In 2002 I travelled to Israel, a guest of the Workers Advice Centres. They took me around the country. It was a revelation. Read the report here. Visit the WAC website at: http://www.workersadvicecenter.org
It was my first trip to Israel. I’ve read widely on the conflict and know a fair amount about it, but to see the reality before your eyes, gives you a much more graphic sense of the political, social and economic situation than just reading from the printed page. In the current situation I would have to confess to a little apprehension going there. You would have to be naïve or stupid not to feel this.
The first thing to strike me, riding on the train from Tel Aviv to Haifa was the militarization of Israeli society. Everywhere men and women in uniform, some with heavy weapons nonchalantly slung across the shoulder (hopefully with the safety catch on). Israel is a paranoid society in which “security” is a big industry. There are “guards” everywhere, many of them civilian, who check your bags when you enter a railway station, or public buildings or even gardens. Indeed you can imagine an economic crisis if peace reigned and all these people were put out of work.
I was the guest of the Workers Advice Centres (WAC), which is attempting to build a new trade union, of which I will speak later. I visited Tel Aviv, Haifa, Jaffa, Madj El Krum, and Nazareth.
On the wrong side of the road
For me, the oppressive reality of Israel society was reflected in the situation of Madj al-Krum, an Arab village, really a small town now, with a population of 11,500. It sits on the slopes of a valley along which there are spread five Arab villages. Through the floor of the valley runs a road which splits it in half. On the other side, on a higher site, lies the city of Carmiel, a Jewish city built on confiscated Arab land. In this valley there are two communities, as different as chalk and cheese. On the Carmiel side is wealth and opulence, covered with greenery. There is no shortage of water here. On the other side you see an arid picture, a neglected community, with houses rising on the craggy, barren slopes. There is a water shortage, not because of any technical difficulties but because these people are Arabs. The flowers of Carmiel are treated better than the Arabs on the other side of the valley. Even though they are Israeli citizens they are denied the same rights as Jewish citizens and they are denied the resources which the latter have.
The richness of Carmiel looks down on the other side of the valley seemingly mocking the Arabs and reminding them of their true place in Israeli society – at its very bottom. But even this is not enough. There are some Arab houses on the wrong side of the road further down the valley. Carmiel wants them to cross the road to where they are supposed to belong. They want to develop the ‘Jewish’ side but these Arabs are in the way. They have bought out some and they are seeking to pressure the rest to move from homes in which they have lived for years. No Arabs can live in Carmiel. They must cross the road to where they belong! Samia Khatib, a woman activist in Majd al-Krum, described the situation to me as “third world over here, first world over there”.
A suburb of Tel Aviv
This is the picture of Israeli society, a colonialist and deeply racist society. And it is reflected elsewhere, in different ways. I was shown around Jaffa, originally an Arab city (with a small Jewish population), by Asma Agbaria, a young Israeli Arab woman, who is the chair-person of WAC. Jaffa is just outside Tel Aviv. As Tel Aviv expands, Jaffa is needed for housing for Jews and the town is being ‘developed’ with luxury apartments. In the shadow of one big block I saw a couple of rough and poor one story houses of bloody minded Jaffan Arabs who will not move, imagining that they have the right to remain in their homes in their current location. So as you walk around Jaffa, a neglected city, you see islands of opulence, as if you have a ‘first world’ city co-existing with a ‘third world’ city in some random arrangement, which makes a mockery of the word planning.
Jaffa is an old port which has been left to rot. In the harbour is a fishing fleet which Asma told me supports 300 families. Once again these people are in the wrong place. They want to move the fishing fleet away and re-develop the harbour as a marina for rich Israelis to use. Since this is capitalism, they will, of course, take the money of a few rich Arabs as well, just to show there are no hard feelings. The fishing fleet might have to travel farther for their fish, but no matter. Such is the path of progress in Israel.
Whilst the Arabs suffer national oppression in Israel there is also a class division which cuts across the communities. The Arab leaders of the council in Jaffa, associated with the Israeli Labour Party, have gone along with the plan to ‘re-develop’ Jaffa. Whilst this will bring plenty of money into the town, it is unlikely that many Arabs will see much of it. In every country where there is national oppression, there are always some members of an oppressed minority, who will make their peace with the ruling power in order to further their own interests at the expense of the majority of the population from which they spring (just as we have seen in South Africa with the enrichment of a small section of black people whilst the majority remain in their shanty towns).
