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Anarchists: The most important activists on the Jewish Israeli left

A lot of nonsensical accusations are leveled at Israel’s anarchist activists, a small group of citizens engaging in civil disobedience and nonviolent protest against the occupation. Most of them are lies. The fact is that the anarchists are the only group in Israel engaged in serious anti-occupation activism.

Soldiers lead an Israeli activist who sustained a head injury after she was hit by a rubber bullet during the weekly demonstration against the occupation in the West Bank village of Nabi Saleh, Friday, March 16, 2012. (photo: Anne Paq/Activestills.org)

This is a translation from Hebrew of my weekly column in Time Out Tel Aviv. It was written as a response to the labeling of J14 activists as “anarchists” by Israeli Knesset Members and journalists. You can read the original here. Thanks to Lisa Goldman for translating the piece.

THE ISRAELI RIGHT has learned a new word: “Anarchists.” MK Miri Regev called the J14 protest leaders “anarchists who actively undermine the state”; Channel 10’s economic affairs reporter, Sharon Gal, said the protesters were a “type of anarchist”; online, Facebook status updates and comments on news sites reflected similar sentiments.  This is all nonsense, of course. The social justice movement is led by the Israeli middle class; and there have always been far more average Israelis than professional revolutionaries at the demonstrations.

But let’s talk about the anarchists themselves. Over the past two or three years I have traveled with them many times to various demonstrations in the West Bank and I have come to know quite a few of them – primarily members of Anarchists Against the Wall. It would not be an exaggeration to say that my acquaintance with them fundamentally altered my political perception.

At first I was appalled by the manner in which the anarchists dismissed events that seemed very important to me – like Knesset elections or demonstrations in Rabin Square. Yet after awhile I began to understand the power of their political activism. One aspect of that activism is to think politically about all our life choices – what we eat, who we exploit through our work and how we oppress others. The other side is to engage in continuous, determined political action. Their activism is not only about demonstrations:  Anarchists have changed the names of Tel Aviv streets to the names of streets in occupied Hebron; they have posted stickers decrying “price tag” actions by settlers against Palestinians; and they have “returned” crates of spent, U.S.-manufactured tear gas canisters used by the Israeli army at West Bank demonstrations to the U.S. ambassador.

All these are primarily symbolic actions, designed to raise public awareness of the things that are being done in their name just 20 kilometers away from Tel Aviv. The fact that this small group of people comprises the only Jewish Israelis who are willing to oppose the occupation with serious activism – and not just moan about it in café conversation or on the pages of Haaretz – is an unflattering commentary on Israeli society.

"Roadblock" put by the Anarchists in central Tel Aviv, protesting the limits on Palestinians' freedom of movement in the occupied territories (photo: Oren Ziv/Activestills)

The anarchists number only a few dozen, but they have had an enormous impact.  Thousands of Israelis have visited Bil’in and seen for the first the Israeli army from the perspective that the Palestinians see them – facing the barrel of a gun, rather than from behind the trigger (this is a mind-altering experience). The army altered the route of the separation barrier in Bil’in as a result of the demonstrations.  But more importantly, the demonstrations helped bring some awareness of the occupation to the attention of an entire generation.

The struggle in Sheikh Jarrah was born of the anarchists’ activism. Even the social justice protesters learned something from them – and I am not referring to the breaking of a banks’ glass window.

Most of the accusations leveled at the anarchists are lies. I have attended dozens of demonstrations and have not once seen an anarchist throw a stone or attack a soldier or a police officer. Unlike the global anarchist movement, the Israeli anarchists restrict their activism to civil disobedience and non-violence – refusal to serve in the army, blocking roads, boycott and voluntary detention. For these actions they pay a heavy personal price.

Even when I disagree with them and have a difficult time with their dogmatism, I remain certain that the anarchists are the most important group of leftist activists Israel has seen in decades. In a few years, many people who are clucking their tongues at them now will claim they supported the anarchists all along.  As one of the activists wrote this week on Facebook: If there were as many anarchists as the idiots in the Knesset claim, there would be a lot fewer idiots in the Knesset.

