It is very hard for an outsider to know what to make of the current wave of populist protest in Israel which, though advocating “social justice” in Israel has nothing to say about the occupation and repression of the Palestinians.
Over 300,000 people have come out into the streets in support of the goals of the movement, which were initially motivated by the unavailability or unaffordability of adequate housing but which have broadened to include the crippling overall cost of living, the growing inequality of wealth within Israeli society, and what the Israeli journalist Dimi Reider has described as “the parenting costs, the free-fall in the quality of public education, the overworked, unsustainable healthcare system, the complete and utter detachment of most politicians, on most levels, from most of the nation.”
Remarkably, polls show that up to 90% of the Israeli general public support the demands for economic reform, including many working-class hardline nationalists and Likud activists. In its broadest form, as the Israeli activist Jeff Halper writes, “the demonstrations currently roiling Israel constitute a grassroots challenge to Israel’s neo-liberal regime. Beginning as an uprising of the middle classes….it has spread to the working class, the poor and the Arab communities as well.”
Last Monday the leaders of the protest movement, as well as student leaders and representatives of various social organizations, issued a joint statement setting forth the movement’s goals in more detail. “For a number of decades, the various governments of Israel have opted for an economic policy of privatization that leaves the free market without reins…making our daily existence a war for survival to subsist with dignity,” the document begins. It goes on to demand that social inequalities be minimized; that the cost of living be lowered; that full employment be achieved; that action be taken to meet “the essential needs of the weaker population in the country, with an emphasis on the handicapped, the elderly and the sick;” and that the state invest in public education, health, transportation, and public infrastructures.
A most admirable set of demands. Indeed, they could be transplanted to this country with very few modifications—which is not at all surprising, since the triumph of the right in Israel and its Likudist “neo-liberal” economics is closely modeled on the greed-is-good and the devil-take-the-hindmost raw plutocracy of the Republican party hereabouts.
The problem is that the leaders of the protest movement have made a conscious decision not to include the demand that the occupation and repression of the Palestinians be brought to an end; indeed, even the demand that the various forms of discrimination against the Arab citizens of Israel be ended has the potential to badly split the movement. As the Haaretz columnist Akiva Eldar has recently caustically observed: “social justice, and justice in general, ends for a considerable number of the demonstrators at the outskirts of Umm al-Fahm [the largest Israeli Arab city]. Never mind the gates of Nablus.”
As might be expected, the decision to focus only on social justice for Israelis rather than on justice for the Palestinians has caused some division within the Israeli left, as illustrated by the contrasting positions taken by two of Israel’s most astute, outspoken, and morally admirable young analysts and journalists, Dimi Reider and Joseph Dana. Reider has made a powerful case:
“It should be admitted…that the Israeli left has utterly and abjectly failed to [persuade] Israelis in the project of ending the occupation. There was never a choice between a social struggle focused on the occupation and a social struggle temporarily putting the conflict aside, because the first attempt would have flopped. There was nothing to be gained by trying the same thing again for the Nth time.”
Dana concedes that “The sad reality is that if Israelis discuss Palestinian rights and specifically the rights of Palestinians under Israeli occupation they very quickly lose public support.…Had protesters connected their struggle for social justice to the occupation, many fewer Israelis would have joined the protests.” Even so, he is very uneasy about the strategy chosen by the protest leaders: “The protesters’ working definition of ‘social justice’ is unclear and full of contradictions. The rights of Israelis are inextricably tied with the rights of Palestinians, both inside the 1967 borders and in the Occupied Territories. The protesters, like most of Israeli society, are operating under the assumption that they are disconnected from the Palestinians who live under Israeli military occupation. But the fact is that one regime rules the land between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea, and any discussion of the allocation of resources, not to mention social justice, must take into account the rights of everyone who lives under the regime.”
The moral as well as practical dilemma for the Israeli left is acute. Many of Israel’s bravest and most admirable opponents of the occupation—people like Halper, Bernie Avishai, Gideon Levy, Yitzhak Laor, and others—are enthusiastic about the protest movement. Others, like Akiva Eldar, Amira Hass, and Uri Avnery, while of course strongly supporting the social justice goals, are uneasy about the decision to exclude the occupation or skeptical about the likely outcome. For example, Hass writes: “In the coming months, as the movement grows, it will split. Some will continue to think and demand ‘justice’ within the borders of one nation, always at the expense of the other nation that lives in this land. Others, however, will understand that this will never be a country of justice and welfare if it is not a state of all its citizens.”
In light of divisions within the Israeli left and the persuasive arguments on both sides of the debate, an outsider is in no position to reach a confident assessment about the issue. Yet, I can’t help feeling uncomfortable about the current strategy of the protest leaders. First, there is an important difference between the social justice protests and the last mass protests in Israel, which were over Israel’s complicity in the 1982 Sabra and Shatilla massacres in Lebanon. The latter was unambiguously driven by moral considerations; the former, while certainly containing a moral component, is also driven simply by economic self-interest, especially since it has become a populist movement linking the Israeli right with the left. For that reason, there is little reason to be hopeful that the movement signals a moral transformation of Israeli society.
Social injustice in Israel is inextricably linked to the occupation. In the first instance, as a number of the protest leaders and their supporters have pointed out, the enormous public resources devoted to the settlements and the armed forces necessary to protect them are resources that are not available for the rest of society. Even more fundamentally, the occupation and repression of the Palestinians is so morally poisonous that it is impossible to imagine that a truly just society can be created –even if only for the Jews themselves—until it has ended.