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Israeli society: No room for change

This article is over 15 years, 3 months old
Collusion with the oppression of the Palestinians lies at the root of the Israeli left’s weakness, according to socialists Natalie Adler and Ron Oppenheim
Issue 2139

The Zionist dream of creating a homeland for Jewish people in historic Palestine produced a nightmare for the citizens of Israel and Arab countries. Constant war and the brutal oppression of the Palestinians have transformed the popular acceptance of Israel around the world into deep revulsion over its actions.

This was most notably seen in the huge anti-war movement against Israel’s recent assault on Gaza. But one place seems to be an exception – Israel itself.

While Britain and the US have witnessed people rise in mass movements against the imperialist policies of their government in the “war on terror”, Israel has seen very little opposition to the state’s wars.

In fact, as last week’s elections showed, Israeli society is moving even further to the right. Natalie Adler and Ron Oppenheim are two young socialists who recently left Israel.

Racism and war distort Israeli society. It is a colonial settler state built on the ruins of Palestine. As a colonial enterprise, Israel is dependent on the backing of imperial powers. In return it acts as imperialism’s watchdog in the Middle East.

Israel has created many myths to justify its actions, among them that it is a democratic and enlightened society founded on socialist principles.

But Israel has very few progressive forces. It is a society where even those who consider themselves to be on the left accept the basic premise that Israel should remain a Jewish state. This means that there are no strong ideological grounds for Israel’s left to found itself on.

Most of the left see the 1967 war – when Israel launched a pre-emptive strike on Jordan, Syria and Egypt, occupying the West Bank, Gaza and Golan Hights – as the root of the present conflict.

They advocate a two state solution, with Israel keeping the majority of historic Palestine while giving some territory back to its original inhabitants.

This is a fatal flaw, for it keeps the left firmly within the boundaries of Zionism. What’s missing is an understanding of the history of Zionism itself and that Israel was founded on the ethnic cleansing of Palestinians in 1948. In this light, it becomes obvious that the 1967 war was part of a larger scheme to grab more land.

Moshe Machover and Akiva Orr, two Israeli anti-Zionists, wrote The Class Character of Israel in 1972. In this pioneering Marxist analysis they wrote, “The permanent conflict between the settlers’ society and the indigenous, displaced Palestinian Arabs has never stopped and it has shaped the very structure of Israeli sociology, politics and economics.”


The Israeli left accepts the “necessity and legitimacy” of Israel’s existence. The same people who will campaign for peace, want a halt to aggression towards the Palestinian civilians, and advocate returning the occupied territories also accept the lie that Hamas, the Palestinian resistance ­movement, is “backward and must be dealt with”.

So if Palestinian civilians are killed during a military operation it is because Hamas uses them as “human shields”, or because they “operate in densely ­populated” areas. This is why many left wing intellectuals in Israel supported the war on Gaza, as they did the 2006 war on Lebanon.

Many on the left would genuinely like to see Palestinians having freedom and a livelihood – but the moment that Israel’s existence comes into question, they are swept up by nationalism.

This means there is no genuine socialist tradition in Israel despite the feeling among many Israelis that it was founded on “socialist principles”.

Much is made of Israel’s origins as an apparently egalitarian society. In the 1950s the difference between rich and poor was the lowest in the Western world.

The Israeli trade union federation, the Histradut, was a key plank of the foundation of the country. In the first decades of the state it employed the majority of workers. But this union was formed to exclude Arab workers – it was a union that sought to organise only Jewish workers.

This same principle was applied to the Kibbutz movement, the “egalitarian” farming communities. The Kibbutz was once a central part of Israeli society, and was often regarded as a socialist experiment.

In reality these farms were built on land seized from Palestinians – much like all the early Zionist settlements. Despite the equality of life inside the Kibbutz for Jews, Arabs were excluded.

And many of these “socialist” enclaves have now disappeared. Today Israel has one of the highest disparities between wealth and poverty in the western world. Israeli society is riddled with corruption.

Many Israelis hate this corruption, and are angry with the government. They see that the country is tumbling into poverty and the division between the poor and rich is rapidly increasing. Many realise that the education system has deteriorated. People are angry at all of these things.

This does lead to an understanding of solidarity between workers, but this solidarity is easily contained within the context of the Israeli worker against the Israeli boss. It does not extend to Arabs.

There have been many strikes in Israel, but they collapse once the question of the security of the state is raised. Many Israeli workers want a larger share of the pie, but they do not want share it with the Palestinians.

Tony Cliff, a Palestinian Jew who came to Britain in 1947 and went on to found the Socialist Workers Party, wrote, “Israel is not a colony suppressed by imperialism, but a settler’s citadel, a launching pad of imperialism. It is a tragedy that some of the very people who had been persecuted and massacred in such bestial fashion should themselves be driven into a chauvinistic, militaristic fervour, and become the blind tool of imperialism in subjugating the Arab masses.”

This transformation from the “oppressed to the oppressor” has shaped Israeli society, and bred deep-seated racism that permeates all walks of life.


Racism offers an excuse for being oppressive. The other side are “like animals” so they are “aggressive”. But “our actions” are legitimised in the “interest of national defence”.

This racism is advocated through education, politics and the media. But it is not just directed at the Arabs and Palestinians.

There is a high level of racism within Israeli society itself – between the Ashkenazi (European Jews) and Mizrahi (oriental or eastern Jews). There is discrimination against the Mizrahi – they are paid less, and it is harder for them to get jobs or to rise in the ranks in the army.

But these divisions are superseded by the fear and hatred towards the Palestinians. So many at the “bottom” of Israeli society are also those who vote in large numbers for the more extreme Zionist parties.

Most of the characteristic “Israeli ways” are formed by the colonialist nature of the country.

On a subconscious level many Israelis understand that the Palestinians have suffered, but they fall back on racism as a mechanism that can help them cope with this feeling.

At its core Israel is a military state. It is a country constantly at war, because its very existence depends on denying rights of the Palestinians.

Those Israelis who refuse to serve in the army have a much harder time finding work. The army offers very prestigious and well paid jobs, as well as funding higher education. It is very attractive to the majority of Israelis, especially from among the poor.

But it is also within the army that some of the bravest opposition voices have emerged, but always at a high personal cost.

One soldier told us that once he was posted to Palestinian areas he began to confront the ugly truth of Israel. He discovered that Palestinians live in terrible conditions, and was disgusted by the way the military “handles the Occupied Territories”.

When soldiers were bored they would start shooting into crowds of Palestinians, and the Palestinian police would be blamed for “starting an incident” if they fired back. Soldiers he knew would take their weapons and grenades home during the weekend “to kill Arabs”.

He said he entered the army as a “good Israeli boy” and left questioning every aspect of Israeli society. He discovered the secret history of Israel, from the plan Dalet (known as Plan D) – the blueprint for the ethnic cleansing in 1948 – to the realisation that the wars we were told were instigated by “the other side” were started by Israel in order to grab more land.

When Israelis question these myths and lies they face being ostracised from family, friends and work. Many of those who come to similar conclusions end up leaving, or being forced to leave the country.

This is the harsh choice the left in Israel faces – accept Zionism and accept that there will never be justice for Palestinians. Or advocate a one state solution, that is a democratic state for Arabs and Jews. But this means rejecting the notion of a “Jewish only state” and accepting that Palestinians have a right to return.


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