Cautious Optimism and Wet Blankets on Israel’s ‘Social Justice’ Protests

A protest leader at the weekly solidarity rally in Sheikh Jarrah, East Jerusalem---not to be confused with the 'social justice' demonstrations taking place all over Israel.

A protest leader at the weekly solidarity rally in Sheikh Jarrah, East Jerusalem—not to be confused with the ‘social justice’ demonstrations taking place all over Israel.

I still don’t know what to think about Israel’s so-called “social justice” protests that are dominating the news here. I’m seeing a lot of headlines about this movement as the resurrection of Israel’s left, marginalized by the current hard-line government, now emerging with a more populist message. Here’s the NYT take:

“The left has risen back to life,” Shai Golden, deputy editor of the newspaper Maariv, said in a column on Sunday. “It hasn’t yet dared to let the words ‘occupation’ and ‘settlements’ cross its lips and to cite the social and economic price that they have cost Israel over the course of the past four decades.” The new movement, he added, would be “the social left.” …

The left hopes that in the coming year or two it could sweep back to power through a focus on social issues and then, in the bargain, shift the country’s external policy. The left would heavily curtail settlement building in the West Bank and has shown greater willingness to yield territory to the Palestinians and to share Jerusalem in a two-state solution.

Dena Shunra writing on Mondoweiss offers this rather rosy assessment:

What the activists want is nothing less than an entirely new social contract. They want to roll back the Shock Doctrine privatization, and regain a security network for what used to be the middle class, before Netanyahu and the neo-liberals sold off the assets – which had originally been taken over from the Palestinians, between the end of WWI and the 1948.

They don’t just want the government to fall; they want the system to change, from the ground up. They want to see a system which they describe as “fair” – a system where life is a playable game.

What will this mean for Palestine, though? What will it mean for the Palestinian citizens of Israel, and for the Palestinians living under occupation in the West Bank and Gaza, or in exile? When the Israeli government falls, and the New Deal protesters are asking for is worked out in detail, Israel will be at a turning point. It can either continue as an apartheid state – or step back and reorganize as the kind of entity Azmi Bishara described as “a state for all its citizens”. The timing, so close to September and the declaration of statehood in the Bantustans of the West Bank, is fortuitous: it would be fairly easy to preempt that, and declare a single state, with a sharing of resources and power among all its citizens – which would allow the resources to be diverted from military adventurism to the sort of state that the protesters are demanding. It is a possible path from here to there, and the very first such possible path I’ve seen. There are, however, other possibilities: Netanyahu could pull out the war card, to galvanize people behind fear of a perceived enemy; or the Israelis might decide that they actually like living in an apartheid environment, and upon rethinking it, decide to maintain that structure.

The protests are radically different from anything I’ve seen in Israel, ever. I am cautiously hopeful that they could lead to one state, with equal rights for all, regardless of ethnicity, and an ingathering of Palestinian exiles. Inshallah.

But since when has a socially left Israeli government spelled justice for Palestinians? It was leftist Labor Zionists that executed many of Israel’s worst crimes, from David Ben Gurion in the Nakba to Amir Peretz in the 2006 bombardment of Lebanon to Ehud Barak in Operation Cast Lead.

In addition to that history, on-the-ground testimony from the protest by +972′s Dahlia Scheindlin and Joseph Dana throws another wet blanket on Shunra’s cautious optimism (emphasis added):

Many are saying that this is something new, especially after Saturday night turned into Israel’s largest-ever social protest, as Maariv’s print headline proclaimed. … The hyper-fragmented groups in Israel are listening to each other, hammering out common ground to combat shared economic desperation. Just don’t mention Israel’s occupation of the West Bank, or even the neutral local euphemism “medini” [lit: political/diplomatic] issues. Just leave out the institutional inequality most Palestinian citizens of Israel experience here – inequality of other groups is welcome. …

I learned this the hard way. After a number of conversations with protesters, including some of its organizers (the protests are actually notably non-cohesive) – it became very clear that one of the top strategic goals is to avoid being branded as “left.” Joseph feels the environment around this topic is so toxic, he has tried to avoid even raising questions about why a ‘social justice revolution’ does not address the inequality of all those living under Israeli control. …

On Friday, some protesters hassled other Palestinian protesters, citizens suffering from housing crises. It came to scuffles. The diminutive Palestinian flags they hung were removed. Joseph recalls the struggles against apartheid in South Africa and Jim Crow south. Can we imagine the ruling classes there demanding “social justice” without addressing their gravest internal injustices? What does the term “social justice” mean if so many who don’t have it are left out? Sure, let’s protest exorbitant housing costs – but why call it “social justice” if the very crux of social justice, namely equality, is not addressed? Can Israelis have a social justice revolution without speaking about the rights of people they control and occupy?

Later still on Friday night, one of the organizers told me that if I were to raise these kinds of issues, specifically ‘medini’ I would be thrown out of “his circle,” of people or tents. Why? “Because the only war is a class war,” he said, as if he had just recently skimmed the cliff-notes.

The middle sign in Arabic reads: "End the Occupation." How's that for clarity?

The middle sign in Arabic reads: “End the Occupation.” How’s that for clarity?

So on Friday, while the definition of “social justice” was being debated in Tel Aviv, I was hanging with more unapologetically anti-occupation Israeli, international, and local Palestinian activists resisting Israeli settlements in Sheikh Jarrah as they do every week. As usual, it was a modest protest (though the weeks prior saw some record crowds as well), and is not without critics, but at least this event’s message was more clear.

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