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What did the Arab uprisings mean in Israel?

In Tel Aviv, Israeli social justice activists in the summer of 2011 hold a banner emblazoned with the Arabic word “erhal” – leave. The line in Hebrew reads, “Egypt is here.” Photo by Oren Ziv/Activestills from +972.

Two years later, Israelis View Arab Revolutions with Unease and Curiosity

By Lisa Goldman, Tahrir Squared
March 20, 2013

In February 2011, when it was clear Hosni Mubarak’s 30-year authoritarian rule over Egypt would not survive the popular uprising that had begun on January 25, the Israeli media’s reporting was characterized primarily by a combination of confusion and unease about the big issue that concerns the country above all others – security.

On the evening television magazine shows, panels of white-haired male analysts in their 60s reminisced in tones of near-nostalgia about their army service in the 1967 and 1973 wars with Egypt. They mentioned the porousness of the border in the south and implied that without Mubarak to hold them back, hordes of hostile Arabs were just waiting for an opportunity to infiltrate the country. They offered no insight into the issues that had inspired the revolution, nothing about Egyptian society, no analysis of why Mubarak was an unpopular leader, and no logical reason for implying that the peace accord would end with his rule.

A handful of journalists with dual nationality flew in to Cairo on their alternate passports. They checked in to hotels near Tahrir Square and tried to bring some insight to their reports on the revolution. Mostly, with the exception of one television report by super journalist Itai Anghel, they failed. They could not run the risk of asking anyone to speak for attribution to the Israeli media, so they were reduced to describing the atmosphere around them in broad brushstrokes.

But somehow the enthusiasm of the popular uprising, which introduced young Israelis to telegenic, articulate young Egyptian activists via social media, did have an impact.

Fast forward five months to July 2011, when tens of thousands of Israelis took to the streets to demonstrate in what became known as the social justice uprising.

From the start, it was completely clear that the organizers of the demonstrations were profoundly influenced by the Egyptian revolution. They adopted the chants of Tahrir, customizing them for their cause. Instead of “the people demand the fall of the regime” in Arabic, they chanted “the people demand social justice” in Hebrew. They carried placards that read, “Ben Ali, Mubarak, Qadhafi … Netanyahu.” One enormous banner was emblazoned with the Arabic word “erhal” – “leave” –the same word Egyptians chanted rhythmically leading up to Mubarak’s resignation. On the same banner, in Hebrew: “Egypt is here.”

But when Israelis tagged their tweets about the social justice demonstrations with #J14 (because the demonstrations began on July 14), in homage to the revolutionary hashtag #Jan25, Egyptian activists on Twitter made their displeasure known in very forceful terms. They were not amused to see Israelis identifying with their revolution, nor did they share any sense of camaraderie via what the Israelis thought was a global movement: Occupy, the Middle East Version. Several Egyptian activists tweeted bluntly that as far as they were concerned, Israelis were the enemy – colonizers, oppressors of Palestinians, occupiers. They were not interested in the political views of their Israeli peers.

Today, with Syria lurching into its third year of bloody civil war and Egypt governed by Islamists, Israelis have become uneasily accustomed to the new status quo. They are perhaps less reconciled to a domestic situation that is pretty much status quo ante. The social justice movement of July 2011 fizzled without bringing any change and the new Egyptian government has proven to be much like the old Egyptian government in terms of its relations with Israel, Islamists or not. Even the Syrian civil war does not seem poised to spill over Israel’s borders.

In an interview for this article Matan Drori, the foreign news editor at Maariv newspaper, characterized the mainstream Israeli view on the Arab uprisings as “pessimistic and nervous.” But he acknowledged that Israelis do not understand Egypt well, and also said that he had changed his mind about some things over the past two years. Mubarak, he realizes now, was not really such a great friend of Israel’s.

“I think we had this impression of cooperation and peace with Egypt during the Mubarak years. In reality, he was no different from the other Arab leaders who did not have a peace agreement with Israel. He cooperated because it was good for his own interests – aid from the U.S., security and prosperity.”

Drori continued, “It’s too early to judge the revolution. Egypt is focused on its own issues. Morsi is getting plenty of opposition, which surprised me a lot. The fact that people are raising their voice is cause for optimism and makes me think that maybe I was not giving the Egyptians enough credit. So in that aspect my opinion about Egypt and the revolution has changed over the past two years.”

On the other hand, he said, he “prefers walls for the time being.” Drori emphasized, “I don’t have any racial problem with them or with their religions. But I don’t accept their political culture. They are extreme and they see the world in black and white. That’s dangerous.” Drori acknowledged that Israelis were also nationalists who needed to mature politically, but insisted that Arab political culture had a much longer journey to travel before it saw liberal democracy.

Khulood Badawi is an Arab Palestinian citizen of Israel. Born and raised in Nazareth, she obtained her undergraduate degree from Haifa University and now lives in Jerusalem, where she is a human rights activist. She makes her living as a media and communications consultant. Of the half dozen Palestinian citizens of Israel I sought to interview for this article – writers, lawyers, journalists, political activists – she was the only one who agreed to speak to me about perspectives on the Arab uprisings from within Israeli society. The rest rebuffed me, very politely.

“I think that after more than two years of revolutions and after the results of the Egyptian elections with the victory of the Islamists, and given the results of what was once a very promising revolution in Syria, they don’t want to talk about it because it’s painful, confusing and very frustrating, and they are afraid they won’t find the rights words to express themselves,” she explained. “We don’t know if this is just a stage that we have to go through or if it’s the beginning of the end and khalas we lost the Middle East and this is the way it’s going to be forever.”

The Arab uprisings, she said, had created fissures within Israel’s minority Palestinian population. “We have huge divisions about the Syrian revolution, even within families, between those who are pro and against the regime,” she said. Badawi continued, “It’s easy to be optimistic about Egypt. Despite everything – the harassment of women, the killings – you can see the light at the end of the tunnel. But in Syria it’s dark and people don’t see light at the end of the tunnel. We are afraid it will be another Iraq.”

On the other hand, Badawi said, the revolutions had clarified matters within the community. “Now it’s clear that we are an integral part of the Arab nation and not Israelis. We share the fears, hopes and internal politics.”

The internal political issue she spoke most passionately about was Islamism versus secularism. “The revolutions gave us a chance to put the cards on the table. Now we no longer hesitate to challenge the Islamists and the dictators in our community. It is the real struggle for the face of our community – that is, to decide who represents us [as Palestinians] and with what values and principles.”

Badawi and Drori represent disparate Israeli subcultures. He is an Israeli Jew, a patriot from the heart of the Ashkenazi elite who is ambivalent at best about the uprisings, while she is a Palestinian Arab patriot with little patience for the “paranoia and schizophrenia” of the Israeli government toward the Arab revolutions. What they do share is a fierce commitment to personal and political freedom, and to secularism. And both are waiting, a bit nervously, to see where this period of transition will come to a resting point.

Lisa Goldman is a Canadian-Israeli journalist. In the spring of 2011 she spent two months in Cairo, reporting on the revolution for +972 Magazine, for which she is a contributing editor. She now lives in Brooklyn. Follow her on Twitter @lisang.

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