Note on the Israeli working class

Image: Adam Grabek


If the revolution requires the overthrow of the state, but the Israeli working class is tied to the existence of the Zionist state, then it is an obstacle and not an agent of the revolution

Socialists believe in the centrality of the class struggle and in the working class as the only class capable of abolishing the old order and building a new society. Is the Israeli working class an exception to this rule? If so, what makes it an exception? The revolutionary character, or not, of the Israeli working class occupies a fundamental space when determining which strategies serve, or not, the revolution in the Middle East. Since Israel's founding, its workers have embraced racist ideas, nationalist sentiments, consistent opposition to democracy, and support for counterrevolutionary regimes. Can this change?

Some socialists believe that Israeli workers are part of the solution in the Middle East. The opposition of Israelis to the democratization of their State, for example, led the Socialist Alternative group, from the United States, to conclude that the defense of a democratic, unified, secular and non-exclusive State would be a “bourgeois national utopia”.[I] The International Marxist Current movement says that the international Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) campaign against Israel is “counterproductive because it favors bourgeois Zionism”.[ii]

Such views assume that the Israeli Jewish working class can be won over to a revolutionary outlook and class solidarity with Arab workers, and so we must avoid alienating them in the struggle for democratic reforms. They ignore the following facts: the Palestinian people suffered ethnic cleansing at the hands of the Israeli working class, the Israeli workers took, through arms, the Palestinian lands and even though the base of the Israeli working class has right-wing political positions regarding the rights of the Palestinians and, in large part, support the bombings of Gaza and the continued occupation of the West Bank.

Class character in Israel

Classical socialist analysis, set out in the text “The Character of Class in Israel”, addressed this issue almost fifty years ago.[iii] In 1969, Moshe Machover and Akiva Orr, two Israeli anti-Zionist socialists from the Israeli Socialist Organization (better known by the name of their newspaper, Matzpen), argued that the Israeli working class had economic interests in maintaining racist divisions; that material reality prevented Jewish working-class solidarity with Palestinians.[iv]

The authors argued that although Israel is a class society with class conflicts, there is a predominant conflict, which opposes Zionism to the original populations of Palestine. According to them, the “external conflict” did not derive from the class struggle. The material benefits provided to the Israeli working class are linked to the colonizing state. Its class antagonism towards Israeli capital, therefore, is subordinated to interclass unity against the Palestinians. In fact, it mitigates class conflict given that Israeli workers support the colonial state and defend imperialist interests.

Why is it important? Because if the revolution requires the overthrow of the state, but the Israeli working class is tied to the existence of the Zionist state, then it is an obstacle and not an agent of the revolution.

Most of the arguments presented by the Matzpen They are based on the observation of foreign capital’s “purchase” and subsidy of the Israeli working class through government social spending. Many things have changed since 1969, with the analysis of Matzpen requiring reevaluation and reupdating. Israelis' living standards have deteriorated and real wages have steadily declined. Today, most foreign support serves military financing. Finally, US aid, around three billion dollars annually over the last two decades, has less proportional influence on the Israeli economy compared to its relevance in the early 1990s. Therefore, the basis of the argument – ​​that high living standards of Israeli workers are based on imperialist social subsidies – is weakened.[v]

Machover and Orr wrote with remarkable insight: “In 50 years of experience, there is not a single example of Israeli workers mobilized on material or union issues challenging the regime itself in Israel; it is impossible to mobilize even a minority of workers in this sense. On the contrary, Israeli workers almost always put their national loyalties ahead of their class loyalties. Although this may change in the future, it does not eliminate the need to analyze why this has been the case for the last fifty years.”[vi]

Another fifty years have passed and, still, there are no real examples that can contradict this analysis.

The Israeli working class is different for three reasons. First, by examining the formative years of the Jewish working class in Palestine, we can identify its particular nature as a colonizing working class and its unique relationship with the state, distinguishing the Israeli proletariat from other working classes around the world. The second reason is that the 1967 occupation served to deepen the connection between the working class and the colonial state. The third is that the Palestinian struggle for liberation denies the privileges of the colonizing working class and is therefore opposed by it.

A working class of settlers

Many modern working classes, such as those in the USA, Australia or Canada, have their origins in settler colonies. The Israeli experience expresses a variant of this dynamic. Sociologist Gershom Shafir identifies five different forms of colonizing societies: military occupation, planting, planting ethnic, mixed settlements and pure settlements.[vii] Military occupation “exploits and intensifies the current economic order, without seeking direct local control of land and labor”, which means that it does not replace pre-existing society, it only exploits it.

Na planting, European colonizers became the local ruling elite, importing hired or slave labor. At planting ethnic and in mixed and pure settlement colonies, the objective is to constitute a society dominated by a European national identity. At planting ethnic, local labor is employed, but the settlers have a European identity that rejects miscegenation. In mixed settlements, a type of caste system is formed, coercing the local workforce into a regime of cooperation, alongside a certain degree of interracial relations.

The pure settler colony creates an economy based on European labor, eliminates the native population, and builds a “sense of cultural or ethnic homogeneity identified with the European concept of nationality.”[viii] In other words, Europeans consciously replace original societies with an exclusive society. This form of colonization, in fact, requires a working class with full commitment to the nation-building project.

Marxists should not see these examples as fixed realities, but a spectrum along which different forms of colonization can evolve. The South African model evolved from colonization of the planting, in the 1800s, for a colonization of planting ethnic, in which white labor existed alongside black labor in a strict caste system, later codified as apartheid. In 1910, white workers gained rights by occupying qualified positions in the labor market and, in 1948, black workers were forced to live in the bantustans, with their civil rights legally restricted.

Just as in Israel, the expropriation of the original population went hand in hand with the formation of a welfare state at the service of the oppressive working class. Unlike Israel, South African colonization never intended to eliminate native workers.

Colonial society, at its core, is based on what Australian historian Patrick Wolfe called the “logic of elimination”. While an immigrant joins society as it finds itself, colonizers carry with them their own sovereignty – they challenge and, when successful, displace native society. Patrick Wolfe argues that a colonization movement aims to build something new, the downside of which requires eliminating the existing society[ix]. Elimination can be achieved through expulsion, death or assimilation. Where elimination is impossible, separation is the next most viable option. In both cases the result is the same: one society replacing the other.

