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'Social justice' requires an end to the Occupation

The protest movement in Israel can potentially shake the foundations of the current regime, as it has done in Egypt, Tunisia and Syria. Will Saturday night’s demonstration in Tel Aviv marking 45 years of Israeli Occupation succeed at forming the basis for a movement that explicitly connects the social struggle with the political one? 

By Yacov Ben Efrat

Tel Aviv rally for social justice, May 12, 2012 (photo: activestills)

The demonstration of June 9 marking 45 years of Occupation connects the struggle against the Occupation with the struggle for social justice, sharpening the debate over whether the “social” should be linked to the “political.” Last summer’s protests were careful to distinguish between the two. In the protests’ virtual world, it was permissible to talk only of “social” issues. To avoid any “political” stain, the protest leaders wrapped themselves in Israeli flags and concluded the vigils with Hatikva, Israel’s national anthem, in a show of consensual patriotism.

In the real world, however, political parties weave the two issues together inextricably. The Likud, with its neoliberal agenda, promotes its vision of settling all of Eretz Israel (Greater Israel). Shas, in favor of a kind of welfare state for Jews, holds to a rightwing worldview. The Labor Party, supporting a neoliberal social program, emphasizes its desire for making peace with the Palestinians. Among all these, only the social protest tied itself in knots to avoid “politics.” That is why it is so unstable, so open to manipulation, as both Left and Right try to co-opt it for their political use.

A sweeping victory for the Right

The protest’s insistence on avoiding “politics” is without doubt a victory for the Right. It must be remembered that, for years, governments of both Left and Right have strengthened Israel’s hold on the occupied territories through support for Israeli settlements, thus contributing to the power of nationalist religious factions among Palestinians and Israelis. The lack of hope for a political solution, and deep disillusion with the “peace process,” were fertile ground for the rise of Islamic fundamentalism. Since the Second Intifada, Israelis have also moved rightwards, and a new consensus has formed. The latter has now enabled Netanyahu’s rightwing government to create an almost wall-to-wall coalition of 94 Knesset members. The extremism developing among the Palestinians is great news for the Right.

The activists of the social protest understand that the Right supports an extreme neoliberal agenda and acts for the sake of the wealthy, thus increasing socioeconomic disparities. They know that the direct victims of this agenda are also those traditionally voting for the Right – the workers, the residents of poor neighborhoods and the neglected peripheral towns. Therefore, they surmise, the way to conquer the Right is to attack its weak point, its social agenda, thus pulling the electoral rug from under its feet. Indeed, the popularity of the protest movement certainly stems from the distinction it made between “social” and “political” and from its exclusion of Arabs and the Occupation from public discourse. Thus it succeeded in shaking up the government which rushed to issue the Trajtenberg report. But here the protest bumped up against a glass ceiling in its inability to turn its street-level popularity into electoral strength.

Welfare state with Occupation?

The main aim of the social protest is to bring back the welfare state – an aim common to protest movements around the world, including Egypt and Tunisia. But Israel is not a “normal” country. The Occupation and the continuous state of war create an unusual situation, which raises the question: does the “social” vision embrace a welfare state side by side with the Occupation? Or is it a vision of a “normal” state, based on redistributive justice?

Unbidden, the awkward question arises: can there be a welfare state which controls 4.3 million Palestinians lacking basic rights? Ignoring this question, or trying to avoid it, is like the attempts by all Israeli governments to reject any solution to the “Palestinian question,” from the Labor-Meretz government which signed the Oslo Accords in 1993 with Hadash’s support, up to the current government.

The Oslo Accords were the political expression of the neoliberal worldview. They brought Israel into the global arena and set “market forces” free. The economy was privatized and transferred into the hands of tycoons. The Histadrut (trade unions federation) sold off its companies and acquiesced in the destruction of organized labor. At the same time, Palestinians were forbidden from working in Israel. They lived under closure, and migrant labor was shipped in to replace them. Some of the occupied territories were handed over to the Palestinian Authority, which served as a subcontractor for Israel, strengthening the Occupation in return for generous financial aid from the West. Thus, during the almost 20 years since Oslo, poverty rates in Israel skyrocketed while unemployment rates in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip reached 50%, bringing the Palestinian people to the brink of starvation.

Can Israel avoid taking responsibility for the welfare of the people under its control? Is it possible to be sensitive to the needs of weakened populations in Israel, including migrant laborers, while remaining indifferent to the suffering of the occupied? Is it possible to fight racism against the Sudanese asylum seekers while ignoring racism against the Palestinians? Is it possible to differentiate between racism against Arabs and racism against Africans?