I visited Nazareth where WAC has an office. It is the only predominantly Arab city in Israel. However, it has suffered the consequences of a new Jewish town, Upper Nazareth (or Nazareth Illit), built near-by, overlooking it (as is the custom), from a hill-top, like a fortress. I was shown around Nazareth by two activists of the WAC centre in the town, Khitam Na’amneh and Manal Jabour. They told me it used to have a thriving market. But since the building of Upper Nazareth and the arrival of hyper-markets and the like, it has declined. When I visited it, the old town centre area, where the market was based, was lifeless. There is a shortage of housing in Nazareth, so, ironically, Arabs have started moving to Upper Nazareth, or at least those who can afford it. Whilst there was initially tension, it has at least shown that Arabs and Jews can live together. In a civilised society you are more concerned with whether your neighbour has noisy children, or plays loud music late at night, rather than the colour of their skin or their nationality.
The WAC held a May Day event in Haifa. WAC was originally an information centre which also provided legal assistance for Arab workers. It has carried out important campaigns which relate to the interests of the oppressed Arab Israelis (nearly 20% of the population). For instance it managed to secure for unemployed people in annexed East Jerusalem their benefits after the authorities closed down the benefit office. It also continues to provide legal assistance for individual workers.
After a number of years of this activity it decided to try to organise a new trade union. Histadrut is the internationally recognised ‘trade union’, yet it is not a real trade union, as an organiser of workers independent of the employers. Indeed Histadrut, before the wave of privatisations, was a major employer itself. Most of the members of Histadrut were only members because it controlled the health system, and membership dues were taken out of their contribution. It faced a big crisis when all its companies were privatised and as a result it lost most of its membership.
Histadrut originated as a Zionist labour organisation whose role was to create jobs for Jews in Palestine. Until 1956 it did not allow Arabs to join, and even since it has done little for them. When the government decided to introduce foreign labour Histadrut agreed that they could be employed at lower rates than Israeli workers.
WAC has concentrated its efforts on organising Arab workers, though not exclusively (it was involved in a campaign in a Heineken Factory which involved both Arab and Jewish workers). Arab workers face a job apartheid, mostly confined to construction and labouring jobs, as well as service sector jobs. Their official unemployment rate is 20% but is undoubtedly higher. I sat in on a meeting with some local people who WAC were trying to persuade to take on some building jobs that they had negotiated with the employers. Asked whether they had any experience of this work, one young man said: “Every Arab knows this work.” They wondered whether these were jobs worth taking because of their experience of being turfed out of jobs which they thought were permanent but had proved to be temporary.
At the time of the first Intifada, when the borders with the West Bank were closed, the workers who crossed into Israel for their work could no longer do so. This created a shortage of labour which led the government to look to introduce foreign labour. Many of these have virtually worked under slave labour conditions earning wages below the minimum level for Israeli workers. This has driven up the levels of unemployment of Arab workers and adds to the discrimination they face.
WAC has taken up a campaign for jobs for Arab workers in the building industry. The employers say they cannot get any. There are the usual myths about Arab workers being lazy, not wanting to work and so on. But the bottom line is the fact that the employers prefer to employ imported labour because it is cheaper and they are more quiescent because they do not want to lose their jobs. A couple of companies said they would take local Arab workers if they could find them, so WAC has put this to the test.
The building employers federation is currently taking the government to court since it reduced the number of foreign labourers allowed in the country. They want more of them.
Whilst the work of WAC is on a small scale (it has secured around 100 jobs, and it has less than 500 members) it is nonetheless politically important since nobody else is attempting to organise Arab workers. At the May Day event in Haifa most of the audience was Arab citizens of Israel. Coaches travelled from around the country, including East Jerusalem annexed by Israel soon after it was occupied in 1967.
The national organiser of WAC is Assaf Adiv an Israeli Jew who speaks fluent Arabic. He gave the main address of the meeting about the campaign for jobs.
Obviously the Israeli regime is not enthusiastic about its Arab population being organised in an independent union. WAC was registered with the Registrar of Non-Profit Associations only after a 2 year struggle, against the resistance of the Registrar. Since then the Registrar has once again raised questions about their registration though without definite charges which they can answer. WAC wrote to the International Labour Organisation asking them to intercede on their behalf, with the Israeli authorities. Unfortunately the ILO responded that WAC was not “a workers organisation”, therefore, they could not help. This was disingenuous. Whilst it originated as what might be described as an ‘advocacy’ organisation it took the decision in 1998 to launch a new trade union association (see A New Trade Union Association – Why?).
Swindon Trades Union Council wrote in support of WAC to the ILO. They responded that if they had evidence that ‘the situation’ had changed then they would reconsider their decision. Whether or not they do not want to upset the Histadrut is a matter of conjecture. In any case the work of WAC in relation to the building industry shows that it is building a trade union organisation, if anybody doubted it. We would ask labour movement organisations to write to the Israeli Registrar protesting at his harassment of WAC, and calling on the ILO to intercede on their behalf (see Israel’s Registrar of NPA’s (Non-Profit Associations) renews his witch-hunt against WAC).
