More articles by
Yacov Ben Efrat
The protest and the revolution
This document was presented at the ODA-Da’am seminar, held in Kufr Qana on September 17, 2011
n July 14, 2011, something clicked. For years, people moaned behind closed doors about Israel’s deteriorating condition while trying to get their hands on a foreign passport. Suddenly, up jumped Daphni Leef and placed her sofa on Tel Aviv’s chic Rothschild Boulevard, and thus changed public discourse and political reality. The tent protest she ignited is the most political protest Israel has ever seen. It is not a response to some unsuccessful military operation, but stems from profound social failure – the result of years of economic and social policies that have brought the middle classes to the point of collapse. The protest expressed a deep public lack of faith in the Knesset and political parties, all of which adopted the same policies regarding the economy and “peace.”
In the past, the middle classes supported the neo-liberal Shinui party. Now Tel Aviv’s youth have dragged the entire country to a protest which places fundamental social change firmly on the public agenda. In light of the fact that no party today is able to contain the protest and win public trust, the protest leaders chose to express public discontent themselves, and declared the movement “apolitical” and non-partisan. Since the leadership does not believe in any party, it turned to the person currently on watch, Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu, and demanded he respond to the nation’s calls for social justice. To persuade the government and Knesset that the protest enjoys majority public support, it called for a referendum in which citizens were to vote with their feet: the enormous and repeated demonstrations proved that the public is sick of politics and politicians.
Aware that the right wing, the settlers and religious sectors still constitute the government, the protest leaders avoided antagonizing them and tried to maintain a neutral image. Moreover, the fundamental issues dividing the Israeli public – the Palestinian question, the occupation and peace – were systematically kept out of the protest. Personages such as Noam Shalit (father of Gilad, the IDF soldier held for 5 years in captivity by Hamas) and Shlomo Artzi (the legendary Israeli musician) were recruited in order to strengthen the consensus. The protest expressed its yearning for the past when the leaders of the yishuv (the pre-state Jewish community in Palestine) lived in modest apartments, or when the state belonged to all and social solidarity was strong, and above all when the welfare state treated all its Jewish citizens equally. Thus the protest turned its gaze “inwards”, ignoring the responsibility of those demanding social justice for what is taking place just a short distance away, in the occupied territories.
The system that crushed the working class
Daphni Leef was born into the political and economic system against which she is protesting. The seeds of the system were sown in the economic upheaval led by Shimon Peres together with Likud leaders towards the end of 1985. With the collapse of communism in the beginning of the nineties, nothing remained to block the path of neo-liberal capitalism. Israel opened its doors to globalization; cheap goods and cheap labor flooded the market, and state-owned and Histadrut-owned enterprises were privatized. The results were immediate. Half the nation climbed upwards; the other half sank.
The ideologues of the new system worked overtime to convince the public of its efficiency and advantages over the old system. The old Israel of the Histadrut and Tnuva shared the cake equally between its (Jewish) citizens, and there was no need to work too hard because there wasn’t anywhere to advance to anyway. The old Israel encouraged “mediocrity” while the new Israel encourages “excellence.” Thus Israel is divided between the excellent and successful on one hand, and the mediocre and failures on the other. The “excellent” found themselves working in the hi-tech sector, financial services and new industries, while the “mediocre” were pushed to the margins, to minimum wage, to contract labor and to national insurance handouts. The Israel of excellence hardly glanced at the Israel of mediocrity. Those who “failed” blamed themselves for their failure.Two societies were created. The middle class sent its kids to exclusive kindergartens while those who couldn’t allow themselves this luxury made do with the regular kindergartens; schools were divided between private institutions for the excellent and state schools for the failures; medical care was divided between private and public – thus the system widened socioeconomic disparities and increased rates of poverty.
Standards of living among the middle classes rose dramatically; savings of privileged employees increased; shopping sprees and trips abroad became part of life. From time to time, some little war disturbed the idyllic life of the middle classes, or an intifada or terror attack, but they generally gave their leaders the green light to deal with the issue in the usual fashion – with force, and as much of it as possible.
Then one day the middle classes woke up to find themselves in the hands of 12 monopolistic families who were bleeding them dry mercilessly and using them and their savings however they saw fit. Prices rose; salaries failed to keep up with cost of living; housing became unattainable; and expenses for education, health and consumer goods bore deep holes in middle class pockets.
