Note: What follows is my attempt to work through issues involving the current struggles in Israel, particularly in light of arguments presented at a meeting on that subject I attended last Friday. Many of the claims below thus originate with contributions heard there, though I of course bear ultimate responsibility for their explication here.
The series of protests that have swept Israel in recent weeks have presented a difficult question for those of us committed to Palestinian liberation. On face, they appear a clearly positive development. They have decisively tripped up Benjamin Netanyahu’s bellicose swagger, reducing his approval rating by 20 points in a very short time and leading various Likud ministers to distance themselves from the PM. The protests have also grown rapidly, with 150,000 Israelis participating this weekend, and throwing up some quite punchy slogans, such as ‘the market is free, but we are slaves.’ As such slogans suggest, the protesters consciously see their role as confronting neoliberalism in Israel, which over the last thirty years has produced a society which, while free of the massive unemployment confronting many European economies, is one of the most unequal among the developed nations, subject to a dangerous combination of low wages and rapid price growth. In light of all this, the housing protests have been associated by many commentators with the Arab Spring and resistance to austerity more generally.
However, there also seem to be clear differences between the protests in Israel and the Arab Spring. For instance, the National Union of Israeli Students, which has been one of the most prominent organizations in the struggle, has an appalling record on the question of Palestine, gaining headlines last year with absurd talk of organizing a counter-flotilla to expose Turkey as a ‘rogue state’ and working with adorably earnest StandWithUs Zionist propaganda outlet. With such forces playing a leading role, it is unsurprising that the protesters have done nothing whatsoever to connect their own struggles with those of the Palestinians, despite the clear links between skimpy social spending and the promotion of settlements.
Given their contradictory character, the proper response to these struggles is unclear. Israelis opposed to the occupation have seized on the opportunity to make the connections between military spending and cuts to social services, but it is not at all obvious that they are finding any significant audience within the protests. Despite these limitations, some leftist groups have been quick to hold up the protests as evidence of the potential for working class unity in the Levant.
My own political background is in a tradition, that of the International Socialist Tendency (specifically the ISO in the US), more skeptical about the possibilities for militancy on the part of the Israeli working class. Drawing on Tony Cliff’s own experiences as a Trotskyist in Palestine under the Mandate, and the writings of the Matzpen group, the IST has argued that the Israeli working class is, because of its position in the Zionist colonial project, not a revolutionary class, and that Palestinian liberation can only come through the efforts of the Arab working classes. This perspective is admirably summed up in the saying ‘the road to Jerusalem runs through Cairo.’
This was the perspective presented at the meeting Friday, where the speaker pointed out that the levels of class struggle we are currently seeing in Israel are not exceptional even in Israeli history. In 1951, 1962, 1969, and 1971, Israel saw a series of wildcat strikes by key workforces such as seamen, dockers, and postal workers. None of these periods saw any substantial challenge to Israeli colonialist endeavors, let alone Zionism itself. Given the historic failure of the Israeli working class to challenge Zionism, even at its most militant, our expectations for a significant but clearly less potent struggle such as this should remain modest at best.
Undoubtedly the most interesting and challenging aspect of the meeting came in explaining the reason for this failure. The traditional explanation in IS circles has been that put forward by Haim Hanegbi, Akiva Orr, and Moshe Machover in their 1969 article, ‘The Class Nature of Israeli Society.’ Machover et al offer three primary lines of explanation for Israel’s unique class politics. First, they argue that the fact that Israel’s working class is primarily composed of immigrants has distorted class consciousness, leading Israeli workers to hold higher hopes of social mobility, and consequently less investment in strategies of class struggle than working classes in other nations. As the authors note, this alone cannot explain the persistent conservatism of Israeli workers. If it were only Israel’s immigration patterns that distorted working class consciousness, one could reasonably expect second and third generation Israelis to demonstrate more traditional patterns of class conflict. This has not happened.