The organisation which took the WAC initiative is the ODA (Organisation for Democratic Action), a Marxist organisation. The implication of the Registrar is that WAC is a front for the ODA. This is not the case. The overwhelming majority of its members are not in the ODA. Indeed through WAC it is doing work for which there is no easy political return. They are organising for the benefit of the workers, irrespective of their political views.
I met members of the ODA for discussion. Four of its leading members were imprisoned in 1988-90 for security offences as they took part in the Palestinian struggle. The ODA has amongst its members both Jews and Israeli Arabs. The organisation decided that in the light of the terrible oppression which Israeli Arabs face that work in these communities was essential. The Israeli left has tended to be confined to the Jewish communities. Members of the ODA have to take Arabic classes, and many of them are now bi-lingual. They produce a monthly Arabic publication ‘Al Sabr’.
The ODA has genuine roots in this the most oppressed community. For some years now it has been organising activities which might, in England, appear to be social work, but in the context of Israel and the many faceted discrimination against the Arab community, takes on a political content. They organised, for instance, a Mothers School in Madj Al-Krum, designed to help women to develop the skills to teach their children. Arab schools are not only grossly under funded compared to Jewish ones, but the curriculum has tended to reflect the domination of Israeli Jews, to the neglect of the experience of Arab children. As a result Arab children are ‘under-achievers’. Jewish ODA members also help with the education of children in a way which cuts across the Zionist propaganda which they are supposed to swallow.
They are also involved in a non-profit organisation, Sindyanna, which produced olive oil and olive oil soap from a small workshop in Majd al-Krum, employing local people. (see The Politics of Live Oil)
The ODA also produced a well respected English language magazine, Challenge (6 times a year) and a quarterly Hebrew publication, Etgar. You can examine the organisation’s politics by way of a number of links below.
Challenge magazine, in its recent issue (May-June 2002) has published an in depth article on Israel’s war on the Palestinian Authority. This expresses the view that the war was aimed at transforming the West Bank and Gaza into a Protectorate under US sponsorship. (See From Statelet to Protectorate)
Israeli society’s crisis has been deepened by the latest incursions into the West Bank. A statement by 52 young people refusing to participate in the oppression of the Palestinian people marked the first collective refusal to serve for some years. It was followed by a statement of over 50 army reservists that they would not serve in the occupied territories in a “war for the settlements”. Military service is compulsory for Israeli Jews, save for the ultra-orthodox. It is no easy thing to refuse in a war zone in which the propaganda of the Israeli war machine presents this service as defending “Israeli democracy”.
I met with a number of young people, from 16 to 18, involved in the Forum in Support of Conscientious Objectors. They were somewhat shy with somebody who had travelled from abroad to meet them. However, once they opened up, the discussion showed that unlike the reservists they were asking questions about the very foundations of Israeli society. They told me about the racist attitude of many of their fellow school/college students, most of whom never come into contact with Arabs, except when they go to an Arab village to buy some cheap goods at a market, or maybe one of them serves them. “They don’t deserve water and electricity,” was a comment which summed this attitude up. They feared that change would be very slow to come because of what they considered to be the brainwashing of young Israeli Jews.
Naomi commented that “instead of the army being a tool in the hands of the country, the country was a tool in the hands of the army”.
Whilst their views on a solution were different they all agreed that the starting point was Israeli withdrawal from the occupied territories. They also believed that Arab Israelis should be full citizens, with all the rights that Jews have.
My impression was that these young people tend to feel somewhat isolated, pointing to the fact that there are few people in their classes who have taken their stance. There is a lot of anger against them from their fellow students. But they are taking a stance which they feel they are morally obliged to take, whatever the consequences. Although many of them most of them have parents who are sympathetic, their decision, nevertheless has the potential to turn them into social outcasts. Yet they represent a trend in Israeli society which runs far deeper than might first appear. It struck me that these young people do not realise how important they are. They deserve the support of the international labour movement to give them a sense that there is an international movement which is with them, recognising the courage of their stand against the injustice and racism which is a cancer in Israeli society. In particular, those who suffer imprisonment as a result of their refusal should receive letters which show that there is an international movement growing which supports their stand.
