Do Israeli protests signal a shift toward class-struggle politics?

July and August have seen an unprecedented number of mass demonstrations in Israel. These mobilizations are similar, in many ways, to protests in the Arab world and in Europe. The demonstrations have raised demands against high prices and against privatization, and for increased minimum wages, but the main thrust has been high rents and a shortage of housing. Protesters themselves made comparisons to mobilizations in Egypt, and during marches Israelis chanted, “Mubarak, Assad, Bibi Netanyahu.”

Beginning on July 14-15, protesters erected about 50 tents in central Tel Aviv. By the end of the first week of August, the protest had grown to over 400 tents and hundreds of protesters. Tent cities have been put up in other parts of Tel Aviv, Jerusalem, and several smaller cities. On July 23, a mass protest march of over 20,000 took place in Tel Aviv. There were minor clashes with police and 43 were arrested; including 11 members of Anarchists Against the Wall.
In the days following the Tel Aviv march, there were protests and road blockades in a number of other cities. Netanyahu’s response was to announce a new housing plan that was immediately dismissed as inadequate by protest organizers. On July 30, about 150,000 marched across the country, including 80,000 in Tel Aviv. On Aug. 7, over 300,000 protesters marched in Tel Aviv—a city of less than 500,000.
On Aug. 18, protest organizers suspended planned weekend demonstrations following Israeli retaliation attacks on Gaza. Earlier in the week, in an attack at Eilat, six Israeli civilians and one soldier were killed. Israel’s retaliation attacks included air strikes on Gaza—with nine Palestinians killed and dozens wounded. IDF forces also killed three Egyptian police officers. After initial claims that Palestinian terrorists from Gaza had carried out the attack, the government later admitted that they were unsure of the real identities or origins of the attackers.
Subsequent Israeli social-justice demonstrations were smaller in scale than ones preceding the Eilat attack. On Aug. 27, about 10,000 protesters gathered in Tel Aviv, with a similar number protesting in Jerusalem. However, the movement came back to life on Sept. 3, with an estimated 450,000 taking part in demonstrations across Israel—including 300,000 in Tel Aviv and 50,000 in Jerusalem. Rally speakers blasted the Netanyahu government’s economic and defense policies. Calls for cuts in defense spending are increasing amongst demonstrators as the movement progresses.
Significantly, the protest on Sept. 3 in Haifa drew a mixed Palestinian-Israeli and Jewish-Israeli crowd of 40,000 and specifically raised the issue of discrimination against Arabs. According to Ha’aretz, one speaker, Shahin Nasser, representative of the Wadi Nisnas protest tent in Haifa, said: “Today we are changing the rules of the game. No more coexistence based on hummus and fava beans. What is happening here is true coexistence, when Arabs and Jews march together shoulder to shoulder calling for social justice and peace. We’ve had it. Bibi, go home … go and don’t come back … good-bye and good riddance.” Ha’aretz reports many red flags in the crowd in Haifa.
Opinion polls show overwhelming support for the protests in Israel; however, we have to address the limitations of this movement. It is made up almost entirely of Israeli Jews. In the early weeks only a few Palestinian-Israelis participated. The movement itself reflects an alliance of “left” reformist forces and right-wing settlers.
There has been a conscious decision not to raise demands relating to the occupation or the Palestine question. Early on, some protesters set up a “1948” tent in Tel Aviv for discussion of the issue, but rightist settlers attacked the tent organizers. The movement has failed to directly address the way a society built on Zionism by its very structure enforces dispossession and discrimination, and requires the constant enlistment of Jewish workers in an anti-Palestinian hegemony.
As in the days of Jim Crow in the U.S. or apartheid in South Africa, struggles for economic justice for people only from the dominant ethnic group are inevitably and inherently limited. The fact that the movement stepped back when Israel was attacking Gaza speaks volumes about the limited nature of the social-justice movement there.
Palestinian Israelis face discrimination in education and jobs. There are whole sectors of the economy in which Arab labor is banned for “security” reasons. Poverty inside Israel for Arabs is 52 percent, while it is 16 percent for Jewish Israelis. In Gaza and the West Bank, Palestinians are subject to land confiscation, home demolition, destruction of crops, and the violence of settlers and the military against communities. The military regime in the occupied territories amounts to an apartheid system, with separate roads and legal systems for settlers and the indigenous Palestinian people.
It remains to be seen whether this protest movement represents a major shift toward class-struggle politics in Israel. It’s possible that these protests will topple the rightist Netanyahu government, but what will happen next?
This is a critical question for Israeli workers and for those who want to build a just society. The continued oppression of the Palestinians and the occupation of Palestinian lands is the main obstacle to both multi-national working-class unity and to full attainment of class-consciousness by Israeli Jewish workers. The liberation of the Israeli working class cannot be achieved separately from the liberation of the Palestinian people.
As long as the Israeli working class maintains its support for Zionism, it will be unable to move towards socialism. The ultimate solution is the building of a multinational revolutionary socialist party and a unified Palestinian workers state from the river to the sea, with full rights and equality for all.
> The article above was written by John Leslie, and first appeared in the September 2011 print edition of Socialist Action newspaper.