The anatomy of Israel’s protest movement

August 12, 2011

The new movement against neoliberal policies in Israel can't continue to avoid the Palestinian question, argue Jonah Birch and Hadas Thier.

NATIONWIDE PROTESTS in Israel against social inequality and the high cost of living are growing as they reach the end of their first month.

On August 6, an estimated 300,000 took part in demonstrations across the country, including as many as 250,000 in Tel Aviv, in what was by far the largest action of the recent wave of mobilizations. A loosely connected group of organizers have announced plans to hold marches next month, which they hope will draw 1 million Israelis.

The protests began when activists constructed a tent city in an affluent neighborhood of downtown Tel Aviv to demand affordable housing. They subsequently spread to dozens of cities.

Participants' demands have become increasingly wide-ranging: while the demonstrations initially focused on high prices, more recently, activists targeted the absence of affordable child care and adequate parental leave rules, deteriorating conditions in the increasingly privatized health care system, the expense of securing a decent education, and growing income disparities. The overarching slogan has become: "The people demand social justice."

Hundreds of thousands protesting in Tel Aviv
Hundreds of thousands protesting in Tel Aviv

The "July 14 movement"--named after the date that its first tent city was constructed--has severely weakened Israel's governing right-wing coalition, headed by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, and produced a crisis within his Likud Party. Polls show that around 90 percent of Israelis back the protests, and they have drawn support not only from the Israeli left, but also from right-wing forces--including parties allied to the governing coalition, such as the religious Shas party.

Netanyahu has been forced to make some concessions in response to the protests, such as his promise to build tens of thousands of units of new housing. Recently, the government announced that it was setting up a committee to study the protesters' grievances. "It is impossible to ignore the voices coming from the public," Netanyahu said in a statement.

A struggle against neoliberalism

THE MOBILIZATIONS have clearly been inspired by the Arab revolutions and uprisings, and protesters regularly reference recent events in Egypt, Syria and elsewhere in their slogans. Indeed, the tent cities and weekly mass mobilizations are frequently compared to Egypt's Tahrir Square occupation.

More fundamentally, they are a response to decades of neoliberal policies pursued by Israeli governments of both the left and right.

From the inception of Zionist colonial settlement in Palestine until the 1970s, the Israeli economy was characterized by a restricted role for the market. Investment and distribution were highly organized and directed by the state and long-standing Zionist institutions, such as the Histadrut, Israel's trade union federation, which for many decades was the country's largest employer. High levels of foreign aid allowed for rapid economic growth, generous social welfare provisioning and rising living standards.

Of course, there were losers in this process: the indigenous Palestinian population suffered forced expulsion from their homes in 1947-1948 and again in 1967. Those who remained in Israel were subjected to rule by martial law until 1966 and second-class citizenship ever since.

But for Israeli Jews, especially the Ashkenazi (Eastern European) settlers, and to some extent Mizrahi (Arab and Middle Eastern) Jewish immigrants, Western support underwrote a sustained improvement in economic conditions that allowed Israel to develop an advanced capitalist economy.

That began to change when economic conditions started deteriorating in the 1970s. The eventual result was the turn towards neoliberalism, signaled by the 1985 Economic Stabilization Plan introduced under Labor Party leader Shimon Peres.

Since then, three decades of neoliberal policies of privatization, welfare cuts and market deregulation, pursued by left and right governments alike, has resulted in skyrocketing rates of inequality. While the number of Israeli billionaires has increased from zero to 16 in the span of just a few decades, the bulk of the Israeli population has seen their socio-economic position decline precipitously. As Stephen Lendman notes:

Various studies show...1.77 million Israelis are poor. About 850,000 children live in poverty. As a result, 75 percent of those affected miss meals, a 21 percent increase from 2009. Moreover, 83 percent of poor children lack proper dental care, most getting none. Some beg for money. Others steal to eat.

[Over the last decade], many families moved from "the idle poor to the working poor," little better off than before. Though mainly an Arab problem, increasing numbers of Jews are also affected.

Moreover, employed Israelis work more weekly hours than counterparts in most other OECD countries, while "the country's average standard of living is lower" by comparison, a testimony to a failed system like America's after decades of shifting wealth upward to the top few percent.

Social justice for Palestinians?

WHAT IS not yet clear is whether the protests will begin to take up the definitive question in Israeli politics: the relationship to the displaced and disenfranchised Palestinian people.

While many have made the connection between cuts in social welfare and the enormous resources that the state directs towards settlement building (amounting to tens of billions of dollars in recent years) and the military (on which Israel spends more than any other country in the world, measured either as a percentage of the government's budget or the overall size of the Israeli economy), the demonstrations have not taken a stance on these issues.

To this point, the protesters have continued to insist that they are not "political," which in Israel means that they both reject involvement in parliamentary maneuvering and party politics, and that they take no position on issues like settlement building, militarization and approach to the Palestinians. Moreover, while Israel's marginal far left has been heavily involved in the demonstrations, the bulk of the organizers have rejected the label "leftist," which commonly signifies a willingness to engage in some sort of negotiations with the Palestinians.

