By limiting their “revolution” to economic demands and a vaguely articulated welfare state, the organisers based on Rothschild in Tel Aviv were able to appeal to some 90% of Israeli society, which include a large number who voted for Netanyahu, Barak and Lieberman: “Bibi go home” is not how the polls looked back in July. Not so difficult, though: who doesn’t want to pay lower taxes AND have a welfare state?
And while the popular slogan “Mubarak, Assad, Netanyahu” rang out, everyone knows that an Egypt-style regime change is not on the shopping list submitted to the very political parties and government whose policies brought the people out onto the streets, whereas the millions in Cairo, Port Said and Alexandria kept to a simple and utterly intransigent demand that Mubarak “Get Out”.
And what can be easier to buy off with a few selected sweeteners than a list of assorted, narrow economic items that don’t begin to add up to the weight of the big mobilisation, the slogans and the mood.
The Tel Aviv student leaders, fearing to be labelled “leftists”, have not only kept the Occupation out of sight (except as an issue of cost), but downplayed all the housing, land and building issues that are among the worst excesses of Zionist Israel against its own Palestinian citizens. Social justice at no point touched on human rights, leaving the argument to be about their loyalty or their contribution to the country — not because as human beings they merit equal treatment.
As Seraj Assi wrote, under the headline “Israel ‘walks like an Egyptian’ but protests like a bourgeois Zionist”, “the Tel Aviv protests are taking place within the Zionist consensus”. And in +972, Joseph Dana and Dahlia Scheindlin ask bitterly, “Can Israelis have a social justice revolution without speaking about the rights of people they control and occupy?” and they point out that this is a practical as well as a moral question: “Without full civil, human and national rights for all people between the Jordan and the sea … we will forever worship the military and privilege them”. An ethnic policy in housing means that “once we do this against one group, we can do it against any group”. Social and economic priorities will always give way to security priorities, and those parties that stand for security will always be in power. And if the supposed self-censorship of “don’t mention the Occupation” holds, “these protests might come and go and not a single word about the occupation will be officially mentioned. For a ’social justice revolution’ this is tragic, or, perhaps, it is just not a social justice revolution.”
After four weeks, it seems that the main focus and demands have not moved on, though the mobilisation itself may continue. There seems little chance that the movement as a whole will question any of the fundamentals of the Israeli state, and at best will drag the national political centre of gravity from the recent ascendancy of the ultra-right.
But even that won’t happen unless the movement forms an ongoing political party to clear out the current Knesset members, who are right now busy tabling a new Basic Law to abolish Arabic as an official language, sanction segregated housing, and bring all other laws into line with … the Bible.
Possibly there would be hope for further development and re-thinking within the emergence of such a party. Possibly not, if it continued to put popularity above principle.
But as yet, the leaders are simply hiving off to do research and look at welfare state models to feed into the government-appointed committee of academics and experts, as if it was all just a matter of suggesting where the extra money can be found. If someone has told them that it doesn’t take research to know what’s wrong with demolishing a Bedouin village 25 times or evicting the Arabs of Jaffa, Lod and East Jerusalem, they don’t seem to be listening.
We asked two weeks ago if Israel had crashed its bullshit barrier. At this point, it seems hardly to have been dented.
The main gains have been on the political periphery and in some matters of “attitude”: a rejection of the use of “security” as eyewash, an expression of fellow-feeling and solidarity with Egyptians (which Mata Kaminer sees as “the most potentially revolutionary aspect of the movement”) and the effects of the mobilisation itself in shaking off routine and apathy. Maybe when BDS and international isolation begin to bite, some of these people may be a bit more sensitised and a bit more receptive to the world’s opinion.
And to be truly negative, we also need to see how this looks in its worst light. Israelis never lacked confidence, though it can be brittle and defensive. Is it actually useful for them to “demand their country back from the oligarchs”, without the slightest sense that it is Israel itself that owes the Palestinians “their country back”? Are these people really fundamentally different from the flag-waving settler youth?
And will the sight of glamorous tent-power in Tel Aviv strike a chord of sympathy in young Jewish Americans just when they were becoming thoroughly alienated by Israel and starting to support the Boycott? Israel’s hasbara (propaganda) machine will have no trouble at all putting a positive spin on these mass protests, which will be a lot easier than trying to make the hate-filled psychos of the right look nice.
