Yacov Ben Efrat and Assaf Adiv are leading members of the Organisation for Democratic Action (ODA-Da’am), a socialist organisation active in Israel, which produces the magazine Challenge. They are also founder members of the Workers’ Advice Centre (WAC-Ma’an), a trade union centre which organises both Jewish and Arab workers, including Palestinian workers in the occupied territories. They corresponded with Daniel Randall of Workers’ Liberty about the class struggle in Israel/Palestine. The interview was facilitated by Roni Ben Efrat of ODA. For more information on ODA, visit their Facebook page.
Q: What does the passing of the “Nation State Law” mean for the class struggle, and struggles against racism, in Israel? How are these struggles linked?
Yacov Ben Efrat (YBE): We consider The Nation State Law to be a political “putsch” by the current ultra- right wing government against the Israeli Supreme Court, and a further step to delegitimise the Zionist left. The Law, which has been given constitutional status, states that Israel is a Jewish state for the Jewish people, and denies in very explicit terms the national and collective rights of the Palestinian people.
And while this Law represents Binyamin Netanyahu’s worldview that a two-state solution is a bad solution, it is aimed at targeting the liberal and activist role of the Israeli Supreme Court, which, over the last 20 years, initiated a “constitutional revolution” based on the Basic Law “Human Dignity and Liberty”, passed in 1992, which put human and democratic rights above and before the “Jewish” character of the State. The liberal-Zionist opposition to the Law proposed the original “Declaration of Independence” document as the basic law that rules the relation between the state and its minorities on the basis of equality.
The latter, while assuring equal rights, did not prevent the racist and discriminatory policies of the Israeli state toward its Palestinian minority. The new Nation State Law is a retaliation against the latest rulings of the Supreme Court against the government, concerning the jailing of African asylum seekers, the ruling against unlawful building of settlements in the West Bank, and its general tendency to apply equal standards towards the Palestinian citizens. The Law also aims to delegitimise the Israeli Left as traitors and “Arab lovers”.
This Law would have never come to light without the favourable international environment that resulted from the election of Donald Trump in the US, the Brexit movement in Britain, the political upheaval of the nationalist movements in Hungary, Poland, Austria, and Italy, and Putin in Russia. Netanyahu allies with these trends. He fought hard for the defeat of the Democratic Party, and favours the secessionist movement inside the EU. He represents those who try to weaken “independent” Supreme Courts, mocks the “fake news” media, indulges in rewriting of history and delegitimises liberal opposition as “Arab lovers” or “lovers of refugees”. Netanyahu is part of the new international anti-liberal axis.
Q: What are the latest struggles WAC-Ma’an is involved with?
Assaf Adiv (AA): WAC-Ma’an is one of four general workers’ unions, which organise workers in different sectors. In the past decade, the labour movement in Israel has become more pluralistic, after years of dominance by the Histadrut, the main trade union centre. Two new union centres, WAC-Ma’an and Koach La’Ovdim (Power To The Workers), emerged, with a bottom-up and democratic approach.
Although smaller in numbers, WAC-Ma’an has singled itself as a more political union, arguing that in the Israeli reality one cannot talk about solidarity between workers without being outspoken against the occupation and other instances of government racism such us the attempt to deport asylum seekers. In addition to organising Jewish and Arab workers, WAC-Ma’an also devotes much of its resources to social issues such as advancing employment and social benefits in poverty stricken communities, mainly the Arab population in Israel and defending and promoting the rights of poor and unemployed Palestinian workers in East Jerusalem and in settlements in the occupied West Bank.
WAC-Ma’an’s organising has advanced immensely in 2018. On 30 August, it signed a collective agreement in the name of 250 teachers and kindergarden tutors of the educational association Hand in Hand, which operates six bi-lingual (Hebrew-Arabic) schools. This process took a whole year. Other workers in human rights organisations such as B'Tselem, Physicians for Human Rights, and The Hotline for Refugees and Migrants (HRM), have also joined WAC-Ma’an.
