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Navigating privilege, solidarity and belonging: A chapter from the new book 'Anarchists Against the Wall'

As a member of Anarchists Against the Wall, Roy Wagner acts in solidarity with people whose plight and oppression has to do with his privilege. ‘Since I am part of their problem, it’s pointless for me to patronize them over how their communities go wrong.’ When it comes to his beloved hometown of Tel Aviv, however, that becomes a much more difficult, if not impossible task. ‘With those who share my privileges though not my politics, with those whose wrongs are so densely interlinked with mine, I feel that I don’t have enough of a common language to talk about what’s wrong.’

The following is a chapter from the new book, Anarchists Against the Wall: Direct Action and Solidarity with the Palestinian Popular Struggle. Edited by Uri Gordon and Ohal Grietzer and published by AK Press.

‘Fear and Loathing at the Central Bus Station’

By Roy Wagner

I think Tel Aviv is not only the most beautiful city on the face of the earth, it’s probably also the most beautiful city that could ever possibly be. But that’s a minority opinion. Activists tend to think of it, and of everything around it, and of Israel in general, as despicably heinous. They are right, of course: wherever you go you’re surrounded by soldiers.

Soldiers in uniform carrying guns. Reserve soldiers, living their civilian lives, except for one month a year when they go back to being proper soldiers. Former soldiers, who think you too should be a soldier. Mothers, fathers, wives of soldiers. People who think that soldiers are always right and that they deserve a 10 percent discount in shawarma stands, and that they keep us safe. Border police soldiers on civil police duty. Oh, and there’s that depressed, alienated, self-loathing little soldier that I used to be.

And since soldiers are not only the people doing wrong but also those who might arrest you, or shoot you, or kill your friend this coming Friday, you don’t just dislike them, you’re also scared. Days spent feeling surrounded, wishing you were anywhere else. Ending up in school in Berlin or somewhere up the East Coast.

Little communities protect us from the world of soldiers. Being vegan helps make the cut clear. Veganarchism doesn’t just mean not feeding off the suffering of animals; like orthodox Judaism, it also means not eating with the gen pop of the barracks of Isra-hell. With the infoshop, and the vegan-queer-punk-cult bar, and a couple of semi-communes, we almost have what it takes to keep apart at times. We can’t avoid the increasingly rampant fascism and capitalism, but we have our hideouts when we need them.

Anarchists Against the Wall: Direct Action and Solidarity with the Palestinian Popular Struggle. Edited by Uri Gordon and Ohal Grietzer and published by AK Press.

You can’t reason with the people who stand up for soldiers. They’re totally brainwashed. Facts don’t matter; my stance just can’t make sense on their terms. That Jews are an oppressed, hunted, endangered species is for them an incontestable, elementary truth. That to survive, us Jews must strike – strike hard and first – is what we’re taught since we’re old enough to be taught anything at all. And it always comes down to that, and so details like whose land the wall cuts through, and who said what in court, and who it was that cast some stone or shot some bullet and at whom – are nothing anyone really should ever mind.

So we give up on these people. Our statements are not meant to communicate but to rage and keep us going. The slogans at our demos, for a Zionist outside, appear as the expression of a world turned upside down, self-hating and not making any sense. With no audience, the demos make little sense to us as well. Indeed, they make so little sense that I never chanted slogans with any genuine passion until I shouted them from within a fascist mock block, and never have I sung a song of protest with such fervor as I did “Hatikva” wearing a fascist-chic black shirt and red band around my arm. AAtW’s most spectacular action was a die-in during the attack on Gaza. Finally, we embraced the explicit wish of those so glad to see civilians bombarded (no, not civilians – terrorists, terrorist supporters, and kids who will grow up to be terrorists): the wish that the anarchist traitors would just drop dead.

* * *

My own activism was first sparked by Einat Fishbein’s local press reports on the new residents of Tel Aviv. In 1993, Tel Aviv’s central bus station – the largest in the entire Middle East, the largest in the whole wide world, with the exception of New Delhi – that they had been being built for ages, was finally all done. It devastated an already-run-down quarter. The older Jewish population, of Mizrahi and Caucasus descent, had been evicted, or was migrating or dying out. Tin and wood shacks from the 1930s still survive in a small enclave on a hill, but the adjacent tiny cottages with their protected tenants now stand to be replaced by office blocks. Filipina migrant workers moved into the gloomy refurbished industrial projects and un-glorified Bauhaus boxes that keep falling apart around the broken marketplace arches – what’s left of the ghost of Palestine past. Eventually it became too eerie for the Filipinas, and they moved out. Now it’s mostly Sudanese and Eritrean refugees. Palestinians keep passing through, their profiles hanging low, trying to avoid nasty encounters with border police patrols.

