Not the Israeli summer… yet

Recent protests in Israel vaguely resemble the earlier protests that sparked the Arab Spring.

Israeli protests
‘The hundreds of thousands of protesters in Israel hope to achieve what can only be described as a socio-economic revolution’ [EPA]

Somewhere in the afternoon of this past Saturday, while hundreds of thousands of Israelis celebrated their renewed civic spirit and sense of national solidarity through their participation in the rapidly escalating protests against high housing prices and social inequality, a car approached the Shavei Shomron checkpoint north of Nablus. Inside were Rami Hwayel and several other cast members of a new production of “Waiting for Godot”. The play, which is being directed by famed Israeli auteur Udi Aloni is in rehearsals in Ramallah, but the cast was heading home to Jenin, to their home base at the Jenin Freedom Theatre.

When they reached the checkpoint, soldiers demanded to see their ID cards, after which, without warning, they pulled Hwayel out of the car, blindfolded him and threw him in an army vehicle to be taken away. As of Sunday no one had been told why he was detained. The military has slapped a gag order on all reporting about his detention inside Israel, and he can be held without charge or even access to a lawyer for up to a month. He is the third member of the Freedom Theatre to be detained in the last few weeks, all without official explanation or due process. According to an Israeli attorney who’s met with them, at least one of the captives has been “treated inhumanely”.

These two events – one “history-making”, the other all too mundane – point to the long journey Israelis will have to traverse before their increasingly massive protests against sky high housing prices and other social injustices becomes the revolution many already believe it to be.

A social revolution?

The huge public rallies mark an attempt by the Israeli public to bring issues such as affordable housing, healthcare, raising the minimum wage and education, among the movement’s key demands, back into the light of day. It’s also a clear antidote to the long felt apathy and impotence on the part of Israelis towards changing their dysfunctional political system.

From the start of the protests, which I wrote about when they first began in Tel Aviv, organisers have been very careful to characterise their actions as a struggle for “social” rather than “political” justice. One of the main slogans of the protests, “The people demand social justice”, copies the meter and rhythm of the chants from Tahrir, but it is definitely not the same thing as “The People Demand the Fall of the System”, the ubiquitous battle cry of the Arab world this year.

But can the hundreds of thousands of protesters in Israel hope to achieve what can only be described as a socio-economic revolution – in the most basic sense of the word, as they are trying to return back to an earlier social compact – without radically transforming the existing political system? If the protests in Tunis or Cairo are any guide, economic grievances will not be addressed unless, as the chant says, the existing system, and the state that enforces and represents it, is dismantled.

Part of the reason Israel has found itself in the current, very political, crisis is precisely that for decades Israelis have allowed “politics” to be limited only to the specifics of the Israeli-Arab conflict and the occupation, leaving everything else to the category of “social issues” to be negotiated in the back rooms of the Knesset. As in every other country, the back rooms of power are the last places you want to entrust issues related to the welfare of society as a whole.

Bring the social to the public

The organisers of this still somewhat amorphous movement, many of who come from the Israeli Left and the Kibbutz-affiliated movement, Dror Yisrael (which describes itself as the largest movement in Israel with both Arab and Jewish members), surely understand that the social and political are inseparable in reality. Indeed, maintaining that rhetorical fiction has been one of the mechanisms by which Israel’s political and economic elite have managed both to continue the occupation indefinitely while arrogating an ever increasing share of the once egalitarian society’s national wealth to themselves.

One of the key elements of neoliberal discourse is precisely its claim that the politicisation of markets – that is, government intervention in any form – makes them inefficient and inequitable. Only by leaving them alone, or at least alone with economists, hedge fund managers, bankers and IFI officials from the WTO, IMF and their sister institutions, will markets be able to function efficiently, allowing the most wealth to spread widely across society.

In the United States, as long as Americans could keep going deeper into debt to finance both consumer lifestyles and health and other costs the state refuses to cover, this fiction could be sustained. Today it stands unmasked, yet so strong is the ideology that very few people are taking to the streets, a once progressive Democratic president bows to its will even at the cost of his political life, and the most angry Americans have joined the Tea Party, a movement that reinforces the very dynamics causing their suffering.

The power of memory

But Israelis’ long dormant memory of the social solidarity and collectivist social ethos that once energised Zionism has provided the foundation for this sudden explosion of support for re-orienting the economy back towards a more egalitarian past, when the Israeli state took care of its citizens to a far greater degree than it does today.

