By Shahar Benhorin, Socialist Struggle Movement (CWI in Israel/Palestine)
Over 160 people participated in the ‘Socialism Conference 2018’ event hosted in Tel Aviv by the Socialist Struggle Movement (SSM) on 27 – 29 September. Among the participants were workers and youth, trade unionists and left activists, Israeli Jews, Palestinians and some international guests.
The event took place against the background of a protracted period of political reaction led by the aggressive right-wing Netanyahu regime, but at the same time also of some important developments of resistance.
These have been mainly the ongoing protests in Gaza, recent Jewish and Arab protests against the new Nationality Law, significant Israeli protests and strikes against LGBT discrimination, protests against a polluting gas platform, earlier protests which helped to prevent expulsion of African asylum seekers, and protests against government corruption about a year ago.
Over 200 unarmed Palestinian protesters in Gaza were shot dead by Israeli snipers during the last half a year. 20,000 protesters were injured, many of them crippled for life. But despite this vicious military repression — intended above all to deter the development of a Palestinian mass movement — up to 20,000 Palestinian protesters keep mobilizing heroically every Friday to demonstrate in front of the Israeli military and the fence.
Originally, these protests of the ‘Great March of Return’ were planned to be a six-week limited campaign. However, this unprecedented movement against the brutal siege imposed on the two million poor people of the devastated coastal strip, and for the rights of the Palestinians, continued even longer.
At the same time, the lack of any substantial concessions by the Israeli regime, or by the accomplice Egyptian regime, along with the extreme repression, has opened more space for desperate tactics such as arson attacks against nearby Israeli fields. These are being exploited politically by the Israeli government for incitement and warmongering propaganda, mobilizing Israeli public support for repression and a new barbaric war on Gaza.
Thus, Socialism Conference 2018 had the honour of organizing a live video conversation with `Issam Hammad, a left-wing member of the High National Committee, the official leadership body of the Gaza movement. It was not only a rare and moving moment for the very fact that it happened, but it was also a politically educating and thought-provoking report and discussion about the Gaza crisis, the protests and a left-wing and socialist perspective for a genuine solution.
Further discussions took place around the struggles against racism and the Nationality Law, against the Netanyahu regime and for a political alternative.
A leading Ethiopian-descent Jewish activist against racism, Avi Yalo, spoke militantly against the Nationality Law and the ruling elite’s ‘divide and rule’ tactics, while addressing the difficult challenge of cutting across the strong anti-Left incitement and linking up the different ad-hoc social struggles developing.
At a plenary session about the feminist movement, a Palestinian activist against femicide, Samah Salaima, highlighted how national oppression further complicates the liberation struggle for Arab-Palestinian women in Israel. There is discrimination even regarding how the police process complaints against violent men, and the lack of prosecution of men responsible for femicide. Another problem is that male chauvinist political elements hinder Arab women’s political representation, and political coalitions based on ‘national unity’, such as the ‘Joint List’ (see below), even include reactionary politicians who link up with their Jewish counterparts to promote attacks on women’s rights, such as abortion rights.
Trade union debates and struggles
Several trade unionists – both from the Histadrut (main trade union organisation) and Power to the Workers (an independent democratic trade union federation which SSM took part in establishing in 2007) – participated in the various panel discussions. They dealt not only with the important questions of the fight for stronger unions and union democracy, but also with the national divide and the Nationality Law, which was officially and principally denounced by Power to the Workers.
A representative from the social workers’ left-leaning organization ‘Our Future’, which won the leadership of the Israeli Social Workers’ Union in January, reported on moves for increased leadership accountability and rank-and-file involvement in the union, towards a new wage struggle, but also explained how the national schism forces internal debates in the union. Unfortunately, but also as a reflection of the real tensions and pressures on the Israeli unions, their leadership currently has decided to avoid explicitly opposing the Nationality Law.