The politicians too fell into the hands of the tycoons, who used their status to amass wealth. Thus the political elite found itself in the docks, from a candidate for chief of staff to an income tax commissioner, from a president to a prime minister, and including a candidate for police inspector-general, a finance minister, a minister of industry, trade and labor, and a long list of senior functionaries. Almost every government clerk, it seems, is in the pay of some tycoon, military man or former secret service agent. Capital has bought out government, and the nation has lost its ability to generate change via the ballot box.
After 20 years of neo-liberalism, the middle classes discovered that excellence is not enough, and the best education doesn’t always pay. A few succeeded in getting good positions while the salaries of the majority shrank. Eventually, the middle classes found themselves in the same position as the working class. The privatization of public services and employment via NGOs made minimum wage no longer just the lot of factory workers, drivers and builders, but the wage of resident doctors, social workers, journalists, teachers, bank clerks, junior faculty – all of them comrades of Daphni Leef and the protest leadership. Most are not organized in any union, do not enjoy peripheral benefits and have no pension plan.
The moment the status of the middle classes became equal to that of the working class, they marched the streets demanding social justice for all. However, their long years of indifference towards weaker groups led to their failure to draw the periphery and the working classes into their protest movement.
The global crisis and the protest
The protest movement is being heavily discussed. Some say it won’t lead anywhere because it avoids politics. Some criticize it because its agenda is so broad it won’t be possible to realize it. Some see it as a national Zionist movement because it doesn’t make the link between social justice and peace. Among the Arab population, voices are increasingly heard refusing to take part in the protest because, they say, it concerns only Jews. The vast majority of workers are not taking part because they don’t believe anything will come of it. This feeling got stronger when the tent encampments were dismantled following the “march of the million” and the discovery of internal schisms within the protest leadership.
Though most of the criticism is justified, and under normal circumstances the protest would fizzle out, it seems this time things are different. The Israeli middle class is not isolated. Its awakening is a global phenomenon, and is a response to the economic system ruling around the world, from the US to Argentina, from Egypt to Israel. The capitalist system itself is collapsing; socioeconomic disparities and inequality have led to the spread of poverty from the periphery to the heart of the capitalist world, where the economy works for the tycoons, the banks and the stock exchanges while workers’ wages decline and unemployment rises.
There is a direct link between Israel’s protest movement and the events in Madrid and Cairo. The attempts by establishment figures in Israel to paint the Egyptian uprising in Islamic colors were intended to preserve the national-security discourse and enable the continuation of the policy of hostility towards the Palestinians and the Arab world. The revolution in Egypt, too, is a middle class uprising. However, unlike in Israel, the power of the Egyptian revolution lies in the central role played by the Egyptian workers. Well before the youth took to the streets, a widespread movement of strikes had taken hold. Egyptian workers protested against the privatization of state-owned enterprises, against low wages, against management corruption, against the monopolies, against the government, and of course against the emergency laws which denied them the right to unionize, the right to strike and the right to protest.
The participation of the educated youth tipped the scales against the government and brought its downfall. The Muslim Brotherhood at first opposed the protest, joining the revolution only much later, when Mubarak’s fate was sealed. The Egyptian revolution is fundamentally democratic, and demands a modern, secular constitution. Its battle-cry was “democracy and social justice,” a response to the regime of privatization and the crushing of all social solidarity which characterized the parasitic capitalism of the Mubarak period. This revolution broke out not just because of the lack of democracy but because the social and economic system had brought Egyptian society to the verge of collapse. Millions of university graduates saw no future for themselves in Egypt; government services had collapsed; food prices sky-rocketed; unemployment increased; and wages failed to meet rising costs of living.
The Israeli government’s claim that the economy is doing fine and will weather the economic crisis is far from the truth. Israel, like other western states which adopted market economies, suffers from over-concentration of economic resources. The tycoons who control the economy are facing difficulties because of the fall of the stock markets where they invest. Israeli companies are highly leveraged, investing in real estate, equities and various speculative ventures far from public surveillance or the knowledge of investors. Furthermore, what is happening in the global economy affects the performance of most industries in Israel, which depend on export. The recession in the economy of the West directly affects production in Israel and is liable to lead to greater unemployment.
The social security safety net has shrunk, even as the state budget enjoys a surplus due to taxation. If the economy is hit by recession and tax revenues fall, public services such as education, health and welfare will be immediately affected. Moreover, the ruling social-economic ideology praises the free market, and the current government continues to cling to its market-oriented policies until the bitter end, in the spirit of Samson who declared, “Let me die with the Philistines.” This is how the Republican Party in the US is behaving, restraining Obama’s plans to fight unemployment and to increase taxation of the wealthy. The US government’s inability to govern is an important factor in creating the crisis of faith in the American economy and in deepening the global crisis which is playing havoc with the European economy.
