Where Are the Geopolitical, Human Rights Issues in Israel’s ‘Social Justice’ Protests?
Originally published on Tikkun Daily
The massive tent protests currently sweeping Israel, originally triggered by the country’s young, urban middle-class over unsustainable housing costs, have morphed into a movement representing a multitude of domestic social justice issues. In fact, during rallies now, one of the most frequent chants is “האם דורש צדק חברתי” – “The People Demand Social Justice.”
On Tuesday, protest leaders officially championed a vast array of social justice causes when they presented Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu with an expansive list of demands – among them lower taxes, health care reforms and the broadening of free, public education.
However, noticeably absent from the demands were any geopolitical, human rights issues related to the conflict with the Palestinians, namely settlements and the occupation. This absence has been noted by particular segments, namely Palestinians, left-leaning Israelis and progressive American Jews (the group to which I belong).
In America, many look upon the protesters screaming for social justice and expect them to champion the geopolitical issues that were championed by the Israeli Left in Rabin’s day. I fully admit that, during the movement’s infancy, I did the same. However, to do so is to perhaps misinterpret what is occurring in Israel right now – to expect that Palestinian issues will soon be incorporated into the protests by organizers, such as they exist, is to misunderstand the movement.
The Israeli fiction writer Etgar Keret recently wrote in Tablet Magazine concerning the middle class body politic that has largely spurred these protests:
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.
These protests, which were initiated by progressive, left-leaning urbanites in Tel Aviv, have galvanized large swaths of Israel’s lower and middle classes, who feel underrepresented. They have watched politicians bend to the will of small interest groups while the divide between the rich and the poor has grown.
Israel’s middle class largely feels that the government has abandoned their social and economic interests as they carry the overwhelming tax burden in the country. And they have taken to the streets to reclaim sustainable lives for themselves, not to address divisive geopolitical issues that drew the Israeli Left into the streets in the 1990s.
These protests are supported by incredible numbers of Israelis – 88 percent according to a poll taken on Monday for Channel 10 – precisely because they have focused on domestic issues around which everyone has unified: housing costs, education costs, the availability of quality health care, the high tax burden.
However, if protest organizers were to willfully add geopolitical, human rights issues (such as the settlements and the occupation) to the movement’s official agenda too soon, some, including Israeli journalist Yossi Gurvitz, think it would mean the collapse of the movement’s popular approval in Israel. Why? Left-leaning Israelis have historically lost when it comes to discussions of security.
Noam Sheizaf, in a post on 972 Magazine entitled “The strange American obsession with the return of the Israeli left,” writes scathingly, and quite bluntly:
It’s time to face facts: Rabin’s second government was an historical accident, no more. This was the only time in 35 years that the left won a Knesset majority…Liberalism, in the American sense, never took real hold in Israel.The current social protest is a unique event with tremendous potential, but if it’s a return to the Jewish democracy dreamland that Americans hope for, [they] are up for a major disappointment. There won’t be a “return” – all we can and should hope for is something completely new.
On Wednesday, Israeli journalist Dimi Reider was interviewed by Amy Goodman on Democracy Now. Goodman asked, just as many American journalists have asked recently, how these protests fit into the larger issues of Israel’s occupation of the West Bank and the settlements.
His answer was twofold. First, he said, there is no connection. Second, this lack of a connection may be strategic on the part of the organizers, who understand that geopolitical issues, such as the settlements and the occupation, would only serve as wedges capable of breaking apart the fragile but unmistakable momentum the protests have gained.
As we watch these protests unfold, it’s important to understand what they are. But it’s also legitimate to hope – as I do – that this movement will grow so strong, and that its gains will be so profound, that organizers will no longer fear to broach the larger human rights issues that remain in the background, regardless of how contentious such issues may be.
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