That union recently faced some correct criticism by the Palestinian Social Workers Union and the International Federation of Social Workers for its lack of a principled stance against the occupation. This issue was raised with concern by SSM in the course of discussion. Advancing a principled opposition to the occupation, even by individual left-leaning union leaders, not to mention being formally adopted by the unions, remains a very serious challenge to be further argued for and patiently debated in the coming period.
Socialism Conference 2018 was also attended by the leader of the workers’ committee of the International Bank, who serves de-facto as the Left leader of the internal Histadrut opposition to the pro-capitalist, anti-democratic and national chauvinist current Histadrut leadership. He argued, among other things, against the fact that the Histadrut faction of Hadash (‘Democratic Front for Peace and Equality’, controlled by the Communist Party) remains a part of the leading coalition which votes down left opposition initiatives.
The leader of the Hadash faction, an Arab-Palestinian, who spoke at the event as well, while not presenting convincing arguments for their participation in the coalition, spoke interestingly about the fight against the plague of work accidents on construction sites and on the need to advance the struggle against the Nationality Law and racism.
Other trade unionists spoke at the event. Among them was an SSM member, Naor Kapulnik, currently a workers’ committee member in the Leumi Card company, who has been in conflict with the Histadrut bureaucracy and the committee leader over their anti-democratic measures.
One of the leaders of Power to the Workers raised the idea of pushing for a special conference of trade unionists, as a forum to elaborate the discussion around the burning challenges of the workers’ organizations.
An alternative for the next general election
A session about the building of a political alternative to the Netanyahu regime and the right wing was participated in by parliament member, Dov Khenin, from Hadash and the Joint List. The other speakers on the platform of that session were: another leader from Hadash and the extra-parliamentary Left formation, Standing Together, another leader from Power to the Workers, and a SSM speaker.
We have argued, among other things, that for the coming parliamentary elections next year, an initiative for a new Jewish-Arab Left electoral alliance should be fought for, to help build a left-wing point of reference and counter more effectively the reactionary chauvinist, pro-capitalist and pro-imperialist ruling propaganda.
We explained that the setting up in 2015 of the ‘Joint List’ — a political alliance of parties based among the Arab-Palestinian minority, involving left-wing and right-wing forces — was a mistake, detrimental to the construction of a clear left-wing political alternative voice. We pointed to the example of the Kurdish minority-based HDP party in Turkey, to demonstrate a potentially different, left-wing broad coalition (which faces a national conflict, severe persecution and an immense electoral threshold).
While Khenin, a member of the CP politburo, was one of those who opposed the move to create the Joint List as well, he has failed to convince his party, and currently he is rejecting the idea that there is a place for any broad left-wing electoral initiative for parliament.
Obviously, running for parliament is not the beginning nor the end of the struggle for the building of a united political force of and for the Jewish and Arab working class and youth. However, the electoral and parliamentary sphere can play an important role in contributing to and accelerating the building of an independent political voice of the working class and layers close to it in society and in popularizing left-wing, anti-capitalist and socialist ideas. The de-facto absence of a clear left-wing voice in the 2015 elections was a factor in the tendency towards demoralization which followed among broad layers which hoped for an electoral defeat for the Netanyahu regime.
The establishment of the Left activist formation, Standing Together, by Khenin (despite opposition within his own party) and some of his associates was a response to the Netanyahu victory and the ensuing further political reaction. As the other leader from Standing Together and Hadash, Maysam Jaljuly, an Arab-Palestinian trade union activist, has emphasised, a joint Jewish-Arab struggle is essential in the face of national chauvinist reaction.
The organisers of that formation are influenced, and to an extent aim to follow, left-wing points of reference internationally, such as Podemos in Spain. But at the same time, they currently explicitly insist that it is an extra-parliamentary formation only — as it currently brings together some Jewish and Arab supporters of Hadash, but also of establishment parties such as Meretz and even the more right-wing Labour Party. At this stage, the organization is still quite small in proportion to national politics, with only dozens of actual activists.
