Can J14 turn the tables for the progressive cause within Israel?

The revolutionary social struggle taking place in Israel today is nearing a critical juncture: either it crumbles under the boot of “security needs” and racial segregation, or breaks free from all previous dogmas and reboots our political system.

By Haggai Matar

Perhaps it is due time to say these words out loud: friends, partners, comrades – we on the left have been fighting for a lost cause. For ages now we’ve been fighting against occupation, apartheid, Zionist racism and the likes, with very little to show for it.

In recent decades, Israel’s rule over the Palestinian Occupied Territories has become ever-more sophisticated, more brutal, and deeper entrenched. Large-scale discrimination against Palestinian citizens of Israel remains official state policy, giving rise in recent years into a wave of counter-democratic and racist legislation. And, of course, not a single Palestinian refugee was permitted to either return to Israel or recieve compensation for over 63 years of exile.

It is not easy to admit failure after 12 years of working with Palestinian, Israeli and international comrades for Palestinian freedom. We’ve demonstrated, marched, protested, and built bridges of solidarity and hope, while also being beaten, shot at and arrested.

My friends tend to view me as an optimist: despite all that has happened, and in spite of the complicity of the greater part of Jewish Israelis in the occupation, I never gave up on the hope of change, and put my time and energy into educational projects, lectures, leaflets, and writing and talking to people on the streets. I talked to soldiers sent to disperse our joint unarmed demonstrations against the Apartheid Wall, trying to get them to understand our struggle too. I still believe in this strategy, along with outside pressure such as UN resolutions and BDS campaigns.

However, I fully understand both my Palestinian and my Israeli friends who have given up on the Jewish Israeli public. Inside Israel, hardly anyone seems to be concerned about ending the military regime in the occupied Palestinian Territories (OPT). The material and psychological combination of privilege, economic benefits, a racist feeling of superiority and the deeply rooted existential fear of a “second holocaust” – nourished through schools, media and politicians – seems to have forged an unbreakable barrier protecting the collective national dogmas. Add to that the apparent blank check of support granted by the US and the EU, and one is bound to sink into some sort of pessimistic depression or another: nothing seemed to make any kind of change. Until now.

The age of dreams

It is still too early to predict exactly where the “J14” social protest movement is heading. But for the first time in decades, perhaps, we are witnessing the impossible becoming possible. What appeared to be a mere fantasy half a year ago, while we were watching the people of Egypt take their dreams into the streets, has become a vivid reality.

For example, on the very first day after the Rothschild camp was erected, I met a young Tel Aviv friend with no background in political activism, who decided to protest his high rent. In a discussion about the struggle, he was very adamant about the need to avoid any issue that was not directly related to the housing problem. A week later, I ran into him again, lecturing passionately to friends about why this must be a struggle to change the entire economic system, not just the rent. I learnt that between our two meetings he participated in several workshops about the economy, which took place in the tent camp, and watched films critical of privatization. This has radicalized him in a way that was never before possible in the militaristic security-driven discourse that ruled Israeli political culture since before 1948.

The very next day we witnessed the first mass demonstration in the streets of Tel Aviv and it was here that I first felt that the “people” in the slogan “the people demand social justice” might for the first time actually refer to all Israel’s people or citizens, not just Jews. This simple republican notion, with its radical potential of including Jews and Palestinians in the same mainstream movement against neo-liberal capitalism, would soon prove its worth. The following week’s rally, probably the biggest demonstration in Israeli history, already featured a Palestinian speaker, an Israeli citizen, on stage (Dimi wrote about this here).

Just seven short days after that, more than ten Palestinian tent camps were set up within Israel’s borders. Palestinian citizens have joined the “encampments assembly” – the national leadership of the struggle. Their demands for recognition of “unrecognized” villages and for construction permits on their own lands are being integrated into the official struggle agenda. Last Saturday night’s protest, which focused on the periphery rather than Tel Aviv, saw Palestinian citizens as major partners, if not outright initiators. This was true not only in bi-national Jaffa and Haifa, but also in Be’er Sheva and Afula, where populations are almost entirely Jewish. On the central stages of all these demonstrations, speakers repeated the notion of Jewish-Arab partnership. Raja Za’atry, member of the Higher Arab Monitoring Committee in Israel, welcomed demonstrators to the “Red Haifa”, and said that “hunger and humiliation, just like capital, have no homeland or language… This struggle belongs to everyone!” Then on Monday morning, an official committee of academics was formed by the struggle’s leadership, as opposition to the one formed by the government. In the press conference introducing the committee, one of the four speakers was a Palestinian woman, who stressed how the government sidelines Arab citizens and how the demand for social justice must include an end to racial discrimination.

