Israeli "social justice" movement ignores racism

30 May 2013

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Protesters march down a highway carrying banners and signs

“Citizens are taking back the state” was the message at a J14 march in Tel Aviv last year.

(Oren Ziv / ActiveStills)

For the last two years, Israel’s J14 movement — supposedly for “social justice” — has appeared in ebbs and flows. After several months of hibernation, it has again taken to the streets in Tel Aviv, Beersheba, Jerusalem, Haifa and Ramat Gan in recent weeks.

According to Israeli daily Haaretz, the movement’s presence was felt “during a large demonstration in Tel Aviv against the government’s austerity measures. Some 10,000 Israelis marched in central Tel Aviv” (“Thousands of Israelis protest against austerity measures,” 18 May).

Passionate chants denounced the right-wing Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Finance Minister Yair Lapid. Protesters bore placards that read “It’s time to tax the rich” and “instead of giving to the poor, they give to the rich, what a corrupt government.”

Liberal Zionists and vaguely class-conscious moderates patted themselves on the back for keeping up a struggle.

Reporting on the most recent protest, +972 Magazine blogger Haggai Mattar wrote: “There was a feeling of anger in the air, much greater than in 2011, which might indicate that this will not be a one-time event” (“Masses demonstrate against austerity measures in Israel,” 12 May).

He added: “It will be interesting to see what happens next with the #J14 movement … if it takes on the occupation and the regime’s inherent racism — or limits its focus on the social justice struggle for (mostly Jewish) citizens.”

Absent amid this “feeling of anger in the air” was any mention of Palestinians, who recently staged protests and demonstrations to mark the 65th anniversary of the Nakba (“catastrophe” in Arabic), the 1948 ethnic cleansing that destroyed more than 500 Palestinian villages.

It might be asked how social justice can be achieved without struggling against this “inherent racism.” What are Palestinians to make of a movement appalled by a new tax on fruits and vegetables but with nothing to say about ethnic cleansing?

Contradictions

Resounding contradictions were apparent as soon as J14’s demonstrations began. Seizing momentum from protests over a price increase on cottage cheese, the movement first emerged in July 2011 (“Israel’s cottage cheese protest is anything but civil revolt,” Haaretz, 22 June 2011). Activist Daphne Leef sparked fury across the country when she pitched a tent on Tel Aviv’s posh Rothschild Boulevard after being evicted from her apartment.

Inspired by this solitary act, a several kilometer-long stretch of the boulevard was enveloped with solidarity tents within weeks, and similar encampments sprouted in more than 40 locations. Mainstream media were immediately saturated with comparisons to the “Arab Spring,” a bizarre insinuation that the quest for cheaper housing in Israel was somehow tantamount to courageously toppling brutal Western-backed dictatorships in Egypt and Tunisia.

In August 2011, the Guardian reported that the rallying cry was “the people demand social justice.” It observed grievances that persist until today: “Wage disparities are big, wealth and corporate power are highly concentrated, food prices have increased almost 13 percent since 2005, and many people spend 50 percent of their incomes on rent or mortgages” (“Israelis plan million-strong march as protesters call for social justice,” 7 August 2011).

Less than a month earlier, on the other hand, Palestine solidarity activists aboard the Dignité al-Karama yacht were prevented from reaching the Gaza Strip. Three warships surrounded the yacht, and weapon-yielding Israeli naval commandos arrested the unarmed passengers.

Like many other activists who have tried to reach Gaza by boat, the passengers were also seeking social justice by breaking an Israeli-imposed siege. The ongoing siege on Gaza has translated into a grim reality for its population of 1.6 million people, some 1.2 million of whom are already registered as refugees, according to the UN agency for Palestine refugees (UNRWA).

Horrifying

The UN Office for Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs released a report that same month detailing their economic conditions. Its findings were horrifying: 38 percent of Palestinians in Gaza were below the poverty line; 54 percent didn’t have reliable access to food; more than 75 percent were completely aid-dependent; the unemployment rate hovered around 31 percent; economic output had plummeted 20 percent since 2005; and over 90 percent of the water supply was undrinkable.

Additionally: “50-80 million [liters] of raw and partially treatable sewage [were being] dumped in the sea each day,” and “35 percent of Gaza’s farmland and 85 percent of its fishing waters [were] totally inaccessible due to Israeli military measures” (“Humanitarian situation in the Gaza Strip,” July 2011 [PDF]).

Following the immense destruction inflicted on the encaged population during Israel’s November 2012 military offensive, the situation has declined even further.

Meanwhile, in the occupied West Bank, state-subsidized settlements continue to swallow Palestinian land at an unprecedented pace. This process costs an enormous amount of state resources and inflicts pain on more than 2.5 million Palestinian residents.