These facts show that Israel’s government does not want, and is even unable, to meet the demands of the protest movement. The reasons for the rise of the movement have not only failed to disappear, but are gaining strength. The tycoons are unable to settle their debts, companies are not investing or creating jobs worthy of the name, and states are approaching bankruptcy – not only Russia and Argentina, but also Greece, Spain, Italy and Ireland, even the US. And it must be noted that the NIS 50 billion Israel sets aside for defense, an enormous percentage of its budget, makes the aim of turning Israel into a Middle East Switzerland just a fantasy – and we haven’t even mentioned security instability and Israel’s international isolation. The size of Israel’s defense budget reflects the security establishment’s enormous influence in determining national priorities, according to which we are fated to live by the sword forever. Real and imagined strategic threats are conjured up day and night, competing with the demands for social justice. Until Israel becomes a normal state with recognized borders and without the occupation, no normal, egalitarian society will be possible here.
The Arab minority's middle class isolates itself
The Israeli protest movement fell on Israel’s Arab population like a thunderbolt out of the blue. The Arab parties were busy with an extreme nationalist agenda, which included widespread support for Hezbollah during the second Lebanon war, participation in the Turkish flotilla, demonstrations against Lieberman’s racist legislation, even support for Assad’s regime which “stood fast” against American and Israeli "intrigues."
Israeli society continues to be seen by Arab parties as united behind a national Zionist consensus, led by the extreme right. Their worldview sees all Israelis as Jews able to magically influence the US via their omnipotent lobby in Washington, and as a supreme force united in its desire to destroy the Arabs using any means available. Clearly the siege on Gaza, the second Lebanon war and Operation Cast Lead (against the Gaza Strip) help strengthen this basic perception.
Since the killing of Arab citizens of Israel by Israeli police in October 2000, the Arab population has lost all connection with Israel’s Jewish society. Arab citizens link up to Arabic satellite channels and see the world through the eyes of Al-Jazeera. The Jewish population for its part knows the Arabs mainly – if at all – through the crime pages of the printed press. Jewish Israeli media generally ignore the Arab population for fear of losing ratings. Thus two societies have been created, living side by side but closed to each other and becoming increasingly estranged. This situation is so prevalent that there has been almost no authentic Arab participation in the protest movement even though this protest demands social justice for disadvantaged populations, of which much of the Arab population is a prime example.
There are many reasons for this lack of participation. Arab society, like Jewish society, is divided by class. Though there are no Arab tycoons in Israel, because of structural discrimination against the Arab population, there is a strong middle class and a working class which constitutes the numerical majority among Arabs but has no voice. The Arab middle class is boycotting the protest for ideological reasons. Like most intellectuals and those in the liberal professions in the Arab world, it perceives Israeli society as cooperating with the occupation and indifferent to the fate of Israel’s Arab citizens. This is the position adopted by the Muslim Brotherhood and by the political party Balad, while the ostensibly Jewish-Arab party Hadash tries to avoid taking a position. The reason for the Arab working class’s failure to participate is like the reason why the Jewish working class is mostly keeping away – they are on the point of despair, feeling that their fate is already determined and harboring little hope of salvation.
The Arab middle class developed during the last 30 years as Israel welcomed globalization. Despite the discrimination in the economic structure, which leaves Arabs struggling behind, a significant number of academics and entrepreneurs succeed in gaining a foothold in the economy. Contractors, merchants, lawyers and those in the liberal professions have faith in capitalism, in the shadow of which their own status was created. Through the privatization of the media, this class gained a number of radio stations, websites, television channels and of course newspapers. Civil society is flourishing, and countless charitable organizations have been founded which employ those in the liberal professions for attractive wages.
This class is integrated in the Israeli economy via ownership of manpower contract-agencies, business partnerships with Jewish Israelis, restaurants, tourism, haulage companies and construction; it is also employed in the public sector in hospitals, local councils, and welfare services. It is politically and culturally isolated from Israeli Jewish society, which is not willing to accept it, and is completely disconnected from manual workers and the poor.
The Arab middle class dominates the Arab political parties, which compete among themselves for its vote – Hadash, Balad, Ahmad Tibi’s Ta’al, Abna’a al-Balad and both factions of the Islamic movement, the more radical northern branch and the “pragmatic” southern branch. To preserve their electoral strength, they build on nationalist sentiment and on fear of the Israeli Jewish right wing. They stress what sets them apart from the Jewish population and make sure the Zionist parties don’t steal their votes.