Iraqi born Jewish author and director of the Israeli Association for Civil Rights, Sami Michael, promoted the same notion in both Arabic and Hebrew when he spoke to the Haifa rally.

In the coming week, more and more protestors are scheduled to attend on organized solidarity visits to Arab encampments, new links will be formed and new knowledge gained.

Dreams know no boundaries

Yet the question remains: what good is a struggle for social justice which remains silent on the greatest crime of them all – the occupation, and stolen Palestinian lands within Israel? This is a legitimate and  crucial point. In the long run, if this struggle does not take on the call for democracy, equality and justice for ALL – it will most definitely have failed.

However, I feel that this accusation is being brought forth too quickly, by those who have given up on Israeli society’s potential for change. The radical left is no longer an outsider, but forms an important part of the mainstream. Leftist activists are everywhere: in solidarity with worker unions who are gradually joining, in poor neighborhoods fighting for public housing, bridging Palestinian and Jewish communities that share this need, in the main tent camp in Rothschild and in the “encampment’s assembly”. Everything is changing, and we have a role to play too.

The road to addressing the occupation is still long. The same republican discourse that embraces Palestinian citizens might alienate Palestinians in the Occupied Territories. Some say it might endanger the demand for collective rights, rather than just individual rights, as the struggle “erases” particular identities in order to promote a so called “unified people”. It might fall into the hands of “patriots”, who would wish to enlist Jewish society for a new war of oppression against Palestinians when September comes. It might break the movement to pieces.

And it might not. It is possible that hundreds of thousands of people can now legitimately put aside militaristic interests and start fighting for a new kind of security, social security. This radicalization could yet hinder the rhetoric of “patriotic duty”. Despite the proximity of the September Palestinian statehood declaration, rumors of a planned eviction of the tent encampments have everyone talking about a fight against the authorities to keep them.

Meanwhile, the occupation as a topic to be addressed has already begun to make its way into the struggle. At the 1948 Tent in Tel Aviv, Palestinians and Jews are talking to passers by about the occupation, and handing out leaflets implying the need to refuse a possible emergency reserves’ draft in September. On Friday, the weekly demonstration in Nabi Saleh featured a tent covered with slogans such as “settlements = injustice” and “you can’t have social justice under apartheid”. The previous day, the central outdoor cinema in Rothschild screened its first anti-occupation film, dealing with the military courts’ system in the Occupied Territories (“The Law In These Parts“) “We can’t help but feel that social justice is not something that can stop on the Green Line”, said the organizers. In Be’er Sheva the Bedouin speaker Hannan Al-San’a spoke of collective identities and cultures to be respected, and popular singer Ahinoam Nini said she will not trust the current administration if it takes us into war. In Haifa, Za’atary warned that it is the interest of capital to start a war to silence the protest, but insisted on a joint struggle for “justice, peace, equality, and better future, and a just future for both peoples”.

This all does not mean that we’re going to see a wave of new encampments in the West Bank and Gaza, asking to send representatives to the “encampment’s assembly”, and a simple cohesion of the Palestinian struggle into the social struggle. Not at all. The segregation and the military oppression used against political activists in the Occupied Territories are probably too deeply entrenched to allow such a thing, and both sides would probably be too suspicious of each other to proceed with such an initiative. But it does mean that things are changing. It does mean that we, Palestinians and Jews alike, partners in the struggle for freedom, peace, democracy and equality, can for the first time dream of having a lasting effect on mainstream politics – and try to make that dream come true.

Haggai Matar is an Israeli journalist and political activist, focusing mainly on the struggle against the occupation. He is currently working at Zman Tel Aviv, the local supplement of Maariv newspaper, and at the independent Hebrew website MySay.