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Social Origins of Israeli Unrest

[Poster with Netanyahu image: [Poster with Netanyahu image: "Bibi go home." Yellow poster: "Gasoline tariff = mas-khara." Image from]

Dafni Leef has been at both bookends of the recent protests in Israel. They started in mid-July, when Leef, a Tel Aviv filmmaker, was met with a hike in her rent that she could not afford to pay. Instead of moving to a new apartment, she moved to a tent on Rothschild Boulevard, the city's sleekest thoroughfare, and set up a Facebook event calling on her compatriots to join her. The spark of dissent hit tinder, and then the flames alit on a social landscape desiccated by decades of relentless neo-liberal adjustment. Seven weeks of fiery protest followed, reaching an apex on 3 September, as over 450,000 people–six percent of the “official” population–gathered in demonstrations in Tel Aviv, Haifa, and Jerusalem, across the length and breadth of Israel.

Housing protests are not new to Israelis: Shaikh Jarrah in East Jerusalem and Al-Araqib in the Negev are but two recent examples. What was new about these protests were whom they started with: neither the sectors most affected by economic dysfunction, like the ramshackle population centers of the Negev or Sderot, nor in destitute and immigrant-rich south Tel Aviv. Rather, it was in the city's affluent north: those who had gone to Hebrew University and Tel Aviv University, the seminaries of the country's elite; those who had done the requisite military service; and the children of the bourgeoisie or the declining bourgeoisie, who had expected a smooth ride into an affluent future and are now colliding with the debris of the shattered Israeli social compact.

Complaints started in response to rapid increases in the price of cottage cheese, moved on to the housing crisis, and spread to the general crisis. A country peppered with billionaires but without a functioning public transportation system, a country that produces high-tech drones which it markets to militaries worldwide, but one in which a third of the workforce earns the minimum wage. A country whose name still connotes "socialism" in some corners and which is the second-most-unequal industrialized democracy on the planet.  At the protests, demands, complaints, cat-calls and concerns centered on “revolution” and “social justice”– within Israel, not for the four million Palestinians encaged in Gaza or immured in the West Bank, nor those in the camps of the Levant.

The demonstrations' demographics have run the gamut.  They began with the university educated, newly graduated middle class–the Rothschild encampment was flooded with European faces. But the demonstrations’ spread to development towns indicates that they touched on a far broader socio-economic base. Most importantly, the Arab Jewish (Mizrahi) underclass, which can compose as much as ninety percent of the population of perilous border towns like the municipalities in northern and southern Israel, where the white European elite, eager to fill out the territorial envelope of the new Israeli state and thereby safeguard its borders, deliberately placed them. The widest current was the middle-class–perhaps sixty percent of the protesters–but against critics carping about the protests’ “exclusivity,” Palestinian Israelis also took to Israel’s roadways and plazas, in Nazareth, ‘Arabeh, Sakhnin, Baqa al-Gharabiya, Haifa, Jaffa, and elsewhere.

Polls suggest that eighty-seven percent of Israelis supported the protests.  Among them were ninety-eight percent of Kadima voters and ninety-five percent of Labor voters.  Kadima and Labor are the bastions of the middle and upper-middle class.  Eighty-five percent of Bibi Netanyahu's Likud, which tends to draw part of its support from poorer sectors, supported the protests, while seventy-eight percent of the Shas party–the pillar of Oriental Jewry–also supported the protests. This last statistic is significant: cowed by state repression, desperate to show allegiance to an Israel that never wanted them in the first place, the Arab Jews have been historically hesitant about hitting the streets, always apprehensive about the baton of state violence and its verbal minder, the taunt of treason.

Many dismiss the protests with a quick wave of the hand as the whining of settlers about the rent. Such dismissals miss the unprecedented nature of the protests. From before the founding of Israel, questions of class, intra-Jewish social disharmony and intra-Jewish oppression, have been excluded from the Israeli agenda. "First, secure the state, and then we will deal with your poverty," has been the refrain of the “new class” of generals and bureaucrats in league with domestic and foreign Jewish capitalists who founded Israel. To speak of class would lay the foundations for a different social project than the one envisioned by Israeli elites eager to build a Jewish state in which “Jewish thieves and Jewish prostitutes conduct their business in Hebrew,” in the words of David Ben Gurion. But amidst constant warfare, taking care of the poors’ needs had been postponed perpetually.

Is that postponement at an end? It is still early for definitive judgment, but two things seem clear.

One, this movement will not break the Israeli structure of power.  Two, this is an early fracture–a foretaste of later ruptures–within Zionism.

