Americans get a Shabak education

The world enters a new phase where the students are slowly becoming the teachers, forcing bloody change says author.

Reservoir demolishing
Police have beaten non-violent protesters, veterans and even seniors in order to ‘gain compliance’  [GALLO/GETTY]

Irvine, CA – It was a term that has stuck with me since a Palestinian friend in the Ajami neighbourhood of Jaffa first used it in response to one of my more naive questions. “Why don’t you all do more to protest against the on-going expropriation of land and discrimination against local residents by the Israeli government?” I asked him on a typically sunny summer day, as we stood in front of yet another luxury housing development being constructed on formerly Palestinian land. 

“Because we’ve all received a good Shabak education,” he answered.

The education in question, was dispensed by the Shabak, or Shin Bet, Israel’s state security services, to keep the country’s Palestinian population from protesting too vigorously against the policies that have kept them second class citizens despite the official political equality granted to them by the Israeli state.

A Shabak education wasn’t quite a mukhabarat education – the much more violent repression meted out to citizens of authoritarian Arab countries like Egypt, or to Palestinians in the Occupied Territories by Israel, and as tragic, by the PA and Hamas as well. But it was enough to keep Israel’s Palestinian community in line, most of the time, and was part of a continuum of measures that could always be ramped up to include more intense violence if the state felt threatened by the Palestinian minority (as happened most famously at the outset of the al-Aqsa intifada in 2000).

As long as the violence was within “acceptable” limits, and limited to Palestinians, the Shabak educational system didn’t disturb the seemingly democratic character of Israel more broadly. But the problem was that the violence visited upon Palestinian citizens in Israel was deeply related to the violence of the Occupation, and ultimately both began to leak into Israeli society.

In recent years, increasing numbers of Israeli Jews have begun receiving a Shabak education, especially as more and more actively join the struggle for Palestinian rights on both sides of the Green Line. They are tear-gassed, doused with “stinky water”, arrested, shot with rubber bullets, and worse. At the political level, the government has sought to delegitimise and even outlaw various means of advocacy by progressive Israelis that used to be protected as evidence of Israel’s liberal and democratic credentials.

Not surprisingly, this dynamic is evolving as Israel deepens its entrenchment within the West Bank, a process that is inextricably linked to the growing power of ultra-religious Jews, not merely in the political system, but within the country’s military system. The situation has lead even mainstream Israelis to declare that the democratic basis of the Israeli state is under threat as never before – not from Palestinians, but from how Jews are treating each other.

Inevitable blowback

This is the blowback of the Occupation, something even the “father” of Israel, David Ben Gurion, realised would be the likely outcome of a renewed settlement enterprise after 1967. You simply cannot visit so much violence routinely on other people, and devote so much of the resources of your government to enforcing a regime of violence, and not wind up having the very people the violence was meant to protect become the objects of that violence.

In the wake of September 11, many commentators pointed out that the US finally understood what it felt like to be Israeli. “We’re all Israelis now“, or so the saying went. What most people didn’t consider as the country geared up for what has become by far its longest and most costly war, was that the violence Americans were prepared to unleash against Muslims around the world, and particularly in Iraq and Afghanistan, would sooner or later inevitably return home.

Not in the form of terrorism, which was and remains a very possibility. But more dangerous to the political health of the country, in the form of a state that at all levels is increasingly willing to use violence to quash dissent among its own citizens. You simply cannot spend trillions of dollars invading, occupying, killing and otherwise oppressing – or setting up or supporting governments that oppress on your behalf – other people and not have that violence seep into the internal mechanisms that govern how a society functions.

The first evidence of this trend occurred in the 1960s and 1970s, when the military and counter insurgency weapons, tactics and philosophies developed for Vietnam began to be deployed at home – both in domestic spying as part of the COINTELPRO programmes and through the creation of militarised police units such as SWAT teams, usually staffed by military veterans.

However dangerous to the overall health of American democracy, spying on activists and using military tactics in the ghetto didn’t touch the majority of white Americans. The violence directed by the state was able to remain largely hidden from view through the rapid expansion of a prison industrial complex that locks up millions of mostly minority and poor Americans, increasingly for profit, the majority of them for non-violent offences.

The incarceration of African Americans at six times the level of the white fellow citizens has never caused a huge outcry among the majority of (white) Americans. Even the country’s first black President has done nothing to address this gross and systematic ongoing racism.

But now, with an economic downturn that is forcing tens of millions of white Americans to understand the economic insecurities with which African Americans and Latinos have long had to live, with privatisation encroaching on every aspect of public life, from schools to prisons, and with an increasingly militarised police culture whose members are literally trained to see people as obstacles to be overcome rather than citizens to be served and protected, the landscape has been prepared for the spread of a Shabak education to the general populace.

All that was needed was the right spark to set more and more citizens into the streets to protest the fundamental order of the neoliberal/conservative system, and the lesson would begin. Occupy Wall Street provided that spark, and in the last two months the increasing number of viral videos of police across the country, on streets and on campuses, beating, pepper spraying, tear-gassing and otherwise assaulting peaceful citizens engaged in the once respected rights of non-violent political speech have shown the country what a Shabak education looks like.

