Israeli society, like all other class societies, contains conflicting social interests—class interests which give rise to an internal class struggle. Yet Israeli society as a whole has been engaged, for the last fifty years, in a continuous external conflict: the conflict between Zionism and the Arab world, particularly the Palestinians. Which of these two conflicts is dominant and which is subordinate? What is the nature of this subordination and what is its dynamic? These are questions that everyone involved with Israeli society and politics must answer.

For revolutionaries inside Israel these questions are not academic. The answers given determine the strategy of the revolutionary struggle. Those who consider the internal class conflict to be the dominant one concentrate their efforts on the Israeli working class and attach secondary importance to the struggle against the colonizatory, nationalistic and discriminatory character of the Zionist state. This position sees the external conflict as a derivative of the internal one. Moreover, in this perspective, the internal dynamics of Israeli society will lead to a revolution in Israel, without this necessarily depending on a social revolution in the Arab world.

The experience of classical capitalist countries has often demonstrated that internal class conflicts and interests dominate external conflicts and interests. However this theory fails to hold in certain specific cases. For example, in a colonized country under the direct rule of a foreign power, the dynamics of the colonized society cannot be deduced simply from the internal conflicts of that society, since the conflict with the colonizing power is dominant. Israel is neither a classic capitalist country nor is it a classic colony. Its economic, social and political features are so unique that any attempt to analyse it through the application of theories or analogies evolved for different societies will be a caricature. An analysis must rather be based on the specific characteristics and specific history of Israeli society.

The first crucial characteristic of Israeli society is that the majority of the population are either immigrants or the children of immigrants. In 1968 the adult (i.e. over 15) Jewish population of Israel numbered 1,689,286 of whom only 24 per cent were Israeli-born and only 4 per cent of Israeli-born parents.footnote1 Israeli society today is still an immigrant community and has many features typical of such a community. In such a society classes themselves, not to mention class consciousness, are still in a formative stage. Immigration produces an experience, and a mentality, of having ‘turned over a new page in life’. As a rule the immigrant has changed his occupation, social role and class. In the case of Israel the majority of the immigrants come from the petty bourgeoisie, whether they are from urban areas in Central and Eastern Europe or from towns and cities in the Arab world. The new immigrant looks forward to changing his place in society. Moreover he sees that all the advantageous positions in the new society are filled by earlier immigrants and this enhances his ambition to climb the social scale through long, hard work. The immigrant considers the actual social role he occupies as transitional. This applies to Israeli workers as well. His father was rarely a worker, and he himself lives in the hope that he too will one day become independent, or at least that his son will be able to do so. The class consciousness and pride which exist among the British and French proletariats, do not exist in Israel, and appear odd to many Israeli workers. An English worker, if asked about his origins, will almost automatically reply in class terms (‘I’m working class’), and will define his attitudes to other people in terms of similar class concepts; an Israeli worker, however, will use ethnic categories and consider himself and others in terms of being ‘Polish’, ‘oriental’ and so on. Most people in Israel still consider their social position in terms of their ethnic and geographic origins, and such a social consciousness is obviously a barrier hindering the working class from playing an independent role, let alone a revolutionary one aiming at a total transformation of society.

No working class can play a revolutionary role in society while the majority of its members desire to improve their situation individually, within the framework of the existing society, by leaving the ranks of their class. This truth is reinforced when the proletariat does not recognize itself as a stable social class with its own group interests and its own value system in conflict with those of the existing social order. The impulse towards a total transformation of society does not arise easily in a community of immigrants who have just changed their social and political status and who are still living in conditions of high social mobility. This does not mean that the Israeli working class cannot become a revolutionary force in the future; it merely implies that today political activity inside this class cannot proceed from the same assumptions and expectations as apply in a classic capitalist country.

If the uniqueness of the Israeli working class consisted only in the fact that it was composed mainly of immigrants, then it could still be assumed that through time and patient socialist propaganda it would start to play an independent, possibly revolutionary, role. In such a situation patient educational work would not differ much from similar work elsewhere. However, Israeli society is not merely a society of immigrants; it is one of settlers. This society, including its working class, was shaped through a process of colonization. This process, which has been going on for 80 years, was not carried out in a vacuum but in a country populated by another people. The permanent conflict between the settlers’ society and the indigenous, displaced Palestinian Arabs has never stopped and it has shaped the very structure of Israeli sociology, politics and economics. The second generation of Israeli leaders is fully aware of this. In a famous speech at the burial of Roy Rutberg, a kibbutz member killed by Palestinian guerrillas in 1956, General Dayan declared: ‘We are a settler generation, and without the steel helmet and the cannon we cannot plant a tree or build a house. Let us not flinch from the hatred enflaming hundreds of thousands of Arabs around us. Let us not turn our head away lest our hand tremble. It is our generation’s destiny, our life’s alternative, to be prepared and armed, strong and harsh, lest the sword drop from our fist and our life cease’.footnote2 This clear evaluation stands in sharp contrast to official Zionist mythology about ‘making the desert bloom’, and Dayan brought this out by going on to say that the Palestinians had a very good case since ‘their fields are cultivated by us in front of their very eyes’.

When Marx made the famous statement that ‘a people oppressing another cannot itself be free’ he did not mean this merely as a moral judgement. He also meant that in a society whose rulers oppress another people the exploited class which does not actively oppose this oppression inevitably becomes an accomplice in it. Even when this class does not directly gain anything from this oppression it becomes susceptible to the illusion that it shares a common interest with its own rulers in perpetuating this oppression. Such a class tends to trail behind its rulers rather than to challenge their rule. This, furthermore, is even truer when the oppression takes place not in a far-away country, but ‘at home’, and when national oppression and expropriation form the very conditions for the emergence and existence of the oppressing society. Revolutionary organizations have operated within the Jewish community in Palestine since the 1920’s and have accumulated considerable experience from such practical activity; this experience provides clear proof of the dictum that ‘a people oppressing another cannot itself be free’. In the context of Israeli society it means that as long as Zionism is politically and ideologically dominant within that society, and forms the accepted framework of politics, there is no chance whatsoever of the Israeli working class becoming a revolutionary class. The experience of 50 years does not contain a single example of Israeli workers being mobilized on material or trade-union issues to challenge the Israeli régime itself; it is impossible to mobilize even a minority of the proletariat in this way. On the contrary, Israeli workers nearly always put their national loyalties before their class loyalties. Although this may change in the future, this does not remove the need for us to analyse why it has been so for the last fifty years.