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Palestinian Liberation and the Israeli Working Class

As the Israeli army committed another massacre in Gaza, there were anti-war protests in Tel Aviv, but much of Israeli society supports the war and the occupation. Socialists are debating if anything can be expected from the working class in Israel. Revolutionary politics need to oppose imperialism, but still fight for a class perspective.

Nathaniel Flakin

May 31, 2021
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A young adult wearing a medical mask holds a sign above their head that reads "JEWS FOR PALESTINE, SAVE SHEIKH JARRAH"

The Israeli army committed another horrific massacre in Gaza. An estimated 248 people in Gaza have been killed by rockets, including 66 children. Whole apartment blocks have been flattened.

During the war, there were a number of anti-war protests in Tel Aviv, Jaffa, and other Israeli cities, with Jewish and Arab people coming together to call for peace. But these hopeful signs should not distract us from the fact that the majority of Israeli society today stands behind the occupation regime, with all the systematic, brutal violence it implies. One poll, for example, showed 72 percent of Israelis rejecting a ceasefire.

In this context, there has been a renewed debate among English-speaking socialists about the potential role of the Israeli working class in the liberation struggle. In the magazine New Politics, Daniel Fischer, brian bean, and Moshe Machover have recently written on this question, centered around the recently published volume Palestine: A Socialist Introduction. Can Israeli workers be an ally of the Palestinian liberation struggle? And if so, under what conditions?

Capitalism and Colonialism

Israel is a capitalist class society. A small minority owns the means of production, while the big majority must sell their labor power to survive. There is an irreconcilable contradiction between the haves and the have-nots, which sometimes becomes visible in the form of strikes and social protests.

But the situation in Israel is more complex. Since its foundation, the state of Israel has been an instrument for the oppresssion and ethnic cleansing of the Palestinian population. Millions of Palestinians live under military occupation, while millions more live in exile, and some live as second-class citizens of Israel. These different forms of oppression, which even bourgeois NGOs have started referring to as apartheid, are maintained with brutal violence.

In addition to Israel’s roughly one million non-Jewish citizens, who are subject to different forms of legal discrimination, there are also about half a million migrant workers from Thailand, the Philippines, Romania, and other countries. These legal immigrants have no opportunity to settle in the country and can be deported on a whim. Additionally, tens of thousands of asylum seekers have no rights at all. 

Israeli-Jewish workers are known to go on strike. In December 2017, for example, hundreds of thousands went on strike for half a day to protest against layoffs at the pharmaceutical company, Teva. But these strikes do not include the most exploited sectors of the working class. In fact, Israel has never had unions in the traditional sense — that is, organizations of all wage earners regardless of origin.

No, the Israeli trade union federation Histadrut was always part of the Zionist project to expel the indigenous population of Palestine and build an exclusively Jewish society. Thus, this “union” was never primarily concerned with issues of wages or working conditions — its priority was excluding Palestinian workers from the labor market. This was called Kibbush Ha’avoda (the conquest of labor) and aimed to build an exclusively Jewish working class.

Tools of Their Own Exploitation

Most of the Israeli-Jewish workers movement is allied with its exploiters in the name of Zionist “national unity.” Their chauvinist prejudices divide them from other workers and make them tools of their own exploitation.

Karl Marx recognized this problem when he looked at the British working class and its relationship to oppressed workers from the colony of Ireland:

Every industrial and commercial centre in England now possesses a working class divided into two hostile camps, English proletarians and Irish proletarians. The ordinary English worker hates the Irish worker as a competitor who lowers his standard of life. In relation to the Irish worker he regards himself as a member of the ruling nation and consequently he becomes a tool of the English aristocrats and capitalists against Ireland, thus strengthening their domination over himself. He cherishes religious, social, and national prejudices against the Irish worker. His attitude towards him is much the same as that of the “poor whites” to the Negroes in the former slave states of the U.S.A.. The Irishman pays him back with interest in his own money. He sees in the English worker both the accomplice and the stupid tool of the English rulers in Ireland.

This antagonism is artificially kept alive and intensified by the press, the pulpit, the comic papers, in short, by all the means at the disposal of the ruling classes. This antagonism is the secret of the impotence of the English working class, despite its organisation. It is the secret by which the capitalist class maintains its power.

Communists came to understand that in order to liberate itself, the workers movement needed to actively fight against every form of national oppression. V.I. Lenin put it succinctly: “Can a nation be free if it oppresses other nations? It cannot.”