Of course, there is a difference: Israel is mired in a national conflict with the Palestinians, while the migrant laborers and refugees are innocent victims. But Israel had an important role, if not the decisive role, in creating and maintaining the national conflict, expressed in its refusal to solve it. Its claims that “there is no negotiating partner” are pathetic attempts to avoid responsibility.

The protest is blind to borders

The protest movement in Israel can potentially shake the foundations of the current regime, as it has done in Egypt, Tunisia and Syria. This is its significance. The vanquishing of the economic rightwing will no doubt be the end of the political rightwing too. The struggle for social justice and against the tycoons and their minions in the government connects Israeli society with the rest of the world, in particular the Arab world. The hostility toward rampant capitalism, the disgust with the cozy relations between capital and the regime, the struggle against corruption and the struggle for organized labor – these issues unite young people around the globe and erase animosity between nations, as they discover that what they have in common is greater than what divides them. The struggle against Netanyahu’s government connects with the Palestinians’ struggle against the Fatah government and Hamas. The protest constitutes common ground that could be a bridge to peace and the end of the Occupation.

It’s true that the protest movements in the Arab world concentrated on the daily needs of citizens, on fair wages, housing, education, health and authentic democracy, and not on the Arab-Israeli conflict. Israel’s protest movement marched down the same road, addressing the suffering and needs of citizens, and thus won over their hearts. But here in Israel, the Occupation determines the social and political agenda. Therefore, the protest’s message must be made clear if it wants to generate real change.

There is an enormous difference between, on the one hand, concentrating on social demands while ignoring “political” issues, censoring the word “Occupation,” and, on the other hand, granting legitimacy to the debate over the link between the two. Censoring the Occupation is tantamount to handing the rightwing a victory. It pushes the periphery straight into the hands of the Right and delegitimizes the Left. Intelligent public debate, along with tolerant education against racism and against the evils of the Occupation, including its destructive effects on Israeli society – these must be promoted by every person, organization or party aspiring to social justice.

The government’s recalcitrant policies, as well as the PA’s powerlessness to ensure basic conditions for a life of dignity, will forge a new “Palestinian Spring.” It too will demand social justice and democracy. It will insist that the Israeli protest movement address the Occupation. It will insist that the movement participate in struggles against the rightwing and the settlers, who seek to suppress the Palestinian people. At present, the false “quiet” enables Israeli protestors to play a game of sterile social justice.

The Occupation is out of sight, flickering into view on rare occasions such as “price tag” attacks. But the day is coming when we will no longer be able to close our eyes, and then the Palestinians’ demand for freedom and social justice will reach us louder than ever. On that day we will be faced with a choice: to march with history or stand in its way.

Yacov Ben Efrat is secretary-general of Da’am – Workers Party. The piece was originally published in Challenge, a magazine covering the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and translated from Hebrew by Yonatan Preminger. 

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  • COMMENTS

    1. Louis

      Good points! It would be like having social justice protests in the US of the 1850s while ignoring slavery!

      “The main aim of the social protest is to bring back the welfare state – an aim common to protest movements around the world, including Egypt and Tunisia. But Israel is not a “normal” country. The Occupation and the continuous state of war create an unusual situation, which raises the question: does the “social” vision embrace a welfare state side by side with the Occupation? Or is it a vision of a “normal” state, based on redistributive justice?”

      Reply to Comment
    2. Kolumn9

      This article is hilarious. The answer to all the rhetorical questions is actually a resounding YES. It is possible to fight racism against the migrants while ignoring the Palestinians. It is possible to differentiate between the racism against Arabs and that against Africans. It is possible to force the government into more social programs while ignoring the occupation. It is possible for Israel to avoid responsibility for people not under its control. As it doesn’t care about the Bedouin of the Sinai it doesn’t care about the Arabs of Gaza, or Ramallah, or Jenin or Nablus.
      .

      If the protest is blind to borders, then it is just blind. Borders exist, problems are different, people are different and solutions are different. Basically, no, we are not all in the same boat regardless of the rhetorical flourish. Also, I should point out that the Arab Spring is looking pretty shabby at the moment and trying to use it as a basis for a unified struggle seems rather obtuse.
      .

      If you go marching with this flag do not expect more than a couple of hundred to follow.