In addition to this work in Israel proper, WAC-Ma’an has been working for the past 18 years in East Jerusalem, organising around human rights, social rights, and labour rights issues, and in organising and advancing the rights of workers in Area C [part of the occupied Palestinian Territories, ruled entirely by Israel].
Activity reached a particular peak in 2017 with the signing of a collective agreement with the Zarfaty Garage, employing 45 Palestinian workers. This victory was won after four years of intense struggle, which went as far as the National Labour Court. The signing of this collective agreement has galvanised other workers in the area; WAC-Ma’an is currently involved in organising workers in a metal plant there. Another unique field we are involved in is organising in response to, and to prevent, accidents at work in the construction industry. For more of our daily struggles and documents, please visit our website.
Q: What is the political and organisational condition of the labour movement more broadly in Israel?
AA: In spite of big gaps between rich and poor, the Israeli economy is enjoying a steady surge of growth and standard of living as well as a decrease in unemployment. All this is happening under an ultra-right-wing government which is carrying out hate campaign against Arab citizens of Israel and Palestinians in the occupied territories. Unfortunately, this campaign is bearing fruit, and is adopted by blue-collar workers, many of whom, even when organised, hold racist views about Arabs and reactionary social positions in general. In Israel, as in other countries today such as the USA, the UK, and other states where nationalism is raising its head one cannot make the automatic equation of “blue collar” equals “Left”.
While Netanyahu’s special target in the past years has been the liberal left, and what it presents, the Histadrut is siding in most cases with the government and lately its leader Avi Nisancorn has even endorsed the candidacy of Minister Ze’ev Elkin (Minister of Jerusalem) to head the Jerusalem municipality. Elkin, a settler himself, is Netanyahu’s candidate, and is known for his support of settlers and their interests.
This is not unusual. The Histadrut traditionally stands with the consensus and the government on any topic relating to Palestinians and the occupation, including supporting military attacks on Gaza. On the other hand, for its allies in the international labour movement it participates in some invisible “humanitarian” projects, unknown to the Israeli public.
Koach L’Ovdim, established in 2007, was created by forces coming from the left of the Labour Party and aiming to create a democratic, bottom-up opposition to the Histadrut. As such it preferred to blur its political agenda in a way that would not deter right-wing members. The organisation grew quickly (15,000, compared to 600,000 in the Histadrut and 2,500 in WAC-Ma’an), but at the price of silence on issues such as racism, the occupation, and human rights, claiming that workers’ rights issues can and should be kept separate from these.
The two main [Histadrut-affiliated] teachers’ unions run away from any moral and political stand vis-à-vis the right-wing, religious agenda which is imposed on schools today. In fact, a few individual liberal high-school teachers are more likely to stand up to the nationalist agenda imposed by the Ministry of Education than the official teachers’ unions.
In light of all of this, it is highly important that a union like WAC-Ma’an can stand up for values of solidarity and justice, and show what these can mean in day-to-day life.
Q: What about the political left? We’re aware of Omdim Beyachad / “Standing Together”; what’s your assessment of this initiative? Is Da’am/ODA involved in any way? If not, what is Da’am’s current orientation?
YBE: The political left is in disarray. The political scene is divided between an Arab nationalism of sorts, and a liberal-Zionism of sorts. This division facilitates the right’s attempts to bolster its rule by inciting against the Palestinian “enemy” and the liberal-Zionist “traitors”.
The main party on the left, Hadash, is run by the Israeli Communist Party. [Hadash participates in an electoral coalition, the Joint List, with a number of Arab nationalist and semi-Islamist parties.] The CP supports the Assad regime in Syria, and the discredited Palestinian Authority led by Mahmoud Abbas. The Arab nationalist at-Tajamuh Party holds an ultra-nationalist view, and generally follows the policies of Qatar. The Islamic Movement follows Turkey’s Erdogan.