It would be wonderful to be wrong about the first point.  One could not foresee the fall of the Shah of Iran from the Peacock Throne in 1977, before months-long street protests put him to flight.  Nor was the rise of Hugo Chavez prefigured in the caracazo of 1989, the countrywide riots against Venezuelan neoliberal austerity measures. Revolutions are inherently unpredictable, as people move out of the gentle ebbs and flows, the quotidian cycles, of their lives, and move to messianic time. At such moments belief in their own power, a kind of collective effervescence, can create opportunities that no one would have predicted or believed possible just weeks before, and radical change becomes a kind of mirage that people suddenly will into becoming real.  

Yet such sparks of human creativity and the instinct for freedom kindle flames within structures designed to douse them. And no structure has ever been designed with safeguards against revolution like Israel: a military-Keynesian war economy tightly linked with imperialism, a color bar dividing the working class along Jewish-Arab religio-national lines, a state education system that marinates its citizens in racism, and a material and symbolic economy designed to dissolve Israeli class struggles in the acid bath of ethno-nationalist animus.

Still, the fractures within Israeli society are real, no matter whether they are yet deep enough to shatter the bedrock upon which it is built. The average apartment is unaffordable for ninety percent of the population, what Danny Ben Shahar calls a "social time-bomb," in part the result of housing inflation as a jet-setting Jewish transnational elite flits into Tel Aviv and Jerusalem for the summer, stays at their "ghost apartments," then returns to Paris and Los Angeles. Inflation is not restricted to the housing market.  As Histadrut Labor Federation Chairman Ofer Eini said, "If once I was able to go to the supermarket and make a NIS 700 purchase, today I pay double.  And that is not linked to the CPI.  If the CPI rises three percent the supermarket prices rise thirty percent. The one benefiting from these rising prices is the government."

Both Eini’s words and his job description are cant: the Histadrut is only nominally a labor federation. In reality, it assists an accumulation process tightly tied into the state apparatus, regulating wages and, notoriously, offloading state enterprises onto politically-connected figures in the private sector in the robbery euphemistically called privatization. As ever, the state is not looking out for the interests of the dispossessed.  It is looking out for the interests of possessors, and doing so with great care and skill: ten large business groups now control thirty percent of the market value of public companies, while sixteen control half of the money in the whole country.

Furthermore, the idea that it is the government benefiting from rising prices is dubious.  The government might push inflationary policies, but historically, Israeli inflation has led to a redistribution of economic clout from the bottom and middle of Israeli society to its upper echelons. And it is the latter, welded solidly into transnational capital circuits, who are inflation's real beneficiaries, behind the veneer of the state and the politicians they push into office. Israeli elites frequently do not bother with the veneer. Amidst a remarkably cartelized economy, prices are pushed higher and higher, while wages do not come close to keeping pace with price increases.

So Eini was reminding state managers that Israeli social cohesion is fraying, with taxes among the highest in the Western world relative to state welfare spending. And he was telling them to respond to ensure that fraying does not produce a threat to Israeli social stability. Revealingly, Eini publicly opposed toppling Netanyahu, clarifying that the protests "must not shatter the national agenda," code for the heady communal cohesion, the consensus on the settler-colonial project, with which Israeli elites corral the populace into support for militarism.

One can see the protests as the outcome of a process in which the relative egalitarianism, never socialism, of the early years of Israeli statehood has been replaced by increasing centralization and privatization of social wealth. Through the mid-1970s, the Israeli elite was able to both increase its own power and pay off the lower ranks of the social hierarchy. It did so through a deft combination of re-distribution and dispossession, a system in which social discontent was defused and diffused through colonization, militarism, and alternative social welfare measures, both material and symbolic, with the common thread of resolving internal Israeli social problems on the backs of the native population: the Palestinians.

This tendency was institutionalized in the decision to militarize in the post-founding period, as Ben-Gurion and other founders deliberately used the solder of state worship and jingoism to join millions of new immigrants to the state-linked “new class” inhabiting the upper posts of the Histadrut and other state institutions.  As Moshe Sharet, who found these policies distasteful, wrote, in their view the state "should see war as the principal and perhaps only means of increasing welfare and keeping the moral tension. . . .  For this purpose we can concoct dangers," and were even "obliged" to do so. Meanwhile Ben-Gurion was marketing war and instability to the colonial heavyweights: first Britain and France in the Sinai misadventure, and later, others.

By the mid-1960s, with German reparations reduced to a trickle, economic malaise hit Israel hard. The Israeli elite responded to that malaise and the episodic industrial unrest among the North African immigrants that it occasioned by going to war in 1967. That war led to the occupation of the West Bank and Gaza, as well as a symbiosis with a new metropolitan sponsor, the United States.