Workers in Israel face numerous social problems: exploding rents, stagnating wages, layoffs, and insecurity. It is a reactionary illusion to believe that any of these problems can be solved without confronting the occupation regime in the Palestinian territories.

Israel’s Indignados

In mid-2011, massive social protests began in Israel. They took inspiration from the 15M or Indignados movement in the Spanish State and from Occupy Wall Street in the United States, and they began occupying squares in Tel Aviv. At certain moments, up to 10 percent of Israel’s entire population was taking part in demonstrations.

The petty bourgeois leaders of this movement wanted to address the housing crisis, the cost of living, and the deterioration of public services — while ignoring the question of the occupation. Activists with signs demanding “social justice — also for Palestinians” were told to leave. 

As a result, the movement quickly ended up in a dead end. Benjamin Netanyahu, the far-right Prime Minister then and now, said that there was plenty of affordable housing for Israelis — they just had to move to settlements in the West Bank. And the protest leaders had no answer to this. As a result of their chauvinism, the largest social movement in Israeli history was defeated without winning anything.

This is a perfect example of why Marxists do not just fight for the economic interests of workers. We are not only concerned with exploitation, but with every kind of oppression as well. Only the struggle against all forms of oppression — sexism, racism, homo- and transphobia, colonialism, etc. — can unite the working class. As Lenin liked to point out, only people who enjoy equal rights can form a voluntary and solid alliance. As he famously put it:

It cannot be too strongly maintained that … the Social-Democrat’s ideal should not be the trade union secretary, but the tribune of the people, who is able to react to every manifestation of tyranny and oppression, no matter where it appears, no matter what stratum or class of the people it affects.

Against Economism

Some socialists believe that the unity of the working class can develop more or less automatically through Jewish and Arab workers fighting against their common struggles together. An example of this orientation is provided by International Socialist Alternative and their Israeli group Maavak Sozialisti (Socialist Struggle). They write: “if a supportive approach is taken by Jewish and Palestinian workers towards each other’s battles, links and solidarity can develop with mutual benefit.” And in order to win Jewish workers for this kind of unity, they call for a “socialist two-state solution”: they want an independent socialist Palestine next to a socialist Israel. They say they are defending the right of national self-determination for everyone — in reality, they are ignoring Lenin’s maxim to distinguish clearly between the nationalism of the oppressed and the nationalism of the oppressors. Such a position is really just crude economism.

This idea that Israeli-Jewish and Palestinian workers have the same interests might be true in an extremely abstract sense — all workers worldwide have an objective historical interest in overthrowing capital — but revolutionary politics must always start from concrete reality.

And the concrete reality is that Israeli-Jewish workers receive numerous privileges from the superexploitation of other workers in the region via imperialism. An Israeli worker living in a settlement in the West Bank can easily have a standard of living ten times higher than that of a Palestinian worker just a few meters away. This is above and beyond the fact that only the latter lives under an occupation regime where soldiers could kick in the door in the middle of the night. One has a house protected by a heavily militarized state — the house of the other can be demolished by the same state. Even if the two live within shouting distance, the occupation creates an enormous wall that cannot be overcome with a reference to abstract class interests.

This is not a new phenomenon. A century ago, Lenin studied how imperialism takes its superprofits from the colonies and semi-colonies to give crumbs to workers in the metropolis. Capitalism always creates all kinds of hierarchies within the working class, and imperialism accentuates these divisions. White workers in the United States have certain privileges based on the superexploitation of Black workers; German workers benefit to a limited degree from German imperialism’s plundering of semi-colonial countries; male workers do less reproductive work because female workers are forced to do more; and so on and so forth. Such mechanisms exist in every capitalist country, but the hierarchies in Israel are particularly crass.

These divisions within our class must be fought everywhere. The vanguard of the working class needs revolutionary factions that can consistently oppose all forms of chauvinism and oppression. This task is of course particularly difficult in Israel. Revolutionary workers in Israel must recognize Palestinians’ right to self-determination, and reject their own privileges. This does not mean supporting a sham “Palestinian state” in a ghetto controlled by Israel — it means fighting for the right of return for all Palestinian refugees and creating a single Palestinian state with equal rights for all. And only a radical social transformation of the region, toppling the Israeli bourgeoisie and the Arab dictatorships, would provide a social basis for a truly democratic solution.

Making an abstract call on Palestinians to unite with Israeli workers “for mutual benefit” is an empty phrase. Were any Palestinians to follow such a call, they would not be joining an alliance with fellow workers as equals. Rather, they would be throwing away their most elementary democratic rights.