While it’s easy to decry the insistent shunning of “politics” that leads this movement, there’s plenty to find and celebrate if you rummage around. Noam Sheizaf writes in +972 that though it doesn’t touch the big questions of the occupation and the situation of Israel’s Palestinian minority, “it touches on the layer beneath it that holds everything together. So, I think this is a major, major thing.”
By setting to one side the issues of nation and religion, the protest has in a sense freed itself to deal, together, with issues that Palestinians and Israeli Jews might have in common. A focus on class rather than race must weaken the national rhetoric. The hate figure of the past four weeks is not the “Islamic terrorist” but the Jewish billionaire. Not Hamas or Hisbollah but Netanyahu.
Thus with or without any overt mention of the big “intractable” questions, a process of political activism and open-minded talk is seriously changing perceptions.
Everyone knows that the Occupation and Palestine have been sidelined, but being conspicuous by omission is just another way to highlight them. And the demands may be minimum, but in a country with so much to hide, they have huge implications.
The true “periphery” of this movement, where the intensive talking and thinking goes on, is not just the geographic dispersion into 90 different encampments, but the political currents swirling around the margins, expressed in slogans and placards, workshops and teach-ins, guerrilla theatre and song, exhibitions and videos, visits, meetings and explorations, ensuring a process of political consciousness raising and refusing to kow-tow to self-censorship.
Here are some of their stories.
The Mizrahi Democratic Rainbow
This has established a guerrilla theatre group. At “a time when racism, discrimination and oppression are expanding and deepening” they want to ”refresh the arenas of activism with a different kind of protest.”
They ask the leaders “Who has the political authority to design and distribute cultural texts and whether to protest the demolition of houses, political arrests, poverty, destruction of human dignity and denial of freedom? What options do we have to design the space for protest?”
The project’s goal is to reach every area where there is an event such as political meetings, demonstrations and rallies, to denounce all forms of oppression that lead to discrimination and exclusion, Xenophobia and racism, and criminal violation of human dignity. This company will react “in real time” to respond to statements, actions and expressions involving discrimination, persecution, humiliation, contempt, or hatred, hostility, violence, trampling of human dignity of the community or sections of the population, and all because of colour, belonging to a race, religion, national group, ethnic or social, or because of country of origin or ethnicity, or gender.
The MDR is also forming a large self-organising band for Arabs and Jews to play at political struggles. “Participants need to be committed to activism and universal values of justice and human rights.”
The Levinsky Camp
At Levinsky Park in the neglected slums of South Tel Aviv the tents are, for some people, the best accommodation they’ve had in years. It’s become a home to social outcasts and rough sleepers, and has given real and urgent meaning to the demands for “social inclusion”.
The Levinsky camp has fought a continuing battle against attempts to demolish it, with municipal officials telling them they have to join the main camp at Rothschild. But they insist that this camp gives a voice to their particular grievances. “No one will force us to Rothschild, our home is here, and there is no reason we shouldn’t be able to protest here. … There are homeless in the streets here, refugees who have nowhere to live, elderly in need of housing assistance, here are the single mothers, the drug addicts, the Sudanese refugees who sleep here in the day and night on the benches and the stairwells”.
Nirit Ben Ar wrote of a night there: “I have no words to describe tonight at the tent city in Levinsky. After the police detained an Ethiopian activist on some bogus reasons, we organized a party to show that they can’t put us down. Hundreds of people danced and sang to the sounds of live Ethiopian music, there was rap in Tigrinya and English, and Israelis of all colours danced with asylum seekers and labour migrants to the last drop of sweat. This is how a real revolution looks like. It was the real thing.”
The fight against continuing ethnic cleansing
The predominant taboo issue is “the Occupation”. Perhaps that’s just as well: it means that the organisers have not stamped their limiting vision on this major underlying and interconnecting political framework.
If they did, it would more than likely be the separationist programme of the old Peace Now left. This looks back to a golden age of welfare state Israel before the 1967 invasion of the West Bank and Gaza and all subsequent governments’ refusal to trade “land for peace”, after which “it all went wrong”. They see the 1948 expulsion of the Palestinian population as a minor historical aberration best forgotten, to be compensated by the return of 22% of what had once been Palestine.
