Israeli Social Justice Protests: Links Round-Up and Commentary

Growing from a handful of students in early July to almost half a million people last week, the protests for "social justice" in Israel appear to have established a new front in the global resistance to neoliberalism. Like any region of the capitalist world, Israelis have seen rising costs of housing, transportation, and childcare. From professionals to the working poor, salaries and wages have been declining as the top one percent continues to become incredibly wealthy. The picture by now is an all-too-familiar one for people everywhere.

Right-wing Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu appointed a special committee to investigate solutions to quell the protesters and its full recommendations are due to be released on September 29. About 90% of Israelis identify with the protests, a real contrast to the surge in popularity Netanyahu experienced after his trip to Washington only a few months prior.

At this stage, it's not easy to predict where these protests will go. Like any emerging movement, numerous contradictions abound. Protesters speak about the struggles of the "middle class," while many of the issues they face are those of the working poor. Many remain intent of maintaining the integrity of the movement as a "social" and not "political" one; meaning, that issues are not "left and right" and solutions may be found within the framework of the existing parties and state. However, the most glaring contradiction (to those of us who are unapologetically on the left) is its general unwillingness to discuss these "social justice" issues within the context of the settler-colonial Zionist project that continues to occupy Palestinian lands and expunge the state of Palestinian people, their histories, and their struggle for self-determination.

This latter contradiction has ignited debates within the left regarding the nature of the protests and whether they could potentially promote real social justice at all. I’ve placed links to some of the most insightful moments of these debates below, as well as a few embedded in these comments.

In “The Tent Protests in Israel: Can They Break Out of the (Zionist) Box,” Jeff Halper notes that “Inclusion, full equality, and genuine democracy [in other words, social justice] cannot arise inside Israel as long as Jews claim privileged rights over Palestinian and other citizens of Israel--all the while keeping millions of Palestinian non-citizens living under occupation or stuck in refugee camps.”

Everyone on the left agrees with Halper’s basic statement. The problem, which Halper recognizes, is that the demands of Israeli Jews for a welfare state that would subsidize housing, food, transportation, child care, and other daily needs is ideologically reconcilable with the Zionist project, and has been since 1948 and before. The duty to take from the Palestinians and redistribute equally among the “chosen people” was practically the ethos of the Israeli Labor Party and its predecessors before the neoliberal turn (to say nothing about the ethnic inequalities among Israeli Jews that existed then and persist today).

This is why Greg Burris, writing for Electronic Intifada, describes the protests as a rebirth of this ethos, “to improve the Zionist dream of building a social welfare state in a Palestine without Palestinians.” Editorials in mainstream Israeli publications describe the possibilities to "renew Zionism" within the space of these protests. Anti-imperialist cartoonist Carlos Latuff pokes at this dynamic below. Is it really possible to build a social welfare state, no matter how exclusive, and continue the current pace of spending on military costs and settlement building? Probably not--but when the current paradigm of “security” and expansion runs directly up against “social justice,” which will win out in the “non-political” protests?

For this reason, many worry about how a violent offensive against Palestinians or other Arab neighbors in the name of “security” would distract protesters, or potentially even call up the reservists among them. Again, which side would they choose, as they continually relegate the issue of the occupation and apartheid to the back burner? Moshe Machovér, one of the more hopeful analysts linked below, admits that while such a confrontation would split the protesters into two or more camps, it’s unlikely to deflect the entire movement--as the reaction to the recent Egypt-Israel border violence suggests.

Because similar issues of inequality also propelled the Arab Spring onto the world stage earlier this year, many have been quick to characterize the Israeli protests as a continuation of this regional uprising--an Israeli Fall, perhaps. However, it’s clearly not the sort of Israeli fall that protesters in Egypt and other Arab nations desire. Is it, as Burris ironically suggests, an “Arab Spring without Arabs,” or should we read the participation of some Israeli Arab organizations as well as the Israeli peace movement in the demonstrations as evidence that there is some space to integrate the calls to dismantle neoliberalism with those to dismantle the apartheid state? Whose voices will be heard loudest--those of "Tent 1948" or of the Ariel settlement?

People are undoubtedly transformed through struggle, but not in an automatic leftward or anti-racist manner. It will take some time to see what happens with this particular movement, but the dialogue, debates, and responses of the Palestinian and Israeli forces within and without will chart the course.

Most of us are not in any position to affect the course of the movement in Israel, but we should ponder how the dynamics might relate to our own work. After all, neoliberalism is deeply racialized in many countries--particularly the United States, where it shapes the modern contours of white supremacy. No matter how “multicultural” some visible positions of authority may appear, neoliberal accumulation is not a color-blind or post-racial process. Under neoliberalism, the racial divisions in the working class grow greater through intensified job loss/movement, defunding and transformation of social services, home foreclosure, continual dispossession of indigenous people, and mass incarceration of Black and Latino people--just to name a few ways.

My take, as you may have guessed, is that to ignore the interconnectedness of racism, dispossession, and neoliberalism is to fight a losing battle. What that means from place to place, though, deserves a nuanced look. Below are a smattering of links (in no particular order) that I thought contributed such a nuanced look at this specific issue. Feel free to comment with links to more analysis, recent developments, or just tell us what you think.

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Israel Rocked By Protests

By Moshe Machovér

After a military provocation by Israel into Gaza, apparently designed to distract and/or co-opt protesters, "it is quite likely that the movement will split into at least two camps," Moshe Machovér writes for the Weekly Worker. "One will continue to avoid 'political' issues. The more radical camp will make the connection explicitly. One thing is certain: Israel is no longer socially tranquil. Class struggle is on the agenda."