At the time of writing two members of the Forum, Yigal Rosenberg and Yair Hilou, have been given their fourth and fifth terms of imprisonment. Send letters of support to them via the Forum (e-mail : email@example.com)
I met Nir Nader and Shiri Wilk who are involved in the group Video 48. They produced a documentary, “Not in my Garden”, which tells the story of confiscation of Arab land to facilitate the expansion of the Jewish city of Carmiel. It gives a picture of Israel in miniature, showing the oppression and discrimination which the Arab citizens face (see “Not in my Garden”, in their Garden).
Nir spent a month in prison in the 1980s for refusing to serve in the Israeli army. Afterwards he built up a successful photographic business with a friend. As the political situation deteriorated, he began to wonder what he was doing with his life. He threw it all in to devote his time to Video 48. Likewise Shiri, who is a trained video photographer, could have concentrated on a lucrative career, but decided to use her talents for the struggle.
They are not just making videos, they are training young people to use the medium. Shiri says: “…our interest at Video '48 is not just in making documentaries. We also want to communicate the know-how. We want to start workshops, so people can learn this new technique for making themselves heard.”
They are now involved in producing a video on the work of WAC and discrimination in the job market against Arab Israelis, which should be available this autumn.
The level of security in Israel is, of course, related to the suicide bombings. I suggested to Roni, the Editor of Challenge, that not that many people were touched by these events. She said no. “It’s not comparable with, say the IRA bombings in Britain. Israel is a small country and people are touched directly or indirectly.” Even opponents of the Israeli state have to think twice about where they go. Roni for instance, does not visit cafes. Her daughter had a well paid job in a café in Tel Aviv. It was next door to a café where there was a bombing. She was persuaded to give up the job.
The ODA is opposed to these bombings, which glorify death and “martyrdom”. But it opposes them without in any way adapting to the pressure of ‘public opinion’ which sees Israeli state violence as a response to this violence. It unequivocally condemns the Israeli occupation as the source of the violence. However, it views the suicide bombings as a waste of life, on all sides. They serve to provide an alibi for the state oppression of Israel and tend to drive Israelis into the arms of a reactionary government. Moreover, they are indiscriminate. They kill supporters and opponents of the Israeli regime alike, as well as Arab Israeli citizens.
A ‘Jewish state’
In the British media we hear a great deal about the plight of Palestinians in the occupied territories, but little about their lives in Israel. From 1948 until 1966 Arab Israeli citizens lived under military rule. They are treated as enemies. They are not equal citizens. The Jewish Land Fund owns 93% of the land, none of which they can own because they are not Jews. Recently there was reported in the Guardian the case of an Arab Israeli nurse who has been struggling for 7 years to live in a town deemed to be Jewish. He took his case to the High Court and won. Yet two years later he has still not been able to move there. This is one of the consequences of a state defined according to ethnicity. Discrimination against Arabs is the natural consequence of a ‘Jewish state’.
My trip to Israel gave a graphic and indelible impression of the reality of ‘the state of the Jews’ as experienced by the 20% of the population which is Arab/Palestinian. Racism and discrimination is a consequence of such a state. The fact of the Holocaust does not justify the dispossession and oppression of another people. But, of course, the conflict is not one of Jews versus Arabs. The numbers of Jewish opponents of the Israeli state is growing, as shown by the brave stand of the young refusers and the refusal of the reservists to serve in the occupied territories. It was inspiring to see Jews and Arabs working together in WAC and the ODA, as equals in their joint struggle against the Zionist state, giving us a glimpse of a possible future.
Below we reproduce material from WAC and from the English language magazine Challenge, published by the ODA. We list a number of web sites and links so that the reader can look at other material.
You can contact the Forum in Support of Conscientious Objectors at: firstname.lastname@example.org
A New Trade Union Association – Why?
Israel’s Registrar of NPA’s (Non-Profit Associations) renews his witch-hunt against WAC.
By Assaf Adiv
The Local Arab Worker in the era of Globalisation
A round table discussion with members of the new film group Video 48
“Not in my Garden” in their garden.
The Politics of Olive Oil
The Hidden Economic Logic of Oslo
Roni Ben Efrat
The Two State Solution Has Become an Impossibility
Yacov Ben Efrat
Afghan Boomerang: America’s nurture of militant Islam and the miscalculations of Osama Bin Laden
By Yacov Ben Efrat
From Statelet to Protectorate
By Yacov Ben Efrat
The Palestinian Question and the Socialist Alternative
Other Suggested sites
Adalah – The Legal Centre for Arab Minority Rights
The Israeli Information Centre for Human Rights in the Occupied Territories
Democracy and Workers Rights Centre, Ramallah
Daily news from Israel in English
Between the Lines – opponents of the Oslo agreement
Israeli Indymedia site
US based Middle East Research & Information Project