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The crisis of Israel's anti-occupation Left

Israelis emigrating — or considering emigration — for political reasons are inadvertently adopting the spirit of the boycott movement in the sense that they, too, have given up on the idea of change coming from within.

File photo of Israeli anti-occupation activists protesting in front of the Prime Minister’s Residence in Jerusalem. (Maya Levin/Flash90)

File photo of Israeli anti-occupation activists protesting in front of the Prime Minister’s Residence in Jerusalem. (Maya Levin/Flash90)

Everywhere I turn these days, many of my peers have left Israel, are leaving Israel, are planning to leave, or are talking about leaving Israel. My family and I included.

The reasons for leaving are always personal, and it’s hard to point to a specific political trend. But the discourse around leaving is indicative of a real crisis in the Israeli Left regarding the inability to effect change, the increasing sense that our ideals are unwanted, and that we are outnumbered. Not just at the polls, but at the family dinner table, too.

For me, this is not just about the normalization of racism and violence in the public sphere that goes along with the occupation. It is about the fact that so many Israelis who identify as liberal or left wing are either ignorant of the state’s actions vis-à-vis the Palestinians, or they are complicit in them.

When I first witnessed Israeli human rights violations and the violence of military occupation nearly a decade ago — through my activism with direct-action Arab-Jewish cooperative Ta’ayush — I found my most fundamental working assumptions about Israel upended.

Those experiences shaped my politics, almost instantaneously setting me apart from most Jewish Israelis. While other Israelis spent their Saturdays resting at home or going to family gatherings, I was escorting Palestinians to their wells and grazing lands in hopes that our — Israeli activists’ — presence might discourage attacks by Israeli settlers and confrontations with soldiers (sometimes it would work, sometimes it wouldn’t).

Israeli activists from Ta’ayush accompany Palestinian shepherds to protect them from settler violence and military harassment, South Hebron Hills, West Bank, March 15, 2008. (Keren Manor/Activestills.org)

Israeli activists from Ta’ayush accompany Palestinian shepherds to protect them from settler violence and military harassment, South Hebron Hills, West Bank, March 15, 2008. (Keren Manor/Activestills.org)

Returning to the comforts of my life in Tel Aviv I would find myself outraged that people could sit in cafes with no clue about what was being done in their name just a few miles away — or worse, that they didn’t care. That sharp dissonance began to affect more and more aspects of my life, including interactions with friends, family members and colleagues. It began to breed a constant sense of despair and resentment.

That was 10 years ago.

Likewise, it has been five years since the “tent protests,” when hundreds of thousands of — mostly Jewish — Israelis took to the streets to protest the high cost of living, ignoring the disenfranchised Palestinian population in our midst.

In the years since, my sense of alienation has only intensified. Instead of gaining legitimacy in Israeli society, anti-occupation activist groups like Ta’ayush, Anarchists Against the Wall and Breaking the Silence, which came of age during the Second Intifada with the aim of exposing and opposing human rights violations, are now targets of state-sanctioned incitement. Just like the ideas and values they represent, these groups are marginalized even more than they already were.

Today Israel has perhaps the most right-wing government in its history, and “leftist” is a bona fide curse word whose definition just keeps broadening. An Israeli who has never set foot across the Green Line but who protests against war in Gaza is considered a radical. A soldier who served in the military but then wants to talk what he was ordered to do in uniform is a traitor. A poll earlier this year found that 72% of Jewish Israelis do not even believe Israel’s control over the Palestinian territories constitutes an “occupation.”

Under these circumstances, how can the Left possibly hope to shift the discourse, much less end the occupation? This is the question I am constantly grappling with, and it is the million-dollar question facing the anti-occupation Left in Israel today.

In 2005, Palestinians answered the same question by calling for international pressure to end the occupation through boycott, and some Jews in Israel and abroad answered that call, believing that change will not come from within. Those Israelis emigrating for political reasons are inadvertently part of the spirit of the boycott movement in the sense that they, too, have given up on the idea that change will come from within.