In turn, the settlement project began to gather a social base from the Mizrahim and others, with the tacit and explicit assent of politicians and social elites alike. Several factors, material and symbolic, served as the warp and woof of that social base.

First, with the infusion of Palestinians from the occupied territories into the Israeli labor force, the Mizrahim were shoved upwards in Israel's socio-economic hierarchy, in the process becoming a petty bourgeoisie.  As a group of Moroccan Jews explained to Amos Oz, "If they give back the territories, the Arabs will stop coming to work, and then you'll put us back into the dead-end jobs, like before.  If for no other reason, we won't let you give back those territories. . . .  As long as Begin's in power, my daughter's secure at the bank.  If you guys [i.e., Labor] come back, you'll pull her down first thing."

Second, the lifestyle settlers living just over the Green Line, and in the settlements ringing East Jerusalem, are also mostly Mizrahi, as are the rank and file of the Israeli Defense Forces. It is the Israeli lower classes that most strongly support the settlement project. This project has addressed their socio-economic grievances in the cheapest way possible. The reason why the settlements are built on Palestinian land is that the cheapest land is freshly stolen land. And until it is all stolen, there is always more to take. Israel is a settler-colonial state, and so the lure of resolving Israeli social contradictions and preventing a left-populist response from the lower sectors through further thefts from Palestinian society will always glisten in the minds of Israeli elites. They prefer distributing that which they have taken from Palestinians to giving up their own wealth or readjusting their own society.

Third, insofar as social pressure mounts for affordable housing or welfare disbursements from the state, releasing that pressure is only partially a question of current distributions from the state. A second aspect of the same question is future distributions, promised by Labor and Likud governments alike. The poor can look forward to low-cost land or housing in settlements that they could never afford in urban centers. Notoriously, the one place where the welfare state is doing fine is the West Bank. Polls show overwhelming Israeli popular support for maintaining the settlements and the occupation of the territories. Their respondents are, perhaps, dimly aware of the role settlement expansion plays in cementing Israeli social cohesion by letting off lower-class social pressure.

Fourth, the army and the settlers are deeply invested in the settlement project. The latter increasingly occupies the front line and elite units, and it is those units that would be tasked with supervising a withdrawal from the settlements as is contemplated in two-state resolutions. The settlements are a problem, but they are also a symptom of deeper problems. They are certainly not the delusional descriptor that Israeli liberals and American realists alike apply to them: the "begetters" of all sins.

Fifth, the Israeli lower classes, predominantly Arab Jews, gain from being able to consider themselves part of the dominant socio-ethnic group--Jews--as opposed to a part of the Arab lower class, alongside the Palestinians. Racism against Arabs confers symbolic and also material benefits. It is through racism that the Mizrahim have historically been able to prove most fervently–even fanatically–their Israeliness, in the symbolic economy of hate that the founders constructed. As Sami Chetrit comments, “The Mizrahim have always been ready to serve as soldiers in the ‘battle’ of hate and oppression against Palestinians. The occupation has granted them a way to acquire a cheap nationalist identity…that fits the Ashkenazi nationalist identity.”

Yet that consciousness induces a schism, as the truth of their background is betrayed by the simplest device possible: the mirror. Ashamed of their reflection, they project that shame in outward displays of hatred. As Chetrit continues, “by always being obliged to be anti-Arab, the Mizrahi is obliged to be against the Arabness within himself.” So the Mizrahi population has historically been far more racist than the Ashkenazi founders. This racism lingers even as the cultural markers of its background have been partially scoured from Israeli society. And the Ashkenazi-Mizrahi divide lingers: most Jews are of unmixed heritage, Israeli Jewish populations vote along ethnic lines, and spatial segregation endures. As Sammy Smooha writes, "Most Mizrahim share a collective memory of being subject to large-scale ethnic discrimination, cultural repression, and ill treatment during the 1950s. These are some of the indicators demonstrating that the dormant ethnic problem may still breed resentment and strife."

Finally, those at the top ranks of the military, as well as those with investments in construction or who benefit from cheap Palestinian labor, are directly invested in the settlement enterprise. Between the fraction of the elite invested in the settlement project and widespread popular support for it, it is no wonder that it continues. The occupation and constant warfare provide a popular justification for Israeli militarization, and it is off that militarization and the axial role of the military in the Israeli economy that the Israeli elite gorges. If there is one thing the Israeli upper class does not want, it is an intra-elite feud. Most of the Israeli elite may receive little direct economic benefit from the settlement project, but it is cheaper to maintain the occupation than to end it, at least for the time being.

