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The Israeli Left can learn a thing or two from American Jews

Where was the Israeli Left when the army tore down a joint Palestinian-Jewish protest camp, or when the police broke the arm of a Jewish American activist in Jerusalem?

By Amitai Ben-Abba

International Jewish activists chant in front of an Israeli soldier during a night raid on the Sumud Freedom Camp, Sarura, West Bank, May 20, 2017. (Ahmad al-Bazz/Activestills.org)

International Jewish activists chant in front of an Israeli soldier
during a night raid on the Sumud Freedom Camp, Sarura, West Bank, May 20, 2017. (Ahmad al-Bazz/Activestills.org)

Freedom Camp in Sarura, South Hebron Hills. On May 29, large army and Border Police forces raided the little that was left in Sarura after the previous raid the week before. They confiscated mattresses, a generator cable, a car belonging to Fadel Aamer (one of the landowners), two tents, food, and water bottles. They also detained three Palestinian activists, one of them Aamer’s son, confiscated their phones and destroyed their protest banners.

Fadel Aamer returned to live in Sarura on May 19, accompanied by 300 activists — the majority of them American Jews. Aamer was expelled from Sarura in 1997 at the height of a long process of dispossession, which began in the 1980s with settler violence and abuse by the state. Alongside other Palestinians from the South Hebron Hills, Aamer continues to maintain a protest tent until he is allowed to return to his land with his children and grandchildren.

While thousands got together in Tel Aviv’s Rabin Square to demonstrate against 50 years of occupation, I headed to Sarura for a night shift. With the notoriously violent settler outposts of Havat Maon to our north and Avigail to our south, I expected little sleep. Yet the atmosphere was calm and hopeful. The first night of Ramadan. Over a dozen teenagers from the nearby town of Yatta came to sing folk songs and dance dabke. Others belong to the Aamer family or are from the nearby villages. Then there are the diaspora Jews, from places as diverse as Morocco, Australia, and Switzerland. And myself, the only Jerusalemite, staring in wonder at a hidden world full of campfire and baklava, as if only I could see it.

The Arabic word “sumud” means steadfast perseverance. And indeed, as I looked around, I saw the same faces from the various villages in the South Hebron Hills, sitting together around the campfire and reminiscing over the large demonstration in Susya a few years ago — dear people whom I know from many years of anti-occupation activity. They joked about the attempt to tear down the protest tent. It turns out that they succeeded, through nonviolent means, to protect the large shade canopy from confiscation and extricate an activist from the hands of the police.

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Fadel’s face became serious. “This is where I will die,” he said, revealing his bandaged leg, and the bruise between his eyes, evidence ofthe violence he encountered. “When they tried to take the tent, I told them to shoot me. Enough, I cannot leave my home, they will need to kill me in order to remove me from here.” And yet, Fadel looked happy — the kind of happiness that emanates from a man who stands up for what is right.

Where was the media?

The message that army forces were making their way toward the protest camp came suddenly from friends in the village of A-Tuwani. The activists quickly hid the canopy and the generator. An army jeep approached, circled around us, and left. The lights went down, revealing the nebula of the galaxy spiraling in the sky above. A breeze bore promise of a cool night. A jackal cried from the Mountains of Moab. But with all the beauty around us, I felt a kind of sadness. Israeli activists were sorely missing from the camp. Only five were here during the raids. Hebrew news outlets, aside from Local Call (and the settler outlet HaKol HaYehudi, which warned of a new “anarchist outpost causing unrest”) did not report on the return to Sarura.

A diaspora Jewish activist sits beside a Palestinian woman at the Sumud Freedom Camp, Sarura, West Bank, May 19, 2017.

A diaspora Jewish activist sits beside a Palestinian woman at the Sumud Freedom Camp, Sarura, West Bank, May 19, 2017.

Sarura wasn’t mentioned in the large protest in Tel Aviv. Left-wing parties that knew of the action, such as Meretz and Hadash, refrained from talking about it or sharing our posts on Facebook. The Sumud Freedom Camp has the potential of being an example of co-existence and joint struggle for a just peace. But Israelis refuse to recognize this.