Ugly scenes

It’s not pretty. Eighty-four-year-old grandmothers and rows of college students sprayed with mace from containers, the size of small fire extinguishers by police officers, acting so nonchalantly you might think it was a drill if you didn’t hear the screams. Combat veterans shot and beaten to the point of rupturing their internal organs.

Pregnant women tear-gassed, students and faculty assaulted and having guns pointed at them. Police officers talking matter-of-factly, of beating non-violent protesters with batons in order to “gain compliance” with orders to disperse. Mayors of global cities ordering raids that destroy thousands of books, tents and other equipment while hundreds of thousands of homeless sleep without shelter.

And this list doesn’t include draconian anti-terror laws such as the Patriot Act, FBI trolling of mosques, infiltration of peace and environmental and animal rights groups and the use of anti-terror laws against them, and the criminalisation of dissent on university campuses. America is slowly descending into the state of emergency under which Egyptians and Palestinians have long lived. We may not have gotten all the way there yet, but like slowly boiling a frog, by the time most Americans figures it out, it will be too late.

This morning, as I chatted on Facebook with Egyptian friends dodging tear gas and bullets in Tahrir, I was receiving a stream of emails describing how students at the University of California Davis, and other campuses, have been pepper-sprayed and otherwise assaulted by campus police. On my own campus, UC Irvine, it turns out that police held SWAT like trainings to prepare to deal with potential student protests over massive tuition hikes being imposed this year.

Whether in Egypt or the United States, the ultimate dynamic is the same. Rather than address fundamental demands of citizens for basic rights, equality and democracy, those in power would rather attack them by whatever means they believe they can get away with. Citizens are not to be served by government, but rather to be shoved aside in order to ensure the system’s continued unfettered operation.

Amy Newhall, the Executive Director of the Middle East Studies Association, put it best, explaining that:

“Apparently the students have been inspired by the Arab Spring. I guess the police were inspired by the Syrian nightmare”.

Synergy from below

There is no need to compare campus police in California, or American police more broadly, with the far more brutal Egyptian police and security services. Americans aren’t being crushed by APCs and shot by snipers. This is still a Shabak rather than mukhabarat education that Americans are receiving (of course the Iraqis, Afghans and others who are on the wrong end of the US military or CIA are getting much harsher lesson in American values).

But the distance travelled by American democracy to reach this point is far greater than the distance travelled by violent authoritarian regimes attacking their citizens with deadly violence. And when you consider the strong links between the US and Egyptian governments – and of course Israel as well – the larger pattern is clear.

But so are the similarities in the way protesters, whether in Egypt the US or even Israel are responding to the increased level of repression and marginalisation by their governments. OWS protests are witnessing a progressives and Republicans coming together in ways that haven’t been seen in decades, as the clear failure of the country’s political system is opening spaces for conversations and even solidarities that were very difficult to imagine before. Similarly, in Egypt, secular and religious forces, which have been at odds since Mubarak’s ouster last February, are once again fighting on the same side on the streets of Cairo, Alexandria and Suez.

In Israel, despite the attempt to marginalise Palestinian voices and concerns in the “tent movement” this past summer the reality is that Palestinian and Israeli civil society activists began talking and acting together in ways that will profoundly reshape Israeli internal politics in the coming years. Moreover, for the first time, Israelis are taking their cues from Arab societies whom they’ve long been taught to consider less modern than and fundamentally hostile to them.

At the same time, Palestinians across the Green Line are beginning “Freedom Rides” into Israel to force Israelis to confront the essential Apartheid nature of their rule in the Occupied Territories.

The thing about Shabak or mukhabarat educations is that they can’t be sustained indefinitely. At some point, the people graduate, the students become the teachers, and the ruling elites are forced to learn the lesson that if removed, even the veneer of civility from the mechanisms of rule, and leave people feeling utterly betrayed by their government and with little to lose, they will lose their fear and you will lose your grip on power.

It’s a long and bloody struggle, but it’s clearly entered a new phase, not just in the US, Egypt or Israel/Palestine, but across the Middle East and the world.

A musician friend of mine in Cairo put it this way on his Facebook page after Saturday’s violence: “25 January was the demo, now comes the album release”. To put it in slightly more scholastic terms, it’s a new year and class is now back in session. And if governments from Washington to Cairo, Tel Aviv or Damascus don’t pay attention, they and their systems are going to fail out of school, and pass into the dustbin of history.

Mark LeVine is a professor of history at UC Irvine and senior Distinguished Visiting Professor at the Centre for Middle Eastern Studies at Lund University in Sweden. He is the author of Heavy Metal Islam: Rock, Resistance, and the Struggle for the Soul of Islam (Random House, 2008), Impossible Peace: Israel/Palestine Since 1989 (Zed Book, 2009) and co-editor, with Gershon Shafir, of Struggle and Survival in Palestine/Israel (University of California Press, forthcoming).

Follow Mark LeVine on Twitter @culturejamming

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.