Middle East Eye / July 20, 2020
Recent demonstration in Israel shows the radical potential of the Jewish left to push for fundamental change.
The large street protest last week in front of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s compound in Jerusalem began almost like a party: drumming circles, people dancing in the streets around Paris Square – a kind of Hyde Park, where speakers spontaneously took turns on a makeshift platform to have their say.
Several hours later, before it finally wound down around 1am, the gathering had devolved into vicious struggles between protesters and police, blocking both a main Jerusalem thoroughfare and light-rail traffic for a considerable time. Police on horseback charged the crowd, while others used water cannon to try to disperse protesters, dozens of whom were arrested.
Protesters’ determined resistance, and their willingness to confront the police, surprised many. Some commentators suggested there had actually been two different demonstrations: a “well-behaved” protest against corruption, followed by a radical, leftist-anarchist riot that “hijacked” the original protest. Nothing could be further from the truth.
Yes, the first part of the protest was calmer and more “respectable” – but only someone blind and deaf could have failed to distinguish the intensity of the rage present in that square facing Netanyahu’s residence, right from the outset.
As a veteran leftist protestor in Jerusalem, I can’t recall ever having seen a similarly diverse profile of demonstrators in the city: young people and seniors, secular and religious, even ultra-Orthodox. At a time when the fear of coronavirus makes people think twice about joining mass gatherings, this one attracted seniors leaning on walkers and others from high-risk groups, all standing close together.
The young people who would later engage with police were not separate from the older demonstrators who congregated there at the outset, but were more like their strong arm of resistance.
There were no Palestinians at this demonstration, apart from one young man who mounted the podium and spoke about apartheid and occupation and was loudly cheered by the crowd. The next day, when I spoke to a Palestinian friend about it, she said: “This isn’t our protest.”
And of course she is right: we, the Jewish public, are responsible for internalising the extent of the injustice in the present system; it is our job to work towards its replacement with a system offering equal justice for all. The main question now is whether the current protest movement seeks only cosmetic changes – or whether it has more radical potential. I think it does.
The latest demonstration in Jerusalem took place nine years after the mass social protests of 2011. That summer, hordes of young people pitched tents along Rothschild Boulevard in downtown Tel Aviv to challenge the status quo, mainly the high cost of living and unaffordable housing. The disappointment following that wave of protest could easily raise doubts about the horizon for this current round, but there are critical differences.
Most importantly, unlike the 2011 protests – which were quite reasonably viewed as protests by privileged young Tel Avivians finding it hard to make ends meet in the highest-rent city in the country, where it was also impossible to buy a chocolate yogurt at a decent price – the current unrest is significantly broader in terms of both its base of support and its message.
This is not about the price of your favourite dairy dessert cup. It’s about the corruption in, and the corrupting of, public norms. It’s not even just about Netanyahu anymore. Yes, the demand for his resignation is still central, but now Benny Gantz, the general who had been viewed as a more upright alternative to Netanyahu, has joined the latter’s bloated and corrupt government.
Evidently, more Israelis now understand that the problem is not Netanyahu himself, but something much deeper and more rotten. In the emergence of this insight, there is, I believe, great potential for radicalisation.
Another significant difference is that the 2011 protests, like many others in Israel, carefully avoided any political branding – that is, as something leftist – while the leaders of the current movement have not fallen into that delegitimisation trap, put forth yet again by the right.
After Tuesday’s heated clashes with police and the numerous arrests, the right-wing media and rightist politicians tried to frame the protest as a leftist, anarchist riot. As proof, they noted, among other things, that some of those arrested that night were represented by prominent human rights attorney Leah Tsemel, who often defends the rights of Palestinians in Israel.
Protest organisers, wisely refraining from letting themselves be trapped that way, are offering no apologies. Among the invited speakers at the last demonstration was an outspoken Jewish member of the mostly Arab Joint List, Ofer Cassif, who spoke on stage about the connection between political corruption and the moral corruption of the occupation. Not only were Cassif’s listeners not shocked, they applauded him enthusiastically.
On Tuesday in Paris Square, I saw signs demanding justice for Iyad al-Halak, murdered not long ago in occupied East Jerusalem – and the people holding them seemed like a perfectly natural component of this latest demonstration.
There is something else worth noting: in a smart move, rather than apologise, the organisers of the latest demonstration managed to leverage the police violence inflicted on them to bring more people to the protest. The groups of young people arrested included more than a few well-known leftist activists.
Especially noteworthy is that they were taken into police custody not at an anti-occupation demonstration in Bilin, but at a protest against corruption in the heart of West Jerusalem.
The anti-corruption protest movement is benefitting from their considerable experience in confronting authorities. They brought their leftist agenda to a podium before a diverse crowd on Balfour Street, where their prospects of being heard would otherwise have been minimal. This, too, has radical potential.
It is true that, compared with demonstrations by Palestinians on either side of the Green Line, the police response to the Balfour Street demonstrators was very gentle. Bottom line, we were Jewish demonstrators in a country founded on Jewish supremacy.
Some mounted police did gallop into the crowd, a daunting tactic that unquestionably inspires fear, but they did not shoot at us – neither live fire nor sponge-tipped bullets. They did aim water cannon at us, but it was just water, not the disgusting so-called skunk water they use on Palestinians. And most of the detainees were released within a few hours.
Undoubtedly, a Palestinian demonstration would have ended quite differently. But to see this demonstration as just another example of Jewish privilege and nothing more is to miss the radical potential of the present moment. The radical potential is most certainly there.
The question at stake in relation to this protest is quite simple: whether or not overthrowing Netanyahu due to corruption charges is our political goal. The answer is yes. Not only because a society that revolts against corruption is a healthier society, but also because almost every change the Jewish left strives for begins with the removal of Netanyahu from power.
The way Netanyahu strengthened his rule in office, the identification he created between himself and the state, and his continuous attempts to incite different groups against each other are very dangerous things, making his removal a necessary task to achieve any change. Now an interesting moment has arisen in which the regime itself is turning those who are considered the “salt of the land,” the privileged Jews and sworn Zionists, into political dissidents.
The most pressing question now is whether we, the Jewish left, will be wise enough to take maximum advantage of this potential in pressing ahead towards the more fundamental change we are trying to bring about.
Orly Noy is a journalist and a political activist based in Jerusalem