Similarly, calling on Israeli workers to unite with Palestinians while maintaining their “self-determination” in the form of the Zionist state would mean fighting for a “socialism” that maintains profound inequality between different peoples. That would not be any kind of socialism at all.

It is no wonder that this kind of “class unity” based on ignoring the elephant in the room, the occupation regime, has made little progress. Leon Trotsky made this point in a discussion with revolutionaries in South Africa, under similar conditions of Apartheid:

The worst crime on the part of the revolutionaries would be to give the smallest concessions to the privileges and prejudices of the whites. Whoever gives his little finger to the devil of chauvinism is lost.

For a Class Perspective

Nonetheless, socialists can make the opposite mistake when they claim that workers in Israel, due to their status as settler-colonialists, cannot possibly play a revolutionary role. brian bean bends the stick too far with an essentialist defintion, writing that the “Israeli working class is a settler-colonial, active collaborator with Israeli capitalism in the continued ethnic cleansing and occupation project of Israeli apartheid.”

It is certainly true that we cannot expect revolutionary impulses in the region to come from the most privileged workers, the Israeli-Jewish workers. The history of revolutions shows that it is generally the most oppressed — those who have the most to gain from a social transformation — who are on the front lines of revolutionary uprisings, inspiring the heavy battalions of the working class to join the struggle. But it would be wrong to assume that all Israeli-Jewish workers will forever remain loyal to the Zionist bloc.

We could consider the following hypothesis. In early 2011, when the working masses of Egypt took to the streets to overthrow the hated dictatorship of Hosni Mubarak, who had long been an ally of Israel according to reports from the ground, this was met with surprising enthusiasm in Israel. Many wondered if Israel’s corrupt leaders could similarly be toppled. This was the result of a very initial revolutionary situation, in which Egypt’s workers had taken first steps onto the stage as a political force, with strikes in the textile factories of Mahalla and on the Suez Canal.

What would happen if the working class in Egypt (or Jordan, Syria, or Iran…) were to seize political power? Then numerous Israeli-Jewish proletarians — despite their privileges, and despite the Zionist ideology — could be drawn into a front with their class siblings in the region to overthrow their own bourgeois government. This would be the opening of a struggle for a united socialist Palestine, as part of a Socialist Federation of the Middle East, including a socialist Palestine. In the 1960s, with uprisings around the world giving inspiration to workers and youth, there were signs of sectors of Israeli society breaking with Zionism and fighting for an internationalist, revolutionary perspective. This took the form, for example, of the semi-Trotskyist group Matzpen collaborating with the Democratic Front for the Liberation of Palestine. This did not represent the Israeli-Jewish working class taking the lead in the struggle for revolution — but it did show that in a wave of revolutionary struggles, the Zionist block could begin to fragment along class lines. We are convinced that this path will be taken again in the future. 

But we must emphasize: the condition for this unity between Palestinians and a potential minority sector of the Israeli working class cannot be found by adapting to the existing chauvinist prejudices of Israeli workers. Exactly the opposite: it is only when Israeli workers completely reject their oppressor nation-state that they can become a factor in a socialist transformation of the region. This means, above all, rejecting any perspective of “self-determination” in the form of a Zionist state — and especially the reactionary utopia of a “socialist Israel.” The goal must be a socialist Palestine granting equal rights to working people of all nationalities.

When the Palestinian struggle for national liberation is combined with a program for social liberation, aiming to topple not just Zionism but all the repressive and pro-imperialist regimes in the region, then the potential for cracks in the Zionist block will open up. This socialist program is key to avoiding a scenario like that in South Africa, where the struggle against apartheid was victorious, but led to a less explicitly racist neoliberal regime that maintained the horrible oppression and exploitation of the vast majority of Black people. Ultimately, only a socialist Palestine as part of Socialist Federation of the Middle East, breaking completely with all imperialist powers, can guarantee a lasting peace. This is what Trotskyists have always fought for.

This article is partially based on an article published in German on December 29, 2017, on Klasse Gegen Klasse. It was expanded to include recent debates on the question.

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Nathaniel Flakin

Nathaniel is a freelance journalist and historian from Berlin. He is on the editorial board of Left Voice and our German sister site Klasse Gegen Klasse. Nathaniel, also known by the nickname Wladek, has written a biography of Martin Monath, a Trotskyist resistance fighter in France during World War II, which has appeared in German, in English, and in French, and in Spanish. He has also written an anticapitalist guide book called Revolutionary Berlin. He is on the autism spectrum.


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