In contrast, Arab workers are excluded from political and cultural life. While the middle class isolates itself from Jewish society, Arab workers labor among Jews. They meet their Jewish counterparts daily in the factories, the cleaning agencies or the supermarkets. Powerlessness and poverty push them into the arms of religion and tradition. Their frustrations find expression in violence within the family, crime, educational underachievement, reckless driving, and the oppression of women – all in the name of religion and honor.
Hadash’s official participation in the protest doesn’t affect the overall picture. There is no protest movement in the Arab street, and the participation of Hadash activists has more to do with political opportunism than significant work on the ground. Before the protest movement, Hadash did not concern itself with social issues. Regarding labor questions, it did little more than get hold of some Histadrut positions.
ODA-Da’am and the protest movement
The participation of ODA-Da’am (hereinafter “ODA”) in the protest was natural. Social issues have been the core of our work since we established the Workers Advice Center (WAC-Maan) and linked our fate to that of the working class. In light of the freeze in relations between Jews and Arabs, Hamas’ domination of the Palestinian political arena, and the lack of faith in the policies of Israeli governments, we decided to build from the ground up, renewing the trust and cooperation between Jews and Arabs not on a joint political platform but on a firm social basis.
Our position is that despite cultural and political differences, Jewish and Arab workers meet on an equal footing when they receive their pay slips, which grant them all minimum wage without peripheral benefits. Poverty may affect Arabs more than Jews, but it does not leave Jews unaffected either. Thus we decided to focus on the workers while other left wing parties, both Arab and Jewish, stuck with the middle class.
In 2005, we decided to revive the May 1st (Labor Day) march after the Histadrut killed it off. Since then we have marched along Tel Aviv’s Rothschild Boulevard each year in a demonstration of workers, both Jewish and Arab. On March 8 and May 1, 2011, we adopted the slogan “equality and social justice,” influenced by the revolution in Egypt. We always believed that the place to protest the dire straits of the workers and present their demands was the center of Tel Aviv, where public opinion with a social orientation is beginning to be heard. Representatives of Kav Laoved, the Hotline for Migrant Workers, the Legal Clinic of Tel Aviv University, workers’ committees and lecturers all spoke on the stage we set up. We were full partners in the movement that paved the way for the protest on July 14 this year.
Our position was based on a clear political demand to do away with the current government and hold new elections, which, in our opinion, reflected the desire of the broader public. The protest movement leadership made a mistake in turning to the government, which is the most recent in a long string of governments responsible for the social breakdown, and demanding that this same government adopt the protest’s agenda. Prime Minister Netanyahu appointed the Trajtenberg Committee to come up with proposals for diminishing the social gaps, but specifying that the existing budget must not be exceeded. The protest's leaders knew that the limitation would preclude the scale of change required for social justice, but instead of calling for new elections, they appointed their own parallel committee of professors. This only complicated the situation, leaving the main initiative in the government's hands. Today, after the tents have been pulled down, the government can relate to the Trajtenberg Committee’s findings as mere recommendations, to be filed and forgotten.
The “secretive” behavior of the protest leadership also contributed to the internal divisions within the protest movement. Protest encampments in peripheral towns expressed their lack of faith in Daphni Leef and her comrades. Reliance on “strategic consultants” and the media made the protest seem more like a marketing campaign than a popular struggle with a clear agenda. The protest was sold like shampoo, both to settlers and to Arabs, to the secular and to the religious. It may have won unprecedented media coverage, but it failed to define a clear goal except for the sweeping demand to change the system without changing the government. Thus it now has no achievements to show.
Following the dismantling of the tents, the movement is seeking a path while still rejecting the word “politics.” However, change without politics is impossible, as the seekers of social justice will eventually realize. Moreover, the absence of the workers weakens the movement. Thus the protest stands on one leg, while the political leg remains folded, leaving the movement unstable.
However, despite all the above, and despite the movement’s “apolitical” character, its political influence will be felt sooner or later. Netanyahu’s coalition was dealt a heavy blow. More importantly, the protest changed the public discourse. The Knesset’s obsession with legislating racist laws and with weakening the High Court of Justice have proved that the politicians are disconnected from the people. They built on incitement against Arabs as a way of strengthening their position and preserving their regime, but the people didn’t follow this security bluff blindly. Instead, it shouted, “The emperor has no clothes!” Those who benefit from this policy of keeping the population scared are the tycoons who express their patriotism by investing abroad, while the workers hardly manage to make ends meet.
A workers’ party now!
