The dilemma of the Israeli working class

For some organizations on the left, even Trotskyist currents, the solution to the Palestinian-Israeli problem passes through the “unity” of both working classes. The Israeli working class is exploited by capital, but at the same time it is mostly Zionist. That is to say, it supports and benefits from the colonialist, oppressive and genocidal anti-Palestinian state of Israel. Denying this is a political mistake, which dilutes the Palestinian struggle for national liberation, delays a revolutionary perspective in the region and also legitimizes the existence of an Israeli state. How to approach this complex issue?

Pablo Vasco

Workers’ internationalism is a question of principle for revolutionary Marxists. But it is not an abstract and immutable category for all times and places. It must be adapted to each concrete situation.

The “conflict” between Palestine and Israel is not a border dispute between two capitalist countries of similar rank. In that case, workers’ internationalism would imply calling on both working classes to fraternize with each other and confront their respective ruling classes. Nor is it a confrontation between an imperialist power and its colony or semi-colony. In the metropolis, workers’ internationalism would imply adopting revolutionary defeatism: for the defeat of its own country. In turn, the working class of the oppressed country must fight with political independence from its bourgeoisie.

Although the case of Israel presents similarities with the latter, it is not simply imperialism or exploitative colonialism, which simply exploits the resources and labor of a colony or semi-colony, but settler-colonialism. It seeks maximum occupation of territory with minimum native population, either by extermination, forced displacement and/or assimilation. 

Israel: a pro-imperialist colonial enclave

Zionism is not at all the national liberation movement of the Jewish people that it hypocritically claims to be; it is settler-colonialism. Since its foundation in 1948 and up to the present day, Israel seeks maximum territorial occupation with minimum native population. With one distinction: it is not an imperial metropolis colonizing a distant or neighboring region; it is itself a colonial enclave. That unique character sets Israeli society apart from all others. That is, “Israel is a colonial enclave, similar in character to the ‘white’ states of Africa, built on the basis of eviction, racial discrimination, exploitation and denial of the democratic and national rights of the native population. In the area where it has been implanted, this colonial enclave acts as a gendarme of imperialism to repress the national and social struggles of the Arab peoples.” 

Artificially inserted in the Middle East, an area rich in oil and geopolitically strategic, the hyper-militarized State of Israel fulfills its role as imperialist watchdog against the Arab masses and enjoys the highest social status in the region thanks to the financing of US imperialism. “According to US Defense and State Department data, from 1951 to 2022, US military aid to Israel, adjusted for inflation, amounts to $225.2 billion”. That is about $3.2 billion per year, $3.8 billion in 2022, all non-refundable. It is a symbiotic circuit: the bulk of this aid goes to arms purchases, which feeds back into the US military-industrial complex, and the rest goes to investment and development in high military technology (startups) in Israel.

This enormous external support influences Israeli society as a whole, including its working class. Israeli citizens also receive -tax-free- remittances from the powerful American Jewish lobby, whose main arm is the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), linked to local Republicans and Netanyahu’s ultra-right Likud party. As if that were not enough, Israel also receives subsidies from the European Union.

Usurpation and ethnic cleansing

The State of Israel was founded in 1948, with the agreement of the United Nations, by stealing the territory of Palestine, razing 531 villages, murdering thousands of Arabs and expelling 750,000 – half of the native population – from their homes. The constant Israeli expansion at the cost of occupying Palestinian areas and even neighboring countries can be seen in the evolving map of the region over the past few dacades. Since 1967, Israel has occupied more than 1,000 additional square kilometers of Palestinian territory.

Specifically, Israel today occupies the Golan Heights (1,200 km² of Syria), the Shebaa Farms (22 km² of Lebanon), East Jerusalem (70 km² of international jurisdiction), the West Bank (5,640 km², fragmented by 425 military checkpoints and Zionist settlements) and the Gaza Strip (385 km², today suffering a murderous attack). And what plans for Gaza is the Israeli leadership debating? Maintaining military control, introducing settlers or to leaving it in ruins to intimidate the Palestinian resistance. Moreover, Zionist real estate company Harey Zahav is even advertising future summer homes there.