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    1. Tal

      Your’e right of course. Their actions are blessed and indispensable. But what is their ideology? Do they really believe that a society can exist without law and order?

      Reply to Comment
    2. law&order is an oxymoron.
      unless you refer to the laws of nature (both physical and psychological) rather than man-made laws.

      how about people taking responsibility for their actions instead?

      Reply to Comment
    3. Richard Witty

      The anarchist process of building something new, “mutual aid”.

      The anarchist process of destroying something old.

      Most of the anarchists that call themselves anarchists, aren’t, at least not if they don’t do both, emphasizing the “mutual aid” element, as that is the fabric of life.

      I get that you are searching for reasons for why the “left is no more”.

      There have always been three “lefts”.

      1. Socialist left – Resting on ideology, substantive, constructive, though inevitably conformist, slow to change, opportunist.
      2. Moralist left – Resting on sympathy, vacilating, individualistic, but also the only sustaining motivation of social movement.
      3. Anarchist left – Resting on the ideology that change occurs when unfair obstacles are removed (rather than the ideology that change is constructed).

      Socialists do state violence and get things done by pushing. Anarchists do symbolic violence and get things done by creating room for new. Moralists don’t do violence.

      But, mutual aid is the link between the three. Not on the streets (though people can meet there). Occurring in living rooms.

      If you don’t know what mutual aid is, its cooperation. Peter Kropotkin’s book Mutual Aid, arguing against social darwinism in the early 20th century.

      Reply to Comment
    4. Human rights, and morality, exist outside of all jurisprudence and law. The anarchists act to force decision, against them, to instance, symbolically, those rights. They do not need a ideology of after the win. They know that upon social change the State will still exist, and the fight for human rights always at the horizon, beyond our best made boundaries, will never end. Their prescriptions for change are important only in so far as these induce action, again, mostly symbolic–but the law can battle itself through symbolism. Their nonviolence at its best can induce an areana of symbolic legal conflict. The nonviolent stance essentially refuses the possibility of victory; victory may come using ideas, consequences from their acts, but the controlling win they deny to themsleves, fundamentally in faith that others can find a way forward, if given the chance to see a new terrain.
      Or so I guess.

      Reply to Comment
    5. Lot of people self label themselves as “anarchists” lot did that in the past. You can see Kropotkin’s definition in the Encyclopedia Britannica as a leading one. The less dream like anarchists promote a libertarian socialist state less social order, organized as a direct democracy system of world commune of grass root communities.

      Reply to Comment
    6. I wanted to make some comment about how the Israeli “anarchists” should not be labeled by anyone other than their individual selves, but I will just say, “Viva Israeli Anarchists” or whatever you choose to call yourselves. You are awesome!

      Reply to Comment
    7. They use anarchist instead of terrorist because of the context only; the anarchists in Gaza where never called anarchists. Anything that undermines the sacrosanct “security” is undermining the state , it’s the location that determines the definition.

      Reply to Comment
    8. sh

      Well, if anyone deserved an ode, Israel’s Anarchists Against the Wall and Ta’ayush did. Our paths crossed in Sheikh Jarrah. I know little about anarchist theory, but apart from the fact that anarchists look like anyone else you’d meet (for some reason that surprised me), their dedication to what they do and the creativity and the energy with which they do it is amazing. So to paraphrase Noam, they are the most significant group of anti-occupation activists I’ve seen since June 1967. And they drum nice.

      Reply to Comment
    9. Kolumn9

      This ode to anarchists ss an interesting read but terribly bad analysis of their actual impact. The adoption of a cause by dogmatic extremists with fundamentally unrealistic perceptions of the world does not advance that cause. Their tactics are irrelevant since it is via ideas and goals that support is collected. As their ideas and goals are mildly retarded the apparent leadership of anarchists of this ‘struggle’ only drives away the pragmatic people that are the only ones capable of impacting the political system. If I had some money I would consider sending it to the Anarchists for the fine service they are doing for right-wing Zionism. Noa can have some money too. Bravo indeed!

