Israeli and international radical left: Time for a divorce
Why the ad hoc alliance with international left activists is unhelpful to the Israeli left, and should end
One of the phenomena characterizing the coverage of the J14 protests from the beginning was the long faces of a significant number of notable international peace activists. But…but… but you’re not talking about the occupation, they demanded of the marching Israelis. They were soundly ignored, the protest became a mass success, and they became much more bitter.
At one point – it was during the third or fourth week of the protests – one of them wrote it was a struggle “about the price of cottage cheese”. I politely invited him to join Netanyahu’s PR team. He was gravely insulted, and I sincerely hope he won’t forgive me; yet the claims of many international activists against J14 were greatly similar to those of Netanyahu’s PR. We were told it’s the protest of people living in luxury, who fail to deal with the only real thing around here. Netanyahu’s bureau would call it The Second Independence War/The Second Zionist War/The Great War against the Dark Palestinian Conspiracy; the international activists just call it by that much more common name, the occupation.
As the protest grew stronger, they grew ever more bitter, spending much of their time mocking it. This behaviour raises two questions: One, just what sort of a leftist spends so much energy on opposing a protest intended to bring about a social-democratic regime, which did much to bring together Jews and Palestinians, and the only protest in the last decade – at least – which presented to a crowd of several hundred thousand Jews Palestinian speakers. The second question is: Just what the hell happened to your sense of solidarity? Why can’t you show some good will towards people who stood by your side in the West Bank, and consumed alongside you bulk quantities of CS gas?
The depressing answer is we’re not dealing with leftist, but rather with Palestinian right-winger. They suffer from tunnel-vision: All they see is the occupation. As if there wasn’t an Israel beyond it, as if people did not live and breath and love and die here, who had other issues on their mind. The never-ceasing demand from J14 to speak about the occupation, one begins to suspect, is intended for one thing only: Division of the protest movement. Then we’ll be pure and just again. Admittedly, there’ll be only about a dozen of us, but ideological purity should conquer all.
This means, of course, that these people are not actually interested in reaching any sort of goal; this, after all, demands building a coalition, and the ability to speak with the general Israeli public. They want to oppose the occupation, which makes them look nice morally, and confers a few sums of cultural capital on them. One wonders what they’ll do when the conflict ends; pine for the best years of their lives?
They don’t see themselves as partners to an intra-Israeli struggle, mainly because they consider all Israelis to suffer from an original sin, which, as long as they don’t scrub themselves like Lady Macbeth while wearing the heretic’s robe and chanting “we have sinned, have mercy upon us”, they are unworthy of justice. We’re not talking about humans, after all: Just cardboard characters from a morality play. The repertoire is limited: We have the conscious participant in crimes, we have the one who sins but sinks in denial (often played by a player who, in another play, serves as the golem), and, finally, the awakened sinner who now, after being redeemed by the Virgin Mary Mavi Marmara, tries to convince the rest of the people of Sodom that there’s a huge meteor a coming their way, before the great and terrible day of BDS. Sometimes, the irate locals crucify him, so his role is perfect. Dammit, the morality plays of the Middle Ages were more sophisticated.
And since everything is so clear and simple, any deviation from the script annoys and frustrates the producers. The players ought not to have opinions. She is not supposed to be a single mother, who thinks of making ends meet before thinking of the plight of the Palestinians. He is not supposed to be a successful hi-tech engineer, who, once he becomes a father, finds out he, too, will have to work harder just to survive. He is not supposed to be a cop who just wants to end his shift in one piece, while trying to avoid his wife so he won’t have to explain, again, why he isn’t seeking a better paying job (which basically means any job except teaching) – a cop who suddenly starts listening to the demonstrators. Hey, copper, copper! You, too, deserve better!
Former allies in fight against occupation are battling over the meaning of the tent protest. Can the relationship be rescued, and should it be?
Noam Sheizaf, 972 mag
The tent protest, also known as J14, already had an effect on many groups in Israeli society, forcing them to re-examine their political positions and alliances. And while we have yet to see what comes out of this process, it is safe to say that in the last few weeks a new conversation has emerged.
One of these developments, perhaps an unwelcome one, was a growing rift between Israeli left-wing activists and some progressive bloggers and writers outside Israel. These two groups have deepened their cooperation in recent years, usually around issues concerning the joint struggle against the occupation. In other cases, they were able to exchange information and help fight against anti-Palestinian rhetoric in the West (which is more and more often generated or sponsored in Jerusalem) and against political persecution in Israel proper.
J14 revealed the limits of this cooperation. While most Israeli activists on the left welcomed the protest and were among the first to join it—often using it as a platform for a more general call for political change and justice that would include non-Jewish groups—the demonstrations were met with suspicion from pro-Palestinian activists and writers abroad. Some of them argued that J14 neglects the ethnic dimension of the political system in Israel and concentrates on benefits for the dominant Jewish group rather than on the rights of Palestinians, who are discriminated against west of the Green Line and oppressed to its east; and are subject to a mechanism of separation everywhere.
