Critical Moment in Israel

The mass protests currently sweeping Israel, first sparked by the demand for affordable housing, have officially expanded to a host of economic demands presented today to PM Netanyahu.

Protest leaders in Tel Aviv’s tent city, after establishing a “headquarters” meant to represent protesters in the 40 tent cities spread across Israel, sent Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu a list of bold demands upon which they hope negotiations with the government can be based.

And while the list was expansive – including lowering taxes, expanding public eduction and health care reforms – absent from the list was anything related to Palestinian rights, settlements or the occupation.

This absence has been noticed and critiqued by many segments watching the protests closely, notably Palestinians, very progressive Jewish Israelis and a group of which I happen to be a member: progressive American Jews.

But amongst the general populace in Israel? Amongst the majority of those protesting? Amongst centrist, mainstream voices? Not a word. (And I write those words not as a critique, but as an observation).

And this is perhaps why the protest leaders themselves have not broached the issue of settlements or the occupation: for such geopolitical issues are not a part of this current struggle shaking Israel, which is primarily a rising up of the middle class, a class that finds itself without any true representation.

As the phenomenal fiction writer, Etgar Keret, wrote today in Tablet Magazine:

It’s funny to see how this group of people, in their cool, trendy clothes, feels so unrepresented: It contains artists, lawyers, academics, doctors—not the types you stereotypically find shouting about not having their voices heard. But in the Israel of 2011, these are precisely the people who can’t find themselves any genuine political representation.The people demonstrating here are exactly the same people who don’t feel quite comfortable with the flood of new laws, such as the recently passed boycott law, that limit basic freedoms.Many demonstrators see themselves as apolitical. Despite the fact that they came here supposedly to talk about housing issues, their concerns run much deeper. The suffocation they feel isn’t caused so much by a shortage of square meters as by their frustration about not being counted by those who hold the reins of the country and are steering it to some very unpleasant places.

Standing on a traffic island in the middle of Ibn Gevirol Street was a young woman whose red hair was pulled back in a ponytail. She was holding a cardboard placard that said in beautiful, rounded handwriting: “My message is too complicated for this placard.” I don’t know how many of the tens of thousands of people walking past her stopped to read it, but for me, that placard most precisely represents the tent protests.

Given Keret’s observation, there are those in Israel (even those I would consider progressive) who are admonishing writers like myself who admittedly would like to see the protesters include settlement issues in their housing demands.

Take, for example, this from 972 Magazine’s Yossi Gurvitz (first bold text is the article’s subtitle):

No, the social movement cannot afford to raise Palestinian issues right now. But it is coming.

All over the place, pro-Palestinian activists are voicing a sharp criticism of the Israeli social justice movement: There can be no justice, they say, without raising the issue of the occupation and the beastly injustice done on daily basis to the Palestinians.Right, but oh so wrong.

That the Palestinians suffer injustice and indignity is not in dispute – not even by the Israeli hasbara machine in its calmer moments. But to raise this issue now is to fracture the social justice movement too early.

The argument, which has much merit, is that these protests are a domestic, social upheaval that lacks organization, but shares one thing: anger with the growing divide between rich and poor, between those who can afford to live and those who cannot.

It is a rare unity being seen, with people in the center and on the right supporting the protesters.

But to introduce issues such as the occupation and the settlements too soon would be to destroy the protests, to destroy their unity with such geopolitical wedges.

Gurvitz’s advice? Just wait. Let the protests manifest into something that cannot be stopped. At that point, these issues will come.

Which is why what soysauce wrote of today is a critical development, as Palestinian and joint Jewish-Arab groups, wanting to talk explicitly about geopolitical issues, begin to join the protests.

Centrally located in Tel Aviv, Tent #48 has sprung up. It is a tent representing a group of Palestinian-Israelis who are vocally adding issues of the occupation and settlements (among other issues) into these protests — protests that continue to chant the mantra “the people demand social justic.”

Israeli-Palestinian protesters sing in the heart of the protest city.Photobucket
Tent #48, with the symbolic date 1948 visible. H/T to soysauce for the pics.

The question some are asking is this: could protests demanding social justice possibly be hurt by the presence of protesters explicitly demanding that geopolitical issues be raised now?

It may seem like a Onion-esk question, but the question is real, for unlike the economic issues being championed by Israel’s public as they support the protests, I/P in Israel is not a galvanizing issue. It is a lightening rod.

Which is why, as more voices and groups add themselves to the protests, calling for talk of the occupation and the settlements — and those voices will grow, just as every interest group in Israel seems to be growing — a serious question must be asked: will such voices unintentionally weaken the protests themselves in the eyes of the Israeli public?

It’s a hard question to write. But it’s an important one to consider.

And it’s a question to which I have no answer.


About David Harris-Gershon

David Harris-Gershon – a blogger for Tikkun magazine and a freelance writer on Israel, the Middle East and America’s role in the region – has recently published work in The Jerusalem Post, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, AlterNet, Jewish Telegraphic Agency, Colorado Review and elsewhere. His memoir – What Do You Buy the Children of the Terrorist Who Tried to Kill Your Wife? – is forthcoming from Oneworld Publications (2013). He received his MFA from the University of North Carolina, Wilmington, and has worked extensively as an educator, teaching creative writing and Israeli History / Jewish Studies in university and high school classrooms. Follow David on Twitter @David_EHG

Posted on August 3, 2011, in Uncategorized and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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