The first wave of Zionist immigration, the “First Aliyah”, best fits into the category of planting ethnic[X]. Zionists created colonies for agricultural cultivation with an enterprising capitalist employing local indigenous labor. After 1904, the colonization project was developed in the form of pure settlement, with the Zionists arriving and rejecting the “elitist” use of native labor, emphasizing the development of a new “stronger” Jew who could work his own land.

Over time, the Zionist plan evolved into the complete expropriation of the Palestinians. But in 1947-48, the “logic of elimination” and the Zionist goal of creating their own sovereign state led them to accept a kind of territorial compromise – separation. In 1948, they preferred to renounce historic Palestine in its entirety in order to guarantee a demographic majority and an economy protected from Arab labor and production.

In pure settlement settlement, expansion depends on the commitment of workers. This is because populating the land requires a large number of people and labor. When done to the exclusion of the local population, the settlers themselves need to satisfy this need. The commitments of a colonizing working class can only be demanded in exchange for active participation in settlement colonies, as an incentive to sacrifice and struggle against native populations.

In Palestine, this incentive was provided by direct investment of capital in the Jewish working class.[xi] This investment was implemented through the institutions associated throughout history with the Israeli 'labor axis': the Labor Party and the kibbutz. Primitive accumulation at the expense of the native population in this case granted direct benefits to Jewish workers, such as the examples described below such as the cession or sale at low prices of lands confiscated from Palestinians. Ultimately, this working class was a central agent in the replacement of Palestinian society by the exclusion of Arab labor.[xii]

The colonization process in Palestine continues, with the expansion of settlements in the West Bank, in the Naqab desert – where there is continuous displacement of Bedouin villages, and with the potential maintenance of the colonization of other nearby territories, such as Gaza. The Palestinian diaspora is also continuous, with around 10 million Palestinians spread across the region and the world. Many want to return and everyone has the right to reparation.

Ethnic cleansing, the original sin of Zionism

True to the colonial nature of the occupation, the founding of the State of Israel was completed by the almost total destruction of Palestinian existence. The main perpetrators of ethnic cleansing came from the left wing of the labor movement, particularly members of the United Workers Party, MAPAM.[xiii] According to Joel Benin: “Most of the leaders of Palmah, Haganah and later the Israeli armed forces were members of MAPAM, which assumed political and operational responsibility for the conduct of Israel's war of independence.”[xiv]

MAPAM kibbutzim and other Jewish settlements expelled Palestinians from their land and confiscated their crops. With cover provided by the Soviet Union's arguments that the Arab military and its British supporters were reactionary, the colonists argued that the formation of a Jewish state was a blow against British imperialism.

The appropriation of Palestinian domains, argues Joel Benin, was a form of primitive accumulation that allowed the economic development of the State of Israel, particularly in agriculture. It was not the bourgeoisie, as Machover and Orr explained in their essay, that first appropriated this stolen capital, but rather the State and the Labor Party bureaucracy. The vacant Palestinian properties were then redistributed to Israel's Jewish population, which doubled in size in less than four years. In 1954, more than 30% of the Jewish population lived on Arab properties. More than 1,1 million acres of farmland were confiscated from “absent, present, and ‘present-absent’ Arabs.”[xv], which increased Jewish agricultural land by 250%. The United Nations refugee agency estimated the value of the stolen wealth at more than five billion dollars in today's currency.[xvi]

The hegemony of the Labor Party

Founded in 1930, David Ben-Gurion's MAPAI (Workers' Party of the Land of Israel, now the Labor Party) dominated the leadership of the General Confederation of Hebrew Labor, HaHistadrut.[xvii] After the creation of the State of Israel, MAPAI institutions took over management of the flow of external capital.[xviii] MAPAI was able to satisfy the material needs of workers and subsidize business interests due to billions of dollars in unilateral foreign investments in Israel: donations from Jews around the world, reparations from West Germany and incentives from the government of the United States of America.[xx]

Ben-Gurion, serving as secretary of the Histadrut and later as Prime Minister of Israel, formed a tripartite agreement between the state, the bourgeoisie and the workers, sometimes described as corporatism.[xx] This agreement incorporated expropriated Arab property and created a segregated labor market that exclusively employed Jews (with few exceptions) before 1967. To this day, Jews and Arabs rarely work together, in a highly stratified labor market.

Expropriation, segregation and foreign capital together offered rising living standards to the working class. In return, MAPAI demanded strict discipline, justified by the “constant conflict with the Arabs”. Given that in the first two decades of Israel's existence 40% of those employed in the country were employees of the Histadrut and the Israeli state, they shared the same interests as capitalists in restricting workers' militancy. In fact, its strength derived in particular from this ability to restrict worker mobilization.

The only exception to MAPAI's iron control was a 43-day strike by sailors that occurred in late 1951. The sailors, who worked for the Histadrut-owned shipping company ZIM, challenged the vertical nature of trade unionism in Israel and its subordination to MAPAI. However, even in this case, only two of the strikers broke with Zionism. One of them was the author mentioned above, Akiva Orr. In this case, the exception confirms the rule.

The colonizing nature of this working class offered it a unique position of “partner” with the State, expressed in tripartite agreements between unions, government and employers. This guaranteed him protections, at the same time subordinating his class interests to those of the State. Israeli workers received (or took) much of the 1948 loot; they enjoyed benefits in housing, education and health provided by the Histadrut and the State. Until 1973, they enjoyed a high standard of living, unmatched by Arab states in the region, close to those in Europe. Therefore, they cooperated consistently with the State and employers.

Mizrahim Jews in Israeli society

In the early years of the State of Israel, Mizrahim Jews—immigrants from countries in the Middle East and North Africa—held unskilled jobs that veteran white Jews no longer wanted. Mizrahim Jews were denied the training necessary to advance their positions in the job market. Thus began a long legacy of inter-Jewish racial discrimination.