The second factor Machover et al describe is the uniqueness of Israel’s ruling class. Unlike ruling classes in other capitalist countries, the Israeli ruling class has historically not been composed of capitalists and their retinue. Rather, Israeli history has been characterized by the dominance of capital by the political institutions of Zionism, such as the Histadrut and the Jewish Agency. In Mandatory Palestine, the Histadrut in particular played a key role in subordinating Jewish capital to the Zionist project, organizing strikes, boycotts, and physical attacks against Jewish employers who hired Arab labor. After the nakba, these institutions retained their predominance in the new state, as the Histadrut emerged as a majr employer, and a significant amount of the economy was controlled by the government, which was dominated until the mid-70s by Labor Zionism. Israeli society has thus been characterized not by the hegemony of the bourgeoisie, but by that of the Zionist bureaucracy. In particular, the role of the Histadrut as the only legitimate representative of the Israeli working class goes a long way in this account towards explaining the commitment to Zionism evident in Israeli working class history.
The third factor figures most prominently in the IST’s account of Israeli class structure, and that is Israel’s unique role in imperialism. As the Zionist propaganda outfit FLAME put it, ‘Israel is indeed America’s unsinkable aircraft carrier in the Middle East and the indispensable defender of America’s interests in that area of the world.’ The imperial powers support Israel because of its ability to punish misbehaving Arab regimes and guarantee continued imperial control over the most important strategic commodity in the world – oil. In return for this service, the imperial countries agree to subsidize Israeli society with foreign aid, guaranteed loans, and various incentives for private contributions to the Zionist project. The result of all this is, as Machover et al put it:
The Jewish worker in Israel does not get his share in cash, but he gets it in terms of new and relatively inexpensive housing, which could not have been constructed by raising capital locally; he gets it in industrial employment which could not have been started or kept going without external subsidies; and he gets it in terms of a general standard of living which does not correspond to the output of that society. The same obviously applies to the profits of the Israeli bourgeoisie whose economic activity and profit-making is regulated by the bureaucracy through subsidies, import licences and tax exemptions. In this way the struggle between the Israeli working class and its employers, both bureaucrats and capitalists, is fought not only over the surplus value produced by the worker, but also over the share each group receives from this external source of subsidies.
Up until Friday evening, I thought this was a very persuasive account of Israeli working class conservatism. However, the speaker in the meeting pointed out that the inspiration for these protests, neoliberalism in Israel, complicates this analysis. The living standards of working class Israelis have been falling for almost thirty years, with no appreciable increase in political challenges to Zionism. This itself seems a prima facie falsification of the thesis that subsidies from imperialism work to buy off the Israeli working class. Upon further consideration, there are additional problems with the thesis. For one thing, it is highly reminiscent of the labor aristocracy thesis put forward by Third Worldist groups that argue the American working class is bought off by the super-profits of imperialism (this thesis has been subjected to devastating critique recently by Charles Post). This resemblance is particularly ironic given that Tony Cliff was one of the first to reject the theory of labor aristocracy as an explanation for the prevalence of reformist ideas. Finally, the growth of the Israeli economy in recent decades has been such that the aid it receives from imperial nations is simply too small a part of its national economy to be a significant explanation of working class consciousness.
Where does all this leave us? First, I think it’s worth recognizing that Israeli working class conservatism itself is a fact. In the United States, for example, income is a fairly good predictor of support for imperial endeavors, and has been for at least fifty years. The American working class has the most to lose from American wars, and their class consciousness is reflective of this. In Israel, support for aggression against the Palestinians and neighboring countries has enjoyed almost unanimous levels of support, with the 1982 invasion of Lebanon consisting of the only significant exception. This is indicative of a real difference between the Israeli and American working classes. (Unfortunately, many Trotskyist groups are unwilling to recognize this difference, with the Spartacists arguing that ‘If successful, [BDS] would hit the Israeli proletariat the hardest, causing mass layoffs and weakening its social power that could and must be mobilised to defend its Palestinian brothers, and the peoples of Lebanon, and to smash the Zionist state from within through socialist revolution’ and the US SWP even going so far as to accuse BDS activists of anti-semitism.)
The question, then, is how to explain this difference, if imperial subsidies are clearly not plausible. At the meeting, it was argued that the commitment of the Israeli working class to Zionism has so thoroughly shaped class consciousness that Israeli workers cannot conceive of themselves as anything but a Jewish working class in a Zionist state. Ultimately, I don’t buy this argument. It’s a bit too close to the positions advanced by whiteness theorists, who hold that white working class consciousness is so tied up with whiteness that it will never mount a serious challenge to capital. This seems to grant the ideological-political aspect of class formation undue causal power in explaining very broad patterns of class conflict. For me, at least, a sixty year history of Israeli working class conservatism calls for an explanation more deeply located in the class relations of Israel.
