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The role of Israeli tech capital in the anti-Netanyahu protest movement



Matan Kaminer,

Protesters in Tel Aviv demonstrate against the planned reforms to the Israeli judiciary, 25 March 2023. Photo: IMAGO / ZUMA Wire

Since January 2023, Israel has witnessed some of the most spectacular protests in its history. In addition to Saturday evening rallies numbering in the hundreds of thousands of participants, tens of thousands have participated in weekday “disruptions”, blocking not only the country’s main highway but even the Ports of Ashdod and Haifa and Ben-Gurion Airport.

Matan Kaminer is a political activist, anthropologist, and postdoctoral fellow at the Martin Buber Society, Hebrew University in Jerusalem.

The movement is committed to stopping the judicial reform announced that month by Justice Minister Yariv Levin. To this end, its adherents have even broken with the supposed final taboo of Israeli society, as thousands of military officers and elite soldiers put the IDF on notice that they will not be volunteering for reserve duty if the reform passes.

The proposed judicial reform, which opponents have taken to calling a “regime coup”, is sweeping indeed. Netanyahu’s acolytes in the Knesset make no bones about their intention to use an “override clause” to kneecap the High Court of Justice’s veto power over the legislature in order to keep their boss out of prison in his ongoing corruption trial, roll back women’s and gay rights, give settlers a free hand in taking over Palestinian land, and limit the right to strike. Given Israel’s lack of a written constitution, the override clause will effectively give the Knesset unlimited powers, including to determine who can vote and be elected — making the disenfranchisement of Israel’s Palestinian citizens an immediate threat.

Yet, although the judicial reform could have an immensely damaging effect on the lives of many if not most Israelis, the protest movement’s limited social composition has been unmistakable, consistent with past, smaller waves of anti-Netanyahu protests. Like the “Balfour” movement of 2021–2022, the current protests are a mobilization of the country’s secular, mostly Ashkenazi upper-middle class, largely hostile not only to the extremist settlers in the West Bank but also to Israel’s poorest Jewish community, the ultra-Orthodox haredim. Although slow to mobilize actively on Netanyahu’s behalf, the largely Mizrahi Jewish working class continues to lend the governing coalition its passive support, while Israel’s Palestinian citizens, understandably put off by the movement’s fetishization of Zionist symbols such as the flag and national anthem, are sitting out the fight.

Tech to the Rescue?

This ethno-class landscape will be familiar to readers acquainted with Israeli politics. However, the current, particularly intense round of Israel’s ongoing culture war has seen the entry of one new, and hugely important actor: capitalists from the country’s IT sector, the most dynamic part of the Israeli economy, who have followed their employees into the ranks of the movement.

While leaders of other major sectors such as energy, chemicals, and real estate have refrained from lending support to the protests, tech is central enough to the Israeli economy that the threat of an IT capital strike has already caused the stock market to shudder, international credit agencies to issue warnings, and Finance Ministry officials to intervene with prohibitive assessments of the reform’s economic costs. Should the protest movement prove successful in preventing the judicial reform’s passage, as is looking more and more likely, this economic warfare will have played a crucial role.

By throwing its weight behind that of its employees in the anti-Netanyahu protest movement, Israeli tech capital is protecting not its immediate financial interests, but an indirect interest in the state-subsidized reproduction of its privileged workforce.

But why are Israel’s tech capitalists taking such an active part in the protests? Their own argument — that tech has a vested interest in democracy — should be taken with at least a few grains of salt.

As Malcolm Harris shows in his comprehensive new global history of Silicon Valley, the IT industry has always been closely intertwined with the capitalist state, eagerly providing it with tools for repression and surveillance in exchange for friendly regulation and monopoly profits. Much the same is true of Israel’s “Silicon Wadi”, which could not have risen to global prominence without direct government subsidies, as well as the indirect support of Israel’s military, supplier of state-of-the-art technical training to the cadres who fill the industry’s ranks. For the public resources required by such training as well as testing grounds for the industry’s products, which skew heavily towards the security-related and the outright weaponized, the IDF depends on the continued military occupation of the Palestinian Territories.

Tech capitalists’ prophecies of doom may spook investors and prove self-fulfilling in the hyper-volatile state of the contemporary world economy, but this does not prove that the proposed reforms would themselves be detrimental to the sector’s profits. To understand of the IT sector’s investment in the protest movement, it is necessary to paint a more nuanced picture of its role in the country’s socio-economic landscape.

The Fruits of Bifurcation

One feature of the world order pioneered by IT capital is what Harris calls “bifurcation”: the creation of a cohort of tech workers enjoying high wages, stock options, and appreciating home values that render them uninterested in broad working-class alliances of the kind favoured by some previous generations of high-skilled and highly paid workers.