With the main platforms silent on both the Occupation and the continuing ethnic cleansing that’s happening all over the country, it has left a clear field for the radicals to connect up the dots: housing connects with the constant demolitions and expulsions, which connects with the Occupation, which goes back to the Nakba.
The Palestinian struggle and its Israeli allies now have high visibility with their own tents, encampments, events and slogans. They are in command of their own agenda.
♦ The leading edge seems to be with Tent No. 1948, but others include Nazareth, Baka Elgarbeyah, Sakhnin, Arrabeh, Jaljulyi, Haifa, Jaffa, Jerusalem, Hurfesh, Julis-Yerka, Majd Elkrom, Um Elfahem, Nakab. More are to come. The largest of the “periphery” rallies on 13 August were at Haifa and Beersheva, where these issues had a much better showing than in the previous huge national demonstrations at Tel Aviv. And other, more intimate gatherings combine music, poetry, displays, readings and discussion on house demolitions, dispossession and segregation, on the Nakba and the lost Palestinian culture.
The big Negev demonstration included an invite from the Negev Coexistence Project (which has been fighting the El Arakib demolitions) to a Ramadan Iftar meal.
♦ The Wadi Nisnas Tent represents an Arab neighborhood in the city of Haifa in northern Israel. The wadi has a population of about 8,000. Their demonstration on Wed 10th included demands for building a new Arab region, real development of Arab neighbourhoods, an end to discriminatory conditions (e.g. military service) that favour Hebrew mortgage applicants, reduction in property tax for the neglected and under-developed Arab neighbourhoods; raising the minimum wage to 60% of average pay; support for the pay demands of the movement for workers in health and education; support for the demands of Arab neighbourhoods on issues of land and housing; cancellation of all plans for Judaization takeovers; and for a “just peace and end to the occupation”.
A possible squatter movement: maps are circulating showing locations of empty buildings in the centre of Tel Aviv with the provocative question “A house without people for people without a house”.
♦ Jaffa Tent, one of the early ones, emphasises the immediate threat to the existence of the Arab population in Jaffa in general and Ajami and Jabaliya neighbourhoods especially, where as many as 497 houses face eviction and demolition. This is an area targeted by big money for gentrification, where “the authorities choose to sell public assets to the highest bidder at the expense of the effective deportation of the city’s people”. They say: “We Jaffa encampment activists invite you to be part of a struggle for housing in Jaffa today. Fight for our right to live with dignity.”
♦ Increasingly it makes little sense to declare racial unity among Jews of different colour, plus Sudanese or Filipino migrant workers and refugees, but to leave out the Palestinian Israelis who live under legal discrimination that’s most keenly felt in land and housing. So we are now hearing of the desire “To be a free country — Jews and Arabs alike“. We are hearing a demand for “Housing for everyone: Haifa, Walaja, Levinsky, Lod, Sheikh Jarrah, Rothschild, Gaza, Jaffa, Jahalin, Netanya, Hebron, al-Araqib — housing for everyone!”. No mention of the Occupation, but of common housing issues and common conditions in Occupied Gaza, Walaja and Hevron as well as the mixed or Arab districts of Haifa, Lod, Sheikh Jarrah, Jaffa and El-Araqib where Arab citizens are being evicted.
♦ One protest targeted the Israel Lands Administration, when demonstrators tried to break into the ILA offices. This is getting very close to the bone. The ILA is at the core of Judaisation, being the administrator of the lands stolen in 1948 and handed to the Jewish National Fund. Israelis have been told that JNF land was bought from Palestinians, and in a recent, shocking opinion poll some 80% of the country (and even half of Meretz voters) said this land must not be sold to Israel’s Palestinians. How would they have responded if it was made clear that this land was not bought but stolen?
Tent 1948’s statement
“We are Palestinian Arab and Jewish citizens that believe in shared sovereignty in the state of all its citizens. Instead of thinking about separation and constraints, we think of the possibility of joint existence.
“Since foundation of the state, Israeli policy of divide and rule prevents real change and limits social demands. If we work together we can only benefit. We want to end Judaization of Arab neighbourhoods and stop the “development” of luxury complexes. We want to stop the eviction of Palestinian families as happens almost every day in Jaffa, Lod, Ramla and elsewhere in Israel and the Occupied Territories.