Mizrahim Jews today make up about half of the Jewish population. They make up the majority of Israel's working class, workers and poor. Disparities between Ashkenazic Jews (generally of Eastern European descent) and Mizrahim Jews are greater due to early discriminatory policies[xxx], low levels of social mobility and the application of neoliberal policies that undermined social protections. Overall, upper- and middle-class Jews of European descent, whose families own land and have well-paying jobs, remain the main gainers from the occupation.

Although Mizrahim Jews face discrimination, they are as patriotic as their Ashkenazi compatriots. Due to the tendency to integrate the electoral base with right-wing parties in parliament, many conclude that they are more racist than the Ashkenazi. In reality, Jews born in Israel tend to be more right-wing than their parents who emigrated from Arab or Muslim-majority countries, so their country of origin or ethnicity does not explain their racism. It would certainly be more correct to identify social class and education as factors in levels of bellicosity.

Although liberal Zionism (an Ashkenazi creation) is often seen as a less aggressive ideology, it is in fact racist through and through. Liberal or Labor Zionism is based on the romantic notion of a “return to the East” but rejects all Eastern culture, perhaps with the exception of cuisine. This includes Eastern Jews. Even though Eastern Jews were generally seen as a link to the Jewish mythical past, they were despised by their European brethren.

Leading Zionist philosopher Abba Eban expressed Labor Zionist thinking about Mizrahim Jews by stating: “Far from regarding our immigrants from Eastern countries as a bridge to our integration with the Arabic-speaking world, our aim should be to infuse in them the spirit Western, instead of allowing us to be dragged into an unnatural orientalism.” Ben-Gurion famously stated: “The Moroccan Jew took much from Moroccan Arabic, and I do not see much that we can learn from the Moroccan Arabs. I wouldn’t like to have Moroccan culture here.”[xxiii]

Mizrahim Jewish support for the conservative right-wing Likud party (in the early 1960s) was a rejection of establishment racist liberal Zionist who discriminated against them so much. It was a rebellion against the Histadrut and MAPAI, according to Michael Shalev, since “Mizrahim Jews were treated harshly by a 'residual' system of petty assistance subject to conditions (unrelated to the job market) and manipulative forms of supposed treatments and rehabilitations”.[xxiii] These assistances were used by MAPAI to force Mizrahim workers to vote for the party and pay Histadrut membership fees.

But while many Jews from non-Western countries identify as Eastern, few identify as Arab. This is not just due to Zionist racism. Mizrahim Jews come from various Arab and non-Arab countries. Libyan, Egyptian, Kurdish, Iraqi, Iranian and Indian Jews identify as Mizrahim, not all of whom are Arab. Moroccan Jews, who form a majority of the Mizrahim population, generally do not identify as Arabs. Although they lived in Morocco, they do not see themselves as Arabs, but as Moroccans.[xxv]

Even for those who identify as Arabs (often through the experience of discrimination), the material conditions of Mizrahim differ from those of Palestinians and Arabs in the region: all Jewish citizens enjoy civil and human rights, land and homes, benefits social benefits that are denied to Palestinians. We must not underestimate the importance of Jews of any ethnicity to the State of Israel. Unlike the Palestinians, who live under threat of ethnic cleansing, the Mizrahim are Jews and, as such, are fundamental to maintaining the Jewish majority. That's why we cannot underestimate his commitment to Israel.[xxiv]

By fighting for their right to upward social mobility and equality in Israeli society, Mizrahim fight for rights that are always won at the expense of Palestinians. The tendency of people belonging to the lower income bracket in Israel to be more right-wing proves the bitterness of their battle for Palestine's resources. The labor struggles and political strikes in Israel that challenged colonialism and racism against Palestinians were Palestinian strikes.[xxv]

Occupation and neoliberalism

Today, it is difficult to dispute the capitalist nature of Israeli society. However, Israel's early development was based on state ownership and the state's enormous presence in the economy, as well as a broad welfare state that masked its true character. This has led many to label them a “socialist” or “social democratic” state. However, even in those early days of labor rule, the foundations were being laid for a capitalist class with a high concentration of income and power.

Until the end of the 1950s, the system, aided by mass immigration, worked effectively, amid a consistent expansion of the economy. In the 1960s, however, immigration and foreign investment declined, resulting in decreased growth and, ultimately, economic stagnation. The union bureaucracy, in reality, was weakened by the near-full employment economy. A rise in labor militancy and wildcat strikes challenged the Histadrut and government authorities, as well as MAPAI's legitimacy as a mediator between the working class and private employers. As fate would have it, full employment undermined the Labor Party and trade unionism. These realities were further exacerbated by the emergence of employers with great economic and political strength who chose to bypass the government in negotiations with the Histadrut.

Hoping to weaken labor militancy and get rid of less profitable and competitive capital, the government triggered a huge recession in 1966.[xxviii] This triggered a wave of bankruptcies and mergers, eliminating many smaller companies and accelerating the consolidation of private capital. At the same time, economic growth was not stimulated.

The occupation of Gaza and the West Bank in 1967 greatly expanded Israel's domestic market while providing cheap and highly exploitable Palestinian labor. In the mid-1980s, Palestinian workers represented 7% of the workforce in Israel. The introduction of this pool of marginal labor moderated Jewish workers. It offered new working sectors the opportunity for progress.

David Hall-Cathala, author of research on the Israeli peace movement between 1967 and 1987, wrote: “To begin with, the occupation of the territories opened up new markets and provided a vast pool of cheap labor. This generated economic independence and upward social mobility for many Mizrahim, with interesting results. Firstly, they began to favor occupation, not out of a desire to colonize the territories, but due to the influx of cheap Arab labor, which meant that many of them no longer had to do the work of the 'Arab rabble'.”[xxviii]

Israel's territorial expansion brought advantageous conditions for commercial relations in the West Bank, the Gaza Strip and the Sinai Peninsula. The state was able to import cheap oil and exploit other natural resources, while exporting goods to a new captive market.

With this, the occupation served the capitalists, the State and the Israeli workers. Shalev writes that maintaining the occupation reflects vested interests in the “economic benefits of the occupation (for employers as well as workers) in Israel.”[xxix] As a result, the state has maintained a semi-war economy ever since.

