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OpEdNews Op Eds    H2'ed 8/19/11

Social Origins of the Tent Protests in Israel

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One can see the current protests as the outcome of a process in which the relative egalitarianism -- never "socialism" -- of the early years of Israeli statehood has been replaced by increasing centralization and privatization of social wealth. Through the mid-1970s, the Israeli elite was able to both increase its own power and pay off the lower ranks of the Israeli social hierarchy through a deft combination of re-distribution and dispossession, a system in which Israeli social discontent was defused and diffused through colonization, militarism, and alternative social welfare measures, both material and symbolic, with the common thread of resolving internal Israeli social problems on the backs of the native population -- the Palestinians.

This tendency was institutionalized in the decision to militarize in the post-founding period, as David Ben-Gurion and other founders deliberately used the solder of state worship and jingoism to join millions of new immigrants to the state-linked Israeli "new class" inhabiting the upper posts of the Histadrut and other state institutions. As Moshe Sharet, who found these policies distasteful, wrote, in their view, the state "should see war as the principal and perhaps only means of increasing welfare and keeping the moral tension . . . For this purpose we can concoct dangers," and were even "obliged" to do so.

Later, the Israeli elite responded to economic malaise and episodic industrial unrest among the North African immigrants by going to war in 1967, a war that led to the occupation of the West Bank and Gaza. In turn, the settlement project began to gather a social base from the Mizrahi, with the tacit and explicit assent of both politicians and social elites, with several factors, material and symbolic, serving as the warp and woof of that social base.

First, with the infusion of Palestinians from the occupied territories into the Israeli labor force, the Mizrahi were shoved upwards in Israel's socio-economic hierarchy, in the process becoming a petty bourgeoisie. As a group of Moroccan Jews explained to Amos Oz, "If they give back the territories, the Arabs will stop coming to work, and then you'll put us back into the dead-end jobs, like before. If for no other reason, we won't let you give back those territories . . . As long as Begin's in power, my daughter's secure at the bank. If you guys [i.e., Labor] come back, you'll pull her down first thing."

Second, the lifestyle settlers living just over the Green Line, and in the settlements ringing East Jerusalem, are also mostly Mizrahi, as are the rank and file of the Israeli Defense Forces. It is the Israeli lower classes that most strongly support the settlement project and it is their socio-economic grievances that have been addressed by it in the cheapest way possible. The reason the settlements are built on Palestinian land is that the cheapest land is freshly stolen land. And there is always more to steal.

Third, insofar as social pressure mounts for affordable housing or welfare disbursements from the state, releasing that pressure is only partially a question of current distributions from the state. A second aspect of the same question is future distributions, promised by Labor and Likud governments alike. The poor can look forward to low-cost land or housing on the settlements that they cannot look forward to in unaffordable urban centers. Polls show overwhelming Israeli popular support for maintaining the settlements and the occupation of the territories. Their respondents are, perhaps, dimly aware of the role settlement expansion plays in cementing Israeli social cohesion by letting off lower-class social pressure.

Fourth, the army and the settlers are deeply invested in the settlement project, with the latter increasingly occupying the front line and elite units that would be tasked with the kind of population withdrawal contemplated in two-state resolutions. The settlements are a problem, but they are also a symptom of deeper problems, and what they are certainly not is the delusional descriptor applied to them by Israeli liberals and American realists alike -- the "begetters" of all sins.

Fifth, the Israeli lower classes, predominantly Arab Jews, gain from being able to consider themselves part of the dominant socio-ethnic group -- Jews -- as opposed to a part of the Arab lower class, alongside the Palestinians. Yet that consciousness induces a schism, as the truth of their background is betrayed by the simplest device possible: the mirror. Ashamed of their reflection, they project that shame in outward displays of hatred. 

The Mizrahi population has historically been far more racist than the Ashkenazi founders, a racism that lingers even as the cultural markers of its background have been partially scoured from Israeli society. And the Ashkenazi-Mizrahi divide lingers: most Jews are of unmixed heritage, Israeli Jewish populations vote along ethnic lines, and spatial segregation endures. As Sammy Smooha writes, "Most Mizrahim share a collective memory of being subject to large-scale ethnic discrimination, cultural repression, and ill treatment during the 1950s. These are some of the indicators demonstrating that the dormant ethnic problem may still breed resentment and strife."