Although I feel a constant and growing sense of alienation from the majority of Jewish Israeli society, and this makes leaving seem more appealing, I also live a comfortable life here and am invested in this place. It is home. But every time I walk from my house in Jaffa to the beach and dip my limbs into the open sea, I am sorely aware of all the Palestinians in the West Bank who don’t have this luxury, who have never seen the Mediterranean, or for whom the chance to visit is an extraordinary, one-time opportunity entirely dependent on the whims of an Israeli military commander. Every time I experience fear or anxiety about the increasingly violent, herd-mentality society my two-year old is growing up in, I consider the Palestinian children who are stateless and roofless in Gaza.

We can’t live in a constant state of guilt. But even as we Israeli leftists are increasingly persecuted, we also have to recognize the privileges we enjoy. One of the most powerful privileges is even having the option of considering emigration. And it is precisely because of those privileges I enjoy here that I feel compelled to fight for all those who lack them,. That stands true irrespective of the very personal decision of whether to stay or go.

A version of this article first appeared in The Jewish Daily Forward.

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    1. tzedek

      The problem I have with these kind of smolanim laments (and I consider myself an anti, or post-zionist leftist as well, although I am not from the so-called diaspora), is that they contain very little reflection on past mistakes and on what could be done differently, in retrospect. This incapacity to undertake basic reflexivity also impedes the development of new political tactics which could overcome the failures of the “anti-occupation” camp.

      IMO an example of past mistake can be the complete disregard for Judaism within these political circles. The normative and ethical background of most Jewish Israeli anti-occupation and anti-colonial activism has always been that of a westernized, modernist and atheist left. Instead of working towards constructing and rebuilding a real jewish liberation theology that could have been more easily understood by those Jewish newcomers of Mizrahi and/or Haredi background, the Israeli anti-colonial camp has preferred to invest itself in Human Rights Organizations. This was not wrong per se, but by doing so, they have completely abandoned both Jewish Institutions and Jewish texts to let them be fully invested by the State and by Nationalists, hence the rise of those monstruosities such Gush Emunim or the Dati Leumi which face very little opposition within the religious field -(appart from the haredim).

      Reply to Comment
    2. Carmen

      I too feel and identify with the heartache I read in your post and the very real isolation and marginalization in what I will only call the zionist enterprise. But if you have a conscience, what other possible way could you feel? I can’t and will never be able to identify with Jews who enjoy the fruits of someone else’s labors, the orchards and the land they have stolen and now occupy, living on the blood and bones of a people who dwelled there only 70 years ago; not 700, 1500, 2000 or more years ago, if ever. We (like most Jews here) come from somewhere else – it isn’t like we have no place to go. As you noted, we have that freedom of movement that Palestinians can only dream about.

      Whatever you decide, don’t stop writing because your voice is very powerful, more powerful than your presence.

      Reply to Comment
    3. i_like_ike52

      This is a good example of the “not seeing the elephant in the room” syndrome. The writer feels righteous indignation regarding the “occupation” which began in 1967, and which the Palestinians insist on continuing due to their refusal to agree to a compromise peace with Israel that both Barak and Olmert offered them, but the writers is completely oblivious to the fact that she admits she lives in Yafo, which, in case she forgot, was an Arab-populated city before 1948 and which the Palestinians consider to be ALSO under “Israeli occupation” since then. As our friend and fellow commentor here who goes by the cybername “AKA 1948 BALADI” has pointed out, the Palestinians consider ALL Jews who have made aliyah to Israel as being invaders and should go back where they came from, which I presume in the case of the writer is Germany or Poland.
      It is this obliviousness to reality that prevents our writer from understanding why most Israelis have lost faith in the “peace process”. They see the deep divisions in Palestinian society which prevent them from forming a coherent gov’t that could conduct serious negotiations with Israel and well as the fratricidal slaughter going on in Syria, Iraq, Yemen, Libya, etc which makes them skeptical about the old, stale promises the “peace process gang” tried to sell Israeli, regarding the supposedly bright future we and the Palestinians would have if only we would simply get out of the West Bank (let’s not talk about the unilateral withdrawal from Gaza…too embarrassing).
      In any event, even though the writer says many of her friends and relatives are leaving Israel, thinking they can lead a more morally pure life in Europe or the US, the reality fo the situation in those places will end up bringing many, if not most back to Israel, even if the “occupation” will be continuing.