The big tent strategy pursued by protest organisers has helped unify previously disconnected protests on issues such as gasoline, bread prices, and even cottage cheese prices, as well as strikes by social workers and doctors during the last year, enabling them to morph into one larger movement. But in order to achieve this unity a decision was clearly made to keep the occupation out of the discourse of the protests. Such a strategy allowed organisers to weather the attempts early on by the government and right wingers to label the movement precisely as one of Leftie elitists who are out of touch with majority of Israeli values. That in turn created space for representatives of the entire spectrum of Israeli political and social life to participate in the movement, including Palestinians.

Even some of the most hard core settlers have joined the protests, arguing that on social issues they are “more left than the Left”. This claim is not that wide of the mark; one of the traits most Israelis admire about settlers, even when they don’t support them, is precisely the collective ethos, “pioneering spirit” and self-sacrifice that once were traits of Israeli society more broadly, when it was under the hegemony of the Labour movement.

Mirroring Tahrir?

The big tent strategy is not all that different from the strategy successfully pursued by the organisers of Tahrir Square (to go back further, it was also behind the success of Serbia’s Otpor movement, one of the inspirations for the Arab Spring, which brought together the unprecedented political coalition necessary to topple Slobidan Milosevic in 2000).

As one organiser of the current tent protests in Israel put it, “We want to find solutions relevant to the entire nation… This is a battle of the people. Right or Left doesn’t matter – we want to break these definitions… The people understand that (the government) is pulling a divide and conquer – for years they have been trying to create conflict between us.”

It is perhaps a bit too easy to blame the government for trying to divide and conquer the people in Israel. That tactic has certainly been deployed successfully in Egypt and other authoritarian societies, but in Israel the public surely has to accept a large share of the blame. Essentially, after more than half a century of socialist Zionist hegemony, in which the identity of the individual Jewish Israeli was shaped by and through his or her membership in the Zionist collective and its institutions – the state, the army, and other vehicles for socialisation into Israeli Jewish society – Israelis were seduced by the siren of neoliberalism, just as happened in the US, the UK and increasingly across much of Europe in the last two generations.

This philosophy, which first entered Israel in the 1970s, promised a new era in which the free market and an individualist consumer ethos would enable greater wealth and fulfilment for all, or at least for all Jews. It became the dominant social identity in the 1980s, and helped reshape Israel into the consumer society it has become and away from the socialist ethos that defined Zionism and ensured its cohesiveness, survival and then successful transition to statehood in the previous half century.

A new enemy?

The increasingly rapid decline of the United States is only the most recent exemplar of the way “really existing neoliberalism” works on individuals and their freedoms and choices. The ideologies of “choice”, “freedom” and “individualism” have always masked the reality that in power, neoliberals have tended not to “shrink the state” so much as redirect resources away from the majority of the people and towards the corporate interests they represent, while allocating social and other discretionary spending to groups who are most willing to help preserve their power even if they don’t share their ideology (the decades’ long feting of Shas and other haredi groups by successive secular and neoliberal parties is the best example of this trend).

And so the increasingly neoliberal policies of successive Israeli governments, of the so-called Left as much as of the Right (which is why organisers of the protests have correctly decided that using such labels is meaningless), have played a major role in the rise in housing prices and other goods and services against which Israelis are finally rebelling.

Similar to Egypt, as the protests have picked up steam concrete demands have been joined by broader ideological critiques. Today, organisers are increasingly labelling the enemy as the liberalisation and privatisation of the Israeli economy. “This is now a very widespread public struggle fighting against privatisation policies, and the mainstream of Israeli society is demanding a return to socio-economic policies that allow every citizen to acquire basic human needs”, one of the movements’ main Facebook pages explains.

It seems that Israelis are finally beginning to understand that the main threat to their health, life chances and futures are not Palestinians in Gaza or Jenin but the corporatised crony capitalism that now dominates their economic and political systems.

But there are contradictions in this new found critique of neoliberalism by young middle class Israelis. They are best evidenced by the focus by organisers on the attempts by the state to privatise land, which they argue, “goes directly against the principles of Zionism, since he is attempting to sell away the country’s resources and deny its citizens basic rights, choosing instead to pursue greed, wealth, and power over the ideal of a moral Jewish state”.

As I argued in my last column on the protests, organisers rightly point out that these policies “harm[ed] the weaker sections of society (Arabs, Haredim, olim) for quite some time” before finally affecting the middle classes. But what they are not seeing, or at least do not feel comfortable discussing, is that from the start the core “principles of Zionism” existed only to protect and benefit Jews, not the indigenous population.