The occupation also finds its place in the ideological struggle over what Israeli society is, a struggle that involves battles over what it was and over what it will be. The Israeli right wing routinely points out that the same logic that impels an end to the occupation could as well be applied to the entire process of Israeli state formation. For them, if the takeover of Lydda, Acre, and Ashdod was justified in 1948, then the occupation of Judea and Samarra in 1967 was likewise justified.  There is truth to their argument: if Israeli colonization was condonable in 1948, why is it suddenly condemnable in 1967?

The question's answer touches on a deeper truth: the role that the belief in the rightness of Israeli actions plays within Israeli society. That society is made up of an odd jumble of social blocs: ultra-orthodox Haredi, Central and Eastern European Jews, immigrants from ultra-religious neighborhoods in Brooklyn, Ethiopian, Iraqi, Kurdish, and Algerian Jews, the recent Russian immigrants, fifteen to twenty, perhaps even fifty percent of whom are not even Jewish. Zionism is the integument holding together a fissiparous society in which over twenty-five percent of the population was not even born in Israel.

A society united by nationalism is one that is unlikely to notice the division that matters most: the constantly widening one between the rich and the poor. Settlement withdrawal could become a solvent to the nationalist binding of Israeli society. It is for that reason that the elite constantly stalls on the issue of a final settlement. They prefer the stasis of a peace process that is long on process and short on peace to a rending withdrawal of 250,000–or 500,000–settlers. Such a withdrawal might tear Israeli society apart on economic and ethnic fault lines. Few within Israel are prepared to contemplate the costs of that withdrawal when the status quo costs them so little.

But those costs are changing constantly, as the Israeli economy and its interweaving with the global economic system shifts.  Through the mid-1980s, Israeli elites adroitly combined occupation, militarism, and irredentism into a smooth social consensus.  By the end of that period, military spending was running at thirty percent or more of Israeli GDP. This spending, combined with a bout of hyperinflation, helped cartelize the Israeli economy into huge business groups. In turn, the government put in place the scaffolding for a new phase of development: the July 1985 economic stabilization plan. It scuppered the social contract by ending government subsidies, devaluing the currency, restricting wage growth, and opening the economy to foreign capital. That capital moved in and voraciously bought up Israeli assets–Israeli "globalization."

Along with "globalization" came the need for a new way to deal with the Palestinians: the Oslo process, as the Israeli elite attempted an impossible task. On the one hand, they had to maintain the occupation at a low simmer and normalize Israeli relations with the region, as they attempted to turn Israeli into a high-tech regional entrepôt. On the other, they had to maintain Israeli nationalist fervor and social cohesion, all the while not cutting too sharply into the military that is the breeding ground for the country's elite.  With fractures and fissures running along and through Israeli society, the Oslo process ended with the arrival of Bush II. He put paid to American quavering about the occupation, as Israeli militarism and Zionism again were smoothly in sync with the imperial policies of its patron. For his part Sharon paid the Israeli elite its peace dividend by deepening the neo-liberal project, in the process worsening the economic straits of the middle-and upper-middle classes. The Rothschild protests are his child.

Yet after eight years of tremendous Bush-era looting, the Obama administration and its renewed commitment to the "peace process" again foregrounded tensions inherent in Israeli accumulation. The strains stemming from a large fragment of the elite's links with global capital combined with Israel’s burgeoning militarism and reactionary fanaticism pushed along by militarism, created, as Gabriel Ash writes, "a powerful demand not as much for peace as for the absence of war." Yet that was an unstable alloy, with its precise composition capable of being adjusted depending on the prices to the elite of the various inputs.

It is that cost-benefit matrix that the July 14 protests and their unclear aftermath can indirectly affect. They can highlight the fact that the occupation and, more importantly, the militarism which produced it and which it reproduces, both relies on and reproduces ethnic cleavages. These ethnic cleavages have functioned to divert popular attention from the deepest fissure of all: that between the haves and the have-nots. And it is along precisely that fissure that the protests have taken place.

Indeed, the protesters spent much of the past seven weeks in a low-grade conflict with the state-elite nexus. On one level, this was amazing because it bridged the historical rift between Mizrahi and Ashkenazi – one of a series of intra-Israeli social cleavages that the elite uses to maintain power. More striking still was that the demonstrators were not merely emulating the Egyptian protesters, but articulating that thinking on mainstream media. They publicly and unabashedly echoed the Arab example, claiming that the Arab Spring has blossomed into an Israeli Summer.  As one middle-class Israeli suggested, "We have to do what they did in Egypt.  Yalla, tahrir, jihad."  A popular chant went, “the people want social justice,” copying the Arab calls that have cascaded across the region over the last eight months. To turn the Egyptian example into a model shatters Israeli social taboos, and that is one of the more striking and under-noticed aspects of the protests. In Gaza City a friend once asked me if the Israelis considered themselves tourists in the region or were here to stay. In a painfully partial manner, the tent protests were, perhaps, beginning to glint with the glimmer of an answer to that question.