In fact, the protesters have, by and large, avoided saying anything about the Palestinians at all, and attempts to raise the issue have repeatedly met with hostility. Thus, left-wing commentators Dahlia Scheindlin and Joseph Dana write of their experiences at a tent-city encampment in Tel Aviv:

The popular, mass protests here that began as a cry of rage against housing prices have evolved admirably into a public outcry against a slew of deep-rooted problems in Israeli social and economic life...Just don't mention Israel's occupation of the West Bank, or even the neutral local euphemism "medini" [lit: political/diplomatic] issues. Just leave out the institutional inequality most Palestinian citizens of Israel experience here--inequality of other groups is welcome...

I learned this the hard way. After a number of conversations with protesters, including some of its organizers (the protests are actually notably non-cohesive)--it became very clear that one of the top strategic goals is to avoid being branded as "left"...Many Israelis, not just right-wingers, deride the left for a reductionist "occupation, occupation, occupation," approach, as if it is the source of all social ills...

On Friday, some protesters hassled other Palestinian protesters, citizens suffering from housing crises. It came to scuffles. The diminutive Palestinian flags they hung were removed...Later still on Friday night, one of the organizers told me that if I were to raise these kinds of issues, specifically "medini," I would be thrown out of "his circle" of people or tents. Why? "Because the only war is a class war," he said, as if he had just recently skimmed the cliff-notes.

At issue here are not only Israeli policies towards Palestinians living in the West Bank or Gaza, or the bulk of the Palestinian population who have been relegated to the status of refugees for decades. More starkly, the protests have not taken up the plight of the Palestinian population within Israel, the descendents of those who remained in the country after 1948--a victimized minority who's subordinate status was written into the Basic Laws (akin to Israel's constitution) of the "Jewish" state.

A recent report by the Israeli-based advocacy group Adalah gives some sense of the endemic inequalities suffered by Palestinian citizens of Israel. Among the report's findings are that over half of all Palestinians living within Israel's 1948 borders live under the poverty line (compared to a poverty rate of about 20 percent for other Israelis) and Palestinian areas constitute 87 percent of the poorest municipalities in Israel. Additionally, Palestinians suffer from inequality in unemployment--in part the product of long-term discrimination in public-sector hiring, as well as education and health.

Notably, the protests against poor housing conditions have not taken up the plight of the tens of thousands of Palestinians living in unrecognized villages, who face the constant threat of having their homes demolished by the state. Little more than a week ago, the Israeli government announced it was suing a group of Bedouins for the costs of repeatedly demolishing their homes.

Meanwhile, mainstream Israeli politics has shifted far to the right in recent years, a dynamic manifested in the legislation recently passed by the Knesset, which introduced penalties for supporting the global movement for boycott, divestment, and sanctions (BDS) against Israeli apartheid. This has had especially detrimental effects on Palestinians. They have been targeted by legislative efforts to make citizenship revocable for political activities and ban commemoration of the Nakba, the forcible displacement of the majority of the Palestinian population in 1948.

The foreign minister in the current coalition government, Avigdor Lieberman, has openly proposed the expulsion ("transfer") of the remaining Palestinians out of Israel. And in recent years, leading Palestinian members of the Israeli Knesset have been subjected to political repression or intimidation for their activities.

For example, Azmi Bishara was forced into exile for siding with the victims of Israel's 2006 invasion of Lebanon, Hanin Zuabi was stripped of her parliamentary rights for taking part in the "Freedom Flotilla" to break the siege of Gaza in 2009, and Ahmad Tibi has been threatened for supporting the BDS campaign.

Simultaneously, growing racism and right-wing radicalization have infected the majority of Israel's Jewish population. Thus, in a December 2007 report:

The Association for Civil Rights in Israel said expression of anti-Arab views had doubled, and racist incidents had increased by 26 percent...[The group] quoted polls suggesting half of Jewish Israelis do not believe Arab citizens of Israel should have equal rights. About the same amount said they wanted the government to encourage Arab emigration from Israel. In another poll, almost 75 percent of Jewish youths said Arabs were less intelligent and less clean than Jews.

Given all this, it seems mind-boggling that the protests have generally been so unwilling to take on political questions or the entrenched oppression of Palestinians--let alone questions relating to the ongoing violence and brutal subjugation of Palestinians in Gaza or elsewhere outside Israel's borders. What else is "social justice" if not economic and political equality for all?

The Israeli working class: An agent for change?

WHAT EXPLAINS this seemingly glaring blind spot in the mobilizations of the last few weeks? Not only is a "social justice" movement that avoids mention of a country's most basic and glaring injustice an odd contradiction, but even within a more limited framework of economic reforms and a return to welfare state-style politics, the absence of Palestine and Palestinians is conspicuous.

