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Israelis Organizing Palestinian Workers

By Ralph Seliger

Assaf Adiv, executive director of the independent Israeli labor union, WAC-MAAN (the Workers Advice Center), spoke on July 2nd at the CUNY School of Labor and Urban Studies.  WAC-MAAN is linked to the Da’am Workers Party, founded in 1995 by some veterans of the anti-Zionist socialist Matzpen group.  Da’am is characterized by Wikipedia as “a revolutionary socialist Jewish-Arab political party in Israel . . . .  It calls for political and social revolution in favor of workers’ rights, the nationalization of key industries, Jewish-Arab coexistence, and gender equality.”

After skipping the 2015 election, it ran a slate this year called “green economy – one country,” emphasizing its 2018 change from supporting a two-state solution to one-state based on civic equality and eco-socialism.  It has never gotten more than a few thousand votes.  Its magazine, Challenge, is now published exclusively online.   

This radical trade union has the unique willingness and ability to represent West Bank Palestinians who work (mainly in construction) within Israel proper and in West Bank settlement businesses.  The CUNY speaker, Mr. Adiv, estimates that about 70,000 Palestinians currently receive permits to work in Israel, with about 30,000 working in Israel without permits, and another 50,000 working in settlements and settlement industrial zones.  As an Israeli union, WAC-MAAN can legally represent Palestinians employed by Israelis for protection under the strictures of Israeli labor law. 

What makes this Israeli union especially radical is that it’s tied to an Israeli political party that believes in a one-state solution, but has reservations about BDS (the Boycott-Divestment-Sanctions movement).  Adiv endorsed boycotting the settlements but defended the right of Palestinians to work there (arguing that they need the jobs).  He also gently criticized the “anti-normalization” efforts of Palestinian activists who oppose joint Israeli and Palestinian activism and social fraternization.  His movement approves of ordinary everyday interactions between Jews and Arabs as a way of building toward a shared society; by way of example, he expressed enthusiasm for the extent to which Jewish and Arab Israelis work side by side as doctors, nurses and other health care workers in hospitals and clinics.   

Among his union/party projects is to teach Palestinian women Hebrew so they can more readily access the job market.  In the Q & A, he also made it clear that he opposes political Islamism such as promoted in different ways by Iran and Saudi Arabia; at the same time, he condemned the overthrow of the recently deceased Islamist president of Egypt Mohamed Morsi, and the ways in which Israel is forging an alliance with conservative Arab regimes that oppose Iran.   

Adiv rattled off conventional leftwing talking points against Trump — an easy target for carelessly moving the embassy to Jerusalem and dispatching his son-in-law on a showy peace mission that is not seriously aimed at achieving peace.  Yet he also unfairly swiped at John Kerry’s effort a few years ago and even the Oslo process of the 1990s, never mentioning Rabin’s assassination nor the waves of Palestinian violence that repeatedly propelled anti-peace forces to power in Israel. 

Still, he comes off as an Israeli Jew who must sincerely believe that binational coexistence is possible within a unified Israel/Palestine that protects equal citizenship rights for all.  Given the century of violent conflict in Israel/Palestine, however, I see this as a forlorn hope, and do not think his party will ever win enough votes to even sit in the Knesset. 

Nevertheless, they appear to be doing some good in their labor organizing.  Their efforts include winning the right to represent Palestinian workers in several Israeli work sites in the Territories, successfully supporting a strike in at least one site so far (the Zaferty Garage) and winning the backing of an Israeli court in the process.  They are also advocating for Palestinian day laborers at construction sites within Israel, who are vulnerable to a variety of abuses: e.g., working under unsafe conditions without coverage for healthcare and work-related injuries, being underpaid and denied payslips (which facilitates being cheated).  Adiv further claims that obtaining Israeli work permits in the first place cost them up to one half of their incomes.  In addition, day laborers coming from the West Bank must endure hours added to their daily commute at checkpoints.  

Postscript: It’s somewhat ironic that this anti-Zionist party is closely associated with a labor union today, when both of Israel’s main founding leftwing parties were Zionist, and the Zionist ethic was largely about doing physical labor, often in agricultural work on a kibbutz (commune) or moshav (cooperative).  Both Labor (and its antecedents) and Mapam (which merged with others to form Meretz in the 1990s) were closely associated with the Histadrut labor federation and the kibbutzim.  This close institutional relationship with the Histadrut ended during the Oslo years when Prime Minister Rabin’s allies, Chaim Ramon and Amir Peretz, rationalized Israel’s national health system by delinking union membership from coverage by the Kupat Cholim Clalit, the largest healthcare network.   This weakened the Histadrut by substantially reducing its membership.   Just days ago (July 3rd), Amir Peretz (co-head of the Histadrut in the early ’90s) has emerged for the second time as the Labor Party’s chair and candidate for prime minister.  But today, Labor as a political party has been reduced to minor status, with only two Knesset seats above the electoral threshold of four.  

P.P.S.  Assaf Adiv indicated that he had served six months in prison during the First Intifada in the late 1980s.  I’m advised by a TTN colleague that he was convicted in the “Derech Hanitzotz case” for collaborating with the Democratic Front for the Liberation of Palestine, a Marxist-Leninist-Maoist group that theoretically advocated for a binational state of Jews and Arabs and had dialogued with members of Adiv’s Matzpen group; but in 1975, it conducted the infamous Ma’alot massacre of 25 people at an Israeli high school (28 Israelis died in total), including 22 students, while wounding 70.  This links to the NY Times story from 1988, with the relevant part implicating Adiv: 

. . .  One extreme left-wing Israeli newspaper, Derech Hanitzotz, was closed in February and its Jewish editors imprisoned, but not because of what they wrote, Israeli officials insist. The Government has formally charged them with treason, in essence, saying that they had become agents of Democratic Front for the Liberation of Palestine, a hardline Palestine Liberation Organization group.  . . .

Still, it’s hardly likely that Adiv actually endorsed the DFLP’s terrorist history; for an Israeli, even meeting with members of the PLO was illegal at the time.  One of the leaders of the DFLP was Yasser Abed Rabbo, who became a mainstream official within the PLO.  I remember being impressed by his reasonableness when I met him in Ramallah in 2012 as part of a visiting delegation from Partners for Progressive Israel.  This goes to show that people change over time.  Sadly, one has to wonder if his views have hardened since, given how bad things have gotten in the intervening years under Netanyahu.

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