The 1967 occupation also changed the character of US aid, with greater emphasis on military investment. The advent of neoliberalism under American direction, however, offered deregulation and tax benefits to companies, wage freezes and privatization of public companies from the late 1960s onwards. Army generals were sent to American business schools and charged with managing industry . Over time, these former generals and their elite families divided the spoils among themselves, laying the foundation for a capitalist elite steeped in corruption.

The State as a cocoon

In the early years, the social welfare structure, which offered Israeli workers high standards of living, worked in conjunction with state subsidies for capital, creating a “cocoon” for business. Political economists Jonathan Nitzan and Shimshon Bichler formulated the concept of “state as cocoon.” Nitzan and Bichler hypothesized that during the pre-state period, due to the absence of a Zionist capitalist class, the forming State assumed responsibility for controlling investments.

“But,” writes Middle East expert Adam Hanieh, “this control was not antagonistic to private capital. On the contrary, from 1948 onwards, the state developed policies designed to nurture a capitalist class, encouraging some important families to undertake joint projects and investments with state and quasi-state companies.”[xxx] This paternalism continued into the 1980s, when an independent capitalist class emerged like a moth from a cocoon.

As Nitzan and Bichler explain, in the process of capital development, a true capitalist class emerged to govern what was previously run by labor: “On the surface, the State reigned supreme. The MAPAI government controlled the process of capital formation and credit allocation, determined prices, fixed exchange rates, regulated foreign trade and directed industrial development. However, this process set in motion its own negation, so to speak, by planting the seeds from which dominant capital would later emerge. In this sense, the State functioned as a cocoon for differential accumulation. Emerging business conglomerates were initially employed as national “agents” for various Zionist projects. Over time, however, this growing autonomy helped not only free itself from the statist shell, but also transform the very nature of the state from which it evolved.”[xxxii]

Individual corruption was initially absent from the foreign financing process, channeled to state-sponsored companies. But it generated what Machover and Orr described as “political and social corruption”. The generals who took control of the industries, and the wealthy families with whom they associated, emerged from the privatization processes as a corrupt and all-powerful elite – supported, rather than challenged, by labor. Privatized state companies and businesses benefiting from the “cocoon” began to be dominated by this small circle of people. According to Nitzan and Bichler, eight families currently control most of the economy.[xxxi]

Today, there are widespread cases of corruption throughout the Israeli economy and society. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, in particular, faced four distinct cases related to negotiations with Israel's business elite involving accepting bribes, attempting to purchase positive media coverage, promoting his own businesses, and even selling submarines to the State to benefit your allies, friends and family.[xxxii]

The unrequited loans and aid offered by the US government to Israel, alongside the allowance of huge trade deficits, enabled “the development of high-value-added export industries linked to sectors such as information technology, pharmaceuticals and security.” .”[xxxv] In the 1990s, the US pressured countries in the Middle East to normalize their relations with Israel, first through the Oslo Accords and then through the Peace Treaty with Jordan.

This conscious process also created a very top-heavy occupational distribution. According to Israeli census figures, the percentage of employed Jews classified as managers, engineers, technicians, agents, and freelancers increased from 44% in 1996 to 57% in 2016 (compared to 40% of the U.S. workforce, according to the Labor Statistics Agency in the country). More traditional “working class” jobs (clerical, service and sales, construction, specialized trade, manufacturing and “elementary occupations”) decreased from 55% to 42% of the total.[xxxiv]

Statistics from 2016 show more than 635 people, or about 17% of the total employed workforce, are non-Jewish. The non-Jewish section of the employed workforce is four times more likely to be employed in “elementary occupations” than members of the Jewish workforce and nearly five times less likely to be employed in managerial and professional occupations.[xxxiv]

However, with the approval of an Economic Stabilization Plan and the signing of a free trade agreement with the US in 1985, the Israeli government, led by labor, ushered in an era of austerity for the working class: wage freezes, reductions in government spending on infrastructure and education, disenfranchisement of many public housing tenants (primarily the Mizrahim population), privatization of health services (although much health care remains universal) and social welfare services (although the department remains public) .

Thus, economic and geopolitical forces have simultaneously polarized the Israeli Jewish workforce between a managerial/professional/technical majority opposed to a shrinking core of the “traditional” working class, which bears the brunt of neoliberal restructuring.

In this case, an interesting comparison is made between Israel and another state populated by settler settlements, South Africa. During the apartheid, the South African economy combined state-provided social assistance with a policy of full employment for white families, based on the super-exploitation of black workers. Andy Clarno writes that Israel, like South Africa, “employed violence to dispossess the colonized, exclude them from political participation, and suppress their resistance. Both states also managed racial Fordist economies. Both survived the wave of decolonization that transformed Africa and the Middle East from the 1950s to the 1970s.”[xxxviii]

In the 1980s, South Africa and Israel faced economic crises that threatened to undermine their regimes. Both introduced neoliberal measures; In Israel, Jewish workers were harmed. In South Africa, the crisis accelerated the formal end of apartheid – because the South African economy depended on black labor (much more than the Israeli economy's dependence on Palestinian labor), the South African ruling class was forced to dismantle its system of government in the early 1990s. , wealth disparities today create what Andy Clarno calls “apartheid neoliberal”.[xxxviii]

Economic inequality in Israel today reaches its highest levels, second only to the USA among developed nations. But the statistics that calculate these disparities include Palestinians, who are three times more likely to be poor, while the state denies the same standard of social spending to Jewish citizens. Counting the low-income Jewish population, 35% more is spent on Jewish citizens and their standard of living compared to Palestinian citizens.[xxxix] Although, in 2011, social assistance was sought by one in three families – an increase of about 75% compared to 1998, according to the newspaper Haaretz – the majority of Jews benefiting from social programs sought help for elderly parents, disabilities and health problems, with only 16% seeking assistance due to poverty.

State-led economic development in Israel's formative years helped build private and corporate capitalism, shaping the Israeli political economy. Since the mid-1980s, “orthodox” free market policies have changed Israeli workers’ relationship with the Zionist welfare state. Israeli workers have suffered attacks on their social rights and benefits, but continue to enjoy them at the expense of Palestinians. Many have enjoyed social mobility that is in fact denied to Palestinians. At the same time, a political economy based on war and occupation provided new ways of integrating the Israeli working class into the Zionist project.

