Forward Thinking

The Labor Zionist Youth Leader Behind Israel's Tent Protests

By J.J. Goldberg

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Pesach Hausfater

Calcalist, the Ynet-Yediot online business supplement, has an interesting interview with Pesach Hausfater, the Labor Zionist youth leader who’s described as the key organizational mind—some call him “the responsible adult in the room”—in the leadership of Israel’s current economic protest movement. His critique of Netanyahu’s economic policies is the most trenchant I’ve heard since the protests erupted, so I decided to translate it into English for your viewing pleasure.

Hausfater is the secretary-general of the Dror-Israel Movement, the young adult division and community organizing arm of Noar Oved ve-Lomed, the kibbutz-linked youth group that’s the Israeli affiliate of Habonim-Dror in the Diaspora. The Dror-Israel Movement consists of about 1,000 Noar Oved ve-Lomed post-army alumni, mostly in their 20s, who live in 60 urban communes around Israel, working as Noar Oved movement organizers and running after-school programs in disadvantaged neighborhoods for immigrant and minority youth.

Pesach is Coming

By Ari Liebsker

Calcalist, August 11, 2011

For years Pesach Hausfater, the secretary general of Dror-Israel, has been waging this battle alone, off to the side. Now the people have come to him, and he’s too angry to pass up the opportunity.

”Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu thinks he’s developed a system by which you don’t feed the horse and the horse lives anyway, but it turns out it’s not so. 300,000 people took to the streets to send him a message that he can’t continue in his cavalier ways, as though there’s no problem as long as there’s full employment. But this is full employment of slaves, of vassals who are expected to say, ‘At least I have food. I’m alive.’ This is a system that degrades people.”

Pesach Hausfater is very angry. And unlike the other leaders of the protest movement that has arisen here as though ex nihilo in the last month, he doesn’t hesitate to direct his anger in a scathing, frontal attack on Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, expressing a clear, articulate, anti-capitalist worldview. Perhaps because as the secretary general of the Dror-Israel movement (the young adults division of the Noar Oved ve-Lomed youth movement) for the past 19 years, he is the only one in the leadership of the protest who has actual leadership experience. This experience has placed him in the last few weeks in a key position of organizing the protest, even if he has remained somewhat in the background in favor of the younger leaders. The Dror-Israel movement that he heads has harnessed itself full-force to ensure the success of the protest. In the first days Hausfater was the “responsible adult,” who saw to it that the younger people with all their energy did not scatter in every direction. In the end, this was the dream he had waited for so many years.

Last Thursday he was among the main speakers at the Histadrut rally in support of the tent struggle, and at the mass rally Saturday night in Tel Aviv one of his movement’s members, Maayan Edri from Lod, was the final speaker. Wearing her blue movement shirt with the red string, she concluded her emotional remarks with the old rallying cry of the Noar Oved ve-Lomed movement, “For labor, defense and peace, Arise and Fulfill!” (La-avoda, le-hagana vela-shalom, Aleh ve-Hagshem!) – a slogan the likes of which hasn’t been heard for years at a rally so close to the heart of the Israeli mainstream. Hausfater, age 48, feels that the nation is finally grasping what he has maintained for years.

But the government says that at least there’s no unemployment here and the people aren’t shouting that there’s no bread.

“There isn’t work, there’s servitude. This is what’s called double-think. It’s taken straight from George Orwell’s 1984. “There’s a problem with dairy products? Fine, I’ll trample on the dairy farmers at the geographic and social periphery. I’ll take advantage of the public’s grumbling, and instead of aspirin I’ll give them cyanide.” How much are all those employed people earning? They’re making starvation wages. They’re not even making the minimum wage, because it’s not being enforced properly. The enforcement division at the Ministry of Commerce and Industry has one inspector for every thousand people.”

Rising against the wall of the economic system

Hausfater believes that the Israeli public has been no less than brainwashed over the past 30 years. A brain-washing that has prevented it from challenging the principles of capitalism and the free market—until now, when they’ve finally begun to wake up.

“Take the subject of the national debt,” he tells Calcalist in an interview, the first he’s granted to the media since the struggle erupted. “The debt has become a sacred cow, a topic that simply can’t be discussed. Why? Ladies and gentlemen, what’s happened to you? Why did the debt become the main excuse for embittering the lives of the citizens of Israel? It’s clearly manipulation. It’s something that has been drilled into the consciousness of the public since the 1980s, since the era of Thatcher and Reagan, and the opposing view has simply been stifled. But there is an opposing view that doesn’t see the national debt quite the same way.

