Class Struggle in Jerusalem: An Interview with Hadash’s Oren Feld

Hadash (The Democratic Front for Peace and Equality), which was founded by the Communist Party of Israel (CPI) in 1977, seeks to unite Jews and Arabs along class lines in the fight for true democracy and for a just peace. Its main guiding principles are an end to the Israeli occupation of 1967 and the foundation of a sovereign and sustainable Palestinian state alongside Israel, ensuring equality for ethnic minorities, and the advancement of women’s and worker’s rights. Five Members of the Knesset (Israel’s 120-seat unicameral parliament), represent Hadash and are part of a four party alliance called the Joint List.

Oren Feld, 28, is the secretary of Hadash’s Jerusalem branch and a member of the CPI. Following are excerpts of an interview he recently gave to Maor Yavetz for the UK’s Challenge Magazine on the mass protests taking place in Jerusalem, class struggle, state repression and police brutality, and Israel’s younger generation during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Members of Hadash and the CPI during a demonstration outside the Israeli PM’s official residence in Jerusalem, August 1, 2020

Members of Hadash and the CPI during a demonstration outside the Israeli PM’s official residence in Jerusalem, August 1, 2020 (Photo: Challenge Magazine)

Can you introduce yourself please and tell us about your role as branch secretary, and a little about the work you do in the Jerusalem branch of Hadash? Also, what is the significance of the joint (Arab-Jewish) struggle to your political work?

I am the secretary of the Jerusalem district branch of Hadash, and have been in the role for a year and a half. During this time, my comrades and I have faced an ongoing political crisis. This consisted of three national elections; an ongoing campaign of militarized police brutality in Isawiya – a neighborhood in occupied East Jerusalem; record breaking rates of house demolitions, including the destruction of 72 homes in the neighborhood of Wadi Al Hummus (East Jerusalem); forced evictions of Palestinian families in Silwan (East Jerusalem, bordering the Old City); the COVID-19 pandemic; and recently, the largest popular uprising in Israel in almost a decade. Although this period has been very intensive, we managed to use it to restart the branch and recruit more comrades for the cause. As a front, we try to establish a coalition of the radical left in Jerusalem and build political power for the struggle against the occupation and the exploitation of the working class.

In a so called “unified Jerusalem,” Palestinian Jerusalemites do not receive citizenship by birth. Rather, they have to apply for it, undergo extensive inquiry by the Israeli Shin Bet (secret police) and face endless bureaucracy by the Ministry of Interior – all of which make it nearly impossible to receive Israeli citizenship. Palestinian communities in East Jerusalem have next to zero ability to affect the political powers which control every aspect of their lives and police them. Jerusalemite Palestinians receive a residency permit, which can be taken away if they leave the area of Greater Jerusalem, or by a court order. They can only vote in local municipal elections, but cannot be elected as this right is reserved for citizens. As the policies affecting them are often decided at a national level, they have no control over them and therefore boycott local elections, as a means of defying Israeli rule in occupied East Jerusalem.

We, as Hadash, see East Jerusalem as an occupied territory (since 1967), which was annexed by Israel in 1980. Under Israeli rule, this annexation has lead to misery, acute inequality and to a brutal oppression carried out by a militarized police force. While Hadash views the joint struggle as one which is based on citizenship – aspiring for equality and democratic participation for all citizens – the unique political situation in our city means that our joint struggle of Arabs and Jews in Jerusalem is different to that taking place across the country. Therefore, our struggle is based on solidarity.

Having said this, because our organization is legally based in Israel, we are aware that we represent the occupation whether we like it or not. For this reason, we refrain from official political activity in East Jerusalem, and focus on solidarity. In West Jerusalem (which is predominantly Jewish), our work aims to raise class-consciousness, through a range of social campaigns. For example, we are fighting against the outsourcing of jobs and the privatization of services, both in the Municipality, as well as in academic institutions. We do this alongside our Palestinian comrades who are Hebrew University students, and come from the Palestinian towns of the Galilee and surrounding regions, and who are Israeli citizens. In addition, we cooperate with our Palestinian comrades from the villages west of Jerusalem who are also Israeli citizens, such as the village of Abu Ghosh.

This has been the source of our strength during the last century. The joint struggle has existed in Jerusalem for nearly 100 years, when our youth movement (YCLI ­– Young Communist League [Israel]) was first established in the city. It experienced the oppression of the British occupation, which did not allow print shops to print leaflets in both Hebrew and Arabic, knowing their revolutionary power even back then. Already in those days, the comrades predicted what we are experiencing today, and how the reactionary powers will only be defeated by a joint struggle of the working class – Jews and Arabs alike. In Jerusalem, the ‘united front’ that is Hadash was born in 1977. It unified the Communist Party with non-communist democratic organizations, as well as with the Israeli Black Panthers movement – which emerged from the impoverished neighborhoods of Jewish West Jerusalem. Today we carry the same revolutionary ideas, which allows us to stay strong and united, even through such difficult times, until we will bring a just peace to this city and land.