For one thing, it leaves out the section of the population, the 1948 Palestinians who have Israeli citizenship, which has faced the brunt of the neoliberal policies implemented in the past two-and-a-half decades. For another, it is obvious that the tremendous cost of the occupation of the West Bank and Gaza are one of the key reasons why the Israeli government does not invest in housing and many of the other social services that the protesters are demanding.

In the words of Israeli blogger Eyal Clyne:

As Prof. Shlomo Svirsky puts it: "the free market ends when you cross the Green Line." When it comes to efforts to populate the West Bank with Israeli-Jews, the government does invest--big time. Between 1994-2009, close to 50 percent of the construction in the settlements was government-initiated and funded, while in the entire country (including the settlements) it was less than 21 percent, and in the Tel Aviv District, 3 percent (Between 2006-2009--not a single government housing-unit was built in that district.)

This blind spot is neither new, nor a coincidence. The material interests of the Israeli working class, and therefore the trajectory of its political development, has long been obfuscated by the settler-colonial nature of Zionism and the Israeli state.

As Israeli socialists Moshe Machover and Akiva Orr argued in 1969, in their pioneering Marxist analysis of the Israeli working class: "The permanent conflict between the settlers' society and the indigenous, displaced Palestinian Arabs has never stopped, and it has shaped the very structure of Israeli sociology, politics and economics."

To be sure, neither class struggle nor political debate is lacking in Israeli society. In fact, Israeli history is marked by numerous sometimes quite large and militant strike waves waged by Israeli Jews.

But 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. Israelis simply would not be able to live where they do, and as they do (and certainly not with Western-style living standards) were they not backed by a militarized state highly subsidized by the U.S.

As Israeli General Moshe Dayan put it in 1956, "We are a settler generation, and without the steel helmet and the cannon, we cannot plant a tree or build a house." Much has changed since 1956, but this fundamental reality remains the same.

Class and class antagonisms have always existed in Israel, and with the deepening of neoliberal policies and economic crisis, this will be all the more so. But these antagonisms are muted and political radicalization hampered so long as the working class remains wedded to the Zionist project, and therefore its own ruling class.

This is why many Israeli and Palestinian leftists have speculated as to whether the outcome of the current mobilizations will be a shift to the left or a shift to the right--with the government "solving" the crisis through further expansion of settlement, militarization and racism: the ABCs of Zionism.


INDEED, WHICH direction the protests will go is not yet determined. So far, the determination of protest organizers to leave out the question of Palestinian equality, and--with few isolated exceptions--the lack of participation in the protests by Arab citizens of Israel, suggests that these protests have not yet escaped the limitations of previous bouts of working-class and left mobilization in that country. So does the fact that most protesters, as Clyne argues, are attempting "to restore some of the lost old order [i.e., a state-directed economy], rather than fighting for a new one."

While there is much to be skeptical of, there is no doubt that the July 14 movement has exposed and deepened some important contradictions developing within Israel. The most important of these are the beginnings of a revolt in the Arab world, which has weakened Israel's regional position (and could corrode U.S. support for Israel in the future), and a sharpening of internal antagonisms in Israel as a result of neoliberalism.

As British socialist Richard Seymour argues in his blog Lenin's Tomb:

[B]efore these recent protests, the predominant response of Israeli workers to this situation was to become more right wing and more pro-Zionist. It was to kick the Palestinians hard. The far right grew in power, fuelled significantly by the support of Russian immigrants, while the overwhelming majority of Israeli workers could be counted on to support bestial acts of aggression such as Operation Cast Lead.

But these protests constitute a form of class struggle that has the potential to weaken the far right and, if pushed to a certain extent, bring the polity to a crisis that weakens its grip over the Palestinians. The Israeli state will certainly try to resolve this by transferring the antagonism to the colonial plane, and may even launch another aggressive war. But such solutions may run up against quite serious limits, especially if the Arab revolt deepens and spreads.

Whether the outcome will be a shift to the right or a shift to the left will, for this reason, mostly be determined by factors outside of Israel's borders. But internally, there's no doubt that a small and hither-to insignificant left in Israel (one that is genuine, and supports Palestinian equality) has the potential of becoming less marginal in the current context.

As Israeli journalist Noam Sheizaf put it:

The J14 movement can go many ways--it can even bring Israel further to the right; it certainly won't be the first time in history in which social unrest led to the rise of right-wing demagoguery--but right now, it is creating a space for a new conversation. Limited as this space may be, it's so much more than we had just a month ago.

So far, small and isolated attempts have been made in this direction, notably "Tent 1948," consisting of Jewish and Palestinian activists calling for social justice for all--not just Jews--in Israel. Reactions to Tent 1948 have been mixed and often heated, but they have been able to stay as part of the encampment of the time being, and gain a hearing with at least some protesters.

As one Israeli blogger put it, "The issue is not whether we morally approve of, or love or hate, people who call for social justice but have done nothing for Palestine. The issue is what will come out of this and will the tiny few activists for Palestine solidarity come of this bigger and stronger and with a wider audience?

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