Over 150 people participated in the ‘Socialism Conference 2014’ in Tel Aviv, organised by the Socialist Struggle Movement (SSM – CWI in Israel-Palestine) for the seventh year.
Despite the recent Gaza war that worsened the national division and the political confusion on parts of the left, the conference managed to attract workers and youth, Jewish and Arab, Israelis and Palestinians, who are seeking a way out of the national conflict and the worsening economic conditions. During the conference three new members joined SSM, two Jewish and one Arab.
The conference spread over two days, Friday 26 and Saturday 27 December 2014, and had 12 different sessions. Apart from discussing the fall of the Israeli government and the coming general election, there were sessions on: the fight against rising housing prices and against home evictions; the struggle of Arabs in the Negev against house demolitions; the fight for a higher minimum wage and against privatisations; the fightback against sexism; the struggle against the occupation and racism; the environmental crisis; revolution and counter-revolution in the Middle East; 20 years since the fall of apartheid in South Africa; Marxism and the national question; the ‘technological revolution’; an introduction to Marxism; and a lively debate between SSM youth and Meretz party youth.
The Socialism conference is in fact the only platform in the Israeli left that enables a discussion between people in the frontline of the struggle for social justice and peace. This year among the speakers were: one of the leading figures in the struggle against the racist Prawer plan; a resident of Givat-Amal neighbourhood in Tel Aviv that is fighting against evictions; an opposition leader from Tel Aviv city council; six trade union representatives; a high school student who organised a protest against a discriminatory dress code for women.
Against evictions and demolitions
The first session on Friday was on housing struggles and the fight against home evictions by real estate tycoons and against village demolitions of Bedouins in the Negev.
Israel is experiencing a housing crisis that is the result of a steep rise in housing prices in recent years, a crisis that was one of the main reasons behind the 2011 mass protest known as the ‘tent movement’. This crisis is aggravated for Arab-Palestinian citizens of Israel by the racist policy of land expropriation and house demolitions.
Naor Kapulnik of SSM described how all the attempts of capitalist politicians to provide solutions to the housing crisis inside the framework of the market economy have failed, and in fact since 2011 the prices have only got higher. Naor said that massive building of quality public housing is needed, along with rent controls.
Ronit Cohen from Givat-Amal neighbourhood described their struggle against evictions for the sake of real estate tycoons who want to build houses for the rich, while the Tel Aviv city council is supporting the tycoons. She called on conference participants to go to the neighbourhood to strengthen the struggle against another wave of evictions due to take place two days later.
Shelly Dvir from the Tel Aviv city council also attended the panel. Almost a year ago her opposition movement entered the council coalition, with her being the only opposition representative in the council. She had participated in our 2013 Socialism conference where she shared her doubts on whether to enter the coalition. The discussion at the conference then was one factor contributing to her decision to stay in the opposition. In the 2014 Socialism conference she called for a new socialist municipal movement that will fight to save public land from being privatised, and for public housing.
Fadi Masmara, from the Council of Unrecognised Villages in the Negev, that was one of the organisers of the struggle against the Prawer plan in 2013, called for a joint struggle of Jews and Arabs against the housing crisis and the plans to uproot 40,000 Bedouins, and said that when the evicted Bedouins and the people of Giv`at-Amal come to see themselves as ’one class’, the Israeli regime will have a real problem.
Fadi also described the severe violence that was used against demonstrators a year ago in the demonstrations against the Prawer plan, with the aim of intimidating the Bedouins not to revolt. Some of the leading organisers of the demonstrations were arrested and Fadi himself was forced to sleep in a different place every night in order not to get arrested. The Israeli government stopped the plan in order to avoid a mass struggle, but continued its racist policies: 800 Arab homes have been demolished in the Negev in the last year.
The struggle against poverty wages and privatisation
The main panel on Friday was about the fight for a higher minimum wage, the unionisation wave and the fight against privatisation, and included workers’ representatives from both the Histadrut, the largest trade union organisation, and Power to the Workers (PTW). This discussion took place with the background of a new national agreement to lift the minimum wage, a wave of more than 40,000 newly unionised workers in 2014 and a monstrous government plan to privatise 11 public companies.
Under the control of the Histadrut right-wing bureaucracy there is no forum for trade union activists, workers and workers’ representatives to discuss the burning issues confronting organised labour.
SSM had raised the need for a minimum wage of 30 shekels (6.4 euros) an hour following the mass protest movement of 2011, and in the 2013 Socialism conference Ami Vatury from the leadership of PTW raised the idea of a campaign of organised labour for 30 shekels (the current minimum wage is 23.12 shekels an hour, leaving around a million workers in poverty or near poverty).
The demand for a 30 shekel minimum wage (meaning a 30% increase) was subsequently raised as a bill in parliament by the left MK [member of parliament] from Hadash, Dov Khenin. But instead of using its strength to help the bill pass, the Histadrut leadership helped the employers to prevent a worse scenario for them by signing an agreement on a partial, limited concession of a 26.88 shekel minimum wage (16% increase) within two years. This was done without a fight and without discussing the terms of the agreement inside the Histadrut structures.