That’s where my activism started, and it involved a choice. I chose migrant workers. Alienated by Israeli soldierdom, I chose those victims of state-enabled exploitation, living under a sword hanging by a precarious legal-status thread, a thread so designed that even those so-called “legal” workers could be deported overnight. Later on my choice of activism became more and more diverse. I joined Anarchists Against the Wall. Later still, the local green patch (where the homeless of all creeds and nations sleep, and used syringes go to die, not far from where I carpool every Friday to demonstrate in the West Bank) hosted our J14 social justice tent encampment, the summer before Occupy Wall Street began.

At first, when joining West Bank actions, I was still more apprehensive of those lurking, evil Palestinians who, as I’d been taught, were out to get me than I was of soldiers who posed a genuine threat to my wellbeing. But activism turned out to be a slippery slope. The more active I was, the more I knew about the market and the state. The more I knew about the market and the state, the more I felt alienated by the society I lived in. The more I felt alienated, the more I retreated from the life of mainstream gay Tel Aviv into that of the anarcho-activist scene.

* * *

Across the river from the central bus station (that is, across the more or less imaginary river called the Ayalon) lies Kfar Shalem. Kfar Shalem (the Hebraized namesake of the Palestinian village of Salame) was where Jewish Yemenite immigrants, who had been lodged in houses left behind by Palestinian refugees, were dispossessed and evicted when the state that had put them there decided, 60 years after the fact, that they had no right to their homes, and must make way for real estate. Many of the people who used to go to West Bank demos were organizing actions with the tenants who were about to be thrown out – tenants who belonged to the very soldier nation that alienates activists so much.

Standing in solidarity with people who spoke my language, shared my citizenship, and served in my army felt stranger than standing in solidarity with Palestinians and migrant workers. When I encounter Palestinian nationalism or chauvinism, it’s easy for me to set it aside by telling myself that my solidarity is with their place as victims of the Israeli occupation, and that I, an occupier, a participant in the violence that enables much of their nationalism and chauvinism, can’t cast judgment. Criticizing from my position won’t do any good; it will only reassert my position as the whiter man who knows better and pretends to speak from a higher moral ground. My place, then, is to express solidarity with their struggles on their terms, especially (but not only) where these struggles challenge nationalism and chauvinism, building the scaffolding for our common future struggles for a better life together beyond the occupation. But when it came to my Jewish Israeli compatriots in Kfar Shalem, I felt that their nationalist and conservative agenda was something I must reject, because it was the kind that I was dealing with daily. In Kfar Shalem, I was in solidarity with people whose political faults were close to mine – close enough to alienate me.

I know that analysis is flawed on so many levels. But it is how it felt. And in many ways, rationalizations and identity deconstruction notwithstanding, this is how it still so often feels. The ethnic repression and class gaps that separate me from many of the people of Kfar Shalem don’t get me to withhold my privilege-enabled criticism as does the occupation gap between Palestinians and me. The way my education, income, and white-man perks enable religious nationalism in Kfar Shalem doesn’t seem to excuse the inhabitants’ local vices as it does the vices of Palestinians, or migrants, or refugees. The xenophobia and chauvinism that I see in Kfar Shalem are so much closer to those that I grew up with, to those in whose terms I still all too often think, they strike so close to home, that I can’t rationalize myself into believing that there, I have no say.

When radical leftists in Israel engage in solidarity with Israeli Jews, we often have this fantasy of finding a working class hero, preferably a woman, who despite not having had the kind of education and socialization that taught us to see Israel/Palestine as we do, would nevertheless intuitively come up with our hard-earned political views. She would be proud of her heritage as Mizrahi (a Jew of Arab descent), she would be an uncompromising feminist, she would see Zionism as a movement of white elitist colonial dispossession, and yet she would be rooted in her community, leading it to stand up and resist. But this working class hero is hardly ever there. If she’s there, she’s usually as alienated from the community that she’s supposed to lead as I am from my own middle-class milieu, the Zionists of Ashkenaz. And then we’re quick to pick up on her little racisms, and classisms, and conservatisms, and she falls from grace. Her little faults are easy to pick up on; she’s close enough to us for us to see in her what we work so hard to pretend we’ve overcome ourselves.