At the peak of J14 in September 2011, more than half a million Israelis overwhelmed city centers across the country (“Israelis hold ‘march of a million protest,” Al Jazeera English, 3 September 2011). Ignoring their unique opportunity to reach out to a mass audience, protest leaders presumably didn’t think violations against Palestinian human rights qualified as social injustices.

Apolitical?

Supporters and analysts have tried to paint a picture of J14 as independent of Palestinians. It’s difficult not to pick up on the irony: while Tel Avivians were camping in tents on a chic boulevard and discussing the finer points of justice, only a short drive away dispossessed Palestinians — many of them Bedouin citizens of Israel — were still living in tents as a result of home demolitions.

There has been virtually no talk about the utter absence of Arab representation, and even less about the direct relationship between Israeli privilege and Palestinian suffering, a keystone consequence of the colonizer-colonized paradigm. The assertion that J14 keeps Palestinians off the agenda in order to stay apolitical is absurd — nothing could be more political.

It is essential to acknowledge that the relative modernity, comfort and quiet enjoyed by most Israelis are directly sustained by forcefully outsourcing poverty and violence to millions of Palestinians. Protesting for the improvement of living conditions in cities like Tel Aviv — the movement’s throbbing heart and home to very few Palestinians — is a quiet endorsement of Israel’s right to disseminate privilege and impose oppression according to ethnicity.

Hundreds of thousands of Israelis came out of their houses to scream “Bibi go home!” But Palestinians, have been chanting the same thing using different words for 65 years.

Unless the movement’s leaders decide to turn their struggle against the institutions of occupation, colonialism and apartheid, the movement’s revival offers little hope for the advancement of genuine social justice.

Patrick O. Strickland is a freelance journalist whose writing has appeared on Al Jazeera English, Al Akhbar English, Middle East Monitor, and others. He writes regular dispatches for Socialist Worker and Palestine Monitor. Find him on Twitter: @P_Strickland_.

Comments

I was in both two recent J14 protests in Tel Aviv and at least half of the people were part of our more radical, anti-occupation social movement, with slogans about making these connections. Don't join the mainstream media in erasing us.

I have never heard about this. Please tell us more. J14 is about Palestians? J14 is anti-Apartheid?

We're a vocal minority and get a lot of crap from many in the movement for daring to bring up the occupation, but we're there, every single week, both to strengthen the movement and to remind people that justice is not possible under apartheid. (This applies, at least, for Workers' Party Da'am.)

Well done, J14. Courageous.

I find that hard to believe.
J14 is just as anti-Palestinian- it seems the only difference is that there's more hippies and people who spout rubbish like "can't we all just get along" or the more generic "peace and love".

It would seem when they say justice, they mean JUST US. What can one expect from a gang of "liberal" racists, EQUALITY... a total disavowal and repudiation of zionism or ethnic cleansing... a call for the full return and inclusion of the dispossessed of the Nakba? No, that is expecting too much.

In Israel, the Jewish ruling class has been able to unite Jews across class lines, by flattering their sense of racial and cultural superiority. Palestinians have had a hard time, opposing a largely united Jewish community.
The Israeli ruling class is starting to lose its ideological control over the Jewish lower classes. The Jewish middle and working classes are in open revolt against economic oppression.
Since at least the outbreak of the First Intifada, the Palestinians have been in revolt against racial oppression.
Is it possible to form an alliance between the Palestinians and the Jewish lower classes? Such an alliance would be hard to defeat.
Readers of EI ought to welcome the J14 uprising. It holds out the possibility of forming an alliance with a significant number of Israeli Jews.
There has always been a few Israeli Jews who opposed Israeli racial policies, but their numbers have never been large. The hope now is to realign politics in Israel and Palestine along class lines instead of racial lines.
I'm sure that Israeli Jewish leftists are trying to form this alliance, but it can't be easy.

"Readers of EI ought to welcome the J14 uprising. It holds out the possibility of forming an alliance with a significant number of Israeli Jews."

That's an insult to the memory of all the Palestinians murdered by Israel in the first and second Intifadas. Also to anyone who has died in the course of the Arab Spring.
The fight will always be based on racial lines because even the poor Israeli jews have a racial hatred for the Palestinians living in Palestine.

"It is essential to acknowledge that the relative modernity, comfort and quiet enjoyed by most Israelis are directly sustained by forcefully outsourcing poverty and violence to millions of Palestinians."

How do you explain that? How can one outsource poverty?

