from arab spring to israeli summer

Adam Ford writes on the wave of protest sweeping across Israel, where hundreds of thousands of people are standing up to high rents and low wages

In years to come, the entry of the Israeli working class into independent action may well be seen as a pivotal moment in world history. While the ‘Arab Spring‘ has seen governments toppled in Tunisia and Egypt, another key US ally now finds itself confronted by its masses – and the event raises the objective possibility of class alliances stretching across Egypt, into Israel, and even into what remains of Palestine.

Young people are demanding affordable housing

Rent protests began two weeks ago, in response to an average 27% rise in rents over the last three years – far in excess of wage rises. Protest camps have been erected throughout the country – from the salubrious Tel Aviv’s Rothschild Boulevard to cheaper but just as unaffordable areas in Jerusalem and at least twenty-five towns.

In the eighteen years since the Oslo Accords with then Palestinian Liberation Organisation head Yasser Arafat, Israel’s government has generally encouraged new settlement in the West Bank, Gaza and the Golan Heights, rather than building affordable housing within the official borders of Israel. Over the last decade, public housing accounted for only 3% of new builds in Tel Aviv. A housing bubble has inflated, pushing mortgages way beyond the means of many young Israelis. As a result, rent demands have also spiraled out of reach.

On Tuesday, Prime Minister Benyamin Netanyahu cut short his trip to Poland, declared the protest “legitimate” and promised reform – fifty thousand new housing units would become available within eighteen months, including ten thousand units for students. But this was immediately rejected by many of the demonstrators, who have continued to set up tent camps and take more direct action, such as blocking roads and the occupying the roof of the Israeli stock exchange.

Parents protest:"who cares about missiles when there isn't enough money for diapers?"

As the Jerusalem Post has noted, housing is just a “drop in the sea of injustices”, which also includes rising food prices, and general inflation in relation to the minimum wage. Many Israelis struggle to survive on their meagre incomes, and this uprising was the inevitable consequence of a polarised society, especially under conditions where the Histadrut trade union confederation has called off several general strikes in recent months.

There are stark wealth disparities between ethnicities within the Israeli working class. Ashkenazi Jews of relatively recent European origin typically make 40% more than Mizrahi Jews with longstanding Middle Eastern and North African heritage. Poorer yet are urban Palestinians within Israeli borders, along with the Bedouin tribes and around half a million first generation migrants from around the world. Still, all ethnic backgrounds are so far well represented in the new movement, proving that economic class is the principle social division, on which all others rest.

Terrified of this new independent force in Israeli politics, Histadrut have called for a one day general strike on 1st August. However – like their equivalents in all nations – they will be seeking to reimpose their death grip on those who would resist the capitalist state. Instead of being corralled by Histadrut, Israelis must organise their own rank-and-file committees in workplaces, neighbourhoods and occupied city squares, and reach out to their class brothers and sisters across the region and the world.

For at least ten years, pro-Palestinian activists have called for an economic blockade of Israel, in an attempt to destroy the Zionist apartheid system. I hope that many will now support the demands of Israelis also struggling to meet their basic material needs, because where boycotts have failed, class-based solidarity can succeed. Twelve months ago I argued this in the pages of The Commune, in opposition to a comrade who had argued for a boycott:

“The Israeli working class is yet to make an independent intervention into the economy, but when it does, we must unhesitatingly act in solidarity with it, no matter what attitudes individuals take to the occupation of Palestine. Active solidarity is the only way that racist ideologies will be broken down, because it’s the only force that will show them up for what they are – tools of the ruling class. Though the slogan may sometimes seem trite, only when workers of all nations unite will we be able to transcend the barbaric horror of capitalism.”