I am not the only one who noticed this. Israeli activists from the group Free Jerusalem, as well as Americans from the anti-occupation group IfNotNow, who organized the direct action at Damascus Gate on Jerusalem Day, felt similarly. Every year, nationalist Israelis hold a “March of the Flags” through the Muslim Quarter of the Old City, destroying Palestinian property and chanting “death to Arabs.” We formed a human chain at the entrance to Damascus Gate, and once the police tried to remove us, we immediately sat down, linking our arms and legs. The police stopped, confused, and I was filled with joy.

There is no sweeter feeling than the one when you know you are doing the right thing. Settlers called on the police to shoot us. Palestinian passersby joined the human barricade. Americans sang songs of peace in diasporic Hebrew. The joy was short-lived, however, and the police ripped me from my small piece of paradise on the floor. But in their characteristically unprofessional way, they threw us nearby without preventing us from going right back to the pile of activists, sprawling on the floor. That was how we blocked the racist march for an entire hour.

Sarah Brammer-Shlay (Eliana Fishman)

Sarah Brammer-Shlay (Eliana Fishman)

Our direct action was seen by many as breaking the barrier of fear from the the fascist right wing. The police broke the arm of an activist, who then had to get surgery. Aside from that, the action was successful as per the parameters of civil disobedience. The first round of marchers encountered resistance, the state showed us all how it violently abets the march, and the action was given air time in Israeli, Palestinian, and international media — including right-wing outlets. The American Jewish Left backed the action, with calls of support from organization as varied as the boycott-supporting Jewish Voice for Peace and a condemnation of the police’s violence by the moderate J Street. But the establishment Israeli Left stubbornly insists on placing the emphasis on naive protests — a ritual that has repeated itself for fifty years, creating a veneer of democracy. Why?

Swallow your pride and join the struggle

I turned to representatives from “Peace Now” and “Standing Together” (I have yet to received a response from Hadash), and asked why they decided not to join the action in the South Hebron Hills, as well as their silence regarding the activist who had her arm broken. Peace Now Executive Director Avi Buskila told me that he “could understand the effectiveness of civil disobedience,” but that he “does not connect as much to this approach,” since it means that the “channel of democracy no longer works.” Buskila says that this is his personal opinion, and that Peace Now does not deal with this issue, adding that he does not “see a situation in which one should refuse and break the law.” As an activist in Ta’ayush and the brother of a jailed conscientious objector, I cannot help but recognize that those same claims are made by soldiers in the West Bank who are just following orders.

Standing Together, which organizes joint Israeli-Palestinian demonstrations in the West Bank, responded that “the violence that was used against the activist in Jerusalem is enraging, as is the behavior of the police vis-a-vis those who wanted to use their right to protest against a racist and inciting march. As an organization of activists who lead a number of struggles for peace, equality, and social justice, w supported the protest against the march, and even organized a demonstration that included hundreds of activists from the West Bank. We received the information on the injured activist late, and of course we view violence against political activists with great severity, even if we do not publish a post about it on our Facebook page every time it happens.”

An activist with IfNotNow is carried away by Israeli police during a Jerusalem Day protest, Jerusalem, May 24, 2017. (JC/Activestills.org)

An activist with IfNotNow is carried away by Israeli police during a Jerusalem Day protest, Jerusalem, May 24, 2017. (JC/Activestills.org)

It seems as if an American activist’s broken arm simply does not merit too much attention. There is a sense of condescension toward international activists in general. As one of the organizers of the protest at Damascus Gate, I can state that this condescension is not only unnecessary, it is foolish. There is much to learn from American activists. Their media work was professional, with press releases ready to go and social media presence that reached hundreds of thousands of viewers.

On a strategic level, it is my impression that IfNotNow has a vision and an achievable goal of shifting the Jewish American community against the occupation in the next five years. They refuse to negotiate behind closed doors and have decided to wage their struggle publicly, out of an understanding that changing public opinion will also change institutional behavior. What kind of vision does the Israeli Left offer against apartheid? Herzog? Lapid? Kahlon? Until we put our resources into into empowering activists on the ground, we will not change reality.