And indeed, the whole point of collective Jewish ownership and the “conquest of land” that spurred large scale Jewish land purchases in Palestine beginning in the years before World War One was to ensure that Palestinian inhabitants could never again gain access to land acquired by Jews. As Israeli courts have forced the government to become somewhat more equitable in allowing Palestinian citizens access to land, the privatisation strategy was deployed in good measure as a way of using market mechanisms to prevent Palestinian citizens from buying land when the previous legal and administrative mechanisms could no longer be used.

History repeating itself

When Shai Zamir, an activist from Tel Aviv, argued that “One needs to make no effort to hear the sounds of the construction cranes and the loud French of apartment owners who don’t live here – they loudly mock us, letting us know that our time has passed: Goodbye young people, see you later students, let’s hug the artists and party goers and welcome the rich; nice to meet you, money”, any Palestinian from Jaffa hearing his words could nod knowingly, as they’ve experienced the same dynamic for decades – indeed, from the creation of Tel Aviv a century ago.

That the market force first unleashed on behalf of the nationalist collectivist ultimately hurt mainstream Jewish Israelis of the sort who are now camping out across the country offers yet more proof that neoliberalism is like a Golem that ultimately turns on those it was supposedly meant to protect. The question is: do Shamir and his comrades understand this? Do they understand that the economic woes from which they are now suffering are the direct fruits of a century of Zionist policy, in which neoliberalism was adopted by many of the country’s elite because it was considered the best way to continue Jewish control over the country’s territory, wealth and resources?

If the just released “Vision Document” and its six points focused entirely on economic issues is any indication, the answer is no.

Among the innumerable banners in the current protests are myriad ones with slogans arguing that given the sacrifice so many Israelis make by serving in the army, they expect their government to keep its end of the bargain by giving them the chance at a decent life upon the fulfilment of their military obligations. As one protester said, “I am willing to die for my country, but I can’t afford to live in it.” Many banners similarly expressed sentiments such as “a strong army requires a strong society”.

Herein lies the basic contradiction at the heart of Israeli identity, and now the protests. Israelis have been all too willing, not merely to die for their country, but to oppress their neighbours on its behalf. The corrosive effect of this schizophrenia were masked for decades by the powerful collective Zionist identity developed by Ben Gurion and the first generation of Zionist leaders. But once Zionism and Israel become both more normalised (that is, the existence of the state was not considered in constant peril) and fell prey to the spell of neoliberalism and the death grip it puts on any mechanisms for social solidarity outside of war and violence (as we see in the US), young Israelis were fated to be unable to live in the country for which they have been taught to die for from birth.

The real cost of occupation

Many of those arguing for the need to bring the occupation into the protest discourse argue that the costs of settlements and other components of the occupation – providing security, soldiers, building roads and infrastructure, etc. – have diverted increasingly scarce public funds away from precisely the kinds of programmes the protests are calling for. Organisations like Peace Now and the Adva Centre, and scholars like Shlomo Swirsky, offer detailed analyses of the costs of the occupation, which show that the price of the settlements reached 2.5 billion shekels a year, with at least 45 billion shekels spent since 1967. The homes, roads and public institutions built in the Occupied Territories total some 16 billion shekels.

These costs are certainly significant, but within the context of a GDP of around $220 billion the extra the yearly cost comes to about 3 tenths of 1 per cent of the country’s GDP, or less than 2 dollars per day per Israeli tax payer. For comparative purposes, this figure is roughly a third of the percentage of GDP the US spends on its occupations of Iraq and Afghanistan, while both countries spend roughly 6 per cent of GDP on defence and security as a whole.

The point here is not that the occupation and Israel’s relatively militarised economy (at least compared to most Western countries) aren’t harming the country. It’s that the occupation and the larger militarisation of Israel’s economy, culture and identity it enables have been the perfect mask for the increasing concentration of wealth, and the attendant rise of inequality and poverty, corruption and cronyism, within Israel that are the hallmarks of neoliberalism. The occupation might be harming the interests of the average Israeli, but it has played a crucial role in the enrichment and power of Israel’s political and economic elites, and they have little incentive to end it any time soon.

A Palestinian role?

As soon as I heard about Ramy Hwayel’s detention, I SMS-ed my friend Matan Cohen, a long time anti-occupation activist who also works with the Jenin Freedom Theatre and is one of the most sophisticated of the emerging generation of Israeli observers of their country’s political dynamics. In discussing the links between the two events, he pointed out a dynamic which most Israelis protesting would do well to note.