As for the total population, the Palestinian people, including its diaspora, today exceeds twelve million people. Half of them, 6,200,000, live in Gaza, the West Bank and the areas occupied by Israel. There are another 4,100,000 Palestinian people in refugee camps in Jordan, Syria and Lebanon, and 1,300,000 more in other Arab countries. This brings the total number of Palestinians in the region to 11,600,000. Any genuine solution must include their right to return to Palestine, which would imply the return of their lands and properties, today in the hands of the Jewish population, mostly workers and the middle class.

Palestinian population Inhabitants

Gaza Strip 2,000,000

West Bank and East Jerusalem 3,000,000

Israel 1,200,000

Jordan 3,000,000

Lebanon 500,000

Syria 600,000

Other Arab countries 1,300,000

Chile 300,000

Other Europe and America 500,000

Total 12,400,000

As for demographic evolution, the Jewish population in Palestine has always been a minority in relation to Arab Palestinians. In the 1930’s they represented less than 20% of the total population. But a few years before the founding of Israel, Zionism encouraged Jewish immigration from Europe. And in 1948 the Nakba implied a massive expulsion of Palestinians, which, together with the arrival of new Jewish contingents, abruptly reversed the proportion inside Israel. Thus, in the 1950s, the Jewish population reached 80% of the total Israeli population, as remains to this day. Unlike the Israeli Arab minority, the Jewish sector also grew through immigration.

In order to consolidate its territorial expansion and the Jewish majority, Israel applied methods of ethnic cleansing based on an openly supremacist and theocratic legal framework:

– Law of Return (1950). It grants residency to any Jewish person who emigrates to Israel. In 1952 it was amended to grant citizenship to all Jewish residents. On the other hand, it does not recognize the right of return of Palestinian refugees. It is totally absurd: a Jew from Brazil, who comes to Israel from thousands of miles away, whose ancestors never set foot in Palestine, is automatically granted Israeli citizenship… but a Palestinian grandchild of refugees in Gaza, whose ancestors lived there for centuries, has no such right.

– Absentee Property Law (1950). It allows the Zionist state to confiscate the land and property of Palestinians expelled in 1947.

– Metering Law (1957) and Water Law (1959). All water is property of the Israeli state. By Military Order 158 (1967), all installations must be authorized by the Zionist army, which manages the Jordan River, aquifers and rainwater basins in the West Bank. In 2006, the UNDP stated: “The Israeli population is less than twice the size of the Palestinian population, but its total water use is 7.5 times higher. In the West Bank, Israeli settlers consume almost 9 times more water per person than Palestinians”. The current average is 280 liters per day per Israeli and 70 per Palestinian; in Gaza it drops to less than 40 liters because of the Israeli blockade.

– Basic Land Law (1960). Prevents Palestinians from leasing land: it is owned by the state, the Jewish National Fund or the Development Authority, and is transferable only between these three entities. Although Israeli Arabs represent more than 20% of the population, they occupy only 3.5% of the territory.

– Citizenship and Entry into Israel Law (2003). It was a “temporary emergency”, but is still in effect. It prevents the spouse of a Palestinian Israeli citizen from obtaining residency and automatic citizenship if he/she comes from the Palestinian territories or from states considered hostile (Iran, Lebanon, Syria and Iraq).

– Admission Committees Law (2011). It allows municipalities to reject Arab citizens or residents seeking to live there for “not being suitable for the socio-cultural fabric”. According to Arab NGO Adalah, it covers 41% of the communities and 80% of the territory.

– Nakba Law (2011). The state can withdraw subsidies from any institution – university, theater, school, club – that in any way commemorates the Palestinian catastrophe of 1948.

– Nation-State Law (2018). It reaffirms Israel as the homeland of the Jews, it recognizes the right of self-determination only for Jews, it degrades the Arabic language and makes only Hebrew official, and it considers Zionist settlements of national value. In other words, Israeli Arabs are second-class citizens, now even more harassed.

