Over the past few months, a country in the Middle East has seen an outpouring of protests bigger than any seen there for decades. Initially begun in opposition to the rising cost of living – around housing, childcare, food and more – they rapidly grew in scope, as well as activity. Tent cities set up through the country, mass demonstrations, occupations of abandoned buildings, and today, a march of 400,000 people – around one in every nineteen people in the country taking part.
Unfortunately, the country in question is Israel. Which may explain why much of the left seem to have little interest in one of the biggest social movements in that country’s history.
For those interested in following the story, 972mag.com has been providing ongoing coverage and discussion from within Israel, as has libcom. Today’s day of protest, while falling short of its aim of one million participants, managed to reach around 300,000 marching through Tel Aviv, with another 100,000 taking part elsewhere in the country – this from a total population of under 8 million. For an idea of the scale: adjusted for population, this in the UK would amount to around three million people taking part.
Outside of the tent cities – the most prominent being set up in Rothschild Boulevard, one of the major streets in Tel Aviv, but with similar camps set up elsewhere in the city and further afield – the movement has also taken to occupying abandoned buildings. The reasons behind this should seem familiar to anyone familiar with the squatters and social centres movements here:
According to a pamphlet released by the group, “for the past 25 years two floors of this building have stood empty and neglected. The City Hall, which does not want to carry out the expensive renovations, is not doing anything in order make it available for residential or communal use.”
Donning masks of Tel Aviv Mayor Ron Huldai, they climbed into the building’s second floor window on Friday afternoon by way of a ladder and began sweeping the floors and taking in their new environments. The building was not nearly as accessible as the complex on Dov Hoz, and required a rather nimble ascent by way of ladder and tree in order to enter, limiting the number of people who passed the time on the abandoned floors. Inside the building, dust swirled in the air and photos from a decades-old magazine adorned a wall.
Hadar Shemesh, 25, of Tel Aviv said that “it’s a municipality building and two of its floors have not been used for 25 years because the city prefers to just wait until a private buyer with a ton of money comes along to buy it.
It is, of course, important to be cautious. The elephant in the room, the occupation, has been the topic of endless debate within the movement and even more debate outside of it. For some – somewhat echoing the supposedly “non-political” nature of the Spanish protest camps – the occupation was something not to be brought up, a separate issue that would simply divide people. Some within the movement may support the occupation. Others may not care.
Others, however, have been quite explicit in tying the issues of social justice within Israel’s borders with oppression outside of them. Much of this attention has been focused on Tent 1948, a grouping within the camp producing material in both Hebrew and Arabic and attempting to tie together the protests and the occupation. Following rocket attacks in August, protestors held a mostly silent march through Tel Aviv, which at times erupted into chants – one the most popular being the most simple: “Jews and Arabs refuse to be enemies”.
Like any social movement of any size, the current protests within Israel contain any number of influences – some progressive, some not, some willing to discuss the occupation, some not, some present for a single issue – such as being unable to pay the rent – while others taking part with a broader view of the problems facing Israeli society and how to fix them.
While this movement contains countless, often contradictory, tendencies, it is hardly unique in that. When protests, camps and occupations broke out in Wisconsin earlier this year against attacks on public sector unions, few demanded that they produce statements on Afghanistan, Iraq, Guantanamo Bay and Libya before being worthy of support. When the wave of popular protest in North Africa got rid of Egypt’s Mubarak and Tunisia’s Ben Ali, the solidarity was immediate and overwhelming.
Yet with the current movement within Israel, many of those in the UK – leftist groups, activists and others – who would ordinarily be expected to be falling over one another to send statements of solidarity and support, donate money, carry out interviews and the like, have been oddly quiet, if not outright hostile – a trend which has not gone unnoticed.
One reason for this – though perhaps not the only one – may be the trend for some on the left to treat Israel as a single, uniform entity, and an almost deliberate obliviousness to the country’s internal politics. It is tempting, particularly for those who have been involved in Palestine solidarity campaigning and have seen the desperation and suffering there firsthand, to think of Israel in such black and white terms. Yet this is flawed. Like anywhere else in the world, the interests of the working class and the ruling class are not the same; like anywhere else in the world, Israel contains its own internal politics, disagreements, domestic concerns and controversies which should not be ignored by putting down the blinders, seeing the occupation and nothing else.
An article written in early August describes a situation at the time:
Over the past week, though, the Palestinians themselves have begun gaining presence in the protests; not as an external threat or exclusively as monolithic victims of a monolithic Israel, but as a part and parcel of the protest movement, with their demands to rectify injustices unique to the Palestinians organically integrating with demands made by the protests on behalf of all Israelis.
First, a tent titled “1948″ was pitched on Rothschild boulevard, housing Palestinian and Jewish activists determined to discuss Palestinian collective rights and Palestinian grievances as a legitimate part of the protests. They activists tell me the arguments are exhaustive, wild and sometimes downright strange; but unlike the ultra-right activists who tried pitching a tent calling for a Jewish Tel Aviv and hoisting homophobic signs, the 1948 tenters were not pushed out, and are fast becoming part of the fabric of this “apolitical” protest.
A few days after the 1948 tent was pitched, the council of the protests – democratically elected delegates from 40 protest camps across the country – published their list of demands, including, startlingly, two of the key social justice issues unique to the Palestinians within Israel: Sweeping recognition of unrecognised Bedouin villages in the Negev; and expanding the municipal borders of Palestinian towns and villages to allow for natural development.
The demands chimed in perfectly with the initial drive of the protest – lack of affordable housing. Neither issue has ever been included in the list of demands of a national, non-sectarian movement capable of bringing 300,000 people out into the streets.
And, finally, on Wednesday, residents of the Jewish poverty-stricken neighbourhood of Hatikva, many of them dyed-in-the-wool Likud activists, signed a covenant of cooperation with the Palestinian and Jewish Jaffa protesters, many of them activists with Jewish-Palestinian Hadash and nationalist-Palestinian Balad. They agreed they had more in common with each other than with the middle class national leadership of the protest, and that while not wishing to break apart from the J14 movement, they thought their unique demands would be better heard if they act together. At the rally, they marched together, arguing bitterly at times but sticking to each other, eventually even chanting mixed Hebrew and Arabic renditions of slogans from Tahrir.
Where this movement will go from here is hard to say. Some have seen today’s mass protest as the climax of the movement, while others intend to keep going. And the long term effects remain to be seen. But, however critical, this movement deserves support.
Love, rage and solidarity,
A York Anarchist
On a related note, York Palestine Solidarity Campaign is holding a meeting with a speaker from Anarchists Against the Wall, a group based in Israel fighting against the Israel-Palestine wall, and against the occupation more generally. Meeting is Thursday 8th September, 7:30pm, at the Priory Street Centre, Priory Street, York.