      As for the position the the anarchists will one day be considered some kind of heros by the mainstream, well that is a messianic faith-based perception of the direction where we are going with no basis in reality. It ranks up there with ‘one day the world blah blah blah’ rhetoric.

      Reply to Comment
    10. An idea does not have to “win” to make a difference. I think an anarchist would admit that most people will never be anarchists. Such ideas can be catalysts, moving our world of thought, or expanding it. If everyone were like me, the world would collapse–I know this. That doesn’t mean, however, that what I say cannot have value. I think we should all be grateful that the world is not just like us.

      Reply to Comment
    11. Svaboda

      way to wake up and smell the coffee noam

      Reply to Comment
    12. XYZ

      I am interested in Noam’s comment that he has never seen any violence on the part of the anarchists. There has been a lot of violence at demonstrations that anarchists have been involved in, including the Bil’in protests, so I have to ask where it is coming from. But before that, I have to ask why Israeli anarchists are supposedly non-violent, unlike the European ones, as Noam says. Is it against some kind of rule to be violent? Are card-carrying anarchists supposed to take a vow not to be violent? Is something about Israeli anarchism inherently make its advocates non-violent? Does Israel anarchism inherently attract people who oppose violence? Do the anarchists expel people who do try to carry out violence?
      Regarding the violent demonstrations that anarchists are involved with, there are several possible explanations:
      (1) The violence is started by provocateurs sent by the SHABAK. This is possible because it was proven during the investigation of the Rabin asssassination that his government employed provocateurs in order to embarrass his opponents on the Right. Thus, it is conceivable that someone would do the same to make the Left look bad. Of course, this would have to be proven and I don’t know if it has been.
      (2) The violence is started by the Arab protestors and the anarchists hide behind their skirts, letting the Arabs do the dirty work while allowing them to say they are clean.
      (3) The last possiblity is that Noam simply has not been in the right place to see violence that IS initiated by anarchists.
      Not being involved in these demonstations I don’t know what is the truth, but I have my suspicions.

      Reply to Comment
    13. sh

      Their impact upon people who have a real problem with living in or supporting a country that deprives a whole population of the most basic of human rights such as water or the right to be present when their children are interrogated or the right to visit them when they are imprisoned or for a prisoner to even know what his or her incarceration is for, never mind when it will end, has been immeasurable.

      Reply to Comment
    14. You didn’t need to be a Christian to have marched with Martin Luther King, a Muslim to have supported Malcolm X’s demand for equality, a communist to have opposed America’s invasion of Vietnam. You don’t have to be an anarchist to march with these prionciples Israelis who stand for equality and freedom.
      Action clears the brain for fresh thinking.

      Reply to Comment
    15. sh

      You can take Noam’s word for it, XYZ, Anarchists Against the Wall eschew violence. But if that’s not good enough for you, you’ll find plenty of settlers who claim that the violence is all too often started by the forces of order supposedly there to keep the “peace”. Feel better now?

      Reply to Comment
    16. Not all the people involved with the Anarchists against the wall are anarchists – many join us because they like our strategy and way of organizing our activity together with the popular grass root Palestinian activists. Our anarchists and non labelled antiauthoritarian anti capitalists are like the same people all over the world. Our nonviolent strategy is the same as that of social struggle anarchists who regard violence as non productive and unjustified in the phase of struggle we are in. Our non violence is not equal pacifism.

      Reply to Comment
    17. XYZ

      Ilan Shalif-
      In other words, if violence were “productive” and “justified” (I presume you would be the one to decide that) then violence would be used to overthrow capitalism?