“We want to end the discrimination against Palestinian Arabs in the rental and purchase of real estate, which has become “legitimate” in the Israeli- Jewish society, as the “Letter of Rabbis” showed us. We want to change the land policy in Israel, so it will address historical justice to the Palestinian population. No more land confiscation, no more house demolitions. We live here together, it’s time we start to internalize it.
“We want to talk about discrimination in state institutions, education, health, culture. We require recognizing the basic right of the Palestinians in Israel and in the Occupied Territories to set their own lifestyles. We want to emphasize, there can be no social justice while this state occupies and oppresses Palestinians, and justice should be to all. In addition state resources are allocated to the occupation for walls and barriers that embitter the life of the Palestinian people and to securing and supporting settlements. “
For Palestinian Israelis, long intimidated by demands for loyalty to the state that has dispossessed and oppressed them, the demonstrations have created a breakthrough opportunity to come out in the open and define their own identity and issues. In the fourth week there was the first Arab protest in Haifa, with the same slogans of social justice, housing, childcare and education, but shouted in Arabic. Beersheva (gateway town to the Negev) got a massive turnout on Saturday 13th: the bulldozing of Bedouin villages (such as El Arakib, turned over 25 times now) was a prominent issue there.
Settlers who flanked the biggest national rally were booed away. No-one wanted to solve their housing problem by becoming a settler. But it’s common to think that the spending on settlers is a diversion of funds that should be spent on “mainland” housing.
Mizrahi activist Almog Behar, however, says that the money spent on settlements is not to benefit settlers but to maintain the occupation: this was done by all governments, with public support. All previous parties and coalitions are also responsible and betrayed their supporters by destroying working and living conditions for the mass of the people. These included the old left parties, and the protests must now create a new political organisation. The movement must not set population groups (Jews/Arabs. Religious/secular, Ashkenazi, Russian and Mizrahi) against each other, but must make the connection between public housing, rents etc, and house demolitions, discrimination in planning and land development zones, actions against the Bedouins.
The protests have been joined by an independent trade union federation, Koah LaOvdim (Power to the Workers), which organises mainly service workers. It’s not only teachers and doctors and public service workers who have taken strike action. Quarry workers, fruit handlers who had been sacked, and Haifa Chemicals workers have connected with the protests, who have marched in solidarity and joined pickets. The Levinsky camp hosted the White Mask demonstration for trade union rights, higher minimum wage, an end to the contract labour system, and against privatisation. The masks symbolised the invisibility of the low paid.
Now there is talk of strikes for political demands: “Suhair Dhexe, speaking at a mass demonstration in Haifa, warned of a coming general strike because the government does not understand other language, and the struggle must also be against racism, against occupation and for peace“
After the big numbers dwindle
As and when the central events dwindle, the committed, political and mixed-race protests will become more vulnerable, but those remaining around them will be more politicised and committed. It will become a smaller, tougher event. If they are subject to major police violence or someone gets killed, this could create whole new waves of struggle, where their politics, no longer swamped by the great Tel Aviv middle class tide, will be more visible and powerful.
There is already an anticipation of a crackdown. The politicians who have spent the past few years lovingly crafting increasingly racist laws to silence and intimidate the Palestinian minority must be itching to stop this blatant demand for their rights. Already snatch squads including non-uniformed undercover agents have arrested selected people on the fringes of the big rallies, discreetly but still to shouts of “Police State! Police State!” One seasoned activist said “I’m 100% sure they targeted certain people”. The same selection is applied to encampments, with harassment and eviction in poor, working class areas (Levitsky, Holon).
Many people are on edge, expecting trouble. Police and prison pay has been quickly hiked up by 40%. Some say that tent camps should start to organise self-defence committees.
If the mass protests and growing confrontations continue into September they will coincide with the expected eruption in the Palestinian popular resistance following the UN statehood vote. Even if they don’t link up, the Palestinian resistance will benefit from Netanyahu’s now limited room for manoeuvre against it, with people at the back of him refusing to swallow the old bullshit any more. As one young woman put it, “They only talk about security, terrorism, terrorism, terrorism. It’s not enough for people anymore. They have to stop telling us fairy tales so that because of security we tolerate everything.”