Arms economy

The American arms industry gained from its government's aid to Israel through military equipment, and Israeli industrial tycoons were equally quick to seize these opportunities. As large missiles, planes and other vehicles were assembled on Palestinian soil, the Israeli business elite reaped the benefits, strengthening its insertion in the global arms development arena. Today, Israel leads the world in occupation and “security” technologies.

One of the world's largest arms exporters, Israel sells up to seven billion dollars worth of military technology a year, or 2,2% of its gross domestic product. An additional 1,35% of GDP is dedicated to military research and development, and 6,7% is spent on its defense budget – the world's second largest military budget as a percentage of GDP, after Saudi Arabia. In total, 10,25% of the Israeli economy is directly related to the arms industry. In comparison, the USA, the world's largest arms exporter, hovers around 3,7% of GDP. Israel is actually the largest arms supplier per capita in the world, earning $98 per capita globally. It is followed, by far, by Russia, with 58 dollars per capita, and by Sweden, with 53 dollars.[xl]

These figures do not include revenues from natural resources exploited during the occupation in the West Bank and Gaza.[xi] It does not consider revenues from the service or industry sector and buildings in general built in the West Bank. These numbers are difficult to quantify, as many companies operate in the West Bank but have offices in Tel Aviv to hide their operations. This also does not consider Israeli exports to the occupied territories, which represent 72% of Palestinian imports and 0,16% of Israel's GDP. The Israeli economy is deeply involved in a web of expenses and profits surrounding the occupation and the continued expansion of settlements.

With the decline in unlimited subsidies from foreign governments, the direct economic reach of the State of Israel has diminished. In its place, US military aid had the effect of increasing weapons production.[xliii] Foreign aid is no longer a direct investment in the working class. Israeli workers are now rewarded through the arms economy. That is why, despite the economic degradation of neoliberalism, the working class remains, as always, committed to Zionism.

The working class today depends on the education, housing, and career opportunities provided by their participation in the military. They found paths to advancement in the high-tech industry fueled by the military, with more than 9% of workers concentrated in the high-tech industry.[xiii] As pensions and real wages decline, a cheap cost of living in the occupied territories has become essential.

Just like a community based around a prison, maintaining life in the territories occupied in 1967 requires, above all, different types of services beyond the scope of the armed forces, sustaining the lives of countless Israelis. By shifting investment to focus it around war, occupation and weapons production, the working class now has direct dependence on the war economy.

As long as Israel continues to expand, expelling Palestinians from land redirected to Jews, retaining the land and wealth stolen in 1948, the Israeli working class will continue to constitute a colonizing force and an enforcer of the occupation. Even its most oppressed sectors do not demand democratic rights and equal distribution for all, but rather their own “fair share” of the Zionist plunder. In the neoliberal era, when living standards are lowered, the Israeli working class aspires to distribute wealth among itself.[xiv] The lower the step in society, the more bitter this battle. Like a prisoner, Palestinians are unlikely to find allies in the guards and communities whose livelihoods depend on prison. The denial of freedom for some is the precondition for the subsistence of others.

National self-determination and the democratic question

“The nation that oppresses another nation forges its own chains,” wrote Marx. Socialists believe that the working class of one oppressive nation cannot free itself while oppressing another. But what happens when it also cannot exist in any other way? What freedoms, rights or benefits would she give up to protect her own existence?

Socialists have a rich history of supporting national movements and struggles for democratic freedoms – as they express a blow to imperialism and oppression. We support national struggles that advance the interests of the working class: when the success of that struggle leads to the elimination of the common enemy, the oppressing nation. But Zionism did not renounce a “common enemy” for the Jewish working class and its bourgeoisie. In fact, he created a permanent “enemy” in Arabs and Palestinians.

Socialists do not support “self-determination” in the abstract. We analyze the concrete situation that makes the struggle for self-determination possible. For example, Marx opposed the “self-determination” of the Confederate States of America because it was obvious that the demand for a separate state arose to preserve slavery. Israel today is an active colonial project that depends on the continued dispossession and suppression of the will and rights of original peoples. Palestinians are denied entry into Israel, cannot return to their homes and lands and are denied citizenship, equal rights, the right to vote and basic democratic and civil freedoms.

Zionism did not advance the international working class movement; on the contrary, he mitigated the class struggle within Israel, aided and abetted imperialist nations and ruthless dictatorships throughout the world, committing countless atrocities against the Palestinian people in the name of their own sovereignty.

Palestinian nationalism, including the demand for a single state in which all have equal rights, promotes democracy in the region in opposition to a regime that supports dictatorships and imperialist policies around the world. Democratic movements against Israel play a role in advancing the liberation of the international working class. It is difficult to imagine a socialist revolution that does not result from an international anti-imperialist and democratic movement.

Given that Palestinian rights to full citizenship – the right to return and to end the Israeli land, sea and air military occupation – would end the demographic dominance of Israeli Jews and, therefore, Jewish ethnocracy, a democratic revolution would undermine the existence of the Israeli working class itself as Jewish working class. A democratic solution would nullify the countless benefits and wealth that sustain their standard of living. In the West Bank and Gaza, GDP per capita is about $4.300; in Israel it is about 35.000 dollars. Ending segregation would expose Israeli workers to a free fall in their living standards.

Israeli workers, in practice, are unable to draw democratic conclusions from social movements. In one notable exception in the early 1970s, the Israeli Mizrahim Black Panthers linked their oppression to the racism and discrimination faced by Palestinians. It was a remarkable fact whose likely influence came from the activists of the Matzpen who supported them. Their movement was suppressed with more brutal and violent methods than any other movement for social justice in Israel's history. However, they also subordinated the issue of Zionism to the economic issues they faced.

The 2011 Tent Movement, which was openly inspired by the democratic and social movements of the Arab Spring, was led in particular by middle-class Ashkenazi Jews (originally the main beneficiaries of the welfare state). Neoliberalism and privatizations benefited many of the parents of the young protesters, which would explain why their demands aimed to recover lost privileges, without ending neoliberalism and the free market, much less the colonialist nature of Israel. Veteran Israeli socialist Tikva Honig-Parnass writes that “despite the call for social justice, any calls for democratic change in Israel have been unequivocally rejected by the vast majority of the movement.”[xlv] A socialist revolution cannot depend on an apolitical class struggle, demanding a regional, democratic dimension and inclusion of Palestinians.

