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Lessons from Israel on how to build resistance in the U.S.

American liberals in despair over the presidential election would do well to look at Israel, where setbacks at the ballot box brought left-wingers together and drove them to think bigger.

By Matt Duss and Dahlia Scheindlin

Hundreds gather in Tel Aviv to protest Israel's Operation Protective Edge, despite a police decision to revoke the demonstration's permit, Rabin Square, Tel Aviv, July 9, 2014 (photo: Activestills)

Hundreds gather in Tel Aviv to protest Israel’s Operation Protective Edge, despite a police decision to revoke the demonstration’s permit, Rabin Square, Tel Aviv, July 9, 2014 (photo: Activestills)

As the initial shock of the presidential election fades, American progressives are left struggling with disturbing implications beyond the mere fact of being on the losing side. We ponder the apparent declaration that America rejects its religious and ethnic minorities, LGBTQ community, the immigrants who have made this country great, its independent women, and even its equality-supporting men. What looked like a historic march toward greater equality and inclusiveness seems to have ground to an angry halt. Our thinking, activism, and writing apparently reached only “ourselves,” insufficiently at that, and failed to win over enough of “them.” Despair is a looming option.

Sadly for the world, but luckily for us, this isn’t our first time around. The two of us are both deeply involved in Israel, professionally and personally. For Israeli progressives, Netanyahu’s fourth re-election in March 2015 also felt like a local version of a grand-scale collapse. Just over a year later, with the Brexit vote, a slim majority of British voters said to hell with that massive structure symbolizing the values of the interconnected world we desire.

So why are we lucky to have lived this bitter reality before? Because we have one distinct advantage in facing America’s new reality: experience. We’ve had time to absorb the blow and think about what to do next. And these experiences can only lead in one direction: More commitment to the values of openness, more progressive engagement, more assertive leveraging of the tools necessary for those of us who have been kicked out of the ring and into the back rows of opposition.

This brings us back to 2009 in Israel, long before Benjamin Netanyahu’s infamous 2015 statement about Israel’s Arabs “voting in droves.” In 2009, Netanyahu made his great “comeback,” returning to the political scene and becoming prime minister a decade after he was first routed by voters with no small amount of disgust in 1999. Netanyahu’s return was seen by many as a deathblow to the progressive, outward- and forward-looking vision of peace and equality already eroded by the violence of the aughts. Many were left shattered — and scared.

Israeli activists light candles with the word "sorry" in Arabic and Hebrew, during a protest against the attack on Gaza, Rabin Square, Tel Aviv, July 26, 2014. (Keren Manor/Activestills.org)

Israeli activists light candles with the word “sorry” in Arabic and Hebrew, during a protest against the attack on Gaza, Rabin Square, Tel Aviv, July 26, 2014. (Keren Manor/Activestills.org)

But, then, a strange thing happened. The election, along with the Gaza war that had preceded it, drove left-wingers into an activist frenzy. People began finding each other, grouping and coalescing, developing bigger, more ambitious ideas that had never seemed worth pursuing before. Human rights organizations, perhaps feeling they had nothing more to lose, fell on the sword of public opinion and defied their government to support international investigations into war crimes. Lone bloggers with a few hundred followers noticed those few others like them and established new media outlets; some, in desperation, even wrote for free. Attitudes and issues were being expressed that simply didn’t exist in the mainstream press before. Ideas began to percolate. Within two years, in the summer of 2011, Israel saw the biggest ever social protest in its history: Half a million people, about 6 percent of the population, took to the streets.

It turns out that, in an era of creeping power consolidation, discriminatory legislation, and heightened nationalism, the country of Israel needed civil society activism — from NGOs, the media, academia, even professional guilds and cultural figures — more than ever.

The story does not end in easy triumph, however: Two subsequent election cycles have only strengthened the Right. But there have been some quiet gains for marginalized communities too, even Arab citizens, in part due to such thankless activism. As right-wing governments have pushed for nationalist and sometimes undemocratic laws, civil society pressure and vigorous debate has helped stave off some of the worst of these measures, or at least dilute them. That may be only small comfort, but it’s meaningful for those who have to live under such legislation. And sharpening the goals and strategies of the progressive camp, building infrastructure and community, has its own eventual payoff.

