Archive for June, 2019

Prospects for the Israeli Left 2019

Saturday, June 22nd, 2019

Presentation to Ideas for Freeedom, London, 22 June 2019

What are the prospects for the Israeli Left today?

My short answer is: bleak.

In Israel’s first elections following independence in 1949, over 50% of the votes were cast for the two socialist parties, Mapai and Mapam, which won the majority of seats in the Knesset.

Those parties had also dominated the country in the decades leading up to independence, and over the course of many years had set up the kibbutzim, moshavim, trade unions, newspapers, publishing houses, and militias — notably the Palmach — which eventually morphed into the Israel Defence Forces.

Tel Aviv, May Day 1947. Note the slogans – ‘brotherhood of nations’, ‘unity of workers’, ‘solidarity with Arab workers in Palestine’ – none of could be used today by the Israeli Left.

After holding power for three decades, the Left lost it in 1977 to Menachem Begin’s Likud — and then recaptured it in 1992 under the leadership of Yitzhak Rabin. That 1992 victory, which resulted in the Oslo accords, was the last time we saw the dominance of the electoral machine of the Israeli left.

Seventy years after independence, in the elections held earlier this year, those two parties (now called Labour and Meretz) won just 8% of the vote. Including the votes of the Arab parties — some of which cannot be considered as Left in any sense — the total reaches about 16%.

Never before has the Left been smaller, and never has it had a worse electoral result than it had in April this year. And there is no guarantee that they will do any better in the upcoming elections in September — though the decision of the parties of the Arab bloc to unite is certainly going to help a bit.

To sum up, the parties of the Israeli Left have gone from complete dominance of national politics to total irrelevance in a single generation.

Beyond electoral collapse

But it’s not just the spectacular electoral collapse that matters.

There’s been a nearly total disappearance of the political culture in which the Israeli Left thrived.

A little more than twenty years ago, three of the daily newspapers in Israel were socialist — most notably the Histadrut trade union federation’s Davar and Mapam’s Al Hamishmar.

Both had existed for many decades and both were shut down in the 1990s. I wrote for Al Hamishmar for a number of years on international affairs. It closed in 1995, and Davar closed a year later.

Only one ostensibly socialist daily newspaper survives in Israel today — Al-Ittihad, the Arabic language newspaper of the Communist Party. It is the only daily newspaper in Arabic in the country.

The newspapers in Israel today are all in decline, and one of the most popular, the free newspaper Yisrael Hayom, is Bibi Netanyahu’s house organ. The only political parties with daily newspapers today are the thriving religious parties, including the ultra-Orthodox ones — which does indicate the importance, even today, of a daily political newspaper.

More important than the decline of the Left press is the collapse of the Histadrut trade union federation, which was until the early 1990s one of the most powerful trade unions in world, with Israel having a very high rate of trade union density.

Thanks to changes introduced by the Labour Party, particularly with regard to national health insurance, hundreds of thousands of workers quit the Histadrut in the 1990s, and according to OECD data, trade union density in Israel fell by 50% in the first years of this century. The once-mighty Histadrut has now been reduced to a rump.

There are a number of smaller unions doing good work, including the Workers Advice Center Ma’an, Koach La’ovdim, and others. But the organised labour movement in Israel is today a spent force, and no longer has a connection to the political parties of the Left. Its former leader Avi Nissenkorn abandoned the Labour Party earlier this year and went on to become a leading figure in the new centrist party headed by Benny Gantz.

Where we stand now

In the face of the collapse and imminent disappearance of the organised Left — especially the Labour Party — the response of the Left’s leadership is to do … more of the same. This is where my questioning of the two-state solution comes from.

For the last two decades or so, the Israeli Left used the slogan of ‘separation’ as a way to reach out to right-wing Israeli Jews who didn’t like, or feared, Palestinians, and for whom the slogan of ‘peace’ was anathema.

One recent media campaign put the two alternatives before the public as ‘annexation’ or ‘separation’ — peace not being considered as an option.

But it didn’t work. It didn’t stop the Left’s decline.

It turns out that Israeli Jewish voters who don’t believe in peace are more likely to vote for a right-wing party like Likud than for tough retired generals who lead parties of the Left or center.

For a whole range of reasons, the Israeli Left appears to be in terminal decline, and instead of looking for new ideas, it repeats the same tired old slogans which convince increasingly smaller numbers of people.

The change that is needed

The only hope is not a change in the leadership of the Labour Party — though that is desperately needed — but a change in the message.

Instead of advocating for ‘separation’ and playing on the fears, the often racist fears, of Arabs, the Left should proudly advocate for peace and co-existence. When the daily newspaper of Mapam, Al Hamishmar, still existed, it had on its masthead the slogan: For socialism, Zionism and the brotherhood of peoples.

Not separation, but brotherhood.

Instead of chasing after the votes of affluent liberal Israelis, mostly in Tel Aviv, the Israeli Left must rediscover its connection to the working class — meaning the largely Sefardic Jewish communities, the Arabs, the new waves of Jewish immigrants including the Russians and Ethiopians, and the many thousand of migrant workers now living in the country, though the last of these do not have the right to vote.

Those communities have been abandoned, given up to the parties of the right.

I believe that they can be reached only if the Israeli Left embraces an explicitly socialist agenda, an agenda that speaks to their need for social justice, for greater equality, for a future filled with hope.

That has been proven by the success of Senator Bernie Sanders in the US, and to a degree by the success of Jeremy Corbyn here. Without a sharp turn to the left, there is no future for Meretz and the Israel Labour Party.