“There is a prohibition in Judaism that says ‘Thou shalt not arise in a wall.’ It means you’re not supposed to immigrate to the land of Israel in an organized fashion [in order not to defy God’s decree of exile – jjg]. The pioneering halutz youth movements defied this ban years ago. Now we’re rising in a wall against the economic system of the state of Israel. We’re saying that this system will destroy this society, because society can’t survive this way.

“They bring us the example of the OECD nations and tell us that those countries don’t have a war, they don’t have a Haredi population to support, they don’t have first, second and third-generations of Holocaust survivors to support. They don’t have orphans, widows and disabled veterans of six wars to support. Why do these people, the orphans, widows and Holocaust survivors, need to tolerate this policy? Why do we need to tolerate this anti-social policy? I think this is an anti-Zionist and anti-Jewish policy. It doesn’t address the values of Judaism in any fashion.”

Don’t you think you’re exaggerating a bit? After all, the data show that the state is in good shape.

“In 2008, this economy failed all around the world. It failed because hedge funds expanded to monstrous proportions and these hedge funds threatened government regulation worldwide. And what happened? People were destroyed, trampled, and those who were responsible for it are still sitting in their air-conditioned rooms in their shiny glass towers and dividing things up according to all their mathematical formulas, which ultimately translate into real life conditions. When things are good, the finance minister says, ‘We need to cut back, because bad days are coming.’ And when things turn bad he says, ‘Now we really need to cut back.’ At no point do 95 percent of the Israeli population, except for the upper tenth of a percent, get to live decently.”

Netanyahu’s Religion

He sprinkles his sentences with quotes from Jewish texts and speaks in a tone that recalls forgotten days, a speaking style that has disappeared from the world, with the authoritative tones of a kibbutz secretary from the 1960s. His place in the leadership of the current protest is something he came by honestly, by hard work. The Dror movement was there from the first days and helped set up the tents on Rothschild Boulevard. Without its involvement in the first week, mediating between the initial tent dwellers and the students who joined them, there probably would have been a split between the camps that would have caused the struggle to fall apart before it took flight. Nor would the first and second demonstrations have taken place without the logistical help of the Dror movement, which was also responsible for establishing several tent camps outside Tel Aviv, including those in Hadera and Jerusalem. Today members of the veteran movement keep 14 tent camps around the country populated 24 hours a day. Among all the social movement activists and tent camp dwellers in the field, the Dror movement has the most detailed and serious list of demands from the government – the ‘Litmus Test for a Changed Socio-economic Policy in the State of Israel.’ But Hausfater has a hard time believing that any good will come from negotiating with the Netanyahu government.

“The prime minister is contemptuous of the public, and since the struggle began he has been signaling in every possible way that there’s no point in talking,” he says, raising his voice. “For evidence—the passage of the national housing committees law and the rise in electricity rates. It’s like the leader of a student council when 30 students come to him and say he hasn’t kept his promises and they’re not happy with what the council is doing, and the council doesn’t even apologize but simply escalates. How would the class respond? How did the people of Israel respond when Rehoboam succeeded King Solomon and told the representatives, ‘My father chastised you with whips, but I will chastise you with scorpions’? From the moment this protest began, there was a request sent to the prime minister: You know what? Don’t withdraw the housing committees bill, just delay so we can see if it can be amended so that it really serves the needs of the homeless.’ But the prime minister dug in and said, ‘I’ll show you who’s in charge. I’m passing the housing committees bill.’”

But the prime minister believes the bill will actually lower housing prices.

“The housing committees bill is a bad law, but it’s not the main problem, because it’s irrelevant. There’s enough land for 160,000 homes that could be released for use. But it’s held by contractors who want to raise the prices, so they’re not doing anything with it. The housing committees law will only make this worse, and they’re not telling the public.

“It’s like a religion for Netanyahu. He wants to see a class society here in which there’s a top hundredth that has everything, and the majority is thrown into the gladiators’ arena. He sits up in the tribunal gallery and sends out one beast after another—first cuts in health care, then cuts in education. He sits there and watches the majority of the public trying to survive the beasts that attack them to see who can’t make it, who can’t finish out the month on their paychecks. I’m talking about people for whom the idea of ‘finishing out the month’ is quite literal. The biblical prophets described it better than I ever could.”

Okay, but at least he’s fighting the tycoons. Is the cartels committee also problematic in your mind?

“Netanyahu doesn’t want the economy to be in the hands of seven tycoons. He wants it controlled by 20 or 30 tycoons. He wants to distribute part of the Israeli tycoons’ assets to foreign tycoons. He simply wants to broaden his support.