– Palestinian municipalities receive much less state funding than Jewish ones and cannot expand. The Israeli city with the most Arabs, Nazareth, tripled its population since 1948, but has not grown by one square meter, while Upper Nazareth, a neighboring Jewish settlement, tripled its size by expropriating land from the Palestinians.

– Evictions, demolitions and blockades of Palestinian homes are common. According to Israeli human rights organization B’Tselem, from 2006 to 2023, 5,598 homes were demolished under the pretext of “illegal construction” and 8,648 people, half of them minors, were expelled. In the last 50 years, Israel has demolished 50,000 Palestinian homes and structures.

– The same goes for employment, forbidden to Palestinians because 70% of industries are “sensitive” to security issues.

– As for democratic rights, legal inequality is flagrant.

Subject Palestinian Jews

Security offense Civilian court Military court

Maximum administrative detention 64 days 90 days (renewable)

Maximum time limit for trial 9 months 18 months (extendable)

Involuntary manslaughter 20 years Life imprisonment

Parole request 1/2 conviction 2/3 conviction

Criminal adulthood 18 years 16 years

If we stop to describe the Zionist state and its effects on daily life today, it is to better understand the actual material context of the Israeli working class.

Society and work in Israel

Of a total population of 9.8 million, almost 80% is Jewish and 20% Arab, with small Christian and Druze minorities. Of the 7.5 million Jews, more than two-thirds are immigrants or children of immigrants, especially Russians. Some 10% of the total are settlers living in illegal settlements in occupied Palestinian territories: 500,000 in the West Bank and 200,000 in East Jerusalem.

By origin, Ashkenazi (European) Jews have a better standard of living than Sephardic (Iberian) and Mizrahi (North African and Oriental) Jews, who represent a majority. And all of them are better off than the Falashas (Black Ethiopians). Already in the early years of the State, Ben Gurion argued: “We need people who were born as workers. We have to reach out to the local elements of the Eastern Jews, the Yemenites and Sephardim, whose standard of living and demands are lower than those of the European worker, and who can then compete successfully with the Arabs”. In addition to the Israeli Arabs, the poorest Jewish sector is that of the orthodox Haredi: they make up 8% of all Jews, have more children, put Bible study before work and receive state social assistance.

Out of a labor force of just over 4 million, 34% work in the public sector, 42% in services and 18% in industry. Apart from diamond cutting, the main industrial branch is military-technological, with state-owned companies like Elbit-IMI, IAI, Rafael and other private companies. Israel is the tenth largest importer and ninth largest exporter of arms in the world.

– In order to find a job, it is essential to have completed military service. As Arab citizens are exempted by segregation, they are denied access to work, housing and other rights. That is why they cover the lowest paid and most precarious jobs. For example, barely 1% of the Israeli Arab labor force works in high-tech startups.

– The 160,000 Palestinians who work in Israel, generally in construction or agriculture suffer even more precarious working conditions. They earn half as much as Jewish workers, have no unemployment insurance and depend on a special permit, often brokered by mafias. Since October, Israel has canceled these permits, leaving their families without an income and affecting the Israeli construction sector.

– The situation is similar for the “guest workers”, some 300,000 temporary foreigners admitted so as not to depend so much on Palestinian labor. Coming from Thailand, China, Romania and Bulgaria, Latin America and Africa, they work in agriculture, construction, elderly care, cleaning and tourism.

The Jewish labor federation, Histadrut, emerged in 1920 as part of the Zionist movement. It pressured companies to hire Jews and boycott Palestinians. It promoted the paramilitary militias of the Haganah, which later became the basis of the Israeli army, and in the 1930s founded the Labor Party. Against the Palestinian general strike of 1936-1939, it organized Jewish strikebreakers and supported British repression.

The Histadrut has an economic arm, Hevrat HaOvdim, which wholly or partially owns agricultural cooperatives, transit companies and other industries, the construction company Solel Boneh, the major health care service Kupat Holim Clalit and the main Israeli bank: Hapoalim. With 800,000 members, it directly or indirectly employs some 200,000 workers and influences 20% of the economy. Zionist in origin and deeply integrated into the State, the Histadrut supports the bombing of Gaza.

The second Israeli union is Histadrut Leumit, linked to Likud, with 80,000 members. The third is Coaj LaOvdim (Workers’ Force), critical of the bureaucracy but also Zionist, with 25,000 members.

“The class character of Israeli society”

That is the title of an article by Matzpen (compass, in Hebrew), an Israeli Marxist and anti-Zionist organization that existed between 1962 and 1983, whose structural analysis we believe to be useful:

“Israeli society is not simply a society of immigrants: it is one of settlers. This society, including its working class, was formed through a process of colonization. This process, which has lasted 80 years, did not take place in a vacuum, but in a country populated by another people. The ongoing conflict between the settler society and the displaced native Palestinian Arabs has never ceased and has shaped the very structure of Israeli society, politics and economy…

“Such a class tends to follow its rulers rather than challenge their rule. This, moreover, is all the more true when the oppression takes place, not in a distant country, but ‘at home,’ and when national oppression and expropriation constitute the very conditions for the emergence and existence of the oppressive society…

“In the context of Israeli society, this means that so long as Zionism is politically and ideologically dominant within that society and forms the accepted political framework, there is no possibility whatsoever for the Israeli working class to become a revolutionary class…

“It is also a society that benefits from unique privileges. It enjoys an influx of material resources from abroad in unparalleled quantity and quality… Israel is a unique case in the Middle East; it is financed by imperialism without being economically exploited by it…

“The influx of resources had a decisive effect on the dynamics of Israeli society, since the Israeli working class participated, directly and indirectly, in this transfusion of capital. Israel is not a country where foreign aid flows entirely into private pockets: it is a country where this aid subsidizes the whole of society. The Jewish worker in Israel does not receive his share in cash, but in terms of new and relatively cheap housing, which could not have been built by raising capital locally; he receives it in industrial employment, which could not have been launched and maintained without foreign subsidies; and he receives it in terms of a general standard of living which does not correspond to the product of his society… Thus the struggle between the Israeli working class and its employers, both bureaucrats and capitalists, is fought not only over the surplus value produced by the worker, but also over the share each side receives from this external source of subsidy…

“This means that, although there is class conflict in Israeli society, it is limited by the fact that society as a whole is subsidized from abroad. This privileged status is related to Israel’s role in the region, and so long as that role continues, there is little prospect of internal social conflicts taking on a revolutionary character.” 

Accordingly, Matzpen proposed that the “activity in the Israeli working class must be subordinated to the overall strategy of the struggle against Zionism” .

Today, American pro-Palestinian activists Sumaya Awad and Daphna Thier pose the following: “The only union organizing Palestinians in the West Bank is Wac-Ma’an, which began organizing them in 2008… Israeli Jewish union members maintain the experience of fighting for labor justice separate from the ‘national question.’ They continue to support Israel’s colonial settlement project and, in many cases, participate in the violent subjugation of Palestinians through service in the Israeli army. As a result, even Wac-Ma’an has not succeeded in changing the political leanings of its Jewish members, who tend to vote Likud… Israeli workers remain committed to apartheid and the racist ideology that enables it. In fact, Israel’s unions are pulled to the right by their Jewish members. To recruit, they must put aside the question of occupation. Otherwise, they condemn themselves to marginalization.

“This is the nature of the world of labor in an apartheid economy. Near-total separation means that Jews and Palestinians rarely work together as co-workers. On the contrary, they are segregated in ways that entrench racism and ensure that national loyalty trumps class consciousness. Three-quarters of Palestinians do not have citizenship and never compete with Jews for employment, nor are they granted the right to organize together to obtain good unionized jobs…

“Non-segregation of the Israeli labor market would mean competition for jobs, the return of stolen wealth and a possible economic free fall for many Israeli Jewish workers. The end of the occupation threatens the material situation of these workers. This is why most Israeli workers oppose democratic rights for all: Zionism prevents working class solidarity.”

Debates on revolutionary politics

Unfortunately many left currents, even some Trotskyist ones, have increasingly adapted to the existence of Israel, reject its abolition propose the completely impossible fraternization between the Palestinian and Israeli working class as a solution.

