The Histadrut remains neutral on the extreme right-wing coup d’etat in Israel

The Histadrut’s refusal to join the huge anti-government demonstrations prepares the ground for future attacks on it and on workers’ rights. Israel’s new protest movement against the Government Judicial Reform […]

The Histadrut’s refusal to join the huge anti-government demonstrations prepares the ground for future attacks on it and on workers’ rights. Israel’s new protest movement against the Government Judicial Reform wants to see the powerful labour federation on its side. But in order to become a new political force that will carry Israel out of the current crisis, it must go beyond “national Jewish unity,” which is pushing the Histadrut to the abyss. A protest against the fascist coup that is limited to Jews only is bound to be defeated. The right to speak, organize, move freely and vote should be given to Palestinians and Israelis equally.

The radical right-wing government’s coup is leading to a bloody confrontation with the Palestinians; a trampling of the rule of law; destruction of the economy; religious and nationalist takeover in education and culture; and fatal violation of worker rights, including their rights to strike and unionize.

Hundreds of thousands of citizens have been demonstrating since January, doing everything in their power to halt this coup. The protesters’ anger is aimed primarily at the threats to the judicial system; there are many demonstrators who would like everything to remain as it was, and perhaps even secretly hope the Likud will renounce Netanyahu and it would then be possible to join forces with it, as noted by opposition head MK Yair Lapid. Yet even after taking this important caveat into account, it is still clear that this is a powerful protest wave that encompasses lawyers, economists, businessmen, social activists, academics, military personnel, artists and journalists. No doubt that such a wide range of influential people who speak out against the proposed changes is challenging the government and placing serious obstacles in its path.  

Histadrut’s refusal to see the gravity of the attack by the Government

None of this has convinced the Histadrut’s chairperson, Mr. Arnon Bar David, to take a stand against the government’s predatory moves. The protest movement called on the Histadrut to join the strikes it announced (on February 13 and 20). While the Histadrut is the sole body with the power to legally shut down the economy and allow workers to strike by right and not by employer approval, it did nothing. Moreover, Mr. Bar David expressed indignation at the protest leaders and their “hypocrisy”, as he called it, and lamented that in the past Israel’s social and economic elite underestimated the Histadrut and came out against organized labor. It should, therefore, not expect the Histradut to shut down the economy or support “their” protest.

Even if there is a grain of truth in his words about the forces that lead the protest, it is not a good enough excuse to be “Switzerland”, that is – to close its eyes to governmental arbitrary steps and allow them to move ahead unimpeded, especially when one of the steps in the planned coup is direct and unapologetic harm to workers, and to organized labor in general. Were Histadrut leaders asleep when the chairman of the Knesset Committee on Legal Affairs announced its plan to discuss a law to prohibit strikes in “key sectors”? Did the Histadrut leader miss the recent legal case advanced by the extreme right wing think tank, the Kohelet Institute, that aims to annul the practice by which the unions deduct dues through the employer?

Workers’ organizations around the world are at the forefront of social protests and hold distinct political positions, sometimes quite radical, on broad issues such as the war in Ukraine and others. For example, the federation of trade unions in the United States (AFL-CIO) was a pioneer in the fight against Trump, and millions of its members mobilized to help elect President Biden.

The Histadrut, on the other hand had a policy that challenged the Government and the employers only on narrow “bread and butter” issues. It systematically avoided criticizing the government in everything related to Palestinians and has been resoundingly silent for generations on other public, legal and social issues. Even for the fifty years during which millions of shekels in union fees were paid to Histadut’s coffers by Palestinian workers in Israel, it refrained from interfering in the offensive arrangements of their employment, and never acted against the permit regime and illegal trade in permits, or against other broad problems regarding the employment of Palestinians in Israel.

It is thus not surprising that even in front of this dangerous attack on democracy and human rights, the Histadrut strives to maintain good relationships with (the leader of the extreme right-wing party Religious Zionism) Finance Minister Smotrich and the government, and refuses to stand alongside the protesters. As in the past, the Histadrut prefers negotiations with the government to maintain the remaining privileges for the workers it unionizes, as if it is possible to separate workers’ rights from the civil rights that will be harmed as part of the current coup.