Finally, those at the top ranks of the military, as well as those with investments in construction or who benefit from cheap Palestinian labor, are directly invested in the settlement enterprise. Between the fraction of the elite invested in the settlement project and widespread popular support for it, it's no wonder that it continues. The occupation and constant warfare provide a justification for Israeli militarization, and it is off that militarization and the axial role of the military in the Israeli economy that the Israeli elite gorges. If there's one thing the Israeli elite do not want, it's an intra-elite feud. Most of the Israeli elite may receive little direct economic benefit from the settlement project, but it is cheaper to maintain the occupation than to end it -- at least for the time being.

The occupation also finds its place in the ideological struggle over what Israeli society is -- a struggle that involves battles over what it was and over what it will be. The Israeli right wing routinely points out that the same logic that impels an end to the occupation could as well be applied to the entire process of Israeli state formation -- that if the takeover of Lydda, Acre, and Ashdod was justified in 1948, then the occupation of Judea and Samarra in 1967 was likewise justified. There is truth to their argument: if Israeli colonization was condonable in 1948, why is it suddenly condemnable in 1967?

The question's answer touches on a deeper truth: the role that the belief in the rightness of Israeli actions plays within Israeli society. Amidst the odd jumble of social blocs -- ultra-orthodox Haredi, Central and Eastern European Jewish, immigrants from ultra-religious neighborhoods in Brooklyn, Ethiopian, Iraqi, Kurdish, and Algerian Jews, the recent Russian immigrants, 15 to 20, perhaps 50 percent of whom are not even Jewish -- Zionism is the integument holding together a fissiparous society in which over 25 percent of the population was not even born in Israel.

A society united by nationalism is one that is unlikely to notice the division that matters most: the constantly widening one between the rich and the poor. Settlement withdrawal could become a solvent to the nationalist binding of Israeli society, and it is for that reason that the elite stalls constantly on the issue of a final settlement, preferring the stasis of a peace process that is long on process and short on peace to a rending withdrawal of 250,000 -- or 500,000 -- settlers, a withdrawal which might tear Israeli society apart on economic and ethnic fault lines.  Few within Israel are prepared to contemplate the costs of that withdrawal when the status quo costs them so little.

But those costs are changing constantly, as the Israeli economy and its interweaving with the global economic system alters. Through the mid-1980s, Israeli elites adroitly combined occupation, militarism, and irredentism into a smooth social consensus. By the end of that period, with military spending running at 30 percent or more of Israeli GDP and, after a bout of hyper-inflation that helped cartelize the Israeli economy into huge business groups, the government put in place the scaffolding for a new phase of development: the July 1985 economic stabilization plan. It scuppered the social contract, ending government subsidies, devaluing the currency, restricting wage growth, and opening the economy to foreign capital, which moved in and voraciously bought up Israeli assets -- Israeli "globalization."

Along with "globalization" came a need for a new way to deal with the Palestinians: the Oslo process, as the Israeli elite attempted the impossible task of squaring the circle of managing the occupation at a low simmer and normalizing Israeli relations with the region, attempting to turn Israeli into a high-tech regional entrep├┤t, while maintaining Israeli nationalist fervor and cohesion, all the while not cutting too sharply into the military that is the breeding ground for the country's elite. With fractures and fissures running along and through Israeli society, the Oslo process ended with the arrival of the second Bush II, putting paid to American quavering about the occupation, as Israeli militarism and Zionism again were smoothly in sync with the imperial policies of its patron.

Yet after eight years of tremendous looting, the Obama administration and its renewed commitment to the "peace process" again foregrounded the tensions inherent in Israeli accumulation: the strains stemming from a large fragment of the elite's links with global capital, the need to keep the occupation at a low simmer, and the burgeoning militarism and reactionary fanaticism pushed along by militarism. This created, as Gabriel Ash writes, "a powerful demand not as much for peace as for the absence of war," an unstable alloy, with its precise composition capable of being adjusted depending on the prices to the elite of the various inputs.

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Max Ajl is a Cornell PHD candidate in development sociology and has worked with the International Solidarity Movement (ISM) in
Gaza. He blogs at
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Social Origins of the Tent Protests in Israel

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