According to the Unified Secretariat, “the idea that the Palestinian people can achieve their national emancipation through a military defeat of the Israeli state, a state with overwhelming military superiority, is chimerical. In a Middle East context made up of a mosaic of peoples and minorities, peace is only possible through the democratic emancipation of all.”

Lutte Ouvrière goes even further: “Against imperialism and its maneuvers. Against Netanyahu and Hamas. Proletarians of France, Palestine, Israel (?) Let’s unite!” they say, as if the ultra-Zionist leader and the Palestinian organization were two comparable demons. Their proposal is illusory and mistaken: “In Israel, Palestinian and Israeli workers often work together. They must regain consciousness of their common interests. Only this fraternity of classes will be able to create the momentum capable of overcoming the hatred accumulated during decades of confrontation.”  “If revolutionaries recognize the right of the Palestinians to have their own state, they also recognize the right of the Israelis, who today constitute a de facto nation living on the territory of Palestine, to have their own national existence.”

This is not so. The presence of a large and rooted Jewish population poses a real challenge to be solved, which generates doubts, ambiguities or confusion in some leftist organizations. But the complexity of the problem does not mean that we should idealize the Israeli working class or, even less, resign ourselves to coexist with a serial killer like the State of Israel. Netanyahu has recently acknowledged that he does not accept any Palestinian state: “I will not compromise total Israeli security control over the entire area west of Jordan, and this is contrary to a Palestinian state”, he tweeted. The area whose total control this fascist claims includes Israel, the West Bank and Gaza…

It is necessary to abolish the State of Israel, to replace it with a single, secular, non-racist and socialist Palestine as part of the same struggle for socialist revolution in the Middle East. In that perspective, the main ally for the Palestinian working people of Gaza and the West Bank are their refugee brothers and sisters living in Lebanon, Syria and Jordan, as well as the workers of the Arab countries of the region. These in turn must confront their respective bourgeois governments, which are more or less explicit allies of Israel and manipulate the Palestinian cause according to their own interests.

This does not imply denying that sectors of Jewish young people, intellectuals and workers, today a clear minority, are moving towards a break with Zionism. There are numerous Israeli historians, sociologists and journalists who question Zionism in depth. There are also young Jewish conscientious objectors who refuse to do military service. A few days ago, 18-year-old Tal Mitnick, the first deserter since October 7, was sentenced to one month in prison for his open letter in which he wrote: “I refuse to believe that more violence will guarantee us more security, I refuse to participate in a war of revenge. Netanyahu has to go, yesterday, today, tomorrow, like the whole crazy government of CEOs he formed that has brought us to the brink of the abyss.”  There are also small anti-occupation groups in Israel, although they generally defend the failed two-state policy. During the massive protests against Netanyahu’s judicial reform last year in Tel Aviv they formed the so-called anti-occupation bloc, with up to 200 people, to the indifference or sometimes some hostility of the bulk of Jewish demonstrators.

From the Palestinian resistance and the revolutionary currents, it is necessary to build ties with these small groups and those who in the future break with Zionism. But the truth today is that the Israeli Jews inhabit and enjoy a territory that was usurped from the Palestinians through a genocide that continues. So much so that the South African government is accusing Israel of genocide before the International Criminal Court, which ordered it to “prevent acts of genocide in Gaza”. These rural lands and homes must be returned to the original Palestinian population and to the refugees who decide to return to a liberated and single Palestine, from the river to the sea, with its capital in Jerusalem. In any case, it will be one of the tasks of the regional socialist revolution to find a comprehensive solution to this pending problem that capitalism has not solved.

A part of Jewish population may choose to return to their countries of origin, reintegrate and assimilate there, while others will accept to live in peace as a minority with the Arab majority in Palestine. In turn, a new state that assures respect and full equality of rights to that Jewish minority cannot be capitalist or Islamist, as proposed by Hamas. Only a democratic, secular, non-racist and socialist Palestine, as part of the revolution in the Middle East and in connection with the world revolution -as proposed by the ISL- can ensure this. Hence the need to build revolutionary organizations at the regional and international level.