Israelis (finally) take it to the street – part III.

The tent encampment on Rothschild Blvd, in the heart of Tel Aviv (and, just, BTW: one of my favorite parts of town. God I wish I were there).

On Wednesday, I provided background on the social protests in Israel as best I could from a distance. Yesterday, I explained why I feel a certain optimism that these protests will bear useful fruit. Today, as promised, I will explain why my optimism is so slim, and so guarded….

The first reason I’m hedging my bets, sad to say, is that I’ve learned to do so regarding Israel.

Every time I thought things were getting better — they got worse. Every time I thought things couldn’t get worse — they did. I’ve waited and watched and hoped and prayed, as well as prodding, pushing and advocating as best I could, but my fellow Israelis have seemed endlessly bound and determined to cover their eyes and ears and lie to themselves and believe the lies of others and live a life predicated on fear, hate, and mindless nationalism — emphasis on the “mindless,” as a lot of folks just stick to covering their eyes and ears and try not to think about the occupation at all. Hope is a thing I don’t give up very easily anymore, as I have been shown too many times that there’s no point.

However, there are other reasons, less gut-and-broken-heart based, to hedge one’s bets:

  1. The lessons of human history: These protests are a brand-new thing. From my vantage point, it seems that more often than not, people have to try and fail any number of times/over a certain period of time before they manage to really change anything. New movements often make a lot of mistakes, and the work is slow — often painfully so. Failure is kind of built in, at least for awhile.
  2. More lessons from history: If too many people grow too weary along the slow, painful, failure-strewn way, momentum can be permanently lost, and I think this is a particular risk for a middle class struggle in a developed country. Israelis are not, in fact, starving or living under tyranny. When lots and lots of Egyptians decided to camp out in Tahrir for however long it took, many of them had a lot less to lose than the average Israeli. Poverty is an issue in Israel, certainly, and shrinking opportunity, not to mention assaults on core democratic values, but real hunger? Real oppression? No.
  3. Moreover, in the specific case of Israel, people have been taught/conditioned for decades to accept shrunken opportunity and limited democracy as the necessary price for staying alive. It’s important not to underestimate this: Many, many Israelis genuinely believe that if they don’t accept the stifling of their freedoms or an economy ham-strung by massive military expenditures, they, their families and the nation itself will be under real, existential threat. Thirty years ago, enough Israelis rejected this premise to oppose the first war in Lebanon and begin to openly question the military imperative — and ten years later, in no small part because of the reaction to Lebanon, Israel was negotiating with the PLO. Which is to say: It’s possible to change the paradigm. But it’s very, very hard.
  4. I don’t think Israel has ten years to wait. If this government or its successor doesn’t begin a genuine negotiation process with the Palestinian people, and soon, I’m pretty sure that Israelis will look back on 2011 as a time of innocence and collective denial that led to real disaster.
  5. Next month is September, the month in which — unless something drastic happens (like, I don’t know, a genuine negotiation process?) — the Palestinians are more than likely to go to the United Nations General Assembly to ask for recognition as a state. If they go to the UN Security Council, the effort will be vetoed by the United States (I don’t know if you’ve noticed, but America is simply aces at shooting itself in the foot and working against its own interests and stated policy goals), so they’ll likely approach the General Assembly, which will only be able to introduce a resolution urging recognition, a thing which would grant the much-less-than-a-state status of observer (similar to Vatican City’s status). But never mind all that: If the UN recognizes Palestinian sovereignty in any way, Israel will freak the fuck out. I talked about why this is idiotic on Russia Today recently so I won’t go into that now, but suffice it to say that Israel is acting like a panicky moron about the UN thing (if you don’t believe me, ask HaAretz’s editorial writers: “Israeli leaders in hysterics ahead of September“), and when Israel acts like a panicky moron, it tends to end in bloodshed. And when there’s bloodshed, Israelis tend to rally around, put everything else aside, and return to the familiar comfort of the fearful security mindset. If Palestinians start the bloodshed, or do something particularly bloody, and/or are perceived to have done either? The likelihood that a persuasive percentage of Israelis will continue to protest social issues and/or allow those protests to expand to encompass the need for a two-state peace will shrink exponentially.
  6. There are signs that the government is planning steps against the protesters in advance of the Palestinians’ UN vote – again, HaAretz on this: “In fear of September, Israel may soon evacuate the tent protest.” The truth is that government action against the protesters could, potentially, cut either way — when  a government cracks down on protesters, it can create a backlash that actually strengthens protesters’ resolve and brings them broader support. However, given that the UN vote has a lot of people (not just the government) panicky, and, as I said, this is largely a protest of the middle and lower middle classes of a developed nation, a government crackdown could very likely be the beginning of the end.

