Israel: "the welfare state is coming"

Submitted by Matthew on 7 September, 2011 - 10:32

Israeli socialist Adam Keller, who is a spokesperson for the left-wing peace group Gush Shalom, spoke to Solidarity.

There was a big upsurge of the Israeli social protest movement last weekend [3-4 September], with mass demonstrations. The slogan was the “Million People March”; in fact it was “only” half a million, with 300,000 in Tel Aviv.

It is one of the biggest protests in Israeli history, and certainly the biggest on social issues rather than foreign policy.

It seems now that there will not be a big protest every weekend, and the tent cities which exist across Israel are going to be at least partially dismantled. The organisers are considering other ways forward.

How are these decisions made? The movement has direct democracy, with general meetings in the camps building up to delegate meetings from across Israel. It’s very democratic, but within it there are tensions. One of these is a sort of class tension, a split between those who started the movement, and tend to be hard-pressed, white-collar workers, and those who are much poorer and in some cases literally have nowhere else to live. The latter, obviously, are most hostile to closing down the camps.

By the way this division is to some extent — not entirely — an ethnic one, between better off Ashkenazi and poorer Sephardi.

The relationship between the protests and the labour movement is quite interesting. The Histadrut has been supporting the movement, and for instance organised a big rally in support. But it doesn’t go much further than that.

Some in the movement see the best organised workers as part of the problem, essentially what we might call a labour aristocracy. Take the electricity workers, who for a long time got free electricity and so were blamed for high bills. There is a real danger that the movement could be used by the right wing against the unions. But at the moment that is very far from the central dynamic. The key leaders of the protests want a social movement/union alliance.

Some important strikes by public sector workers have been intertwined with the protests. Just before they began, there was a long and very militant strike by social workers, over pay and conditions.

The Histadrut signed an agreement which gave them hardly anything; when most of the social workers tried to continue the strike, the Histadrut and the state went to court jointly and got the strike ruled illegal. The social workers have been very active in the protests.

Similarly, there has been a long partial strike by doctors in the hospitals. It has been linked to the demand to defend public healthcare in Israel, against privatisation and for more funding. The doctors were demanding a thousand new doctors’ jobs to stop them being overworked and establish a better service.

The most militant section were the young doctors, mostly residents, who had their own organisation within the Israeli Medical Association, and who were somewhat sceptical of the older leadership of the union.

The leader of the IMA went on hunger strike and got a lot of sympathy in the social movement; after that he agreed a deal with the state which on paper gave them the thousand jobs they wanted, but the young doctors said it was illusory, not adequate and so on. They tried to continue the strikes, and eventually resigned en masse, but the courts ruled this was an illegal strike and forced them back to work. Now some of them are on hunger strike.

The government began by denouncing the protesters as disguised left-wingers, i.e. left-wingers on the Palestinian question, and also denouncing them as hedonistic middle-class kids who have no idea about real suffering. They called them sushi-eaters and shisha-smokers!

After the protests gained strength, they acknowledged there are real problems, and appointed a commission headed by Manuel Trajtenberg, a sort of left-leaning figure, to investigate. Trajtenberg presents himself as a very liberal, open-minded, conciliatory figure, happy to engage with the protesters.

There is a very big debate in the movement about what attitude we should have to this. Some say we should engage to negotiate concessions.

But others point out that to win what we want, the public sector budget needs to be extended, and the commission’s remit explicitly rules this out.

What next? Of course the movement may still dissipate. There is also debate about its relationship to mainstream, parliamentary politics. Should it become a political party and compete in elections?

Hadash [linked to the Israeli Communist Party] is very involved, but they don’t delude themselves that they will lead the movement.

There is also the question of the Labor Party. Its leadership elections are coming up, and one candidate, Shelly Yachimovich, is seen as applying the ideas of the protest movement. The problem is that she says she is only interested in social issues, and will not talk about the settlements, the occupation and so on. She has participated in the protests, but not in a very outspoken way; nonetheless, she is probably counting on the movement’s support.

Others believe the movement should remain an extra-parliamentary watchdog over politicians. But it is very clear that we have already achieved a shifting of the terms of debate.

In Israel, even more than other countries, it was taken for granted that free-market economics were a given, with a discussion only about competence and technocratic questions. That is changing in Israel.

Among the main slogans of the movement are variants of “the welfare state is coming”.

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