Do you not acknowledge that Israel benefits from the funding of its main ally, the US and its own technological innovations? How exactly would Israel profit monetarily from Palestinian poverty? This defies the principles of economics. Israeli actions prevent it from engaging in trade with its Arab and Muslim neighbors, and especially its Palestinian population. If the Palestinian economy was a developed and strong one and engaged in trade with Israel, then it would be directly beneficial to Israel's 'modernity, quiet, and comfort'. If what you say is true, then wouldn't the BDS actions have little effect? If Israel benefits from impoverishing the Palestinians, then you are actually saying that it cares little for its international trade - which, is not the case at all. In fact, its treatment of the Palestinians and the subsequent BDS movement is one reason why its companies and academia are suffering. So I disagree with your assertions.

It's not that Israel profits off of Palestinians living in poverty, it profits off of the resources that it steals from them. The Israelis are the only ones who can set up industry etc in the West Bank and so it profits from these enterprises. At the same time, Palestinians are prevented from starting such businesses, and are consequently made worse off by their lack of economic opportunity. This is how Israel profits off of Palestinian poverty.

"It's not that Israel profits off of Palestinians living in poverty...This is how Israel profits off of Palestinian poverty." Well then...

Besides that whole confusing bit of logic, I will say that you touched on my point, that being - Israel may profit from the land, but to say that it profits from Palestinians being in a state of poverty is ridiculous. If it is true that Palestine is a 'caged market', as another replier pointed out, it would also be true that Israel would receive more profit if the Palestinians were better off financially.

Well, the are a number of problems with you comment. Firstly, Israel does have trade relations with Jordan and Egypt, and ostensibly Israeli goods (as was seen recently) were even making their way into Lebanon.

More to the point, Israeli policy and lopsided agreements and heavy restrictions on the Palestinian economy have created a "caged market"--in other words, Israel can flood the Palestinian market with any products it chooses at any price more or less, undermining Palestinian production. If you've ever been to a grocery store in the occupied West Bank, you'll notice that Israeli goods are significantly cheaper.

Additionally, your point about BDS is tangentially at best. That BDS actions are effective has nothing to do with Israeli enforcing poverty on Palestinians and profiting immensely off the occupation. On the contrary, it's the reason that BDS is even a thing... to target companies who profit from the occupation (the poverty and violence inflicted on Palestinians).

As I mentioned in reply to another poster, profiting from a caged market is not the same as saying they are profiting from Palestinian poverty. Those are two separate things.

Further, your description of BDS deserves a bit of adjustment. From what I read, "The final declaration of the NGO Forum, World Conference Against Racism, Racial Discrimination, Xenophobia and Related Intolerance in Durban, South Africa in 2001, called for "mandatory and comprehensive sanctions and embargoes, the full cessation of all links (diplomatic, economic, social, aid, military cooperation and training) between all states and Israel." I think that goes somewhat beyond just targeting companies engaging in illegal action. Of course if that were true, maybe I would support it. As it is now, I see no reason why I should support a movement that blindly labels and wants to punish an entire population - the same thing that they are supposedly fighting against.

If you don't understand that there is a direct link between Israel profiting off exploitation of Palestinian resources and the mechanisms of occupation and poverty, then there's not really much else to say. Again, your point about BDS is tangential.

However it is interesting to note that similar arguments (about not punishing an entire population) were made for many years in defense of Apartheid South Africa. It was only when sanctions really took off in the 80s and 90s that we saw results.

I assume you agree with it then. Punishing an Israeli child born to parents who settled in Tel-Aviv by attempting to destroy their business through BDS action is alright as long as it may potentially help a Palestinian child somewhere down the line. That to me is what's interesting - that people are blind to the hypocrisy.

And to Mr. Cheddar, telling someone 'if you don't understand then there's nothing left to say' is quite condescending, but of course not everyone in this world is as intelligent or modest as you are.

Thank you very much, "I assume"...... for using PRECISELY part the argument that supporters of the previous (SouthAfrican) apartheid regime used against sanctions and buoycotts....... about businesses (and children of business owners) built on the backs of oppressed/murdered people, including children. (the other part being the temporary effect on the oppressed themselves)
I'd have to say that given the ongoing arrest and torture and harassment, evictions, home destructions, ethnic cleansing, and the enforcement of the Israeli equivalent of the SA Pass Laws, yes, it is justified, and the real hypocrisy is your own.

It seems you are saying everything but that a Palestinian life is worth more than an Israeli life. I'm not interested in whose argument I'm using as long as I believe it is correct.

