August 01, 2011

Protests in Israel. Why and how much they matter.

For personal reasons, I don't have time to write the lengthy article that what is happening in Israel now deserves. But something is happening. There is an unprecedented wave of protests that are explicitly against neoliberalism, sweeping over Israel. They started from Tel Aviv but seem to be expanding to many cities. A few observations:

1. This is without a doubt the influence of the "Arab Spring." While Israel has been one of the most viciously neo-liberalized societies in the Western world, and the level of pain inflicted cuts wide and deep, this wave of protests would have been unimaginable before Mubarak fell. The influence of the Arab Spring is clear in the mode of organizing, taking and holding public space; in the broad and (relative for Israel) non-sectarian demands and slogans; in the sheer size of participation, and in self-conscious references to the "Arab Spring". The very fact that Israelis are emulating, and in some obvious ways, consciously emulating, a positive example set for them by Arab societies is psychologically momentous.

2. While this is not the first protest on matters of economic justice, to my knowledge this is the first "Israeli" large scale protest. By this I mean that struggles for social justice have been struggles of particularly hard hit sectors, while the majority watches with hostility, mild sympathy or indifference. This is not the case here. Furthermore, while the protesters seem to be declaring themselves apolitical, i.e. neither left nor right, one could say that precisely for this reason this is the first ever political protest in Israel. That is because the difference between "left" and "right" is not really a political difference in the sense that the "left" and the "right" do not have a fundamental disagreement about the future path of the Israeli society (they represent different cultural identities and only really disagree an the technical question of how to dispose of Palestinians). By putting those labels aside, the protesters are protesting, for the first time ever in Israel, as the people against the system. Therefore, this protest is the first emergence of a true political confrontation in Israel. This is simply momentous.

3. although the (small) radical left is almost invisible, reading between the lines it is clear that it plays a very important role, and yet that it does it with the wisdom of a light touch. This is, it seems to me, another example of emulating successful strategies from the Arab Spring.

4. The question is whether this wave of protest can become the kind of basis for a mass movement that would challenge the apartheid/settler dimension of Israel, given that this dimension is the heart of the state. It is the nature of radical events such as this protest movement that they are unpredictable and can go further than anyone can imagine. But bearing that in mind, my initial assessment is that it cannot. This is touching on one of the key differences between Israel and Egypt. In Egypt, the non-sectarianism of the original uprising was total. Since Israel is an apartheid state, the non-secterianism, while still impressive in its own terms, excludes the Palestinians, namely the most oppressed group within the system. This cannot be easily overcome. The key contradiction is between the political dimension of the protest, which requires rejecting the language of "left" vs. "right", and the absence of an Israeli language regarding Palestinians other than the degraded language of "left" vs. "right" Zionism (of course such a language exists, but it is not "Israeli", and the people who can bring it are not part of it). What this means is that the very appearance of the apartheid issue on the scene of the protest would provide the government with the tools guaranteed to deflate it. Again, I wouldn't say this is insurmountable, but chances are in won't be surmounted.

This however does not mean the protest movement is insignificant. Even though at this stage it seems that it has neither the language, nor the social consciousness, to challenge apartheid, this protest movement challenges for the first time the deeper dimension of power that makes apartheid both necessary and possible. Any victory that it will have will therefore lead to more favorable conditions for challenging Israeli apartheid.


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