Years earlier, American progressives experienced a similar awakening in response to the George W. Bush Administration. Demoralized after the Supreme Court’s theft of the presidential election and cowed by the Right’s relentless exploitation of the 9/11 attacks, progressives began to fight back. The Left blogosphere produced a new, more aggressive brand of reporting and analysis; DC insiders and activists established a network of organizations and institutions to develop and promote progressive ideas, including the Center for American Progress, Media Matters, and others. These efforts helped to carry the liberal camp through eight long years, producing, in the process, fresh ideas and nurturing exciting new leadership that bore fruit for two terms following the lean years.

To be sure, newfound activism will not prevent the dangers that right-wing domination of government in our two countries poses to the liberal order. In Israel, it not only unleashed the mean-spirited ethno-racist environment, but also the trend of delegitimizing, rather than arguing — turning opponents into enemies, and flirting with political intimidation and suppression (distinct from the decades-long direct military occupation of the Palestinians). We have already seen this poisonous environment spreading in America.

Tens of thousands of people at a demonstration calling to replace Netanyahu as Israel’s prime minister, Rabin Square, Tel Aviv, March 7, 2015. (Photo by Oren Ziv/Activestills.org)

Tens of thousands of people at a demonstration calling to replace Netanyahu as Israel’s prime minister, Rabin Square, Tel Aviv, March 7, 2015. (Photo by Oren Ziv/Activestills.org)

The political earthquake not only highlights parallels between the United States and Israel, it calls their relationship with each other into question. We must recognize that the Israeli Right and American Right have long worked together to support exclusivity and ethnic privilege. Populists and ultra-nationalists in both countries recognize each other — they have helped elect like-minded governments. Now Israeli and American progressives need to catch up, and develop stronger networks and relationships toward a more positive, inclusive vision of both our societies.

American liberals can’t fight for their society at home while betraying their values in Israel by supporting occupation. It’s time to reconsider the DC cliché that U.S. policy toward Israel must be “bipartisan,” a pretense — observed mainly by liberals, rarely by conservatives — that has obscured genuine policy differences between the Right and Left in both countries and, by constraining criticisms of the occupation (let alone real pressure), given effective cover to the rise of the pro-settler Right in Israel, whose leaders have in turn regularly voiced support for a right-leaning agenda back in the United States. We saw this demonstrated most explicitly in Prime Minister Netanyahu’s agitating against the Iran nuclear agreement in a speech to Congress. Progressives must develop our own networks of mutual support and policy development with allies to counter our mutual ideological adversaries, offering political cover to each other when necessary.

Learning from the toolbox of others and re-thinking global partnerships for progressive change aren’t just for the two-country club of Israel and the United States, but for progressives globally. “Bremain” supporters, French voters worried about the rise of the National Front, Germans who feared the rise of AfD in September’s regional elections, Middle Eastern colleagues who still yearn for democracy despite the setbacks following the Arab Spring — progressives in each of those places can draw on communities of ideological kin for new ideas, experience, and moral support.

It’s essential that we work more closely with them to develop a common vision based on human dignity and freedom. This sounds lofty but it has clear policy implications: let people move and travel; give them the opportunity to work where possible, while supporting those who have been left out of globalization; treat people as individual equals rather than formulating policies to alienate religious, ethnic, racial or gender groups. Reject stereotypes, respect religious and romantic choices; expect people to take responsibility and treat their fellow citizens according to these principles stated above. Build civic identity and avoid nationalism. Remember that majorities of people who live in diverse urban environments where they actually see the so-called “other” invariably vote in support of parties and policies that advance more diversity. Also, bring compassion into policy grounded in painstakingly constructed conventions on human rights. More than anything, be proud of cleaving to values our detractors dismiss as naïve.

This was, and is, life in opposition. The main levers of political power are not ours. We are in the resistance. There is a freedom in knowing that big ideas are worth expressing without euphemism or restraint; bold political risks are worth trying because we have already lost everything. Fear and loss have a way of focusing the mind. There can be newfound activism, there can be a clearer vision on policy, concepts, and terminology.

Finally, for the sake of this vision, we must commit to reaching out within our own societies to those who have supported the political forces of anger. Progressives can admit that this wasn’t our strong point in the past. It’s time to start making amends by explaining that Jews in Israel and conservative white Christians in the United States have nothing to fear from the loss of ethnic and political hegemony, or from a future of greater equality, tolerance, and inclusivity. Forging a new and bolder vision, and expanding the number of those who support it, must be our shared agenda as progressives in Israel, the United States, and beyond.

Matt Duss is president of the Foundation for Middle East Peace in Washington, DC. This article is reprinted, with permission, from Democracy Journal.