* * *

Which sends me back to that alienating mirror: middle-class Ashkenazis (or those who’ve become so entrenched in the Israeli middle class that they no longer have a marked ethnicity, and sometimes project this “feat” onto others, falsely claiming that Jewish ethnic divisions are no longer a barrier in Israel). After the failure of the Oslo process, the radical Left abandoned whatever little faith it had in the shattered Zionist Left. Zionist leftists came to be seen as indistinguishable from the Zionist Center-Right. And when finally, in 2010, some Zionist leftists resurfaced around the Solidarity Sheikh Jarrah movement, the encounter didn’t work.

Solidarity Sheikh Jarrah was a movement reacting to settlers taking over Palestinian homes in East Jerusalem. Its rhetoric marked 1967 as the fault line. Its implicit view was that Zionist colonialism was justified up until 1967 – that it was the encroachment on Palestinian property on the other side of the 1949 armistice line (the effective border until the 1967 war) that constituted the primordial Israeli sin. This view accompanies that of a two-state vision and no right of return for Palestinian refugees. It’s a position that the Ashkenazi middle class often finds easy to endorse. It doesn’t mark the historic state building by this class as wrong; it does not recognize its exploitation and oppression of Mizrahi Jews and Palestinians as akin in any way; and it does not require that this class pay a price. It’s strictly the right-wing settlers who are at fault and must therefore give up their homes, while economic colonization by the white elite would no doubt continue in the form of “bilateral economic cooperation” after a Palestinian state is formed.

Solidarity Sheikh Jarrah was an opportunity to reach out to the Zionist Left. But few in the radical Left managed to stay around for a long-term effort. What many of us saw in Sheikh Jarrah was the soldier mentality, the so-called shooting-and-crying syndrome: instigating violence and then lamenting its impact on our own tender souls. The movement had a rather impressive peak and some solid achievements on the ground, but now it is dwindling as it searches for a path. Many of the Zionists didn’t stick around. Us radicals observe, conduct post-mortems over tactics and keep telling ourselves how right we’ve all been all along.

* * *

Then came the J14 movement. It started as a protest against rent in Tel Aviv and exploded immediately into a social justice movement. Hundreds of tents in the main Tel Aviv camp, dozens of other tent camps all over Israel, and hundreds of thousands marching together in what may have been Israel’s largest demonstrations ever.

But what radical leftists saw there was the popular culture of music festivals and post-army round-the-world trips of young people clearing their heads in that sweet limbo between oppressing Palestinians and harnessing themselves to the capitalist machine that would turn them into fodder for corporate jobs. Unity was the name of the game. The protest was supposed to bring together left and right, and so discussing the occupation was taboo. The popular cry was “revolution,” but demanding that the government resign was considered unnecessarily divisive (and indeed, since all Israeli governments, left and right alike, oppressed Palestinians and implemented an elite-friendly economic policy, changing the government would probably be meaningless). The movement wanted unity over anything else – a mythical Israeli solidarity that was supposed to have existed in the early days of yore.

Some radical leftists chose to join the Palestinian protest camp in Jaffa, the Palestinian-citizen-of-Israel backyard of Tel Aviv, rather than face the Israeli ex-soldier colony in the center of the city. Some brought Jaffa to central Tel Aviv as the “1948 tent,” which tried to convey the Palestinian story to the Jewish protesters. Some opted to set up camp next to the central bus station, forming a small tent encampment housing local Israeli Jews together with street dweller refugees and drug addicts. I felt more comfortable there than in central Tel Aviv. The central bus station tent camp was violent, messy and dysfunctional, yet it allowed me to be in solidarity with “others” rather than face my “own” community of peers. It was extremely hard to communicate with people in our camp, but I had language, culture, and class barriers to blame. In central Tel Aviv the only barrier would be that of alienation, which is, apparently, a barrier that is far harder for me to cross.

I love Tel Aviv. Unlike most activists around me, I can’t see myself living anywhere else. But I can’t face Tel Aviv. I play along in mainstream Tel Aviv, enjoying my friends, the culture, the weather, and the uncannily beautiful, crumbling (and all the more beautiful for crumbling) architecture. But for my activism I go to the central bus station, which carries me away. I’d rather separate my activism from my daily city life. I act in solidarity with people whose plight has to do with my privilege. Since I am part of their problem, it’s pointless for me to patronize them over how their communities go wrong; my role is to work in solidarity when they fight to make things better. With those who share my privileges though not my politics, with those whose wrongs are so densely interlinked with mine, I feel that I don’t have enough of a common language to talk about what’s wrong.