Standing Together represents the coming-together of the CP and the left-Zionist Meretz party. These parties both advocate a two-states settlement, but they differ ideologically, the first being orthodox communist and the other liberal-Zionist.
Da’am today does not believe that the two-state solution is viable anymore. Da’am seeks to work for a solidarity movement of Palestinian and Jewish democratic forces, aiming for a single democratic state for both Israelis and Palestinians, as part of a democratic Middle East. The potential for this was represented by the Arab Spring, which was drowned in blood by a very wide coalition of Gulf States, along with Iran and Russia, and with the silent encouragement or compliance of the West.
We believe that the only way to reach peace and equality for all will involve the defeat of the Fatah–Hamas duo that not only collaborates with the occupation, but strangulates its own people. This struggle is intimately connected to the struggle to defeat the right wing in Israel. It is part of the broader fight to defeat fascist trends internationally, and the present regimes in the Middle East including Iran and Saudi Arabia.
Q: Workers’ Liberty believes that a two-state settlement is the only settlement around which Israeli-Jewish and Palestinian workers could feasibly unite, and is a necessary transitional settlement towards closer unity or federation. Others on the far left see any expression whatsoever of Israeli-Jewish national rights as inadmissible. What is your view on this?
YBE: We in Da’am supported the two-states position from the day we were founded, but the political reality, the reality in the Middle East, has turned this position into an excuse for the continuation of the present situation. It freed Israel from direct responsibility for the densely-populated Palestinian cities, and it gave the Palestinian Authority the excuse to continue ruling in collaboration with the occupation. In reality, there is no political force in Israel, including the Labour Party, that believes that such a solution is possible.
We now envision one democratic state, but that doesn’t mean that we believe as many supporters of a one-state solution do, that we can rewind the clock to before 1948 and make Israeli “apartheid” disappear. We look forward to a future in which Israelis and Palestinians will decide, on a basis of equal rights and opportunities, their future. We know this will be a long and painful process.
Q: The political approaches of “BDS” are now largely hegemonic in global Palestinian solidarity activism; Workers’ Liberty believes the demand to “boycott Israel” cuts against the need to build direct, practical solidarity with Israeli workers and the left, and could have antisemitic implications. What is your view on this question?
YBE: We do not support the BDS movement. However, we do support specific and targeted boycotts, for examples against settlements in the OT or against companies involved in military cooperation with Israel. The BDS movement as a political phenomenon is something else; it pretends to present an alternative strategy for the liberation of Palestine when in reality it represents a simplistic shortcut, overlooking fundamental issues and reality itself.
For example, BDS ignores the role of the Palestinian Authority and its collaboration with Israel. This is a severe impediment to the struggle against the occupation. Neither the PA nor Hamas boycott Israeli products. Boycotting democratic forces in Israel which are seeking dialogue and cooperation with Palestinians to end the occupation does not make any sense. Bashing Israel while keeping silent over massive atrocities (for example by the Assad regime and others) discredits the BDS movement and strengthens anti-Semitic inclinations.
Hamas's ideology is racist by definition, against all “heretics”, and Fatah’s nationalist trends use antisemitic discourse to cover up their collaboration with Israel, and their corruption and anti-democratic practices against any internal opposition.
Q: What can working-class internationalists do to support your struggles?
AA: The work that WAC-Ma’an does in East Jerusalem and Area C shows how between “boycotting Israel” (including Israeli left-wing forces within it!) and supporting Israel there is another way, which struggles to end the occupation and support struggles for workers’ and human rights. We should mention for example the long term cooperation that WAC-Ma’an had for several years with the British trade union Unison, that helps us to advance our work in East Jerusalem and Area C. This is one example that can be a model for progressive forces and movements in the world who want to support the just struggle of the Palestinian people with a universal approach that helps to build a new world of justice for all.
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