Our participation in the protest movement placed the ODA firmly in the political arena. Our position today is very different from what it was before July 2011. The ODA was established after the Israeli Left and the Arab parties adopted the Oslo Accords, thus burying the chance of establishing a Palestinian state within the 1967 borders. When many backed the Labor Party as “the best of a bad lot” and accepted the economic system as if decreed from heaven, they left Israeli workers without any political representation. Similarly, the transformation of the Histadrut-dominated economy into a privatized economy and the new “flexibility” of the labor force left Israeli workers without any union representation.
For these reasons, the ODA established the Workers Advice Center in the mid-nineties as an organization supporting and assisting Arab textile workers, construction workers and unemployed. We opposed the pro-American stance of the Palestinian Authority on one hand, and Hamas’ Islamic fundamentalism on the other. We did not unquestioningly follow the call for armed resistance as the Arab parties did, and we did not support the Zionist left, which neglected the Palestinian question and the workers in Israel. We took another path, which for many years remained just an aspiration. This path opposes American policy and capitalism, but also refuses to join forces with the regimes of Assad, the Hezbollah and Hamas. This path seeks change via the strengthening of the common class factor between Arab and Jewish workers.
After more than a decade, during which our call for a social revolution that transcends borders fell on deaf ears, something clicked. In January 2011, an agenda identical with ours began to take shape in the struggle of the youth of Egypt and Tunisia for democracy and social justice. The struggle was against both the corrupt pro-Western regime and the Muslim Brotherhood. The game between the dictatorial regime and the Islamic opposition throttled the Arab masses and ensured the continuation of the existing social order. But after four decades of domination by Islamic ideology, the workers of Egypt and the secular middle class broke the rules of the game. The program that united Egyptians and Tunisians rejected the two old options and offered a third alternative: not armed resistance, but a popular peaceful struggle; not an Islamic state, but a secular, democratic state; not privatization, but a welfare state.
The Egyptian revolution still has a long way to go to realize its aspirations, and it is dependent on developments in the western world too. But there can be no doubt that the change is deep and far-reaching. In 2008, when the workers of Al-Mahala al-Kubra in southern Egypt went on strike and set fire to pictures of Mubarak, they understood the rules of the game had changed. And indeed, within two years, the unbelievable happened and Mubarak’s regime came tumbling down, together with the regimes in Tunisia, Libya and Yemen. Now Syria’s turn is coming. We at the ODA have been waiting for this moment, believing that pointless incitement and opposition could not provide for the basic needs of citizens. And in Israel, in exactly the same way, nationalism and religion, extremism and messianic mysticism are unable to meet the demands for fair employment and social justice.
Israel’s isolation, its conflict with the US administration and the loss of strategic allies like Turkey and Egypt, stem from its rejectionist position and its desire to maintain military superiority and the occupation. Arab workers around the Middle East who are demanding democracy will not agree to maintain normal relations with a state that systematically oppresses the Palestinian people. The protest in Israel can convey a message to the revolutionary movements in the region and around the world – we too are partners in the creation of a different future, a just society, and thus we oppose not only the dominant economic system but also the occupation which denies the Palestinians their most basic rights. Only a position like this can prevent the decline and death of the protest movement in Israel, and prevent it from being swallowed up by existing parties which are responsible for the social and political dead end.
The protest’s importance lies in the fact that for the first time it is shaking up the social order in Israel. It thus opens the way for Jewish and Arab workers to unite and organize. They are no longer the “failed mediocrity”, but victims of the system, those who build up the tycoons’ economy for minimum wage and don’t get to enjoy its fruits. The ODA, together with the workers’ organization WAC, is situated among the workers. It is turning the protest movement into a lever for advancing the workers and promoting union organization. Without the active participation of the workers, no social justice will be possible. The workers must stand at the forefront of the struggle for change, together with the youth and the middle classes.
Therefore we call on all those who aim for revolutionary change, all those who see social justice as an inseparable part of peace and the struggle against the occupation, all who want to take part in creating a new Middle East – not like that envisaged by Shimon Peres and the decaying regimes, but like the one inspiring the Arab revolutions.The ODA is active on the ground, among the youth, among women, among workers of all sectors, among the intellectuals. The ODA is building a broad social movement and a workers’ party with the strength to influence and generate change. Those who want revolutionary change, those who want to change the rules of the game, those who seek a framework for action on the basis of clear principles – will find a home in the ODA. Those who want not only to dream of justice but to bring it about are invited to join the struggle. This is the best time to do so.
- Translated by Yonatan Preminger