      BTW-what’s your problem with capitalism? Do you want Israel (if you would allow it to continue to exist) to go back to the time when it took 5 years to get a telephone, there were only 2 (bad) flavors of yogurt and Histadrut-MAPAI-MAPAM functionaries decided what everyone got…with the best goodies going to their friends and relatives? Is that what you people are offering us?

      Reply to Comment
    18. Seth

      XYZ, if you’re actually interested in learning what anarchists want instead of capitalism — as opposed to simply throwing up silly “back in the day” imagery for us — feel free to visit http://www.anarchistfaq.org.

      Violence perpetrated against people is one of the primary reasons we’re against the forces of state and capital. It’d be mighty counterproductive to overthrow those forces by harming those who do not harm us.

      Reply to Comment
    19. Tal

      Seth, your link is broken

      Reply to Comment
    20. Kolumn9

      XYZ, you are describing socialists. Anarchists don’t offer a world, just some things about the world that they don’t like. The usual problem they have with capitalism is that the employee-employer relationship is at least partially based on coercion (no work / no food) and certainly based on the employer having authority over the employee and making money off the employee’s labor. They have come up with various cockamamie schemes to replace capitalism but usually are incapable of outlining a viable path from here to there or what to do about people that choose to not partake in their glorious social experiment. It is a bit of a trip to read their documents since they are clearly written by people that have a very limited grasp of how the world works even though they are sometimes people with prestigious academic degrees.

      Greg, an idea doesn’t have to ‘win’ to make a difference but to expand our world of thought it has to make a credible argument for why is better than the present system and how to get to this glorious future from where we are now.

      Reply to Comment
      • Rob R

        So they don’t offer any alternatives to capitalism, but have a load of “cockamamie schemes to replace capitalism?”

        If you’re going to mindlessly slag a movement that’s 150 years old (in its modern form) and has in the past successfully mobilised and organised millions of people (google the CNT) at least try not to contradict yourself in the space of a single paragraph eh?

        Reply to Comment
    21. Roy

      anyone spot the hasbarists in the comments section? The negative Nancy’s who weren’t here to read an article with an open mind but to delegitimize any and all criticism of Israel?

      How can a society move forward and progress if any criticism is ignored or even worse, attacked because the standards we hold others to doesn’t apply to ourselves?

      Ask yourselves who were labeled the anarchists in Warsaw? Then u will see the need for anarchists.. They serve to police the police and diagnose government policy. Why is fairness met with such fierce opposition in Israel? How can that not scare you?

      I personally do not believe anyone has the right to tell someone else not to use violence to oppose injustice. Don’t get me wrong. I believe non violence is the higher.path. But not everyone is that strong..


      Reply to Comment
    22. Roy,
      Nonviolence battles violence on either side of a dispute, or multiple sides of a dispute. It nonviolence alligns with violence is uses violence. It is a very difficult path to take, and I do not think it politically viable in many instances–that is, it will be quashed.
      The question before us is whether the very success of the Israeli security apparatus has made nonviolence quite viable.

      Reply to Comment
    23. Sara

      Its not that i dont respect what the anarchist are doing, but writing : “The fact is that the anarchists are the only group in Israel engaged in serious anti-occupation activism.” .. From what im reading for your article you dont give a proper argument for why what they are doing are more important then other groups like for example Tayush??

      Reply to Comment
    24. sh

      They work together much of the time, don’t they. In fact several activist groups do. Sara, what you say was one of the questions posed to Kobi Snitz. http://www.justvision.org/node/80581

      Reply to Comment
    25. zayzafuna

      I admire the anarchists as well because they stand against the racist concept of a Jewish state

      Reply to Comment
    26. I agree that there are other Israeli peace activists that also make a difference and have been doing so for years. But still, I didn’t know about this group, so many, many thanks for the article 🙂 You are right, as it happened in South Africa (my country) many who do not take a stand now against the illegalities of the occupation, will within a few years associate with the activists. Why not do it now?

      Reply to Comment
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