The Exclusive Revolution: Israeli Social Justice and the Separation Principle

By Max Blumenthal and Joseph Dana

Blumenthal and Dana explore the protest movement from inception to late August, paying close attention to the dangerous mainstreaming of the Israeli left, as long as they don’t insist on bringing up the occupation; the Palestinian participants, either ignored or tokenized by the majority of protesters; and the expansion of the protests into the Ariel settlement, “the linchpin of the major settlement blocs Israel refuses to relinquish in final status negotiations.”

See also J14 and the Calamity of Hope: A Response to Critics by the same authors.

Social Origins of Israeli Unrest

By Max Ajl

Max Ajl believes that, though “this movement will not break the Israeli structure of power, [...] this is an early fracture--a foretaste of later ruptures --within Zionism.” “Israeli history weighs like an alp upon the minds of the protesters,” he writes. “Whether they will be able to throw it off is the question that is now before them.”

Palestinian Rights Absent From Israeli Protest Demands

From The Real News Network (video)

Time for Israeli Social Protest to Make Political Choices, End Illusion of National Unity

By Michel Warschawski, Alternative Information Center

“Sooner than later the movement will have to put an end to its 'apolitical' claim. Right and left are opposite directions, one leading to more poverty and social discrimination and the other to a more just distribution of wealth. One of the most popular slogans of the demonstrators, 'REVOLUTION', is a very ambitious program. To achieve even a small part of it requires the making of choices and an end to the illusion of national unity.”

Historic Declaration by Palestinians, Israelis in Support of Israeli Social Protest, Anti-Colonial Struggle

From “[twenty] political parties and social movements from both sides of the Green Line”

“We welcome the participation and integration of the Palestinian population in Israel in the social protest. This is an important opportunity to present before various groups within Israeli society the distresses of the Palestinians and the injustices caused to them, so that these groups can take responsibility in the struggle against the marginalizing policies and ongoing discrimination against the Palestinians in Israel, for putting an ending to confiscation of lands and full equality, and an end to the occupation of the Palestinian lands that were occupied in 1967.”

Tent 1948

By Abir Kopty

“The existence of Tent 1948 in the encampment constitutes a challenge to people taking part in the July 14 movement. In the first few days, the tent was attacked by group of rightwing activists, who beat activists in the tent and broke down the Palestinian flag of the tent. Some of the leaders of the July 14 movement have said clearly that raising core issues related to Palestinian community in Israel or the occupation will make the struggle 'lose momentum'. They often said the struggle is social, not political, as if there was a difference. They are afraid of losing supporters if they make Palestinian issues bold. The truth is that this is the truth.”

Whitey on the Moon

By Dina Omar

“The structure of [Gil] Scott-Heron’s poem ['Whitey on the Moon'] works well to measure that disconnect Darwish so eloquently wrote about in 1982, and that exists between Palestinian reality and 14 July slogans today. Scott-Heron’s correlation between space adventures and structural racism or poverty in the US is comparable to the correlation between the examples of asymmetry between the Israelis and Palestinians. Historically, Israeli 'social justice' has been achieved at the expense of Palestinian social justice. The Whitey on the Moon structure is useful in this way: 'can’t pay no doctors bills but whitey’s on the moon.'"

In Tel Aviv, An Arab Spring That Ignores the Arabs

By Greg Burris

"When freedom for one people is achieved with the occupation of another, there is nothing to be celebrated. The Rothschild Boulevard rebellion departs in no way from this precedent. Without addressing the occupation, the protesters’ demands, at the very best, aim only to make life better for the occupiers, and the welcomed inclusion of members from the Ariel mega-settlement in the revolt, as reported by Max Blumenthal and Joseph Dana, should serve here as a grim warning."

Globalised Israel: The Rules Have Changed

By Assaf Adiv

Assaf Adiv, "a militant of the Workers Advice Center," provides an in-depth look at the transformation of the Israeli economy over the past 30 years and related political shifts.

A Few Observations on Israel's Protests

By Richard Seymour

"[These] protests constitute a form of class struggle that has the potential to weaken the far Right and, if pushed to a certain extent, bring the polity to a crisis that weakens its grip over the Palestinians. The Israeli state will certainly try to resolve this by transferring the antagonism to the colonial plane, and may even launch another aggressive war. But such solutions may run up against quite serious limits, especially if the Arab revolt deepens and spreads..."

Israeli Protests

Ryan, thanks for these very important links. The "Arab's Out of Jaffa" (sic) sign is carried not by a "sincere protester" but by a rightwing counter-demonstrator, and is clearly intended to show the reactionaries' mocking contempt for "artists and college students."

In any case, we need to keep in mind a difference between the South African and Israeli colonial-settler situations. Under South African apartheid, white (Afrikaner) poverty was essentially eliminated through the use of a state-owned industrial sector that promoted whites to privileged managerial and frankly overpaid skilled trades positions (while the actual skilled work tended increasingly to be performed, in fact, by lower-paid black workers). In South Africa, the class struggle WAS pretty much the Black struggle -- that's a slight oversimplification but it's the basic reality.

In Israel, the neoliberal transformation of the past 20-25 years has had the opposite effect -- big economic growth but a severe increase in inequality and poverty, not only among the Arabs but Jews as well. There is serious Jewish poverty in Israel, and this
creates the basis for joint struggle. The barriers to such a development within a Jewish-supremacist state are huge and it's correct to point them out, but I don't think they're qualitatively greater than the barriers in this country created by white racism. Right now, the Israeli social movement's weakness is also its strength: the absence of an organized political expression. That means it doesn't have leverage at the parliamentary or legislative level. At the same time, thanks to the fortunate collapse of the Labor Party and the Zionist fake-left (Meretz), there isn't a bureaucratic political party apparatus to coopt, swallow and direct it into the usual Jewish-supremacist channels.

-- David Finkel

Thanks for the correction re:

Thanks for the correction re: the sign and the additional comments!

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