Saturday, 30 July 2011

Working class rebellion in Israel

The Israeli working class has added its voice to the protests and discontent spreading across the Middle East. There are twenty five tent cities across the country, demonstrations and road-blocks have occurred daily, and now there is the very real possibility of an unofficial general strike taking place on Monday.

The protests began two weeks ago, in response to an average 27% rise in rents over the last three years. As WSWS reports, this has been exacerbated by the occupation of Palestine;
Since the 1993 Oslo Accords, successive governments—Labour, Likud or Kadima—encouraged Israelis to move to the settlements in the West Bank, Gaza and the Golan Heights, rather than build in Israel. This led to a shortage of new affordable housing in the outlying areas and an increase in prices and rent. The recent property bubble has seen house prices in the prime areas rocket.

Within the Tel Aviv area, only three percent of the construction over the last decade was public housing. Not one public housing unit was built between 2006 and 2009.
But it is not just house prices that are the problem. "Israel is a predominantly low-wage economy, with 75 percent of workers earning $1,700 or less a month," and whilst wages are declining, the price of food, electricity and fuel has increased significantly. Thus, as elsewhere, what we see is a working class pushed to revolt by steadily more aggressive attacks on their living standards.

The scale of that revolt has been enough to force Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to cancel his visit to Poland in order to try and appease the demonstrators with concessions. However, Haaretz notes that the protest "has not waned since the news conference" and is now spreading to include "a number of large, diverse groups joining in amid a general feeling of anger at the government." It was then that the campaign also escalated to include blockading the knesset and occupying the roof of the Tel Aviv stock exchange.

It is also promising that the movement has - like a significant portion of the Arab Spring as well as the people's assemblies in Spain and Greece - rejected official leadership. The Histradut, the Israeli labour federation, has recently "stepped in" to the protests, trying to lead from the front with token promises of "a small strike" and a pale call on Netanyahu to "join with him" and "to solve the problem of the middle class, and to show young couples and students that there's hope." However, protesters have responded by explicitly stating that "no establishment body can step in to lead this protest." Since this began, they "were getting proposals from official institutions that wanted to take over," but "the people are having their say, and no one is going to take that away from them."

It is an extremely welcome development that people are taking to the streets in Israel on the basis of class. WSWS points out that "Israeli society is wracked by divisions," with "Jews from the Middle East and North Africa, known as Mizrahi Jews, earn[ing] 40 percent less than the Ashkenazi Jews of European origin." Palestinians, the Bedouins in the south, and ultra-orthodox Haredim Jews are worse off still. Not to mention the struggles of immigrants in the country, which I have documented previously. The movement now emerging is a chance to tackle the divisions which allowed this hierarchy of labour to develop.

As the struggle in Israel develops, we also have the chance to demonstrate the power of working class unity. It is the sense of nationalistic loyalty that creates the division between Jews and Arabs and not only provides a base of support for the occupation of Palestine but also isolates the Israeli working class. A strong show of solidarity - across the borders of nation, religion, and ethnicity - could destroy that nationalism and help the Arab Spring advance into the summer.