“What economic system is Netanyahu aiming for? Margaret Thatcher’s system, which destroyed Great Britain. Milton Friedman’s system, which destroyed the world. I’m very afraid that it will bring disaster on the state of Israel. How long can you demand of people who have been living in a state of war for 63 years that they defend their country, which is right and proper, while at the same time you steal their children’s education, their families’ health? I can’t understand what’s patriotic about this.

“Netanyahu’s number-one goal when he was elected was to privatize the land. They crippled the Israel Lands Authority, turned it into an object of hatred, and then crippled the regional committees. Netanyahu presents himself as a patriot, but what is patriotic about him? The fact that he sells off the state’s lands to private individuals, or even to foreign ones? That he takes the land our parents fought for and sells it off? It leaves me speechless.

“But it’s not just Netanyahu. It’s most of the governments that we’ve had here in recent years. In 2009 we approached the Labor Party, which was part of the government at the time, and asked how it could be that they support privatization of land, that they lent their hand to turning 800,000 dunams into private property for no reason? If there’s a housing crisis, the state could work with this land as long as it owned it. When the state transfers ownership to a private body, it can no longer come and say, I want to build on this land.”

The Histadrut as a power multiplier

I met with Hausfater in his cramped office at Dror headquarters in the Noar Oved Ve-Lomed neighborhood center on Kibbutz Galuyot Street in south Tel Aviv, between the Shalem and Shapira neighborhoods. An only child of Holocaust survivors, he grew up in a poor section of Afula. He joined Noar Oved ve-Lomed at age 9 and never left. His hair is turning gray, but otherwise he hasn’t changed much since his days as a young movement member somewhere in the 1980s. He became a regional coordinator, a mega-communard, someone whose charisma was recognized by everyone as the engine that drove the movement and still does.

I understand that in your position paper, you want to return to the old pension system, but in the past pensions were under the Histadrut, which mismanaged them.

“That’s a lie. There was a single pension fund, and it operated the way it was supposed to, but the auditor general stopped issuing the bonds in which the pension funds were investing, and the government directed the funds to invest in the market. Since then, instead of your money going to fund new industry and education in the state of Israel, the public receives its returns in market deals. We’re proposing that citizens receive a dignified pension when they retire, but it shouldn’t depend on the fluctuations of the market, which has collapsed today, meaning that people who retire today could lose a significant portion of their money. That’s no way to save. The situation that Netanyahu created means that a person who works for 40 years and then retires, instead of living on his pension he has to go out and find money. How can you take people’s pensions and play with them on the world markets? Do you know what will happen here when pensions are cut by 40 percent? These protests we’re seeing right now will be nothing compared to what’s coming.”

How do you get along with Ofer Eini, the chairman of the Histadrut? There are rumors that you are basically his representative in this protest.

“The attempt to create a split between the protest and the Histadrut comes from a place that aims to obstruct the protest, but anyone with eyes in his head can see that a connection between a protest and an organized labor force like the Histadrut is a power multiplier. In a struggle like this you can’t simply toss away a power tool like the Histadrut. The moment that Ofer Eini said we need to use the budget surpluses, the witch-hunt against him began, because he bruised the apple of Finance Minister Steinitz’s eye. We’re not going to fall into that trap.”

Excuse me, but the Histadrut invented the class hierarchy in the workplace.

“Yes, the Histadrut was a partner in that, and we’re fighting it. Things are changing today in the Histadrut, and for the first time in its history it has a division that is organizing workers who don’t have a collective bargaining contract. It’s already organized 30,000 of them. Ofer Eini is cleaning things up in a systematic, historic way. He’s the first Histadrut chairman to do so. The first one who tried to do something similar was Yitzhak Ben-Aharon in the 1970s, but Golda Meir and Pinhas Sapir got rid of him. He came and said we need to come and take the authentic workers’ committees and make them part of the leadership, and because it didn’t happen, no grass-roots protests ever developed here, and as a result the Likud was elected in 1977. That was the protest of people who weren’t organized in workers’ committees.”

Are you and Eini coordinated?

“I have no loyalties except to my conscience and my members. When I have a criticism I speak out without hesitation. Ofer Eini said he’s not leading the struggle but joining it. The people who say that I’m Eini’s messenger, and that Eini is going to make a deal with Netanyahu—let them prove it. These rumors are spread by people who are afraid of the link with the Histadrut because it is a force that can remove the stranglehold from the throats of the citizens of Israel, and some people will do anything to prevent that.”

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