But one had to squint hard to see that glimmer. Without a call for dealing with Palestinian grievances, there was, and is, something odd and unreal about the social justice protests. They are like a photograph in which all the red tone has leached out, leaving it cold and lifeless.

Meanwhile, from the Palestinians, under a decades-long occupation, the intricacies of internal Israeli social discontent and the nuances of Israeli social mobilization have, to some extent understandably, elicited sneers and jeers. The cost of bread to a Jewish family in Ashkelon is a real problem. But in the hierarchy of suffering, it cannot rank next to the experience of a family in a Gaza refugee camp that lived in Ashkelon when it was called Majdal and which was cleansed from there in 1948. Perhaps their bakery was destroyed during the 2008-2009 attack which most Israelis now complaining about high bread prices openly supported. For that reason Palestinians have broadly responded to the protests with reinvigorated calls for Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions. This is in part a reflection of a fear that internal Israeli political mobilization could be taken as a substitute rather than a supplement to sanctions.

Looked at from the outside, the lacuna when it comes to core Palestinian grievances, particularly the occupation, is a sociologically jarring absence. It is like poor American antebellum field hands clamoring for the minimum wage without blinking an eye at the dark men in chains working in the fields next to the ones in which they are toiling. But that a racist society produces a racist protest movement is almost unavoidable. Resistance movements must start with the human material which they possess, not with the human material they wished they possessed. As historian Staughton Lynd put it, "Who were the workers who made the Russian Revolution?  Sexists, nationalists, half of them illiterate.  Who were the workers in Polish Solidarity?  Anti-Semitic, whatever.  That kind of struggle begins to transform people." This is a transformation one sees in embryonic form in the Mizrahi-Ashkenazi solidarity within the protests themselves, a solidarity that has spread to the Palestinian-Israeli sector. 

Furthermore, people articulate their resistance to oppression, at first, in the terms in which that oppression appears to them. To the average Israeli, the ones who were at the protests, the occupation is not tied into their experience of oppression. Indeed, that occupation is part of stoking the Zionist sentiment and soldering the intra-Jewish communal bonds such that Israel's Jewish citizens either do not notice intra-communal oppression or do not act upon it. It is frequently forgotten that the Zionist left did used to talk about the occupation. But all it did was talk–tossing a bone to dissenters. Bringing the occupation back into the Israeli national conversation is meaningless without political action to end it, and political action starts with entering the public space and making demands.

So understanding the partial opening represented by the tent protests, and pace the politically naïve naysaying of outside observers, Palestinian citizens of Israel gingerly articulated their demands with those of the Jewish protesters. They set up Tent 48 in the midst of Rothschild. Big rallies in Haifa and Jaffa drew mixed Arab and Jewish crowds, with Palestinian speakers. Encampments mushroomed in the cities and villages of the Palestinian Israelis. As Abir Kopty, a social justice activist, comments, “Most Pales­tini­ans are choosing to bring their voice to this movement and not isolate them­selves. July 14 is an oppor­tu­nity for Pales­tini­ans to organize and motivate them­selves. It will not, however, bring the change Pales­tini­ans seek.” As she adds,“ July 14 has created oppor­tu­ni­ties for activism that the Israeli regime has worked long and hard to prevent. People have come together, and this is already power. Yet this movement will not go beyond the Zionist bound­aries; it might achieve concrete demands, but it will not change the dominant social, economic and political struc­tures.” Healthcare, housing, and education are not the parochial concerns of either Jews or Palestinians but the concerns of the poor– and the Palestinians are among the poorest social groups in Israel.

Furthermore, a transfer of state resources from militarism to social infrastructure may not be intended to help Palestinians.  Yet, it will help them nonetheless, by weakening the machinery of oppression and occupation that relentlessly grinds Palestinian society. According to  Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) figures, sixteen percent of Israeli gross domestic product is devoted to military spending, much of which gets funneled to the increasingly privately owned Israeli military-industrial complex. The occupation is not, strictly speaking, needed to sustain that military spending. Yet peace and peace dividends would hardly suit a society that was built on and is sustained by warfare and a constant flow of weapons and military-oriented investment from the United States.

Perhaps more important than structural victories would be the effect of such victories on the Israeli consciousness. For that reason the Israeli government feared the protests. Any victories would have offered a dangerous lesson to the human beings who make up the gears and pulleys and levers, all the whirring machinery of the apartheid system: that occupation and racism are not just a means of social control over a reeling and shattered Palestinian society, but over the Israeli lower classes themselves.