Thousands of Israelis attend a left-wing rally calling for a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, Rabin Square in Tel Aviv, May 27, 2017. (Flash90)

Thousands of Israelis attend a left-wing rally calling for a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, Rabin Square in Tel Aviv, May 27, 2017. (Flash90)

Sumud Freedom Camp could be a starting point for activists who want to do more. Every canopy and water bottle in Sarura, every piece of property that that can help the people of the South Hebron Hills live on their land, is a threat to the Israeli forces. In this scenario, solidarity activists can have a huge impact. We do not need to expose our bodies to violence — it’s enough to simply come. If there is one thing I learned from my activism in Ta’ayush, it is that our presence in and of itself makes all the difference between a situation in which soldiers violently expel Palestinians, and a situation in which Palestinians are able to access and protect their land. It is not too late to swallow our pride and join the struggle.

Meretz also offered a response:

The Meretz Party praises every civil action against the occupation, which joins the resistance led by Meretz in the Knesset on a daily basis, as it faces a destructive government that seeks to entrench the occupation and make it permanent. As we mark 50 years of occupation, there is a large, praiseworthy civil awakening around the issue. Meretz sent its representatives to various coalitions that have been established in the past months for the sake of joint actions of resistance against the occupation, and has responded and participated in every initiative that sought its support. Meretz never received any request from the organizers of the action, and thus it cannot be said that Meretz ignored these requests.

Amitai Ben-Abba is a writer and activist from West Jerusalem. He can be contacted via his blog.

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    1. Firentis

      Oh the cry of an under-appreciated activist. Why didn’t I get more attention? Why does everyone think I am making a fool of myself? Why isn’t everyone joining me in pursuing my silly and quixotic venture?

      The reason no one showed up is because the Israeli Left is focused on trying to win the hearts and minds of Israelis. The moment you join Taayush or any other group that has as its founding ideology an anti-Israeli and pro-Palestinian narrative you turn yourself into an activist against Israel, not against the occupation. As an activist against Israel your ability to win support among Israelis is rather limited. The best you can do from such actions is to get some attention abroad from fellow travelers but you do that at the expense of support within Israel. Given how improbable meaningful foreign pressure on Israel is at the moment the more main-stream Israeli leftist movements have made the conscious choice of re-engaging with the Israeli population. This demands appealing to the Israeli narrative rather than just being an obnoxious, stereotypical, condescending and arrogant pro-Palestinian leftist.

      Reply to Comment
      • Ben

        “Israel, not against the occupation”

        What’s the difference?

        My impression is that “appealing to the Israeli narrative” will get the Palestinians exactly nowhere except a patronizing pat on the head as “a good Arab” while the Israeli continues to mumble about his “right of return” to the West Bank land the Palestinian’s grandfather owns while on the other side of the nonexistent green line to mumble about, “no, you can’t buy that land, that’s JNF land for Jews only” and “no, you can’t have that permit to build outside your cramped Israeli village perimeter because your building plan on page 143 lacks specifications for the type of plumbing joint cement you are going to use and so please reapply in oh about 100 years, thank you so much for participating in the permitting process…”

        I wonder if what has got you upset is that Oren Barak, Rami Yousef, Amjad Iraqi and Noam Sheizaf all just wrote articles on 1948 that shockingly defy “appealing to the Israeli narrative.” You thought you could comfortably obfuscate about 1967 until the cows come home and here they go and bring in 1948! Of all things! And in the interests of peace and knowledge and understanding! The infernal nerve of those Arab and Jewish narrative stealers. What, do they think they have equal rights? Are they kidding?! The scandal!

        “an obnoxious, stereotypical, condescending and arrogant pro-Palestinian leftist”

        It think what you want to announce is another lucrative thrilla in Manila with “an obnoxious, stereotypical, condescending and arrogant pro-Palestinian leftist” in this corner and “an obnoxious, stereotypical, condescending and arrogant pro-Israel rightist” in the other corner” and sit back and get your popcorn, but these folks aren’t buying tickets.