In my view, a new Israeli Left will be born, just as strong trade unions will reappear, because these things are needed.

But there are no short-cuts, and this will be a long and difficult struggle.

In the fight for workers’ rights, there are no borders

Friday, June 14th, 2019

The following is the text of my presentation to the international seminar held in Oslo this week by the Arthur Svensson foundation.

First of all, I want to thank the Svensson foundation for the invitation to speak here today, and also for your decision in 2016 to award the prize to LabourStart. That recognition was enormously important for us, as it will be for the other recipients including this year’s winner.

I think it was on one of my visits to Scandinavia that I met a trade unionist who was active in Amnesty International and he was wearing a t-shirt with the slogan “workers’ rights are human rights” and at the time I remember thinking — well, that’s obvious.

Perhaps the most famous example that proves that connection between workers’ rights and human rights was the struggle of Polish workers, initially dock workers, in the early and mid 1970s. Eventually, that struggle resulted in the birth of Solidarnosc, the first successful independent trade union in a Stalinist country. And the rise of Solidarnosc is what led to the collapse of the one-party state and the establishment of democracy in Poland and elsewhere in the former Soviet bloc.

That fight is not yet over, as we can see in the fact that LabourStart this week has launched a campaign at the request of the Polish dock workers union to support one of their members, who was sacked for his trade union activity. That worker was employed by, and was sacked by, a giant transnational corporation, which is also the target of another ongoing LabourStart campaign in Pakistan, where eight workers have also been sacked for their union activity.

So those workers in Poland may have won the right to join a free and independent trade union and are no longer the victims of state interference as they were during the Stalinist period, but now they face the challenge of transnational corporations that are no better at respecting workers’ rights, than the totalitarian regime which they got rid of a generation ago.

We in the labour movement need to say consistently and clearly that workers’ rights are fundamental human rights, and that workers have the right to join and form trade unions, independent of the state and their employers, and to engage in collective action including strikes. And that is true in Poland whether it’s a Stalinist state or a capitalist one, and it’s true in Pakistan, and even here in Norway.

We live in a time when not only workers’ rights but democracy itself is under assault around the world. That attack on democracy is always an attack on workers. It doesn’t matter if the leaders claim to be populists who care about ordinary people or not. And how widespread is this anti-democratic phenomenon? I can just rattle off some of the names — Putin, Trump, Erdogan, Orban, Bolsonaro, Duterte, Netanyahu.

Human rights and workers rights are under attack in all the countries they lead. And unions are often in the front lines of the fight for democracy in these countries.

So what do we need to do to defend the rights of working people at such a dangerous moment?

First of all, to paraphrase a former Nobel Prize for Literature laureate, we need to acknowledge that there are no “internal affairs” left on our crowded planet.

Here in Norway, where trade union rights are generally respected, you need to react to the sacking of dock workers in Poland and Pakistan as if those workers were members of your own dock workers union. You need to mobilise the members of your unions and the general public every time workers rights are violated, no matter where this happens in the world. International trade union solidarity has never been more needed than today, in this globalised world of ours.

But in addition to taking the lead in defending democracy, unions need to renew their political vision. There was a time when people who felt left out, on the margins, who were treated unjustly, or who just wanted a better and fairer world would support social democratic parties. That is not the case today. But it must become the case tomorrow if democracy is to survive.

Let me illustrate this with an example from the United States. If the choice is between the representatives of a neoliberal global elite such as Hillary Clinton or a populist demagogue like Donald Trump, then democracy is finished. But if a social democratic alternative exists, like Bernie Sanders, then there is hope.

We are seeing signs of hope today in the electoral victories of some social democratic parties in different parts of Europe — in Spain, in Finland, and even in your neighbour, Sweden.

In conclusion then, what we need to be doing is putting our unions in the forefront of the fight to defend workers rights and democracy more broadly — and at the same time, to renew our social democratic movement worldwide. And in those struggles, for democracy, for workers rights, for a fairer, more just and sustainable society, there are no borders.

Review: Homage to Catalonia, by George Orwell

Thursday, June 13th, 2019

I first read George Orwell’s account of his time in Spain many years ago, and now re-read in advance of a visit to Barcelona. I am actually writing this review from the hotel in which Orwell and his wife stayed during the terrible events of May 1937. There is no question that Orwell’s book is a masterpiece and critical to our understanding not only of the events that took place in Barcelona at that time, but of the twentieth century as a whole. Because it is in this book that the George Orwell we now know, the author of 1984 and Animal Farm, is born. This is the George Orwell who came to Spain to fight for the Republic against the fascists and was actually happy to sign up with the Communists in that fight. By accident, he wound up in the militia of the POUM, a dissident Marxist group that has often been mislabelled as “Trotskyist” and whose leader, Andreu Nin, was tortured and murdered by Soviet secret police agents.

Returned to Barcelona after being injured on the front, Orwell was an eyewitness to the successful attempt by the Soviet-directed Spanish Communists to bloodily suppress both the POUM and the much larger anarchist movement. What surprised me most in re-reading this book is not how unfairly anti-Communist this is (as some have claimed) but rather how little Orwell understood then of the monstrous behaviour of the Soviet Union in Spain. But of course he learned these things too, over time.

Tonight I will go for a stroll down the Ramblas, and I will look at the theatre on whose roof-top Orwell sat for three nights, guarding the POUM headquarters across the street, and at the cafe below where the POUM fighters had entrapped some Civil Guard troops, sharing beers with them as those troops feared for their lives. But for now, I sit in a room in the Hotel Continental imagining what the author of Homage to Catalonia thought as he stayed here more than eighty years ago.