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    4. Lewis from Afula

      The remaining hard core of Uberleftists like Mairav are living in a heightened sense of Cloud Cuckooland. Yes, the arabs are nice reasonable people, which is why they are raping, pillaging and bombing their way through Europe.

      Only yesterday, the German police found tons of explosives in Chemnitz. The Swedish rape epidemic continues whilst the no go areas keep expanding. Lots of violent incidents occur daily in Western Europe though they remain unreported. Most Israelis understand that civil war in Europe is only a few years away.

      Reply to Comment
      • tzedek

        I am a jew and live in one of these supposedly “no go zones” in Europe, those are just impoverished ghetto were minorities are parked and where the police constantly harasses youth. Hardly a “no go zone”.

        As for Germany, France, Belgium etc. they suffer from these attacks because they decided to join the coalition against ISIS, after decades of military adventures in the middle east. You can’t go and bomb people on the other side of the planet and not expect them to bomb you back.

        And finally, the vast majority of rapes in Sweden are comitted – like everywhere – within households and by people the victims tend to know.

        So basically, it’s these racist Israelis – like you probably – who have a complete “cuckoo” understanding of what is going on in Europe, basically just paroting what the European far rights tell them is going on, without checking up the facts.

        It’s a sad day when the State that pride itself on being the center of Jewish life brings it’s citizen, not only into supporting its own oppression, but also in making palls with those people who formerly oppressed Jews to a formidable extend (the European far right).

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        • AJew

          “because they decided to join the coalition against ISIS”

          Yea, what business is it of theirs? Let ISIS do what they want with Yazidis, Kurds, Assyrians, Christians and other minorities. After all, they are half way around the world.

          But if they push their big noses in it then why shouldn’t they expect retaliation from self righteous Muslims who grew up amongst them and whose parents were given shelter by those European countries and allowed them to live there instead of the third world s…t holes from which they escaped?

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          • Tzedek

            It doesn’t matter whether the reasons for bombing ISIS were legitimate or not or whether ISIS is an oppressor. Yet, as much of an oppressor as it is, the fact is that the argument that the Paris November 2015 attacks happened is because of some sort of arabs “invasion of Europe” as Lewis from Afula pretended is false. As terrible as they were, these attacks happened because the French government decided to declare a war, and its civilian population got hit back. Spain participated in the 2003 invasion of Irak and got attacked by AQ in 2004, a few weeks later it pulled out and never got threatened by AQ ever since.

            Now as I said, ISIS is definitely an oppressor, it has killed 10 000s. However in Syria, the main oppressor is the secular and minority-friendly Syrian regime, which has killed 100 000s, and of course no European country decided to go to war against it. Europeans and Americans did very little and basically watched Assad massacre his own people with his planes and christian/shia/druze/alawi/sunni militias. Therefore the argument that the US, French, British, German etc. anti-ISIS coalition was done out of concern for the oppressed is just a bullshit imperialist excuse.

            You are clear example of the damage the State of “Israel” and the integration of Jewish ideologues into those reactionary fragments of the Western upper classes have done to Judaism. Someone whose nickname is “a jew” should be ashamed of accepting as true such a bullshit pro-imperialist rhetoric, Judaism’s most fundamental texts warn us against siding with Pharaoh of course but also with Rome in many parts of the Talmud (baba metsia 83a-83b)

            Your argument is also that “self-righteous muslims” are not loyal enough to these European States and Societies that supposedly fed and rescued them. This is exactly the same argument used by French, German, Polish, Russian or Egyptian antisemites against Jews for decades. The suspicion that they lack loyalty has been a constant antisemite trope. Jews were accused to never be loyal enough and to always in favor of some foreign entity, such as the Soviet Union in some cases (which posed a threat to Europe far greater than ISIS ever will), the State of Israel in others, or just for their own sake.
            And yet, you are using this same discourse for muslims in Europe (which in most cases are discriminated minorities that take care of the worst jobs, freeing the better jobs for other people). Yet another reason as to why you should probably change nickname.

