Class struggle in the Zionist state

March 22, 2007

Like Australia, Israel was established by settlers on the myth of an empty land. However, unlike here, expulsion rather than genocide has been the preferred method of removing the previous inhabitants.

A large proportion of Palestinians were expelled when the state of Israel was established in 1948. They fled to the 22% of Palestine that initially remained outside the new state. These areas — the West Bank and Gaza — were occupied by Israel after the 1967 war. It is for this reason, Israeli socialist Guy Cohen told Green Left Weekly, that the national question remains central to resolving Israel's war on Palestine.

Cohen explained that 80% of Palestinians were expelled after the 1948 war. "Out of 450 newly established Jewish settlements, 400 were on the sites of demolished Palestinian towns", he said. "They tried to completely erase the memory of Palestinian occupation."

Historically, the Zionist project of creating a new nation for Jewish immigrants from around the world also meant an intersection between class and ethnic differences within the Israeli Jewish population.

"Israel was established by East European Jews, known as Ashkenazim", Cohen said. "They formed the elite, responsible for the discrimination during the first couple of decades against Jews from the Arab countries, known as Mizrahim. In the 1970s, the Israeli Black Panthers tried to give the Mizrahim a more socialist point of view and make links between the Mizrahim and the Palestinians."

This project failed because, as Israeli Jews, the Mizrahim were in a privileged position compared to Palestinian Arabs, and this outweighed the discrimination they faced vis-a-vis the Ashkenazim.

This was particularly the case after the 1967 occupation of the West Bank and Gaza created a pool of cheap Palestinian labour. Over subsequent generations, intermarriage between the two groups broke down the divide between the Mizrahim and Ashkenazim. As Cohen, who is of mixed Ashkenazi and Mizrahi descent, wryly observed: "We are now all together, against the Palestinians".

Subsequent waves of Jewish immigration have been similarly integrated. In the early 1990s, about 1.5 million immigrants came from Russia, and have established Russian language newspapers and a TV station. Cohen said the Russians have gravitated towards the far right of the political spectrum "to prove how Israeli they are".

The 70,000 Ethiopian Jews who came to Israel at the same time received a less friendly welcome. The Ethiopians suffer much discrimination in employment and housing, and right-wing religious groups have run a racist campaign to restrict Ethiopian Jews immigration to israel. "Israel claims to be a country for all Jews, but this is less so for African Jews", Cohen said.

Despite these attacks, Cohen said, Ethiopian Jews are nervous about working with the left because their desire to be accepted as Israelis would be undermined by association with parties viewed as traitors by the Zionist mainstream.

In the early 1990s, following the first intifada, travel restrictions made it virtually impossible for Palestinians from the West Bank and Gaza to travel to work. "Every Palestinian is today seen as a potential terrorist first and a human being second."

Migrant workers from Eastern Europe and the Third World, "abused, underpaid and overworked", have replaced Palestinians as a pool of cheap labour, Cohen said. As Israeli law does not provide for non-Jewish immigration, these workers are not entitled to permanent residency and are often deported without pay. One organisation, Kav La'Oved (Workers Hotline), campaigns for the rights of migrant workers, Palestinians working in the settlements and other super-exploited workers.

Cohen is a member of the socialist Hadash party, the only party in the Israeli parliament with both Arab and Jewish members. In parliament, Hadash blocs with two other parties that represent Palestinians in Israel, Ra'am and the National Democratic Assembly (Balad).

About 20% of Israeli citizens are Arab Palestinians, descendants of the minority of Palestinians who did not flee in 1948. Despite pressure from the Israeli state, they continue to identify as Palestinians. Most Palestinian citizens of Israel have family in the West Bank or Gaza.

The bloc of three anti-Zionist parties has 10 members in the 120-seat parliament, elected by proportional representation. Explaining the under-representation of Palestinians in the parliament, Cohen said that some Palestinians vote for Zionist parties to try to get services for their communities, while others feel that voting at all would be legitimising the Israeli state. "Some left-wing Israelis don't vote for the same reason."

"One disturbing thing is that more and more Israeli Jews are supporting disqualification of Palestinian parties from elections", Cohen continued. Before the last election, Balad was banned because its leader, Azmi Bishara, met with the Syrian government. The ban was later overturned by the Supreme Court.

In parliament, Hadash has tried to "raise and support laws against the occupation, although not with a lot of success". Because of parliamentary limitations, Cohen and other Hadash members also work in activist groups, including Ta'ayush (Working Together), an Israeli-Palestinian group that organises protests against the apartheid wall, and the West Bank and Gaza settlements. It also undertakes humanitarian work, such as transporting food and water to communities under siege by the Israeli army.

A contradiction of Zionism is that despite a majority of Israelis being secular, most support a theocratic state, including laws banning civil marriages. Preventing marriage between people from different religious backgrounds is an important prop of apartheid-like segregation within Israel.

According to Cohen, Hadash aspires to a single democratic, secular state, but acknowledges a two-state solution is a more realistic target. "A majority of Palestinians and Israelis want to have their own state."

Ironically, the 400,000 Israeli settlers in the West Bank are undermining the possibility of there being a two-state solution. Cohen explained that the majority of these are in settlements close to the Green Line (the pre-1967 Israeli border), which are "like suburban areas".

These settlements are populated by Israelis attracted by cheap housing. A lot of immigrants are housed there. Cohen said that some Russian immigrants were not aware that they were living in settlements, but "the majority [of settlers] simply don't care".

A significant minority of settlers are right-wing extremists, many from the US, in outposts deep inside Palestinian territory. The settlements have produced full-blown apartheid in the West Bank, with two separate law systems.

Cohen holds the Israeli government responsible for facilitating these extremists. "There are nut-job fascists in every country. The question is how does the country react. [In Israel], if a few nut cases make a settlement between two Palestinian villages, the government will send soldiers to protect them, taking more Palestinian land."

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