The recent protests have been drawing thousands of people, many of whom vary greatly in political opinion and affiliation – including those who are opposed to the annexation and occupation. Can you tell us more about this, and where does Hadash fit into it?

I think that in order to answer that question, it’s important to understand the current political movement, and how it came to be. Throughout the last four years, anti-corruption protests have been taking place, which were originally initiated by a non-partisan movement consisting mostly of older people. The reason it erupted into what we now recognize as a popular uprising, was because of the attempts on the part of Jerusalem Municipality and District Police, to shut the protests down. The protesters then began a campaign which was called “the siege of Balfour,” and established permanent protests – day and night – outside the Prime Minister’s official residence on Balfour Street in Jerusalem. In turn, the authorities brutally twice attacked peaceful sit-in protests, in attempts to clear a sidewalk that was being blocked, leaving many injured. As well as the sit-in protests, weekly demonstrations took place on Fridays, which gradually drew greater crowds. During one of these demonstrations, the police arrested key figures of the protest, in what has been widely recognized to be politically motivated arrests.

This type of state repression is considered unprecedented, as far as sections of the Israeli population living within the 1948 borders are concerned. It naturally caused a shockwave among the Israeli public, and this led to even greater numbers of people taking to the streets. As if the crack down on the protests and political repression were not enough, public anger reached a boiling point when the corrupt “unity” government between Netanyahu and Gantz exploited the COVID-19 crisis for their own profit and political gain. Tax reductions specifically aimed at Netayahu’s own property were approved, 36 new ministerial positions were created to serve those closest to power, and bailouts were being handed to the super-rich.

The more recent wave of mass protests began to grow as the second wave of COVID-19 hit the country, itself caused by government inaction. In response to the second wave, the government passed the Authorization Act, which has been widely referred to in the media as the “great corona law.” This is an authoritarian law which extends the government’s – and therefore the PM’s – ability to pass regulations without parliamentary scrutiny. The parliament can only challenge these regulations after they have already been passed. The combination of draconian government actions and political repression of protests signifies to many a rise of a new authoritarian regime led by Netanyahu, which will see him weakening the judicial system and the parliament in order to avoid trial (he is charged with multiple accounts of corruption).

As Hadash, it was and remains difficult for us to join in with these protests. Political repression is nothing new to us, but rather something we have witnessed and experienced throughout our movement’s existence. What many Israelis saw as “unprecedented actions,” such as political arrests, is in fact a well-established strategy of the 53-year-long occupation regime. Consider for example the mass incarceration of Palestinians, or the routine arrests of leftist political activists in non-violent protests. During Netanyahu’s reign, he has vilified the left and labelled them traitors. This led many to fear being politically active and associated with the left. Therefore, it is not easy for us to take part in protests which are predominantly Zionist. They do not acknowledge the full history of the state, and ignore what takes place just few kilometers away, in the name of the occupation and annexation.

We are a movement intent on appealing to the masses, and so rather than ignore these growing protests, we arrived carrying our banner which read “Democracy for all” in both Hebrew and Arabic. This was the first bilingual banner at the protests. To begin with, our presence consisted of branch members as well as unaffiliated individuals; however, this soon grew to hundreds of demonstrators unified under our banner. Together, we call for equal democratic rights for everyone under Israeli rule; we call for a just peace, an end to the occupation and for climate justice. This method enabled many to find themselves in those protests and join the struggle, changing the existing Zionist narrative of “save democracy,” to the one which argues for the establishment of a true democracy for everyone. This is the only way in which we will prevent further government corruption, which is fuelled by those who profit from the occupation and its centers of power. We find our role as Hadash in Jerusalem to be about raising the voice of the class struggle, which is still not present enough in the protests, but we’re working on it.

A great proportion of those attending the protests are young people. How have young people in Israel been affected by the COVID-19 crisis, and how are these experiences linked to the protests?

Among the Israel public young people were the least compensated group, receiving virtually no government aid. University students who could not work a full time job received little to no unemployment benefits. Citizens between the ages 18-20 were not entitled to unemployment benefits, because the majority of the unemployed people in that age group are Palestinians (who are Israeli citizens), who do not serve in the military. The majority of young people work in the retail and hospitality sectors, which were both severely affected due to the quarantine.

