On the Current Conjuncture in Israel

By Matan Kaminer
August 15, 2011


Many progressives around the world have been wondering
out loud about what exactly has been going on here for
the last month. Who are the unprecedented crowds taking
to the streets in the name of "the people" (ha'am),
demanding "social justice" (tzedek hevrati), and what
exactly do they want? Is there any connection to the
ongoing occupation and oppression of the Palestinians?
And if not, can the protests be at all justified?

In order to achieve true "social justice" - that is, to
defeat exploitation in all its forms - it is necessary
to defeat the particular kinds of exploitation inherent
in the situation, even if these appear as something
else, for example colonial oppression. In these cases,
where one could speak of the struggle between
exploiters and exploited being deflected onto other
channels, the battle against exploitation is twofold.
It is a battle against the particular (colonial) form
of exploitation, and a battle to return from the
deflection to the real issue at hand. One must keep
guard, then, against false returns that seek shortcuts.
In a situation where class exploitation has taken the
form of colonial oppression, a "class struggle" that
ignores the colonial context is no class struggle at
all; it is destined to either dissipate or change into
something altogether different.

Zionism is a colonial movement, which has over its
history shifted from expropriation of land from the
native Palestinians (roughly 1917-1967), to their
exploitation as a cheap labor force (1967-1993), and
finally to their exclusion and marginalization (1993 to
the present day). Any class struggle in Israel, which
ignored this oppressive relationship would be,
inevitably, a false one.

This does not make it meaningless to speak of classes
within the Israeli socio-economic structure, which
today forcibly excludes the Palestinians of the
Occupied Territories (OT), but not those with Israeli
citizenship. Indeed, such a class analysis is necessary
for understanding the current situation in Israel such.
It is not my intention to carry it out here, only to
point out the change in the structure which has brought
about the current uprising. Israel has for several
decades now been climbing steadily up the scales of the
Gini index. The rich have gotten fewer and super-
richer, while the poor have become poorer and more
numerous. However, it has only been in the last few
years that precarity has reached the younger generation
of the middle class.

Many have correctly pointed out that the standard of
living demanded by the Israeli protesters would be
considered high above middling in most Arab countries.
This ignores the fact that the middle class in Israel
did enjoy this standard until recently and that older
generations continues to enjoy it. Those critics who
imply that these demands come at the expense of the
Palestinians also miss another crucial point. The
official programme of rapacious upwards redistribution
which is now attacking the middle classes has been
carried out  precisely in order to finance the
occupation and indemnify the Israeli capitalist class
for the loss of the "peace dividend" which it so
covetously pursued during the Oslo era.

Another point that is easily overlooked is that the
current crisis is also a crisis of colonization. Many
in Israel, on both the right and the left, are quick to
point out that the Israeli welfare state is alive and
well - in the settlements, where housing (the
flashpoint of the rebellion), education, transportation
and other amenities are heavily subsidized. Ample funds
and ideological support are also available for young
people willing to assist in the colonization
("Judaization") of the Galilee/Jalil and Negev/Naqab.
The young generation, who are demanding affordable
housing and gainful employment in the urbanized coastal
strip around Tel Aviv, have roundly rejected these

While not hostile to the Palestinians, the movement may
therefore appear as a "wheel within a wheel," an
internal Israeli struggle neutral with respect to the
colonial background. This is certainly the picture that
the leaders of the movement--who are apparently
"privately" against the occupation--wish to broadcast.
However, even in the medium term, this is untenable.
The "wheel within" must either dissipate or mesh its
gears with "the wheel without," either through
reincorporation into ethnocratic, even fascist
politics, or through the emergence of a bi-national
movement and a re-imagination of "the people."

The second of these options currently seems unlikely.
At first, the reigning right tried to ignore the
protests; when this failed, it attempted a two-pronged
strategy to jump on the bandwagon on the one hand and
to discredit the movement as an anti-Zionist plot on
the other. Both these approaches have so far met with
total failure. The explicitly racist "hilltop youth"
earned the dubious honor of being the first group
ejected from the largest tent camp, on Rothschild
Boulevard in Tel Aviv. And public opinion - which has
certainly not become anti-Zionist itself over the past
few weeks - remains steadfastly and overwhelmingly
supportive of the rebellion. Support rates for it
fluctuate around eight-five percent. When asked why
they have not participated in the protests so far, over
sixty percent of respondents in a recent poll cited
technical reasons. Only 7.9 percent have taken up the
right's rhetoric that "political interests" (i.e. the
left) are behind the protests, fewer even than the
still-apathetic 9.8 percent who believe that "protest
can't change anything."

The first possibility, of the rebellion just going
away, perhaps satisfying itself with crumbs from the
table, is the one currently being actively pursed by
the Israeli establishment. This certainly includes the
military establishment, which cannot publicly come out
against the movement. As blogger Idan Landau has
pointed out, over the last few years the Finance
Ministry has been systematically bilking social
ministries (Education, Welfare, Health, etc.) in order
to transfer funds to the Ministry of Defense. Even the
most limited response to the protesters' demands will
necessitate greater social expenditures, imposing a cap
on the military's endless thirst for cash. The same is
true for the better-hidden expenditures on the

While tensions are already visible between the young,
middle-class, and unelected leadership and the multi-
class and multi-ethnic grassroots base of the movement,
morale is high and the movement is busy preparing
itself for the long haul. Moreover, both sympathetic
commentators and voices within the movement have
already pointed out the greatest danger to its
continuity: a conveniently timed war (say, against
Syria, whose regime obviously has parallel interests).
While the movement is still far from articulating an
anti-war position, the public mood - expressed in the
media's sudden disinterest in and disrespect for the
pronouncements of usually revered "security sources" -
bodes relatively well for an anti-war turn in its

The third option - the articulation of the current
movement with the Palestinian movement for liberation -
is certainly difficult to imagine. But it is
unnecessary to point out how many of the events of the
past year in the Middle East were completely
unimaginable a year ago. It may be less obvious that
the events in Israel are, at least at the level of
discourse, deeply inspired by those of the Arab Spring.
The very idea of borrowing any progressive concept from
an Arab country was unimaginable here until quite
recently. When, carrying an Egyptian flag at a
demonstration in Jaffa in January, I told a reporter
that "we should learn from the Egyptian people how to
rise up," I hardly believed myself. When, at the huge
rally last Saturday, I saw a giant sign plastered with
the Arabic irhal! (go!) and subtitled in Hebrew "Egypt
is here" - I was hardly surprised. We should not
overlook the profundity of this change because of its
apparently rhetorical nature.

In addition, many forces are busy at work preparing the
articulation of the Israeli uprising with Palestinian
demands. Naturally, it is the Palestinian citizens of
Israel, especially those active in the (sometimes
dogmatically) anti-nationalist Democratic Front for
Peace and Equality (al-Jabha/Hadash) who are heading
this effort. They are doing this both by raising
protest camps in mixed and Palestinian locales, and by
challenging the central camp to engage with Palestinian
demands through the provocative "Tent #1948" on
Rothschild Boulevard. These efforts have already borne
fruit, for example in the decision to have Palestinian-
Israeli writer Odeh Bisharat open the rally last
Saturday (perhaps the biggest in Israeli history).
Bisharat spoke about the unrecognized Bedouin villages
in the Negev and against land expropriations and home
demolitions, and led the massive crowd in chanting,
"Jews and Arabs refuse to be enemies." The leap over
the green line to solidarity with Palestinians in the
Occupied Territories has yet to be made. But it has
been fascist Foreign Minister Lieberman's great
achievement to have already erased the green line from
the hearts and minds of most Israelis. In today's
Israeli discourse there is - for better or worse - only
a minor difference between the Arabs of 1967 and those
of 1948.

So is this a false return, a pseudo-class struggle
occluding and colluding with the oppression of the
Palestinians? Or is it the beginning of a true return,
uniting Arabs and Jews in an anti-colonial and anti-
capitalist popular project? Can the sha'b in al-sha'b
yurid isqat al-nizam and the 'am in ha'am doresh tzedek
hevrati become one and the same people, not only in
Israel-Palestine but also across the region? While
heavy skepticism would not be unjustified, there can be
no analytical, objectivist answer to this question, as
the current conjuncture is radically open. If the
movement chooses the path of the false return, it may
gain tactically, but it will remain fragile,
inconsistent and vulnerable to dispersion through the
call to arms. A mass movement heading in the direction
of the true return may still seem unlikely - and
certainly it will meet with brutal repression, if it
does coalesce. But in these days of possibility, it
would be wrong to rule it out, and irresponsible for
radical Israelis not to do everything in our power to
realize it.

Matan Kaminer is an MA student at the Department of
Sociology and Anthropology at Tel Aviv University and a
radical left activist. Currently he is involved in the
protest camp at Levinsky Park in South Tel Aviv.


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