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    1. Grandpa Frost

      “…but also the trend of delegitimizing, rather than arguing…” Look who’s talking! In an argument between a rightist and a leftist, who is more likely to resort to the accusation of “racism?” Is that not an attempt to delegitimize? In fact, another part of this very sentence says: “…unleashed the mean-spirited ethno-racist environment…” I’m not sure you even realize how Orwellian you sound!

      Reply to Comment
    2. Subway1EightyNine

      What a convenient timeline. Bibi won in 2009 and then a “strange thing happened”. Because before that the country was ruled by a coalition of Meretz and Hadash. And then suddenly the forces of evil arose and the emperor took over power but a small yet brave coalition of rebels rose up to confront him.

      So, for your hypothetical American reader let me introduce a couple of pesky things called facts.
      1) The Prime Minister before Benjamin Netanyahu was Ehud Olmert (Kadima, formerly Likud). And before that it was Ariel Sharon (Kadima, formerly Likud, known as “the bulldozer” to some and “war criminal” to others. So, since the election of 2001 Israel has been ruled by the right and center-right. Before that for less than 2 years there was a Labor-led government and before that it was Benjamin Netanyahu again. So, in the past 20 years the brave warriors of the glorious resistance have managed to get a single centrist ex-General elected for a glorious reign of 21 months. And that glorious leader managed to collapse the peace process, start an intifada, and hand South Lebanon over to Hezbollah.

      2) In 2009 the EU decided that it would “invest” tens of millions of dollars every year to sponsor NGOs in Israel and in the territories whose goal was to push forward an anti-establishment anti-Israel narrative which focused on breaking Israeli society into sectarian components while promoting pro-Palestinian narratives. So, a whole plethora of NGOs sprung up juiced up by the freely flowing European government money. As an aside, every time I use the term NGO in this context it feels wrong given that they very are much not “non-governmental” because they operate on budgets supplied by foreign governments. FGO – foreign government organizations – would probably be more accurate. This campaign of deligitimzation and demonization of Israel was approved by the new American government of Barrack Obama as a means of placing pressure on Israel and promoting the narratives of both ‘Israeli is on the verge of isolation’, ‘anti-Israel is not anti-Semitism’, and ‘there is a deep yearning in Israel supported by all sectors to make concessions to the Palestinians’, amongst others. The goal was to apply pressure on the Israeli government and Israeli society in order to force the election of forces that are more pliable when it comes to transferring land to the Arabs. The latest example of such an attempt was the sponsorship by the US Department of State of the V15 movement which ran a well-funded “non-political” election campaign with the stated goal of replacing what was then (and is still in a different arrangement) the sitting government

      3) So far the campaign by European governments aided by their local proxies has failed miserably. The right is still in power and as the screeching of the European-funded leftists accurately suggests, the current government is the most right-wing ever.

      So, if you want to be in the wilderness for 15 years, then dear American resistance warriors, please go ahead and follow the advice and seek the mentorship of the Israeli left. Go to Europe, seek funding for your causes. Start NGOs focused on dividing American society even further into tiny sectarian segments. Promote narratives that cause most of your population to hate you and reflexively vote against everything you promote. Best of luck!

      Reply to Comment
      • Bruce Gould

        @Subway: Here’s the website of one of those FGO’s:

        Can you point out for us exactly the “deligitimization and demonization” parts?

        Reply to Comment
        • Subway1EightyNine

          Feel free to go over all the NGOs, their comments, their positions and their sponsors at the fabulously well researched NGO Monitor — http://www.ngo-monitor.org/

          Reply to Comment
          • Ben

            In other words, “let me meet your facts with my propaganda.”

            “Recently, another incident in the editing wars came to light when Arnie Draiman, a social-media employee of NGO Monitor who goes by the username Soosim, edited articles in English about the Israeli–Palestinian conflict in an allegedly biased manner. Draiman concealed the facts that he was an employee of NGO Monitor, often described as a right-wing group, and that he was using a second username, which is forbidden under Wikipedia’s rules.”
            read more: http://www.haaretz.com/israel-news/.premium-1.530285

            Reply to Comment
    3. Subway1EightyNine

      Oh my god. Someone with a political agenda edited Wikipedia? Well this changes everything.

      The facts are on the NGO Monitor website. Read it. You might learn something.

      Reply to Comment
      • Ben

        Oh please. You forfeit credibility by citing NGO monitor, an outfit that is known to plant a “story” they wrote and published and then cite it as a factual and independent “reference.”