            Reply to Comment
          • AJew

            Ho hum.

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      • Ben

        Lewis is so reminiscent of the average hard core Trump voter and the Ann Coulter types. “Mexican rapists! Yeah! THAT’s our problem!” (So let’s vote for the Groper in Chief cuz only white men get to rape and get away with it and that’s the way it oughta be goddammit.)

        Reply to Comment
        • Carmen

          “Mexican rapists! Yeah! THAT’s our problem!” (So let’s vote for the Groper in Chief cuz only white men get to rape and get away with it and that’s the way it oughta be goddammit.)”

          Just another example of the white man’s burden, yeah? No surprises that old, ‘grab em by the p@$%&y’, ‘punch ’em in the face’, ‘kill their families’, ‘Blacks have contributed nothing’, ‘Obama was born in Kenya’ etc., Drumpf is so popular in alternate universes such as zioland.

          Reply to Comment
        • AJew

          “Lewis is so reminiscent of the average hard core Trump voter and the Ann Coulter types.”

          Ben hates Trump, Ann Coulter and their supporters. Ben also hates Israel and supporters of Israel.

          So why not conflate the two? That way Ben can get two of his pet hated objects for the price of one.

          What a (self) righteous fellow Ben is. Isn’t he adorable?

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          • i_like_ike52

            The irony is that Ben recently stated that he agrees with Ze’ev Strenhell’s assertion that because of the Holocaust, the Jews had “the right to steal 78% of Palestine from the Arabs” (as the Arabs see it, naturally, not us), but it is a moral outrage of Jews go out and live in places Jews have lived for thousands of years outside of the “holy” Green Line. As the Arabs see it, Sternhell’s and Ben’s position is outright hypocrisy.

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          • Ben

            Ike, neither I nor Ze’ev Sternhell stated that. (And for you to put your fabrication in quotation marks suggests the level you’re playing at.) What Sternhell has written about and what I actually stated in regards to what he has written is found here (October 6):

            Gustav, your thrice-offered ad hominem (“hate”) aside, the flaw in your statement is to equate “supporters of Israel” with Lewis.

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    5. David

      Only a fool or a Zionist zealot fails to realize that Israel is descending ever faster, ever deeper into the abyss of fascism.

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    6. Jane

      If I could write as well as you, I would have written this article. I too was with ta’ayush and gush shalom and other similar organizations.
      After 23 years in Jerusalem my world was getting smaller as I met fewer and fewer people with whom I could discuss the occupation.
      There was denial or blame. I sold my apartment and moved back to North America. I miss ta’ayush and other activities but my soul is more at peace by not having to face the ugliness of the situation and present government on a personal daily basis.

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      • Bus189

        It makes me happy to hear that the Taayush crowd has accepted that they have failed and are leaving the country. Now could you please take some of the leftists from Tel Aviv with you so that I can afford to buy an apartment in this absurdly expensive city?

        There are so many nicer places for you guys where people will appreciate your weekend struggles all these years. You will be feted and fawned over. Go to Berlin, New York, Paris, London. You can make grand speeches about how meaningful the experience was for you. People will eat it up you exotic middle eastern social justice tourists. Just don’t mention that at the end of one of your glorious symbolic battles versus the evil Zionists you would just go back to the safety of an Cafe Rimon or Greg Cafe for drinks and dinner. That will remove some of the glamour from your struggle.

        What point is there in getting sunburn in the hills of Hebron? It isn’t like you are having any impact.

        Reply to Comment