No. (again, you make another tired old S.A. pro-apartheid argument from the 80s).
The life of any child is worth the same as much.
It's the scale of the injustice that is hugely different.
It's the Israeli regime (several of them) that place different values on life-by-race.
Go work in Ramallah with pediatric victims of Israeli torture. Watch Palestinian mothers ripped from their children in the middle of the night (something SA never did at the height of their 'pass laws'.) (eg. Palestinian mother from West Bank married an "Arab Israeli" and living a few km inside Israel)
Cowards do most of their hideous work at 3 am. similar to the massacres and cleansings during the Nakba.

So you are saying that the lives of Palestinians and Israeli children are worth the same, yet you would sacrifice the lives of Israeli children to help Palestinian children. Just because you have not found a fair solution, does not mean that one does not exist. You can name all the horrors that Israel does, and I would most likely believe you. That however is aside from the point we are discussing - is it right or hypocritical to collectively punish every Israeli for the actions of its government and military? Go on about South Africa as you wish, but my point is a relevant one, nonetheless.

"It seems you are saying" seems to be a comment by 'another' Peter. Different Peter from the comments preceeding and following it. Hmmmmm

"I'm not interested in whose argument I'm using as long as I believe it is correct." So then you admit that you wholly support Apartheid. The first step to get help is admitting you have a problem.
But don't you assume that an Israeli life is worth more than that of a Palestinian? I mean that's the only way to justify keeping over a million people locked up in the world's largest open air prison: Gaza. Or to justify the stealing of the vast majority of the water under the West Bank, or building the building of the Wall, or checkpoints, or home demolition, or burning of olive groves, taking 35% of Gaza's farmland, severely limiting fishing, ... need I go on? And before you go on about suicide bombers and rockets from Hamas, lets look at the body count for Operation Cast Lead: 1400 Palestinians, 13 Israelis (4 by friendly fire). So that's 150 Palestinians for each Israeli. If you justify this then you inherently say that Israeli's are worth more than Palestinians, at an exchange rate of 1:150 in fact.

I'm not sure how saying I'm not interested in whose argument I'm borrowing as long as I believe it is correct means that I support apartheid. If you had used your critical thinking skills, instead of your emotion you would have realized that I was referencing the collective punishment of a people because their government is involved in a specific action, in the case of South Africa, apartheid. That is not at all the same as saying I support apartheid.

I don't think I've ever justified anything Israel does, but I know why you would assume that. Because you have been trained to believe that if anyone questions a supposed tactic used by anti-Israel activists, then they are all manner of genocidal, apartheid supporters. I'm sorry to inform you that I have many problems with Israel's policies, and voice them. But I also have enough of a mind to question those whose tactics I disagree with. Maybe a habit you should try adopting.

At least not you. Based on the way you recycle tired talking points against BDS to (at least indirectly) defend apartheid, may we also assume you think it's okay to publish a Palestinian for being born Palestinian?

Do you ever engage my points rather than skirt your way around them? If those who are concerned about equality see no trouble with collectively punishing all Israelis for the actions of a few, then I'm not sure what else there is to say to you Frank Cheddar.

I hope to convey to you that your reasoning is entirely black-or-white. If someone doesn't support BDS then he necessarily supports apartheid. I'm sorry to inform you that you are the outlier, not me. There are many people who hate apartheid, and who equally hate collectively punishing a population for the actions of their government. In fact, I would say most people fit into that category because they are not mutually exclusive, as you do not seem to understand.

Hey Nick -
It is sad, but there is profit from the exploitation of land, labor and natural resources; expropriation, captive markets, and growing homeland security and weapons trade.
eGuard -
J14 is not a one thing. It was a series of outbursts, very mainstream, which included all of the more radical forces in Israeli society, including many Palestinian initiatives, and some anti- and post- zionist groups who are very consistently fighting apartheid in this country. These voices were obscured by the mass protest of discontent white middle class urbanites focusing on "cost of living" issues. But even then, a lot of new social initiatives grew out of that moment for example making connections between house demolitions and evictions in Palestinian and low-income Jewish neighborhoods.
The protests I saw recently in Tel Aviv were nothing like the big protests of last summers. A small number of protesters, mostly the more radical groups, marched with slogans connecting struggles, with slogans in Arabic. Not everybody, of course, but there seems to be a general understanding that the "apolitical" nature of the social protests in the past lead to cooptation and the present austerity programs. "Political" in Hebrew means taking a stand on the occupation.
I understand that is it important to expose the Israeli "peace" smoke screen and dispel the automatic American fascination with Israeli "peace movement". On the other hand, there is a small Israeli radical left and a wide Palestinian front inside 48 and they are both struggling with this devide between "social issues" and "political" and if we are to change things to the better we need to bridge this gap and build that movement.