In the rapid swirl of reportage, analysis, and dismissal, such people were nearly disappeared. But they too mobilized. In the Hatikva neighborhood, which has voted right for decades, working-class Israelis set up a tent protest. Later, on 3 September, the people there would march with Palestinian Israelis from Jaffa. Mizrahi activists almost immediately set up a tent camp in Levinsky Park, in south Tel Aviv, an area full of crack-heads and immigrant workers, a world away from Rothschild, filled with representatives of the 300,000 semi-legal laborers who occupy the occupational rungs in the Israeli work force previously occupied by Palestinians from the West Bank and Gaza Strip. That encampment was raided repeatedly by police–a hint at why it is the Ashkenazi middle and upper-middle classes that made the protests throb in their oddly lifeless way. The Mizrahi working classes remember what happened to the Israeli Black Panthers, destroyed by a mix of co-optation and state violence.

And what do they, whose oppression is nearest that of the Palestinians, think of the occupation that maintains the Israeli color bar in the most Faustian manner? Who knows.  Indeed, it is the tragedy of the Israeli left that it is precisely amongst the working classes that one historically finds the strongest support for occupation and anti-Arab racism. It is those social sectors which compose the social base of the rightist Likud and its coalition ally, the Shas party. And so long as caste and not class is the line that separates, the specter of a sectarian schism will always loom.

Re-drawing that line is one of the key struggles within Israel, and it is to that struggle that the Palestinian tents also contributed. In Kopty’s words, “Many tents…engaged Jewish activists, which creates an alter­na­tive and chal­lenges the existing structure of separation.” It is the careful, hesitant, difficult, and tenuous braiding of Arab and Jewish struggles that leads to the basis in consciousness for a more widely-spread joint struggle than that taken up by the picayune anti-colonial Israeli left.

Additionally, despite the idiosyncratic Israeli insistence that the protests were "social," not "political," they produced open confrontation. In several instances, the state violently arrested activists, for example, at a demonstration of single mothers in front of Amidar, the Israeli public housing authority. There, Black Panther founder Reuven Abergel pointed out that the police were violently putting down protests in Israel’s “backyard,” south Tel Aviv, while Rothschild was calm and orderly. Its constituents could be expected to behave, and if not, be bought off cheaply. And Israel’s rulers will try to do so as cheaply as possible. They are aware that any re-orientation of spending from militarism to housing will lay a foundation for further victories, most importantly at the level of allowing new horizons of what it is possible or rational to struggle for to suddenly become visible.

Meanwhile, forces internal to July 14 have struggled, sometimes surreptitiously, to break any tentative link between Palestinian and Jewish mobilization. Particularly among the well-financed student unions, which provided much of the organizational and monetary muscle of the tent protests, the urge has been to divert energy from common class struggle into an attempt at a return to the Israel of their parents and grandparents. During those days, the Ashkenazi middle-class could live well while Arabs--Jewish, Muslim, and Christian alike--were either dispossessed or labored in the lower reaches of Israeli society. Unshockingly, it was those heading the student unions who, in an internal coup d’état, blotted out from the movement’s list of demands Palestinian grievances like recognition of the unrecognized Bedouin villages and expansion of the municipal borders of Palestinian villages and towns so as to allow for their natural development.

They are also the ones who called for the protests to move to a “new stage” after the 3 September demonstrations. It would have been absurd to expect those who are loosely connected with the elite, or who hope to feed again at its trough, to draw the class-based connections needed for Palestinian and Jewish class-based revolt. Those who hope to rejoin the upper-middle class would never link Israel's stratospheric subsidies for high-tech investment to the privatization of the state-owned industrial plant and the gutting of the social compact. Nor would they ever go on to analyze the reasons behind the non-stop militarization, the constant wars, and the rockets falling on southern and northern Israel from the Arabs the Israeli military complex profits from persecuting, oppressing, murdering, and immiserating. Yet in the absence of such connections, the dominant caste of the working class can always be mobilized for National Socialism or right-wing populism.

Revolts go in waves. Consider 3 September and its hundreds of thousands the end of the first wave. With the government convening the Trachtenberg Commission, considering “reforms” of the Israeli economy, and set to release its results at the end of the month, it is whiling away time, aware that people cannot protest forever. They need to work and they need to eat. Itzik Shmuli, the head of the National Student Union, has opted for a political career. The student unions called on protesters to “go home,” having not even received crumbs. Social upsurges have their opportunists, and take Shmuli as symbolic of a desire for return to the golden years of Mapai hegemony, when the lower classes, ever-anxious about their Israeliness, supported the wars and the state, choosing from the raggedy choices laid out before them by the founders.