      Reply to Comment
    3. Kolumn9

      Also, I must say how appropriate it is that 972mag is becoming a mouthpiece for a communist political party which in the 2009 knesset elections had a grand total of 2,645 votes (out of three million plus). I can’t wait to also see editorials from the Green Leaf party which would symbolize the sum total of the political discourse of the writers here – pot smoking communists.

      Reply to Comment
    4. John

      Hey, who coined the arab spring? It is in fact muslim brotherhood winter riots in Egypt and Tunisia and everywhere – all they want is Caliphate. That’s simple – google – Caliphate and read – they will swallow you guys no matter what – with the occupation or without. Google Caliphate, refreshing.

      Reply to Comment
    5. Sherri Munnerlyn

      This article makes me just so incredibly sad for Israel.Is there nothing a people can do when their countries begin their moral declines, to stop it? Are we all just doomed to watch it happen, with the ability to try to respond ethically to situations, but with no real ability to shange the courses our nations are headed in?

      Reply to Comment
    6. sh

      @John – “Hey, who coined the arab spring?”
      Tunisia and Egypt. The protests of neither country were initiated by the Muslim Brotherhood.
      .
      @K9 – “Also, I must say how appropriate it is that 972mag is becoming a mouthpiece for a communist political party which in the 2009 knesset elections had a grand total of 2,645 votes (out of three million plus).”
      The Daam Worker’s Party is socialist, not communist. Maki is Israel’s communist party.

      Reply to Comment
    7. Tzila

      Bravo ,very good analysis !!! ,there isn’t one thing without the other

      Reply to Comment
    8. Richard Witty

      A people-centered movement has already accomplished revolution in making social welfare, everybody’s, the point.

      As social well-being is sometimes skew to the points of political action, they are NOT synonymous.

      If a political orientation hinders the development of the sentiment for people, then it is not progressive, but regressive, in the form of slowing social change, not making it.

      Ultimately, a concern for people will confront incongruities, and the questions of who one is neglecting as a pattern.

      Are those that are opposed to occupation also opposed to economic injustices, to racial, to gender. Are they supportive of self-determination, including Jews’ and other non-political association?

      Do they have a respect for the application of “tikkun olam” in the form of “all my relations”, or only a few political forms?

      Which is the larger set, the eco-social-spiritual past-present-future or the political, relative only to injustice?

      Reply to Comment
    9. caden

      Well, Sherri, maybe you’ll have another dream about your daughter being electrocuted. But I digress. Obviously the author feels that Greece is the country that has showed the way.

      Reply to Comment
    10. Kolumn9

      SH, Da’am is a Maki offshoot. The rhetoric is internationalist and comes down to revolution and ‘workers of the world unite’ as per the video posted somewhere else on this silly site of the group’s leader.

      Reply to Comment
    11. sh

      Parties usually break away from each other because they have differences. Few are like Likud-Kadima.

      Reply to Comment
    12. Piotr Berman

      “It is possible to fight racism against the migrants while ignoring the Palestinians. It is possible to differentiate between the racism against Arabs and that against Africans.”

      Sure! One can be selective. We can go to “all you can eat” lunch place and yet pick only the racism that we truly like. But what to do if the deal is “take one, pick one free”? Like “we can smash some infiltrators and beat up unpatriotic journalists who criticize occupation in the same time”. Or we can make concentration camps for the infiltrators (“tent cities” surrounded by barbed wire) and send leftists there too, as some MKs proposed.

      Reply to Comment
    13. Piotr Berman

      “Op-eds reflect the positions of their authors alone, and not those of +972 Magazine bloggers and editors.”

      Yet, on the main page this article does not show the author but “+972 blog”. And my impression is that the author presents some points that could well represent consensus of the blog creators and some points which are very particular to his political group, like purported “neo-liberal” nature of Oslo accords.

      In general, I would criticize this article for some “dialectic” shortcuts that indeed go in the “workers unite” territory (OK to unite, but for what? Umma? social welfare state? clearly not the same). Where does history march? Is she a goddess? Or History prepares us to be worthy of Messiah when He comes.

      Reply to Comment
    14. Kolumn9

      Sure, we can pretend that every political position one doesn’t like is either irrational or racist in which case one is stuck with a narrative that states that nothing could be fixed until everyone thinks like you. There are individual issues to be resolved and lumping them together is rhetorical BS used by ideologues to pollute the actual waters of finding solutions.

      Reply to Comment

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