In Israel, where the military continues to provide the industry with the vast majority of its highly skilled workers, elitist selection practices continue to restrict entry into tech employment primarily to the sons and (to a far lesser degree) daughters of the state’s Ashkenazi-secular founding elite. Although most individuals belonging to this stratum remain outside tech, other foci of professional employment, such as health and academia, increasingly gravitate towards the sector’s money and priorities. Many secular-Ashkenazi Jews in Israel have close kin in tech, and anyone who owns a mortgage-free home in central Israel — also a datum closely associated with ethnic privilege — has gained immensely from the real estate boom driven by tech profits.

Israel’s techie class inherited specific ideological coordinates from its decidedly non-techie parents. In the culture war that has characterized Israeli politics since the 1970s, this class is decidedly in the camp of “First Israel”, the founding elite that formerly charted not only the country’s economic path but also its agenda of developmentalist Westernization, blind to its colonial role in the Middle East and the cultural alienation of Mizrahi and religious Jews as well as Palestinian citizens.

In a political landscape where radical change appears foreclosed, Schadenfreude can go a long way in explaining political motivations.

The rise of Likud to power on the votes of the Mizrahi “Second Israel” in 1977 spelled the beginning of the end for this agenda, although it was only during the Netanyahu years, starting in 2009, that a religiously and ethnically hybrid vision of Israeliness (that continues to exclude Palestinians) has become culturally hegemonic. Thanks to its real estate and newfound association with tech, First Israel has managed to retain a great deal of economic power, and its inherited predisposition towards liberalism, technocracy, and “the West” has found plenty of interfaces with the California ideology.

However, this ideology has little to offer most other Israelis. The flipside of Harris’s process of “bifurcation” is the appearance, alongside the nerd aristocracy, of a growing population completely excluded from added-value industrial production and condemned to low-wage service work, including in the tech-enabled gig economy whose revenues depend on intensified exploitation. In Israel, the strong taxi drivers’ lobby in the Likud has so far prevented the gigification of transport despite the efforts of giants like Uber, while a lack of comparable organization in food delivery has led to the proliferation of low-waged, precarious, and unsafe employment (and to a small uptick of worker militancy).

People who drive motorcycles for Wolt, like those who work the registers at supermarket giant Rami Levy, will gain nothing from judicial reform. At the same time, given that the High Court’s defence of civil liberties has done little to protect them from the cold winds of economic restructuring, their indifference to the prospect of Knesset legislators overriding its rulings is easy to understand. In a political landscape where radical change appears foreclosed, Schadenfreude can go a long way in explaining political motivations.

Ethnic Bifurcation and Class Reproduction

In a recent analysis of political polarization in the US along similar lines, Dylan Riley and Robert Brenner argue that the contemporary economic order is conducive to the replacement of class-based mobilization with class-collaborationist strategies, with the Democratic coalition cohering around a defence of educational credentials and Republicans rejecting them. Much the same can be said of Israel, but here higher education — which remains largely public, affordable, and open to Mizrahi and Palestinian citizens — is subordinate to social origin in determining both party-political orientation and proximity to the IT industry. By throwing its weight behind that of its employees in the anti-Netanyahu protest movement, Israeli tech capital is protecting not its immediate financial interests, which the reform does not really threaten, but an indirect interest in the state-subsidized reproduction of its privileged workforce — which depends in large part on that workforce’s continued cultural ascendancy as well as continued colonization.

Although its goals are not directly subordinate to the needs of capital accumulation, the protest movement’s class collaborationism, its eagerness to embrace capital’s disciplinary power, and its aversion to any attempt at extending democratic demands to the Occupied Territories all point to its circumscribed ethno-class basis, which precludes the possibility of bringing an alternative social bloc to power even if it manages to halt the reform and replace the Netanyahu administration. Such an outcome would entail a return to power of something like the “change government” established in 2021, an extremely fragile coalition that refused to cooperate with the ideologically consistent Palestinian parties of the Joint List and fell victim to Netanyahu’s chiselling at its right flank, falling after just over a year in power.

None of this means that it is pointless for Israel’s Left to engage with the movement, which it has been doing by bringing Palestinian flags and progressive economic demands to the protests. Certainly, the enthusiastic support of extremist settlers and the libertarian Kohelet Forum for the judicial reform has opened the eyes of some protestors to the corrosive influences of both racism and neoliberalism, and like previous waves of protest, the current manifestation can be expected to push a minority of participants to the left and invigorate a new generation of radicals.

Nevertheless, despite the criticism of “Jewish supremacy” recently expressed by one protest leader, the movement’s jingoistic appropriation of Zionist figures (including, incredibly, the war criminal Ariel Sharon) continues apace. In the event of a military escalation over the coming months, Israel’s democracy movement can be expected to pack up its flags and head for the enlistment centres. Its fight is not the fight against apartheid, much less the struggle against capitalism — if it were, Israeli tech capitalists would surely not be among its ranks.