In early December 2017, two large protest movements emerged in parallel – one in the West Bank and Gaza, the other in Tel Aviv. Palestinians led a general strike and took to the streets protesting against then-American President Donald Trump's decision to recognize Jerusalem as the capital of Israel. At the same time, weekly anti-corruption protests against Benjamin Netanyahu's growing scandals have reached tens of thousands, as a new bill was introduced to prevent police from disclosing their findings.

These protests, like the 2011 movement, rejected “left” and “right” policies. But this rejection was not a rejection of Zionism, the establishment or the state. In fact, what this rejection signaled was the conservative nature of the protesters and their demands. Large Israeli flags and chants such as “Long live the nation of Israel” were an everyday part of the rallies. Eldad Yaniv, one of the main figures of the protests, repeatedly called on all patriots and lovers of their country, even members of the far-right coalition like Naftali Bennett and Ayelet Shaked, to reject Natanyahu and those who “wronged the people Israeli". A small group of Israeli activists from the BDS (Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions) campaign who participated in a protest with giant letters B, D and S were attacked and their signs destroyed by a mob of other protesters. In fact, not even two days after Trump's announcement, huge groups of protesters began chanting “Jerusalem Forever” in these marches.

Some socialists argue that the fight for a democratic Palestine is unfeasible due to opposition from the Israeli working class. They claim that Palestinians, unlike black South Africans, are a minority without economic influence, incapable of overthrowing the regime. They conclude that the only solution is a socialist revolution at the regional level.[xlv]

Although it is true that the Palestinian issue is linked to a regional solution, the assumption that the Zionist regime can only be overthrown through socialism and that, therefore, we should not appeal to a single, non-exclusive and democratic state, disregards the existence of the Palestinian national liberation movement and its struggle for democracy. Furthermore, a regional democratic revolution encompassing dictatorships explicitly or implicitly allied with the US and Israel (whose potential we witnessed in the 2011 Arab Spring), would certainly exceed the power of the Israeli working class.

Given the fragility of the socialist left in the Middle East, there is no inevitable relationship between a democratic revolution and a socialist revolution. The involvement of the masses of Arab workers in a socialist revolution without an initial democratic appeal in a region marked by resistance to repression, dictatorship and imperialism would be unexpected. Arab workers made it clear during the 2011 Arab Spring that they yearn for democracy – and that this has direct links to their struggle as a class. Finally, a single state in which Jews and non-Jews have equal rights creates the possibility of the founding of a multiracial working class.


This text argued: first, the existence of stark differences in the behavior of a colonialist working class compared to a traditional working class. Being encouraged to promote colonization, she acts as a collaborator with her own ruling class.

Second, the ethnic cleansing of Palestine as a form of primitive accumulation, and decades of direct benefits from foreign financing, have allowed the Israeli working class to acquire a standard of living that they are not willing to give up. As this wealth has diminished with the rise of neoliberalism and the deterioration of the welfare state, the working class wants to return to a time when it possessed a greater share of the wealth offered by colonization.

We further conclude that the shifts from a welfare state to a war economy have deepened Israeli workers' dependence on the occupation, like a prison guard tied to the prison for subsistence reasons.

Finally, we affirm that self-determination and the rights of Palestinians, or any original population, presupposedly deny the special privileges of a colonizing class. This is clearly demonstrated by the Israeli opposition to BDS (boycott, divestment and sanctions). The call for equal citizen rights and the right of return, which are the central demands of the boycott movement, were rejected by the Zionist left, as well as the Israeli working class.

However, the fact that the boycott campaign may alienate Israelis is not an argument against it. On the contrary: the fight for a democratic Middle East – of which the BDS (boycott, divestment and sanctions) movement is a central part – has the greater potential to change the character of the Israeli working class from a counter-revolutionary force to a force with potential revolutionary.

It should be obvious that Israeli workers are not incapable of solidarity with Palestinians from a human perspective, but because of their material conditions. If they were to change through a revolutionary, democratic or socialist uprising, the Israeli working class would have the potential to be won over to an internationalist perspective, fundamental to socialism. We can argue that by fighting for democracy in Palestine and changing the material realities there, we have an opportunity to cut the Jewish working class from its ties to the state and pave the way for socialist revolution in the service of all.

Our efforts need to focus on democratic change and solidarity with the natural allies of the international working class – the Arab working classes. We should develop real relationships with the Palestinian national liberation struggle, wherever it arises. We must sharpen our understanding of the left in the Middle East, the forces that organize themselves (often underground), and support them as they face counter-revolution in the region.

Machover and Orr predicted that a revolutionary movement of the Arab working classes would completely alter the status quo in the current Middle East, and Israel's role within it. They stated: “By freeing the activities of the masses in the Arab world, the correlation of forces could change; This would make Israel's traditional political-military role obsolete, reducing its usefulness to imperialism. At first, Israel would probably be used in an attempt to crush a revolutionary advance in the Arab world; however, if this attempt failed, Israel's political-military role in the Arab world would end. Once this role and the privileges associated with it are ended, the Zionist regime, by depending on these privileges, would be subject to massive challenges from within Israel.”[xlv]

The waves of the Arab Spring of 2011 and 2019 were a beacon of hope in a region rife with imperialism, autocracy and repression. The victories of these struggles, although temporary, opened a window to another possible world. May the next revolt sweep away all the old ethnocracies and autocracies, sectarianism and oppression, suppressing the will of the workers.

Daphna Thier is a political activist.

Translation: Beatriz Scotton e Matthew Forli.

Book excerpt Palestine, the socialist introduction, organized by Sumaya Awad and Brian Bean. Chicago, Heymarket Books, 2020.


[I] The Socialist Alternative, North American session of the Committee for a Workers' International, writes that “at this point, presenting a program whose solution is in the form of a common State for both nationalities, even a socialist State, is not capable of providing a sufficient response to the fears, suspicions and intense desire for national independence by part of both national groups. However, the role of the Marxist left is also to explain that the layers of the working class and the masses of all national groups have an interest, at root, in a unified struggle around a program of socialist change.”