Histadrut’s transition from Labour to Likud

The roots of this behavior are in the way the Histadrut was built in the first place – as a workers’ organization connected and identified with the regime and operating in complete coordination with its plan to establish a Jewish state at the expense of the Palestinians. In fact, in the early days of the state, the Histadrut itself, in addition to being a huge employer (as the owner of the general health fund, the biggest construction firm Solel Boneh, Bank Hapoalim, Hapoel sports club, the huge Tnuva dairies , the Hamashbir shopping center and Koor Industries) was itself part of the government as its institutions – which preceded establishment of the state.

In the early years of the state, the Histadrut was part and parcel of the plan to expropriate Palestinians of their rights. Until 1960 Arab citizens were not admitted as members in the Histadrut. It should be mentioned that the close relationship with the government in this period reflected a shared social democratic commitment to workers’ rights, which resulted in relatively progressive labour legislation.  However, since the 1980s (specifically the 1985 stabilization program led by Labor leader Shimon Peres), the government and Labor Party in Israel adopted a neoliberal position and have severed any connection with the welfare state and any semblance of relation to social democracy.

The Histadrut did not act against these trends, preferring for years to integrate into the strengthening populist trends. The result is that its worker committees are well entrenched in the Likud Party, so the option of joining the protest against the Likud-led government does not actually exist. The Histadrut of 2023 is a hostage to its large and influential worker committees, which are animated by a narrow nationalist perspective. The distance between the Histadrut and a democratic workers’ organization that is committed to ideas of democracy and equality for both Palestinians and Israelis is big and cannot be bridged.

The illusion of a deal with the Government

For a body like the Histadrut, sitting on the fence is like sticking one’s head in the sand, hoping danger will pass. If it perseveres in this position, the result will certainly be serious damage to organized labor and might also deal a blow to the Histadrut itseld. The right -wing government with which Arnon Bar David aspires to “get along” is a government that adopted the fascist and libertarian ideology of the Kohelet Forum. The latter, adopted by the party of the settlers, Religious Zionism, leads the coup with a series of far-reaching reforms in the fields of society and economy. Concepts of “workers’ rights”, and in particular the “right to strike” will be eliminated. The attack on the unions and on the progressive labour law with its clauses that allow workers to organize and strike is already threatened – it is just a question of time.

There is a double absurdity here that goes beyond the moral failure of the Histadrut and its leaders toward Palestinian workers, Arab workers in Israel and all other exploited workers in Israel’s gig and outsourcing economy. In its refusal to join the protests, the Histradut is permitting the first coup stage of eliminating the independence of courts. The attack on the right to strike and workers’ rights will come next, but then there will be no one to stand alongside the Histadrut.

The Protest movement and the Palestinians

A final word about the protest movement’s call for the Histadrut to join the protest strike. On the face of it, this is an understandable and logical call. However, the Histadrut’s refusal to join the campaign reveals a problem that is not unique to it. The burden that makes the giant of Histadrut look like a frightened dwarf is its commitment to Zionist national unity. If the protest movement wants to become a new political force that will carry Israel out of the current crisis, it must go beyond this political and moral folly itself. As long as the protest movement limits itself to Israeli-Jews only, and two million Arab citizens of Israel, are ignored, it will never be able to fight the dark fascist forces. Moreover without standing clearly against the Apartheid regime imposed by Israel on 5 million Palestinians of the West Bank and Gaza, it will never be able to overcome the right wing, whose strength derives in part from the long-standing willingness of the Israeli left to turn its back on Palestinians.

The Histadrut’s silent march to defeat, without a fight should serve as a red light for all those organizations and protest activists who take to the streets. Faced with the intention to crush the legal system and create a declared apartheid state of Jewish supremacy, a movement that advocates democracy and equality for all should be established. This movement would see the Palestinian people as a partner in building a new society and a democratic regime. The adoption of such an agenda by workers’ organizations will create for them strong and important allies both in Israeli and Palestinian societies, while ensuring that workers’ rights will be anchored in the new constitution that will be built as part of this struggle.

אודות Aya Bartenstein and Assaf Adiv