So, to sum up: Israelis are protesting for very good reasons, and I’m both proud of my people, and painfully envious, as I wish deeply that I could be on the streets with them. I think that there are good reasons to hope that the protests will yield important results, but there are also very good reasons to think that they won’t.

Bottom line: No matter what happens with the social protests, if there’s no end to the occupation and no durable resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, it really won’t matter what today’s protesters achieve. The only way to ensure a safe, healthy future for the Jewish State is for the Jewish State to achieve a genuine peace with the Palestinian people — nothing else can be fundamentally fixed until the occupation is addressed.

6 Comments

  1. Emily, your comments here about the development of movements are stellar, and with a bit of re-working/editing seem universal:

    1) people have to try and fail any number of times/over a certain period of time before they manage to really change anything. New movements often make a lot of mistakes, and the work is slow — often painfully so. Failure is kind of built in, at least for awhile;

    2) f too many people grow too weary along the slow, painful, failure-strewn way, momentum can be permanently lost, and I think this is a particular risk for a middle class struggle in a developed country;

    3) people have been taught/conditioned for decades to accept shrunken opportunity and limited democracy as the necessary price for their way of life;

    4) Failure of governments to negotiate with their people when the people demand can lead to real disaster;

    5) Internal conflicts within a country are subject to the politics of the global community, which often lead to results not in the best interest of the country or the world;

    6) Government crackdowns can both ease tension and enflame tension; they’re a crapshoot.

    Late, sorry for the clumsy paraphrasing. But these are insightful, and worth developing.

  2. Here’s the URL to Michael Walzer’s August 8th short piece on the tent demonstrations:

    http://dissentmagazine.org/online.php?id=514

    What I like about Walzer’s piece is that he attempts to get at the meaning and significance of the demonstrations on their own terms. From here, it seems like the Israeli left should approach the demonstrations with some humility. Apart from the left’s frustrations and disenchantments.

    I’ve spent all of 5 days in Israel. What do I know? But it seems to me that Israel is not Highland Park. Or even Deerfield. That some Israeliness is at work in these demonstrations. A crucial vein of communitarianism and solidarity in social relations. It appears to be in the history and the ideology and the social commitments. The rapid embrace of neo-liberalism does not fit with the right-wing; so some have been saying, we can’t be this successful hyper-capitalist place if we’re digging in on the West Bank. But what if the politics point in another direction? We can’t be a successful communitarian, solidaristic place if we’re digging in on the West Bank?

    The Israeli left should work to get some victories for the tent demonstrators.

    • First of all: Hi, chicagoteamster! (Confidential to everyone who is not chicagoteamster: Chicagoteamster is an old friend and one of my favorite people on earth).

      This is absolutely so: “… some Israeliness is at work in these demonstrations. A crucial vein of communitarianism and solidarity in social relations.”

      But that Israeliness is just as much at play on the left (which of course, in Israeli terms, isn’t an economic thing but a pro-coexistence/reconciliation thing), because it is, after all, Israeli. And yes — the left in Israel should actually approach a lot with humility (as one person said to me: “Peace Now? There’s no peace, and it’s certainly not happening now.”) The left has continued to fight, against very difficult odds, but it certainly haven’t won anything much. It’s been shrinking, and at a certain point, one has to ask why.

      The problem is that the left is an actual, quasi-organized thing, whereas J14/the social protesters really aren’t. People have literally never done anything like this before in Israel. So it’s a collection of a bunch of people with really good, or really bad, and often contradictory, ideas. If they’re going to get anywhere, they’re going to have to lean on people with organizing experience, and they’ll also have to not descend into off-putting violence. On the Israeli scene, the only people who have managed those two things have been the pro-peace leftists.

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