In the session, Ami Vatury said that PTW will continue to push for a 30 Shekel minimum wage. Or Dar from SSM explained the importance of learning the lessons from this round of struggle and the need to build a fighting coalition of unions and workers that can force the parliament to concede, as happened in Seattle, and that can put pressure on the Histadrut bureaucracy, as opposed to the parliamentary lobbyism that was unfortunately a main feature in the campaign lead by Dov Khenin.
Another speaker in the panel was Morad Aton, a Palestinian bus driver workers’ committee member from occupied East Jerusalem, from the Kavim bus company. Morad described how the struggle of the bus drivers for better conditions met with cynical national ‘divide and rule’ tactics from the management, who used the fact that some of the drivers are Palestinians to incite workers and passengers against their strike. However, despite this, their last strike in Jerusalem and across different Israeli cities, a week before the conference, saw a record participation by drivers.
Morad also described the heroic strike of bus drivers in East Jerusalem from different bus companies against racist violence by far-right forces, that worsened after the Gaza war. Shay Galy from SSM, who introduced the discussion, called for all in the trade union movement to stand behind the East Jerusalem bus drivers and fight against racism and national oppression that divides the working class. Because of the lack of any real discussion inside the trade union movement on how best to fight the neoliberal policies of the government, Shay also raised the need for a coordination discussion forum of workers’ representatives, to help resist the offensive of the bosses and the government.
The last session on Friday included two discussions, one of them about the fight against sexism and the other on the struggle against the occupation, racism and for peace. In that latter discussion Shahar Benhorin from SSM explained in the introduction the repercussions of the recent horrific war on Gaza and emphasised that the Israeli regime tries to falsify the real context of the national conflict: one of national oppression and expropriation on one side, and a national liberation struggle on the other side. Shahar said that a real solution will require a mass struggle against the occupation, the siege and the settlements and for two socialist and democratic states with equal rights for minorities, as part of a struggle for socialist change in the Middle East.
On Saturday, there was a debate between SSM national committee member Uri Bar-Shalom Agmon, and the secretary of Meretz Youth, Eliran Bihovsky, about whether capitalism can be reformed.
Meretz is a liberal pro-capitalist, Zionist party, with a certain leaning to the left. It currently fills part of the vacuum on the left, attracting in recent years some workers and youth who have become alienated from the main capitalist parties, with some of them, on the left wing of the party, regarding themselves as socialist.
In the recent war, Meretz leaders began by supporting the bombings of Gaza, but were pushed to change their position later, with Meretz youth participating in some of the anti-war demos.
Eliran began by shaking off the formal line of Meretz, and said he’s a socialist and has come in recent years to the Socialism conference to strengthen his ideological view for the debates and arguments within Meretz. In the debate, as Uri pointed out through his own answers, the Meretz youth representative presented general reformist ideas, and used it as a way of in fact justifying a lack of promotion of anti-capitalist or socialist propaganda and not building a political left alternative. Nevertheless, Eliran was prompted to say that Meretz Youth will oppose Meretz going into a government that pushes privatisations (he avoided the question of the occupation in this context).
Building a socialist alternative
The concluding panel was under the title: “Towards 2015 elections – Building a socialist left”.
Iris Zamir from SSM explained the background to the coalition government collapse and the new election, only two years after the last one, and the lack of political voice to represent working people, Jews and Arabs.
Sonja Grusch from the Socialist Left Party in Austria (a CWI section) attended the conference at the invitation of SSM, and talked in this session about the new wave of struggles against austerity in Europe and the new left formations. During the panel introductions there were videos with solidarity messages from CWI comrades in Ireland, Belgium, USA and South Africa.
Nof Azran from SSM and a student representative in a teachers’ training college, described her role as a socialist representative and how she managed to push her student union to support the fight for raising the minimum wage. She also described the argument inside the union on whether to invite a far-right politician to the campus. Nof helped to take the debate outside the student council in order to pressure it to cancel the decision and not to invite the politician.
Rami Eitan from SSM talked about the role of Hadash and reminded the audience of an open letter in March from SSM to the Israeli Communist Party, the main component of Hadash, calling for a new ’socialist front’ that could pose a clear alternative to the nationalistic and capitalist parties and that will be able to reach new layers of workers and youth, Jews and Arabs, that are being pushed into battle. But currently, with the background of a sharp rise in the voting threshold to gain a seat in the Knesset [parliament], it seems that Hadash is going to choose a different direction in the general election, of a new electoral bloc with Arab-Palestinian parties.
Yasha Marmer from SSM concluded the panel contributions and explained that the mood against Israeli prime minister Netanyahu that is developing among large parts of the working class and youth needs to be addressed by posing an alternative to Netanyahu’s nationalistic and neoliberal policies, and not by supporting the more ’liberal’ faction of the bourgeoisie that will continue the same policy with different tactics. Yasha explained that building a socialist left party that can be the home of workers and youth who want a way out of the national conflict and capitalism is an urgent task.