Then take Leef. In her speech, cut off mid-way by public television stations, she spoke of growing up, “Moments and memories full of death,” including the assassination of Yitzhak Rabin but also the 2006 invasion of Lebanon. Then she added, “I am proud to be an Israeli seven weeks now,” adding that, “If you are a Gaza evacuee–things must change. If you are Bedouin–things must change.” One can take that for what it is while deploring what it is not. But there is no reason to only shift one’s gaze that far left and no farther. Farther left is a statement from twenty groups and organizations on both sides of the Green Line, including the Israeli Communist Party, the Union of Palestinian Working Women, the Palestinian People’s Party, and others, calling for a “popular joint struggle,” in which they “welcome the participation and integration of the Palestinian population in Israel in the social protest.” These groups are small, with small constituencies, but embryos start as cells. Then they grow – perhaps drawing on people in the Jesse Cohen camp in Holon, a Mizrahi city south of Tel Aviv, who were just pummeled by a police crackdown. They may look to the example of those in Levinsky, where the state has tried to evict the protesters, or those who stormed the Tel Aviv municipality on 7 September. One can doubt, but as in any moment of collective revolt, a theology of hope is instinctual.

So what are we seeing in Israel? A farce? A brief spasm over bread? Spoiled whingeing over the price of a flat for the children of the generals? An impossible chimera of joint struggle, the faint historical tracings of the Palestine Communist Party evanescently appearing in the Israeli imaginary? The social base for fascism and the regional cataclysm that will go along with it? Maybe we are seeing all of those things. Different futures co-habit in the mercury of the present. Bringing about the best one will require changing Israeli society and consciousness, at the same time as others apply external pressure through boycotts and sanctions – akin to the heat applied to an egg. And what that egg will hatch is a matter of both internal and external will.

And so what will happen is, at least in part, for the people of Israel to decide. As in the mechanized army of Bertolt Brecht's poem, "General, Your Tank Is a Powerful Vehicle," the machine of Israeli accumulation cannot operate without human drivers.  In Brecht's poem, he writes that man is useful.  "He can fly and he can kill.  But he has one defect: He can think."  Do the "new men" of Israel share this flaw? Nearly every July 14 protest ended in the singing of the national anthem and the brandishing of the Israeli flag. Self-appointed leaders are flocking to calls for a return to the killing machine of the Ashkenazi welfare-warfare state, with the possibility of the Zionist left coming in from its long winter of isolation and quiescence, rejoining the social consensus in its historical role as an insistent nag, complaining about the occupation yet doing nothing about it.

In a country bound by surety in the rightness of the past, the population is clearly having trouble bucking the barriers of the national consensus on ignoring the occupation. That quietude invites a savage dissent into rightwing populism, a third bout of ethnic cleansing, with its human material, the traditional fodder from the lower classes, in a social pact with an upper class which will do nearly anything to hold on to its power. 

Israeli history weighs like an alp upon the minds of its people. Whether they will be able to throw it off is the question that is now before them. Even in trying, they may fail. But without trying, failure is certain, and that failure will not just be theirs but also ours. Because we will inherit the world of blood and fire that will be its aftermath.

[A somewhat different version of this essay was originally published at MRZine]    

6 comments for "Social Origins of Israeli Unrest "


Undoubtedly the weakest part in this otherwise fine long essay is the insufficiently critical portrayal of Mizrahi Jews. I wish I could address all the points you make here about it but unfortunately I cannot afford the time. Just to exemplify, here is one of your most central contentions:

"So the Mizrahi population has historically been far more racist than the Ashkenazi founders."

Come again? Perhaps the next thing to spread on the internet is that Mizrahi Jews were/are also responsible for the Nakba?

13 years ago (gosh, this is scary) I had to deal with some similar argumentation – see here . I can say fairly confidently that little has changed with regard to the prevailing comprehension of BOTH (i) the pre-1950s ARAB history of Mizrahi Jews and (ii) their post-1950s ISRAELI history. That is so even among those who are otherwise the most avid, rigorous, critical and knowledgable analysts of the Arab-Zionist matrix. Depressing perhaps, but true.

I now ask: are you able to support your above contention about the "greater racism of Mizrahi Jews" with at least some material and solid scholarly evidence (rather than sketchy/impressionist speculation)? Until and unless you do that, your unfounded proposition shall unfortunately remain a racist libel. Your generalisation about nothing less than half of Israel’s Jewish population (i.e. Mizrahim) -- most of whom incidentally arrived in Palestine after 1950 PARTIALLY as a consequence of (ONGOING!) multi-sect incompetence and impotence of "secular" Arab nationalism -- is scandalous. Had you made such a sweeping generalization on any group in the Middle East OTHER than indigenous Middle Eastern/Mizrahi- Jews – I'm sure that the editors here would have “catch” it more easily and probably wouldn’t allow it to be published.