We agree with the social-democratic speaker from Power to the Workers, Ami Vatury, that a move towards an electoral coalition should be made carefully. It is also true, as Vatury explained, that it should be taken into account that people generally want to see a list with a realistic chance of passing the voting threshold for parliamentary seats.
We definitely do not propose any ultra-left adventurist move that ignores concrete circumstances, lays disproportionate hopes and risks demoralising a layer of activists, as unfortunately implied by Khenin himself. On the contrary, a seriously prepared left-wing electoral challenge would give a stage to absent Left political ideas, point towards a necessary course of action, and would have the potential to inspire enough voters to be able to reach the threshold.
We propose that Khenin, as currently the most prominent Left speaker in the Israeli parliament, should harness his public profile to help give the best chances for a new Jewish-Arab left electoral alliance, that would orientate to the broad public of workers and youth from both national communities. Such an initiative could bring together at least part of Hadash with other Left Jewish and Arab-Palestinian activists, including particularly trade unionists, workers’ committee members and working class social activists.
Despite Khenin’s overall rejection of any move in that direction, Vatury raised that the concrete ‘infrastructure’ of forces seems to exist and even if the coming election would be too soon for an initiative, there should be further discussion, as he believes it could materialise within less than two years. While we believe it is still not too late for an ’emergency’ move to advance a new left-wing ‘Joint List’ — as a potential step forward towards a broad Jewish-Arab left party, orientated towards workers and youth, and based on a socialist programme — we welcome and intend to initiate more discussion and debate around the issue.
Several other fruitful discussions, including on socialism and Marxism, were held during the event. Two environmental activists, involved in the recent protests against the polluting gas platform, came specially to participate in a discussion on their struggle and on capitalism and the environment. An asylum-seeker came specially to attend a discussion about the lessons of the successful movement against deportations earlier this year.
International speakers — from the Workers’ and Socialist Party (WASP) in South Africa, Socialist Alternative in the US, the Socialist Party in Northern Ireland and the Socialist Justice Party in Sweden — contributed greatly, with their unique experience and strengthened the international aspect of the event. The internationalist solidarity that ran through the event was in itself an answer to the poisonous reaction that currently dominates the political atmosphere in Israeli society. It was very appropriate that the event was ended with a contribution by Weizmann Hamilton, secretary of WASP.
Weizmann spoke about the historic struggle, in which he took part, against the South African Apartheid regime, the uncomplete revolution and also the growing potential for an independent workers’ socialist movement to be rebuilt. Two days after the event, Weizmann was co-hosted by SSM and Power to the Workers for another meeting, in Jerusalem. The small room, intended for a more modest discussion, was packed with over 40 people. A similar number came two days later to a similar meeting in Haifa, from both national communities there.
Weizmann also attended a special political tour organized a week after the event, in occupied Hebron/Khalil by a collaboration of SSM with Breaking the Silence — an Israeli organization of former combatant soldiers opposing the occupation. The tour, attended too by a Jewish-Arab group of Israeli students, ended with a meeting and a short discussion with the local Palestinian organization, Youth Against Settlements.
It was a productive and successful week, though there was no real time to celebrate it, under the pressure of events. Since then, SSM has collaborated with All That’s Left, an American-Jewish anti-occupation organization, in an international solidarity campaign against the witch-hunt detention of the US student, Lara al-Qassem. Lara was initially blocked from entering Israel and beginning her academic studies in an Israeli university due to her past anti-occupation activity and alleged support of some protest boycott. The solidarity campaign won.
At the same time, SSM is engaged in solidarity activities with the struggle of the residents of Khan al-Ahmar, a Palestinian-Bedouin village in the occupied West Bank, which is under the threat of an immediate demolition and expulsion, to make room for an extension of a colonial settlement.
The discussions and fighting spirit at Socialism Conference 2018 were helpful in better preparing for the challenges ahead.