Like many who study Israel — probably most who study Israel — I’ve spent all my academic and professional life focused on the Arab-Israeli conflict, particularly the Israeli-Palestinian part. As far as Israeli society and culture go, I’ve studied it only a little, because I was mostly just living it.
And then 13 years ago, I left — so to the extent that I’ve studied anything in the meantime, I’ve done so from afar. I’m not so bold as to think that visiting a place every 9-12 months is the same as living there. There’s a lot I don’t know.
I suppose I should start by saying that, unlike the Netanyahu government (…), I wasn’t entirely surprised by the upheaval. I was in Israel in late June/early July, and spoke with friends about the issues the protests address — and furthermore (and take this with whatever-sized grain of salt you want) I’ve felt in my gut that Israelis wouldn’t just sit still as the Arab nations rise up. Israelis aren’t blind or immune to the Arab world, but they do often feel themselves to be above it — I felt that those who want to make peace would be inspired, while those who usually feel superior might be well and truly shaken.
Of course on the other hand, I’ve spent the last quarter century watching Israelis swallow horse shit and call it health food.
I’ve watched as the government’s lies, half-truths, and genuine concerns were employed to whip folks into a froth time and again, as millions of citizens are told that nothing in their lives is as important as “security” — a single word (beetachon) that covers an ever-widening range of national behavior and expenditures. Israelis are a smart, inventive, and tenacious people, and I have long known that I should expect a certain kind of greatness from them — but only a very certain kind. The small, lower-case g kind, the kind that allows a tiny nation without natural resources to rival Silicon Valley, for instance. But Greatness? The kind that inspires a nation to throw off its mental shackles and genuinely move themselves forward, in spite of all the forces arrayed against them? Very few peoples are capable of that, and given the near-worship of all things beetachon-related, I’ve honestly thought that Israelis wouldn’t be able to give that kind of Greatness so much as a passing glance.
So, yes, while not stunned, I’ve been surprised. And proud, frankly, and not a little jealous. As my people tries to reclaim its future from those who’ve wanted to paint it with the broadest, most paranoid and violent brush, I’ve vacillated between reading hungrily about their every move, and backing away into ignorance — because where I really want to be is not in front of my computer in Small Town, USA, but in Tel Aviv, on the corner of Rothschild and Sheinkin, lifting a sign and chanting myself hoarse.
But make no mistake: I’m not under any illusions. These protests aren’t about Israel’s greatest unresolved dysfunction — they aren’t about the occupation.
These protests are about people wanting to buy a home, find a job, and have reasonable hope that things can get better — for themselves, and for the country as a whole. They’re about people being told their entire lives that they live in the only country on earth that’s Good For The Jews, and finding that not only is the Good For The Jews country more dangerous than the ones in which other Jews live, but that as the years go by, the government of Good For The Jews has come to treat them with greater and greater contempt. They’re about the fires in December that revealed a shocking state of unreadiness, about an ugly Parliamentary fight over the wording of a prayer at military funerals, about the fact that the the Netanyahu government’s only achievement to date is that it hasn’t yet fallen apart. They’re about doctors willing to go on hunger strike, the price of cottage cheese being Too Damn High, and the sheer, visceral hatred shared across the board for the Prime Minister. They’re about the fact that Arabs are willing to face bullets for their rights — why the hell aren’t we?
But frankly, whether or not people realize that the occupation is tangled up in the roots of these issues — it is. You can’t spend $2.5 billion annually on the settlements, and also have money for good hospitals. When residential construction accounts for just over 20% of government investment inside the Green Line, but nearly 45% in the settlements — you’re going to have a housing problem inside the Green Line. If you’re going to invest in living in a state of war, rather than do what peace requires — you might have a tough time investing in education.
There are other serious problems — from the headlong rush into privatization to the secular/ultra-Orthodox divide — that need addressing, but for Israel, the occupation is like substance abuse: Sure you might also have heart disease and be clinically depressed, but you won’t be able to really deal with those problems until you step away from the pipe.
Will people see, and address, the connection? Will a nation that’s not literally hungry and/or tortured be able to maintain its rage? Will these protests ultimately mean nothing, or lead to some small fixes that don’t actually address the biggest questions — or, please God, maybemaybe, actually be part of a larger awakening and end to conflict?
I am, in short, cautiously, if barely, optimistic.
But given how long I’ve already nattered on today, I’ll explain that cautious and barely-there optimism tomorrow.
In the meantime, if you want to read more, the online, leftie, English-language magazine +972 is a great starting point (here’s a great analysis, suggesting that the “groundswell of solidarity and cooperation is slowly gnawing at… the principle of separation, of which the occupation is just one exercise,” here are some amazing pictures, and here are some really important poll numbers, put into context). The #j14 hashtag is the place to go on Twitter (#j14 for July 14th, the day the protests started), and @J14ENG, @AbirKopty, @myaguarnieri and @ibnezra are good accounts for English speakers to follow. (And of course, clicking on the links embedded throughout this post will get you some good information, too!)