* * *

Recently, I changed my function at the worker rights NGO where I used to do advocacy for migrant worker rights. I now give out labor rights information to disadvantaged Israeli citizen Jews. Perhaps it’s yet another way of not talking to my own community about the occupation. But then again, perhaps something starts to give.

This is a chapter from the new book, Anarchists Against the Wall: Direct Action and Solidarity with the Palestinian Popular Struggle. Edited by Uri Gordon and Ohal Grietzer and published by AK Press, this collection brings together statements, speeches, essays and reflections by participants in the group – among the most dedicated Israeli activists resisting the occupation on the ground. The AAtW legal fund will receive half of all proceeds from this book, which can be ordered here: http://bit.ly/AAtWall.

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    1. “When I encounter Palestinian nationalism or chauvinism, it’s easy for me to set it aside by telling myself that my solidarity is with their place as victims of the Israeli occupation, and that I, an occupier, a participant in the violence that enables much of their nationalism and chauvinism, can’t cast judgment. Criticizing from my position won’t do any good; it will only reassert my position as the whiter man who knows better and pretends to speak from a higher moral ground. My place, then, is to express solidarity with their struggles on their terms…” This sounds like something out of “1984” – whatever these people say, you have to support, and if and when they change their minds, you have to change your mind, too. Really, it sounds like a kind of slavery.

      Reply to Comment
      • Ms. Reading

        Excellent analysis. Now read the following paragraph.

        Reply to Comment
      • Kolumn9

        You arrogantly insist on imputing to the Palestinians your own political opinions, for example the idea that the conflict is over 1967 and the Palestinians will accept a resolution based on it in spite of what they overwhelmingly explicitly say to the contrary. He is a drone. You are an arrogant white man. I don’t know which one of you is worse.

        Reply to Comment
    2. Kolumn9

      It must be tough to live in a place with people that you overwhelmingly hate. I can’t imagine he can be very happy in his little bubble which keeps getting pricked from without. Shared bitterness which he and his friends experience is still bitterness and it eats him up inside. It is going to break him at some point and he will leave his beloved city (and its despised inhabitants) behind for the greener pastures of Berlin or California. Either that or this is one of those people that finds meaning in being miserable, which is a rather depressing thought.

      I think the phenomenon of self-segregation you describe is fascinating. It is like there was some kind of party meeting and all the leftists/communists/anarchists/feminists/Mizrahi ‘activists’/etc. were all instructed to turn vegan and they complied. Like a conformist herd.

      Reply to Comment
      • “It must be tough to live in a place with people that you overwhelmingly hate.” Like the vanguard settlers. “Like a conformist herd.”

        Reply to Comment
        • Kolumn9

          Settlers don’t hate Palestinians. Your parallel fails as usual.

          Reply to Comment
          • Vanguard settlers: you know, the ones doing price tagging, destroying olive trees, the “maniacs” which are never identified let alone prosecuted, the ones pushing residents out of land then used by these settlements.

            But that doesn’t happen. As usual.

            Reply to Comment
          • Kolumn9

            Yep. Even they don’t hate the Palestinians.

            Reply to Comment
          • Destroying olive trees and starting a fire in a home are emblems of love?

            Or have we read 1984 lately?

            Reply to Comment
    3. The evolutionary trajectory, broad and dense in time, which produced us was brutal, directly in death and through exclusion and failure. Those mechanisms will always be with us; one cannot successful disdain them in all forms. Well, one can try, but fail. And that is the point: to try knowing global success if impossible. Vegan, radical feminist, economic egalitarianism, pacifism–all these will fail as total goals. Yet those that push for them can improve things; one need not condemn oneself for ultimate failure.

      Networks which from employing some of these goals, say, being a vegan, can take on a kind of exclusionist disdain for those failing the ideology. I see this disdain as another instance of the evolutionary processes I mentioned. Political and social opinions can leave one very isolated, one’s efforts in these areas increasing the effect. One response is to ban together in strict creed and behavior. Another response is to see in one’s opponents oneself and the ancestors of oneself. I think the latter helps soften the former.

      Youth is innocent and naive and thereby often sees further than the old can bear. We need such youth. One of the great meannesses of the old is to force a world they know they will exit, the costs born by those remaining. Don’t let your youth be drained by either the forced ideology of companionship or the necessities of the old. Use your youth wisely, for these decisions will be with you for your personal forever.

      Reply to Comment
    4. Lisa K

      “I think Tel Aviv is not only the most beautiful city on the face of the earth, it’s probably also the most beautiful city that could ever possibly be.”

      Dude, you need to travel more. Seriously.

      Reply to Comment

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