        Read the “Criticism” section on this page here and you will, not might, learn something:

        Reply to Comment
      • Ben

        “Naturally, governments have ambiguous relationships with such organizations. In Israel, it is unambiguous: in recent years the Jewish Right in Israel has launched a political war aimed at curbing civil society and human rights organizations’ ability to operate. They provide too much information about how the Israeli government actually operates…

        So the Israeli government used dummy organizations…. It’s important to emphasize that the principal work of these dummy organizations is dealings with the Israeli public or Jews overseas. That is the modus operandi of hasbara organizations. Netanyahu wants to close ranks at home, by flooding the public discourse with fraudulent information in order to discredit civil society organizations, which appears to come from independent, unconnected organizations that are incidentally connected to him or to the government. In other words, those government-affiliated organizations — and let’s remember that Netanyahu and the government are the story here; Steinberg is a pawn — have adopted the exact same tactic they accuse civil society organizations of using: sock puppetry. Meaning, they say they are serving one agenda at the same time that, using various names, they are serving an entirely different aim — and they pollute the public discourse in a way that official government statements could never achieve. NGO Monitor, by the way, has a long history of polluting the public discourse by planting lies using sock puppetry. (Hebrew)…


        Reply to Comment
        • Subway1EightyNine

          I read the criticism in Wikipedia. The criticism is empty. Multiple entirely biased political organizations accuse NGO Monitor of being politically biased. Some minor disagreements over phrasing. If this is the best you can do, then you should certainly use NGO Monitor as a reliable source of information on the foreign-government funded NGOs operating in Israel.

          I also find it ironic that you accuse NGO Monitor of having connections to the Israeli government, a claim that is entirely unsubstantiated by the article linked, and yet appear to find no problem with a full alphabet soup of Israeli left-wing organizations being directly and openly funded by foreign governments.

          I am going to say it again. The portion of the Israeli Left that uses words like “resistance” to refer to itself is entirely the creature of European governmental funding. The various cross-reinforcing organizations that operate on the Israeli far-left are sock puppets for European governments and serve the goal of demonization and delegitimization of Israel both in Israel and abroad by creating a well-oiled echo chamber for the dissemination of anti-Israeli propaganda.

          This is entirely obvious to anyone that looks at the financial reports of pretty much every far-left organization in Israel, which have conveniently been collected by NGO Monitor along with statements and summaries of activities by these organizations. The data is there and it is accurate for anyone that wants to take off the rose-colored glasses. The emperor is naked, he is fat with euros, and he smells of elderberries.

          If American activists choose to learn lessons from their Israeli counterparts then they will inevitably find themselves equally hated and equally dismissed as fifth columnists doing the bidding of foreign governments.

          Reply to Comment
          • Ben

            Of course the irony and glaring contradiction in all this self-righteous indignation about “foreign intervention” always has been and always will be that the O/T are not Israeli sovereign territory, they are non-Israeli territory. So these efforts to construe a “foreign” meddling in “internal” affairs fail.

            Reply to Comment
          • Subway1EightyNine

            Foreign governments massively sending money to Israeli political organizations is obviously meddling in internal Israeli politics. That is true by definition regardless of how you try to weasel your way out of it.

            Reply to Comment
          • Ben

            Not weaseling out of anything. I am the one dealing with basic facts of what is internal and what is external. You are playing pretendies. The Europeans have every right to contribute to human rights organizations addressing an affair external to your borders and involving the deprivation of human rights of people who are not your citizens. If anyone is weaseling it is surely Israel, into a space that is not its own.

            Reply to Comment
          • Subway1EightyNine

            The Europeans have very right to contribute to any organization they wish in their own countries. When they start massively sending money to anti-establishment and anti-governmental organizations in other countries they are interfering in domestic politics and that is not a legitimate means of exercising influence.

            Regardless of their claimed agenda, these are Israeli political organizations. They are also entirely dependent on foreign governments for their continued flourishing. If Israel spent $200M supporting neo-Nazi or Islamist organizations in the UK I would like you to keep a straight face while telling me that it is entirely the right of Israel to interfere in UK politics. But here you are again, claiming that it is some sort of European prerogative to use their funds to sponsor their own agenda in foreign countries.

            Their agenda is irrelevant. The only thing that is relevant is that European governments have created a whole alphabet soup of proxies with the goal of changing Israeli government policy. There is nothing that gives the Europeans the right to intervene in foreign countries. The era of European imperialism has ended.

            Reply to Comment