Among the youth, there is a growing feeling that the future holds very little for their generation. There have been significant dropout rates among college and university students, as the virtual learning methods enforced by the quarantine were impractical for many, while others simply could not afford to continue paying their fees. One of the main slogans at the recent protests was “an entire generation demands a future.” I think this outcry stems from a combination of the current socio-economic situation, the fear of a climate catastrophe, and a fear of an Orwellian future under Netanyahu.

Generally speaking young Israelis tend to avoid politics. Subsequent right-wing governments have normalized the occupation, and created an atmosphere in which disbelief in any possible change runs deep through the education system. For many who have never organized or been politically involved, this would be the first time they joined a demonstration, which in turn makes the protests more spontaneous and decentralized. Aside from the anti-occupation block (which Hadash is part of), the voices being raised by young people mostly call for government transparency, an end to corruption, and the link between the government and the rich.

The mass protests have spread quickly and have been met with severe police and political repression. Can you tell us about this? How do these compare in your view to the forms of state repression used against Palestinians, as well as against other demographics of Israeli citizens e.g., Haredim (ultra-orthodox Jews)?

It is new for Israeli secular Jews to face this level of police repression. Water cannons for example, have never been used to suppress demonstrations of this nature and demographic; but this in turn radicalizes people and makes them question the hegemonic powers. However, it could get much worse. We have yet to witness the use of the notorious “skunk” (a putrid liquid fired out of a water cannon), flash grenades, tear gas, rubber bullets and, of course, live ammunition.

All of these methods – which are manufactured in Israel and exported elsewhere – were previously used against Israeli citizens, including Ethiopian Jews, Haredim, and Palestinians. Protests of non-citizen Palestinians are often suppressed with live ammunition.

There has been an attempt to militarize the repression of the protests, even if only visually. The police are using military grade vehicles in the areas surrounding the protests, despite knowing they will not face any violent opposition that will justify using it for transport. Along the regular police, two specialized forces are deployed to the demonstrations: Magav (border police / gendarmerie) and Yasam (riot police), both of which are normally armed with military grade weapons; however they are not armed at the demonstrations. Their presence is used to intimidate the protestors especially during the use of a “kettle” tactic, in which the police force the crowds into a bottleneck where they face the water cannons. The intention here is to terrorize people, so they would not rejoin the protests.

Despite the fact that the violence inflicted by the police during these protests can be traumatizing, it is not even remotely similar to what people in Isawiya suffer on a daily basis under the occupation. Over the past year for example, the people of Isawiya were subjected to a brutal campaign of militarized police oppression, which included routine nightly invasions, violent undercover policing, and arrests of children, to name a few.

However, the repression of the demonstrations in West Jerusalem can get a lot worse. The Minister of Internal Defense, Amir Ohana, has instructed the police to break down the protests, and the police have used the media to refer to our presence there as problematic. There are now indications that the police are trying to use similar methods of undercover abduction against Israeli protesters who are active in the struggle [as those used] against the occupation in East Jerusalem. The undercover police target activists who are known for their political activity in East Jerusalem, and have done so a number of times. One particular activist, who was arrested by undercover police during the protests, was interrogated and told that if she desists from political activity, she will have no problems. I find this so-called “delicate” form of repression to be terrifying.

There has been a fascist presence at some of the demonstrations, which led to ongoing threats online and in some cases to violent clashes. Can you tell us more about this, and how in your view the left should respond?  

The most vocal group of fascists is La-Familia – the hooligan fan association of the Betar Jerusalem football club, who are known for their violence and racist ideology. The majority of them are youth at risk, who are being exploited by their leaders, and who are in turn exploited by the far right. Individuals from the Jewish settlement in Hebron have been inciting them on the terraces for decades. Betar is also the favorite team of the right wing Likud Party, and Netanyahu is a fan. He even occasionally attends games, along with other Israeli right wing politicians

When you look at that sort of a chain of command, I see that I have nothing against the youth that are being exploited. On the contrary, I wish we were on the same side and therefore I disagree with those who take a more militant approach, and try to counter their violence. For me they are victims, and our political answer to it should lie in the demands to empower our welfare, health and education systems. A clash between two sets of divided and exploited people doesn’t make any sense to me. They are not the enemy, their leaders – the people who have incited them for years against Palestinians – they are the political enemy. Our response to them should be to organize, and work towards a society of prosperity and for a just peace.

Maor Yavetz, who grew up in Jerusalem and now resides in Liverpool conducted the above interview which was published by the Challenge Magazine. Yavetz is a member of the Communist Party in the UK and is active in his local branch of ACORN, the union for housing & community.

Read the full interview: