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.
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).
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.