Strange as it may seem, I tend to agree with both sides in this debate. I see great hope in J14, a tremendous opportunity, and yet I think it’s important to challenge it all the time on the Palestinian question. This will help the movement become an instrument for promoting true political justice in Israel, and protect it from shrinking to an internal debate within the Israeli elites over tax benefits and rent control.
Even the writing on +972, while being done mostly by Israelis (only one of our regular bloggers is Palestinian) reflects this debate. See this recent piece by Joseph Dana and Max Blumenthal for one view of the protest, and Dimi Reider, Haggai Matar, Ami Kaufman and myself for others. And there was also this piece by Yossi Gurvitz, directed at “the international left”, which made many people angry, but at the same time, was shared (in its Hebrew version) by quite a few Israeli activists.
Joseph and Max’s piece, and later Yossi’s, led to some fierce internet debates between Israelis and non-Israelis who used to see themselves as partners for the same cause; these arguments made the pro-occupation right quite happy. Check out, for examples, the Twitter feeds of Joseph Dana, Max Blumenthal,Itamar_B, Or Bareket, Yossi Gurvitz, Elizabeth Tsurkov and Ali Abunimah. Given the highly aggressive tones in these debates, I find myself wondering what would become of the ability to internationalize the conversation.
Personally, I didn’t agree with Max and Joseph’s piece. I thought it cherry-picked examples in order to prove that J14 was some sort of a right-wing movement (it’s not), while missing on the bigger picture. This is an Israeli mass movement, so it is bound to include many of the problematic aspects of Israeli politics, such as the tendency to see the Golan or even the settlement of Ariel as part of Israel proper. The important issue is not where the movement starts but where it leads, and in my view, this is still an open question. Change doesn’t just happen one day (or in a single month). It happens through political activism, and right now we have mass activism for the first time in years. So there could, potentially, be mass change. This is the reason for the relative hope I see in this protest.
Yet there was something more to what I sensed than pure disagreement. I felt a bit offended on an emotional level by Max and Joseph’s piece, which is not something very common for me when political writing is concerned, even when I am personally attacked. Reading some of the comments my friends made on Twitter, I thought they had the same feeling, possibly even worse.
What made us feel offended? A possible explanation is that in recent years Israeli leftists found outside their country the understanding and support they couldn’t get from their own peers in Israel, so we take it very much to heart when this understanding is denied us. Without being too melodramatic, it hasn’t been easy to be a leftist here in the last couple of years. We registered +972 as a non-profit recently, and yesterday, while sitting with our accountant, he told me off-handedly: “Better keep your papers in order – someone might give you trouble, considering your politics.” And I can give other such examples every day of the week.
To a Palestinian all this might sound very strange, if not simply selfish and myopic: Our petty problems are nothing compared to those faced by a resident of Nablus yet to gain his freedom, or to the Gazans who were in mortal danger just last week.
So both sides ended up feeling betrayed: The Israelis who lost their partners just when they felt that progress was finally being made, and the Palestinians that couldn’t help but hear the message that “the occupation can wait while we are working on reaching out to the Jewish public.” Palestinians know that they have waited enough. Personally, I would have felt the same if I were a Palestinian, so I don’t need to ask for their support or understanding in dealing with my own society.
But there might be something deeper, and I am referring here more to the commentary by non-Palestinian writers (as I said, I have no demands from Palestinians on that). What I get from the writing by non-Palestinian activists is not just a rejection of internal Israeli politics, which is understandable, but of Israeli identity as a whole, seeing it as one which is inherently criminal, and therefore cannot change, while J14 is all about an attempt for internal change.
I am not talking racism here. Usually, people who give me the feeling I described above are quite ready to acknowledge our Jewish identity. But for me and for many of my friends on the left—most of them third and fourth generation Israelis —we are always more “Israeli” than “Jewish,” whether we like it or not. While we accept the need for a radical transformation of the political system – one which must change what “Israeli” means and possibly replace this term altogether, we are Israelis now. Not “Jews.” I do expect those who analyze Israeli society at least to be aware of that.
But should this identity crisis really interest those critics when making their points? I don’t know. I believe that their primary motivation is solidarity with the Palestinians, and it’s a noble one. Yet I think such understanding can explain some of the current strife.
Politically speaking, it’s a reminder of the fact that the real trade-off in this conflict is not about independence (for Palestinians) and security (for Israelis) but rather freedom and justice (for Palestinians) and legitimacy (for Israelis). And when Israelis seem to abandon the Palestinian cause (even if they think it’s in the interest of freedom and justice), they lose on the legitimacy side. These are all very abstract terms, and perhaps not the right ones to use in a political debate, but I have no other way of explaining my unfinished thoughts on this issue.
On a more immediate level, it has been proven that the cooperation between progressive forces in Israel and abroad can only take place within an active joint struggle against the occupation. Perhaps this is for the best. Unlike some, I am optimistic, and I think that once our attention comes back to this issue, ties could be renewed.