[ii] In the website "In Defense of Marxism", gives International Marxist Tendency, the authors of an article titled “Against the Blanket Boycott of Israel” write about the BDS campaign: “What is remarkable about this campaign is that it ignores the issue of class in both Israel and Palestine. We believe that only a classist approach can put an end to Israeli imperialism... the difference between the ruling class and the workers is that the Israeli working class – objectively speaking – has no interest in oppressing the Palestinian masses. While the bourgeoisie earns billions of dollars from the production of weapons and the massacre of innocents, the working class has to watch its sons and daughters be sent to die in wars for profit.” After concluding that if Israeli workers had gone on a general strike during the First Intifada, the “revolution” would have been successful, and ignoring the irksome fact that none of these workers actually called for a general strike, they conclude: “the solution will not come without working-class Israeli Jews; they will play the central role! This is why we reject the BDS campaign as counterproductive [sic], and a campaign that strengthens bourgeois Zionism.”

[iii] MACHOVER, Moshe; ORR, Akiva. The Class Character of Israel. In: BOBER, Aerie. The Other Israel: The Radical Case Against Zionism. Garden City, NY: Anchor Books, 1972.

[iv] This was a break with the popular leftist conception of Zionism, which takes it as a national leftist movement. Decades of collaboration between English and European social democratic parties and trade unions with the Zionists of the Histadrut and the Labor Party have influenced this position. The socialist tradition owes much to the clarity with which Matzpen presented his radical perspective. Socialists who today argue against the BDS movement on the grounds that it hurts and therefore alienates the Israeli working class would do well to read Matzpen's original texts.

[v] There were other mistaken assumptions in the article, including the conclusion that, in view of their respective military services, young Palestinians and Israelis – “who are called to fight 'an eternal war imposed by destiny'” – are potential allies, since that their sacrifices may instill anti-Zionist sentiments among them. Even though enlistment rates in the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) have declined to some extent, they remain incredibly high. According to 2015 FDI ​​records, the average enlistment rate in the sixty-five largest cities was 77%, with fifty-one of those cities exceeding 70%. The youth were clearly not convinced by anti-Zionist arguments, or the abundant evidence of IDF war crimes, that they should refuse military service. And as the risks decrease with technological advances in military capacity, the material rewards obtained from enlistment are even more attractive. They also argued that the immigrant nature of Israeli society, since 75% of the population was born abroad, had a retrograde effect on the consciousness of workers. However, even if this argument were valid on its own, today the reverse is true – only 27% of Israelis were born abroad.

[vi] MACHOVER et al., on. cit.

[vii] SHAFIR, Gershon. Land, Labor and the Origins of the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict, 1882–1914. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1996. Shafir based his analysis on the work of DK Fieldhouse and George Fredrickson.

[viii] SHAFIR, Land, Labor and the Origins, apud. Frederickson, 1988.

[ix] WOLFE, Patrick. Settler colonialism and the elimination of the native. Journal of Genocide Research 8, no. 4, 2006, pp. 387-409. Wolfe quotes Theodor Herzl in his pamphlet The Jewish State, “If I want to replace a new building with an old one, I have to demolish it before building it.”

[X] The word “aliyah” means ascent, as in ascension to Zion.

[xi] In fact, unlike what happens in the USA, there were few considerable natural resources to motivate companies to plunder.

[xii] Even today, Palestinian labor is not used to break strikes or harm Jewish workers. Indeed, a racialized class stratification ensures that they rarely work in the same jobs, even within the same industries. If this were not the case, the character of the pure colony would be called into question.

[xiii] A descendant of the Borochovite Poalei Tzion party and precursor of Meretz, MAPAM was formed in 1948 under the auspices of the Marxist-Zionist left's challenge to the MAPAI party (Workers' Party of the Land of Israel). See notes 19 and 25.

[xiv] BENIN, Joel. Was the Red Flag Flying There?. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1990.

[xv] “Present-absent” is a designation Israel gave to Palestinians who remained within the 1948 borders but were not allowed to return to their original homes.

[xvi] Ibid.

[xvii] Founded in 1920, the Histadrut undertook to employ Jewish workers in Palestine, either by securing positions for them within existing institutions and companies, or by employing them directly through its own contracting company and other subsidiaries. He also founded his own healthcare system and his own bank. It became the main agent for boycotting Arab labor and production and was, from its inception until the end of the 1960s, an exclusively Jewish labor organization. Because it was also an employer, it functioned unlike other workers' unions and often worked in collaboration with the state and the bourgeoisie to contain workers' militancy.

[xviii] Since the Histadrut was no longer building the state, it no longer played a central role in the Zionist project, and MAPAI took its place. However, companies and collectives affiliated with the Histadrut proliferated after 1948, and by the 1950s Solel Boneh generated 8% of Israel's national income. Histadrut companies employed 25% of the workforce; half of its members earned a living in some way through the Histadrut.

[xx] Between 1952-66 alone, West Germany paid Israel 3 billion marks in reparations. Today, that would be equivalent to more than 111 billion dollars. In the early years, this represented almost 90% of Israel's income.

[xx] A “corporatist system” was a common post-World War II agreement between the government, the ruling labor party, and a national union with the nation's capitalists in an effort to save capitalism. Lev Luis Grinberg in his study of Israeli corporatism, “Split Corporatism in Israel” (Albany: State University of New York Press, 1991) describes it as an agreement based on full employment combined with wage restraint. The government should subsidize workers' subsistence with non-salary benefits. However, such an agreement was never actually reached in Israel. Scholars, such as Grinberg, who have theorized about the success or limits of Israeli corporatism have suggested that Israel fell into a pluralist category, a state in which existing class interests were represented by powerful organizations fighting for influence. Apparently they exert such influence to similar degrees. In reality, it is the particular nature of a colonial working class that places it in the unique position of “partner” with the state. This guarantees him some protections, while at the same time subordinating his particular interests to those of the State and the capitalist class to which the State is linked. In the Israeli case, corporatism was objectively dispensable, argues Shalev, because even in its absence revolutionary class conflict could be avoided.