To conclude: the Mizrahi part of your (otherwise reasonable) long text is to a too great extent informed by insights/propositions that have been propagated (since more or less 1977) by Israel's Ashkenazi Zionist left. Since that time -- these un-scholarly fallacies have often been also recycled uncritically by members of the Ashkenazi anti-Zionist left (yet also by Arabs as the above linked piece indicates). Stay well anyway and keep your otherwise fine/good work.

shiko wrote on September 17, 2011 at 09:48 AM

I hate when Ashkenazim - esp. "left" Zionists are blaming Zionist racism on Mizrahim (or Russian Jews). Zionism was made by Ahkenazim racists, both "left" and "right"

BUT. It seems that for shiko all else are to blame, including "Arabs" and anti-Zionists, but NOT Mizrahim. Alas, while they are victims of Zionism as well, they are also guilty. They, like Russian Jews, use Zionism to get privileged over non-Jews in an aparteid Israel. EVERY Zionist is guilty till s/he is Zionist.

By the way, I have a lot to say against the article which still claim hope that Zionists somehow could turn to "social justice" struggle without renouncing Zionism.

lidia wrote on September 18, 2011 at 02:04 AM

1. The origins of teh mizrachim are jews oppressed and thrown out of their home by thier arab nation states

2. the mizrachim generally know and speak more arabic than the other ISRAELS HENCE HEAR AND UNDERSTAND WHAT THE ARAB STATES SAY TO THEIR PEOPLE IN ARABIC ...THIS IS A MAJOR SOURCE OF THIER OPINIONS ABOUT THE INTENTIONS OF THEIR NEIGHBOURING STATES 3. The intermarriage between mizrahim and other jews is so high that while much of your essay was relevant in the 1960s (black panthers ect) it is now mostly irrelevant for the general population

dr caplan wrote on September 18, 2011 at 10:34 AM

As the two previous comments highlighted, your description of the Misrahi Jews is way out of date, if it was ever accurate even in the past, which is doubtful.

You also make the usual mistake of confusing a desire to maintain the occupation as meaning support for the occupation. The reason most Israelis (not including the numerically small extremist settlers who have little popular support) are against unilateral withdrawal from the West Bank, even though they support a 2 state solution according to most opinion polls, is because it is clear that Hamas will be firing rockets at us the next morning.

Andi wrote on September 18, 2011 at 05:31 PM

Shiko, You may not like the argument about greater racism – in this context, anti-Palestinian racism – but you should take enough care to notice that it very clearly isn’t mine originally. It’s Sami Chetrit’s, which is clear both by attribution and by the hyperlink. Similar arguments are laid out at length in his recent book, Intra-Jewish Conflict in Israel. I don’t think Chetrit is Ashkenazi. It also seems pretty clear that there is nothing “intrinsic” about such characterizations, and in fact I wrote about “the symbolic economy of hate that the founders constructed,” and it was from the “raggedy choices laid out before them by the founders” that they made their choices. It’s quite clear that it’s the founders that I am blaming, for example, when I wrote of the “rift between Mizrahi and Ashkenazi – one of a series of intra-Israeli social cleavages that the elite uses to maintain power,” but when you rip one sentence from its clarifying context, it looks otherwise. The originators of Israeli racism are not Mizrahi, and I don’t think anyone would think anything else from my article. You may be in a rush, but you should have “afforded” enough time to read the article and tried to understand what it said before accusing me of “racist libel.” That doesn’t seem productive. What would be productive would be translating into English from Hebrew some of the texts about Mizrahi Jews which are little-known in the non-Hebrew-reading world but which would help people better understand intra-Jewish racism within Israel. That’s a better option than lecturing people about their ignorance. Especially odd given the profusion of genuinely racist analysis of J14 you should choose to focus your ire here.

Max wrote on September 19, 2011 at 09:36 AM

The Mizrahi Jews tend to be more right wing is because of the injustices done by the arab muslims. The Mizrahi Jews hate the arabs because the arabs stole Jewish lands and other property and forced about 1.1 Million jews out of arab lands. That's why the Mizrahi hate the arabs more. NOT BECAUSE THEY WANT TO FIT INTO THE "ASHKANAZI SOCIETY" AS YOU MENTIONED.


Gilon wrote on October 07, 2011 at 02:42 PM

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