        Reply to Comment
        • Firentis

          “What’s the difference?”

          The difference revolves around whether one is acting in the best interest of Israelis or the Palestinians. Once one is motivated primarily by the latter they have no internal legitimacy to tell the Israelis what they should do since the advice isn’t meant to benefit them to put it lightly.

          Appealing to the Israeli narrative is the only real chance the Palestinians have of having their own country. If they continue to insist that Israel’s creation and existence are illegitimate they should continue to expect that they will be treated as enemies dedicated to Israel’s destruction.

          I am not upset by 972mag authors talking about 1948. I find it refreshing that they are openly stating that for the Palestinians it is the existence of Israel that is the problem because that is my reading of reality as well. It is somewhat ironic that through their articles they are pushing forward the argument that a two state solution is not viable as long as the Palestinian narrative insists that Israel’s existence is illegitimate. It ensures that among the Israeli public the demand for a recognition of Israel as a Jewish State will have the central position that I think it should have in negotiations with the Palestinians even if that means that negotiations drag out for another 50 years until the Palestinians relent.

          The disagreement I have with the Israeli Left, which includes the authors, is that there is a workable alternative to partition. The fear of or hope for the so-called ‘one-state solution’ is what defines much of the Left in Israel. Since I see no practical way of getting from here (and I have yet to see anyone convincingly explain how that would happen) I don’t see any minus in waiting for the Palestinians to come around.

          Reply to Comment
          • Ben

            They’re never going to appeal to your narrative, nor you to theirs. They’re never going to ratify your narrative and you are never going to ratify theirs. But you are both going to have to accept that the other has a narrative that is deeply meaningful to them and agree to exist side by side in peace. That will take Israel pulling back on its overlord role not doubling down on it and demanding submission. Ain’t gonna happen. All these maximalist demands you have on the Palestinians are put forth by you with the surprising naiveté that you can continue to demand maximal surrender from them in terms of territory, in terms of West Bank settlements and “united” Jerusalem and they are going to come around and say “bye golly, we get it now, we have to accept all of this and recognize the nation state of the Jewish people while we are at it, we never realized how easy total humiliation is when you just do it, by golly.” You keep demanding zero RoR but seem to think that you are going to negotiate that while cheating them of everything else in the stingiest way. It ain’t gonna happen. Nor is there any real rationale for the “nation state of the Jewish people” recognition demand except to stall matters, because there is no way that Israel’s security practically depends on this. It’s a lie. The world has come to see Israel’s positions on all of this as basically dishonest, as basically an exercise in bad faith. And they have come to see Netanyahu’s character flaws as symbolic of all this. As Israel having a leader whose character matches the state’s practices. Your fantasy is that they will someday knuckle under due to sheer sadistic force and accept this and the world will accept annexation if you keep pushing at it. And you seem to think that all of this is not a recipe for a one state arrangement that to you is anathema. It does not add up.
            I think this exchange usefully illuminates your black-white, all or nothing, zero-sum, surrender-demanding framework, as if there is no argument or negotiation to be had, it’s all figured out, as opposed to my and the authors’ much more flexible, nuanced, shades-of-grey, understanding-seeking, both-sides-win-or-both sides-lose, and ultimately far more practical approach. In every sentence here one senses a rigid catastrophizing in the service of an all or nothing approach. When it comes down to it you know you could use the API as a blueprint and work out a perfectly secure two state arrangement with symbolic RoR. You just don’t want to because, as I see it, you are a territorial maximalist devoted to security cult modes of justification for that maximalism.

            Reply to Comment
          • Lewis from Afula

            Yes, Ben. Everyone has a legitimate narrative.
            When Western Europe expels its Arab population they too will have a legitimate narrative.
            When Israel similarly solves its Arabs problems in Yesha, we will also have a legitimate narrative.

            Reply to Comment