[xxx] For example, Mizrachi workers were often prevented from entering the job market or were only offered unskilled, seasonal or temporary jobs. They were also housed in “temporary” tents or housing units made of tin for many years, until they were moved to small apartments and often lived in cramped quarters. Meanwhile, their white counterparts were quickly integrated into the job market and received permanent housing within months of their arrival.

[xxiii] EBAN apoud HALL-CATHALA, David. The Peace Movement in Israel, 1967–87. New York: Palgrave MacMillan, 1990, p. 86. GURION apoud AZKANI, Shay. “The Silenced History of the IDF's 'Mizrahi Problem'”. Haaretz, August 28, 2015.

[xxiii] SHALEV, Michael. Labor and the Political Economy in Israel. Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press, 1992.

[xxv] EIN-GIL, Ehud; MACHOVER, Moshe. Zionism and Oriental Jews: Dialectic of Exploitation and Co-optation. Race & Class 50, nº 3, 2009, pp. 62–76.

[xxiv] Ibid.

[xxv] Although the legacy of racism and white supremacy has always deformed the US labor movement, the high points of the labor struggle have always forced workers to confront color lines. There were also notable cases of interracial solidarity in the South, for example – the Brotherhood of Timber Workers, the Populist Movement, and during the New Orleans General Strike of 1892. United Mining Workers of America they were notoriously multiracial, when the AFL was still segregationist, and this was because the work was dangerous and a lot of trust was needed between skilled and unskilled workers. The CIO, under the moderate leadership of John Lewis, opened its doors to black workers because Lewis realized that organizing unskilled workers was the only way to defend the entire labor movement. The CIO ended up taking a stand against lynching, segregation and racial discrimination. The best traditions of worker solidarity in U.S. history have led to the types of interracial organizing and struggle that have almost never happened in Israel.

[xxviii] ADERER, Ofer. “How Levi Eshkol's Government 'Engineered' Israel's 1966–67 Recession”. Haaretz, February 16, 2016.

[xxviii] HILL-CATHALA, David. The Peace Movement in Israel, 1967–87. New York: Palgrave MacMillan, 1990, p. 97.

[xxix] SHALEV, on. cit.

[xxx] HANIEH, Adam. From State-Led Growth to Globalization: The Evolution of Israeli Capitalism. Journal of Palestine Studies 32, no. 4, 2003, pp. 5–21.

[xxxii] NITZAN, Jonathan; BICHLER, Shimshon. The Global Political Economy of Israel. London: Pluto Press, 2002.

[xxxi] For more information on the incestuous nature of the Israeli ruling class and how it was created, check out The Global Political Economy of Israel, pp. 84-136, by Nitzan and Bichler.

[xxxii] SALES, Ben. “The Corruption Scandals Plaguing Netanyahu and His Family, Explained”. Times of Israel, August 9, 2017.

[xxxv] HANIEH, Adam. Lineages of Revolt: Issues of Contemporary Capitalism in the Middle East. Chicago: Haymarket Books, 2013.

[xxxiv] Calculations taken from “Jewish Employed Persons, by Occupation (2011 Classification), Sex, Continent of Birth and Period of Immigration, 2016, Table 12-9”, from the Israeli Central Bureau of Statistics. US statistics are from the US Bureau of Labor Statistics, Table A-13, “Table A-13. Employed and unemployed persons by occupation, not seasonally adjusted”, April 2018.

[xxxiv] These non-Jewish labor force estimates are calculated after subtracting the “total” labor force statistics for comparable 2016 data from the statistics for Jewish employees. See Table 2-10, “Employed people, by profession” (2011 classification), 2016 data, organized by the Israel Central Statistical Office.

[xxxviii] CLARNO, Andy. Neoliberal Apartheid: Palestine/Israel and South Africa after 1994. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2017. Economies that rely on higher wages and benefits for workers to promote consumption. Fordism also refers to the use of assembly line production.

[xxxviii] However, Clarno writes that today, “inequality in South Africa is more severe (…) than it was during the apartheid formal (…) the South African state was democratized, but the neoliberalization of racial capitalism placed important limits on decolonization.” The author states that there is still a apartheid socio-economic for most black people, as only 7,5% of South African land has been redistributed since the end of apartheid. Otherwise, Israel's neoliberal colonial strategy involves, in a similar way, the extension of limited autonomy to the Palestinian Authority, but with a degradation of the lives of Palestinian peasants and workers. Check out CLARNO, op. cit.

[xxxix] GRAVÉ-LAZI, Lidar. “More Than 1 in 5 Israelis Live in Poverty, Highest in Developed World”, Jerusalem Post, December 15, 2016.

[xl] According to data from the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute and the World Bank.

[xi] For example, 89% of the West Bank's water resources are extracted by the Israeli company Mekorot. Likewise, 0,3% of GDP is natural gas, supplied mainly from the Gaza coast.

[xliii] Shalev writes: “The most salient feature of the US aid package has been its close relationship to the cost of Israeli purchases of American weapons (…) rather than having a major share of foreign aid at [the government's] disposal to direct economic development, the State habitually uses almost the entire inflow of aid for military purposes. This inability to freely channel U.S. aid in the most economically and politically rewarding directions has eliminated one of the most important sources of the ruling party’s power.” SHALEV, on. cit.

[xiii] Israeli census data: 297.000 are employed in high technology: 111.000 are employed in high technology industry.

[xiv] For example, it takes 148 monthly salaries to buy a house in Israel, compared to 66 in the US, making new homes “unaffordable to the average worker.” However, lower house prices and government subsidies to settlers make homes in the West Bank more affordable. These economic factors reinforce the desire to colonize the West Bank. See BERGER, Miriam, “Sticker Shock Greets Israeli Homebuyers", US News and World Report, February 14, 2017.

[xlv] HONIG-PARNASS, Tikva. “The 2011 Uprising in Israel”, January 12, 2012.

[xlv] These positions are expounded in Moshe Machover, “Belling the Cat,” December 13, 2013. Tikva Honig-Parnass’ critique of this position in “One Democratic State in Historic Palestine".

[xlv] MACHOVER et al., on. cit., p. 87–101.

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