Such an explanation is, I think, visible in outline at least in the article by Machover et al. First, while the argument about imperial subsidies clearly cannot explain Israeli history since the 1980s, it fairs somewhat better for the earlier period. During this time, capital inflows from imperial nations really did make up a significant portion of the Israeli economy. from 1949-1965, Israel had a savings rate that averaged around zero percent, yet the rate of investment was nearly twenty percent of GNP. This meant Israel was both able to spend substantial amounts on both capital formation and consumption during this period. As Machover et al explain, ‘the growth of the Israeli economy was based entirely on the inflow of capital from outside.’ In this period, then, it seems quite plausible that capital from the imperial nations subsidized the Israeli economy to a degree that does have explanatory power.
This explanation becomes even more compelling when combined with their argument about the uniqueness of Israel’s ruling class. Because of the volume of imperial investment, the Israeli ruling class was able to hold as its main class project the colonization of Palestine, rather than the extraction of surplus value from Israeli workers (though of course this remained an important concern). This assortment of labor bureaucrats, settlement agency directors, and Histadrut officials pursued a class strategy which did not bring them into as direct a confrontation with Israeli workers as other ruling classes. Though I lack the data to substantiate such a claim, it seems plausible that the Zionist bureaucracy’s hegemony over Israeli capitalists was premised on their ability to guarantee a certain level of labor peace by subsidizing the costs of the reproduction of labor power. Imperial subsidies thus made the victory of the Zionist bureaucracy possible, retarding the development of class struggle in Israel, and ensuring the hegemony of Zionist consciousness in the place of class consciousness.
If this combination explains Israeli working class conservatism before neoliberalism, what explains its continued hold? Here immigration seems to play an important role. Over the last twenty years, nearly a million Russian Jews have immigrant to Israel (Israel today has a population of seven million). Fleeing first Stalinist stagnation and then the savagery of Russian neoliberalism, these immigrants have found in Israel significantly higher standards of living than they had previously. Immigration as an explanation of conservatism is further supported by the fact that Russian Jews are one of the most conservative sectors of Israeli society, forming the prime support base for Avigdor Lieberman’s party, Yisrael Beiteinu.
It’s not exactly clear how unique character of Israel’s ruling class continues to play out. Much of Israel’s economy has been privatized, and the Histadrut no longer plays anything like the role it once did in organizing either capital or labor (unionization rates have been sliced in half since the 1960s, and most of the industries it used to own have been sold to private owners). Capitalists play a much larger role in Israeli society today than in the 1960s, and the housing struggles are partially a reflection of this fact. To be clear, these capitalists are no less committed to the Zionist project than their predecessors, but they are also subject to market discipline in a way the bureaucracy never was. This market discipline has led them to undertake their attacks on the Israeli working class.
Admittedly, this leaves my account in a lame position, as I am forced to rely on some kind of ideological intertia or hangover to explain the persistence of Israeli working class conservatism since the 1980s in the face of increasing capitalist attacks, precisely the kind of explanation I dismissed as insufficiently materialist earlier. Two replies. First, I think immigration is a significant factor, and is actually invaluable for explaining the rise of the far right in contemporary Israeli politics. Second, it’s important to emphasize that the combination of Zionist bureaucratic hegemony and imperial subsidies is a good explanation for the pre-neoliberal period, and that this significantly reduces the period of conservatism to be explained by ideological factors. I find it a good deal more plausible to explain thirty years of conservatism as a result of previous class formation than to explain sixty years on the basis of politics alone.
In conclusion, I’m not sure my argument here is necessarily incompatible with the perspective laid out at the meeting. The struggles over housing will almost certainly not develop into a generalized challenge to the regime, because their participants remain committed to the Zionist project. Though it’s possible that the struggles will create splits in the ruling class Palestinians can put to good use, neither they nor their supporters should expect much from the tent cities.