supposedly able to get up any time and move back to the grim life they were accustomed to before settling into the sizzling Boulevard. However they are condemned to life in the lower end of the Israeli chain of housing – with no property, no land and no roof of their own. Some of the women we have with us this evening –exuberant, full of curiosity and passion for fun – have been living in "real" refugee camps most of their lives. Some were born there, others got married and moved to share the fate of large families condensed into crumbling homes that were started as temporary tents at the outskirts of towns and villages in the West Bank many years ago.
“The angry residents of Israel's "refugee camps" all over the country are going these days through an awakening process from the false consciousness that brought them to this tricky junction of the summer of 2011. It is not an easy process, but well worth making the effort to go all the way to the root of our problems. Those of us, who were privileged last weekend to dance, sing and hug on a Tel Aviv rooftop with our friends from the villages and refugee camps of the occupied territories, will never agree to give up the warm human contact with people we once considered enemies. Just think how many good flats could be produced with the assets wasted over the decades on fortifying the dumb concept that all non Jews are a "danger for our demography".