Specifically, the genius of neoliberalism is that it has exposed the inner contradictions of the welfare-warfare state in Israel, enabling the country’s economic elite, like their counterparts in the US, to keep the warfare state while providing less and less towards the welfare of the citizens who serve it. “Until we dare to ask for welfare without warfare we will remain caught up in ethnonationalism,” Cohen argues, and ethnonationalism in the midst of neoliberalism ensures both continued conflict and continued concentration of wealth away from the majority of the people.

Because of this dynamic, the continuation of the daily routine of occupation during these protests and the unwillingness of the vast majority of protesters, even from a more “social” as opposed to “political justice” point of view, to bring the occupation into the protest discourse, harms the chances for realising the larger vision the emerging movement represents.

Put simply, without taking on the occupation – that is, without getting very political – there is simply no way to tackle the supposedly “social issues” the protests are trying to address. But what’s important to remember here is that Palestinians have, in fact, been even greater victims of the neoliberal policies against which Israelis are now rebelling than have been Israelis themselves. They are therefore potentially powerful allies of the Israelis protesting in Tel Aviv.

However, as of now, many experienced Palestinian activists are not sanguine about the chances for such cooperation, especially as long as the protest movement steers clear of addressing the occupation. Birzeit University sociologist Lisa Taraki, a founder of the Palestinian Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel movement, explained in an interview I conducted with her that “the protest movement in Israel has nothing to say about justice for Palestinians, either as citizens or as occupied people.” There is therefore little reason for the BDS movement to go out of its way to “address the Israeli public directly in order to persuade it or to appeal to its sense of justice.”

But other activists see at least the possibility of an opening for joint action. One youth activist in Gaza told me that “Gazans can use this to their advantage by regularly contacting organisers in Tel Aviv. Such interaction might bring forth something positive both sides can fight for, [such as] social and economic injustices inflected upon the majority of the population, both Israelis and Palestinians.” His problem, however, is that any attempt to coordinate publicly would be met with retribution by Hamas, especially if there is no explicit peace and justice component vis-a-vis Palestinians in the Israeli movement.

Sadly, we could imagine simultaneous protests by hundreds of thousands of Israelis and Palestinians, against the forces that oppress them both and towards the kind of mutual solidarity that would enable greater freedom and equality for both communities. But as long as Israelis can’t talk about the occupation Palestinians will remain both outside the protest movement and the biggest victims of the forces it is trying to combat.

Back to the beginning

And this brings us back to the seizure of Rami Hwayel. My first thought was that Israel’s detention of now three members of the Jenin Freedom Theatre is likely a response to the powerful favourable press the Theatre has received of late, particularly with the much publicised recent visit of famed philosopher Slavoj Zizek and American film producer Jame Schamus to Ramallah for a workshop with Theatre members, and the willingness of Israeli auteur Udi Aloni to direct “Waiting for Godot”, not despite the cultural boycott of Israel by most Palestinian arts institutions but precisely in accordance with and even support of it.

For Cohen, however, the more likely possibility is that Hwayel’s detention was merely “routine”, part of the brutal bureaucracy of the occupation in which Palestinians have no rights, and can be detained, brutalised, and even killed without much thought or even intention.

This is the fundamental challenge that organisers of the protests face. If they cannot use this moment to help shape a new discourse that recognises all the peoples of the land between the Mediterranean Sea and the Jordan River as possessing the same fundamental rights, Israel’s uber capitalist elites will manage to find new combinations of neoliberalism, religious fundamentalism and ethnonationalist extremism with which to maintain their power while keeping Israelis divided, not just against Palestinians, but against themselves.

As the late Palestinian leader Faisal Husseini said a generation ago, “The main enemy is the occupation, the main enemy for the two communities – for the Palestinian community and the Israeli community. And the occupation can hurt the morals of those controlling the occupation no less than the people who are under it, maybe more… We must, Palestinians and Israelis, work together, to end this occupation.”

The leaders of the current protests would do well to heed his words.

Mark LeVine is a professor of history at the University of California: Irvine, and author, most recently, of Heavy Metal Islam: Rock, Resistance, and the Struggle for the soul of Islam (Random House 2008) and Impossible Peace: Israel/Palestine Since 1989 (Zed Books, 2009).

The views expressed in this article are the authors own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeeras editorial policy.