Mr. Avi Nissenkorn, who chairs the biggest Israeli Trade Union federation, the Histadrut, recently announced support for Ze’ev Elkin in the race for mayor of Jerusalem. Mr. Elkin serves currently as the Minister of Jerusalem Affairs in Netanyahu’s government and is considered to be a spokesperson for the extreme right wing. Nissenkorn’s reason for supporting the settler leader is unclear on the face of things.
The Histadrut chairperson is not obliged to take a stand in local elections. He has not shown any preference for mayoralty candidates in Tel Aviv or Haifa. There is no obvious explanation for this puzzling pronouncement. Some people associate it with his desire to retaliate against the Mizrahi religious party Shas and its strongman Aryeh Deri, who support an alternative candidate in the current race for Mayor of Jerusalem. Nissenkorn has an open account with Deri because the latter supported MK Shelly Yachimovich, who ran against Nissenkorn in the Histadrut elections last year (Nissenkorn won by a large majority).
Whether the motive is revenge or not, it does not diminish the significance of Nissenkorn’s backing for a right wing politician. The race for mayor of Jerusalem takes place in a city at the heart of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Elkin, a settler himself, is a known defender of the provocative, racist settler groups in Jerusalem. He opposes any agreement with the Palestinians and identifies with the extreme right part of the Likud. His candidacy is supported by Prime Minister Netanyahu and by the leader of the rightwing party of Naphtali Bennett, Minister of Education. By supporting Elkin, Nissenkorn sides openly for the first time with the nationalist right wing against Labor and the Left, with which the Histadrut has traditionally been associated.
Support for Elkin is simply one additional step for Nissenkorn, who has already developed a special relationship with Finance Minister Moshe Kahlon and the Netanyahu government. In his five years chairing the Histadrut, Nissenkorn has abstained from moral or political criticism of the government, despite corruption charges against Netanyahu and despite the government’s all-out war against the courts and the rule of law. Netanyahu and his allies conduct baseless incitement against artists, journalists, and civil society organizations. They pass anti-democratic legislation such as the Nationality Law. Yet the Histadrut has not reacted. The government conducts a policy of xenophobia, persecuting African asylum seekers and promoting laws to expedite their deportation, while wrapping itself in an anti-Arab cocoon. The government has discarded any shred of a peace plan and is moving to a military confrontation in the South and the North. Despite all this, not a peep has been heard from the Histadrut.
This political choice by a Trade Union leader seems to many a mere tactical one—ugly and immoral though it be. Some want us to believe that everything is being done in the interests of the workers. But when one goes deeper into the ideological background of Nissenkorn’s positions it becomes clear this is not the case.
In an interview he gave to Sami Peretz (The Marker, September 7, 2018), Nissenkorn reveals his worldview. He cites US President Trump and counsels following his example. While talking about the policy of giving priority to El Al, Israel’s airline, over foreign carriers, Nissenkorn says: “You have to give an advantage to the blue and white [the colors of Israel’s flag], just as Trump says, and certainly not create a situation where the blue and white is discriminated against.” The reference here is to an economic question but the meaning is a lot broader. The Histadrut chairperson embraces Trump’s nationalistic and racist agenda, transforming the slogan “America first” into “Israel first.”
Nissenkorn does not see himself as an extremist and racist, but his positions and behavior indicate that he supports the right wing’s xenophobic worldview. He suffers from total blindness in light of the threats to workers by extremist elements in Israel and around the world. Nissenkorn touts Trump’s agenda, which sees the answer to the ills of the new global economy in tight-fisted nationalism.
There is no illusion more dangerous. Unions that support the new rightwing agenda of protectionism and rejection of globalization are not insuring themselves or their members. The destruction of the welfare state and of labor unions and labor rights are at the heart of the ideas promoted by Trump, Salvini, Orban, and the rest of the New Alt Right that inspires Netanyahu and Elkin.
The new right wing is exploiting racism, prejudice, and the fear that blue collar workers feel concerning their future as they face instability, wars, monetary crises, and social upheavals. Many workers who used to see their industrial jobs as a guarantee for middle class life in the West are today facing uncertainty, as technological innovations threaten to put them out of pace with the world.
Those like Nissenkorn who conclude from this that the surge of the right wing is irresistible, and who decide to join what they think they can’t beat, are betraying their mission. In spite of the global right wing surge, the technology that enables the new economy is universal, bringing new possibilities for international cooperation and solidarity. The development of social media, connecting people who used to be out of touch with the world, and the possibilities created by the speedy development of renewable energy and robotics, all point leftward.
The task of a true labor leadership today is not to beg for crumbs from Trump and Netanyahu, but to prepare the ground against the dangerous trend they represent. It must forge alliances with social forces committed to human rights, rather than wallowing in a swamp of protectionism, nationalistic laws, and xenophobia. Nissenkorn’s trajectory is shortsighted and false to the core. He is leading the Histadrut into moral bankruptcy and organizational decay.
– Translated from the Hebrew by Robert Goldman