In Tel Aviv, an Arab Spring that ignores the Arabs

14 September 2011

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A protest in Israel that does not also address the occupation is really no protest at all.

(Oren Ziv / ActiveStills)

No one could have ever predicted that a single act of protest — the self-immolation of a desperate Tunisian street vendor — would unleash a tidal wave of collective resistance and rebellion throughout North Africa and the Middle East, threatening to topple regimes that had long been considered permanent political players.

But perhaps the most surprising outcome of this regional groundswell of protest was to be seen in Israel where Jewish protesters held up placards and shouted slogans declaring that the revolutionary spirit of Cairo’s Tahrir Square had come to the streets of Tel Aviv. The Arab Spring, it seems, has turned into the Israeli Summer.

But how do the ongoing protests in Tel Aviv relate to the larger regional turmoil? What do the protests say about the current state of Zionism, and what do they mean for the occupation of Palestine? To answer these questions, one might begin by turning to a rather unexpected source: Israeli pop culture.

Zionism escapes unscathed

In 1984, Israeli rock musician Shalom Hanoch released his bestselling album Waiting for Messiah. Located squarely within the rock tradition of protest, the album was graced by an audacious piece of cover art: an extreme close-up of a filthy ashtray, overflowing with garbage and cigarette butts. It is as appropriate a metaphor as any for the true poverty that resides at the heart of the good life, for the grime undergirding the glamorous.

Further solidifying the album’s protest credentials is its title track which tells the tale of the fabled Jewish Messiah, who at long last arrives on earth. But his appearance in the world does not come as a happy occasion. Upon seeing the sad state of affairs that greets him in modern-day Israel, the intrepid, young Messiah does not fulfill any prophetic dreams. Instead, he throws himself from a rooftop, committing suicide on the pavement of a Tel Aviv street. “The Messiah is not coming,” Hanoch intones, his raspy voice accentuating the guttural sounds of Hebrew. “The Messiah is not even going to phone.”

But is the message of Waiting for Messiah really all that radical? Before embracing the song as a musical manifesto of leftist rebellion and revolt, one should delve a bit deeper. The lyrics suggest that the grievances leading to the Messiah’s suicidal plunge are entirely economic. Specifically cited is the mishandling of the Israeli stock market. One may thus surmise that the Messiah too was an unlucky investor.

Absent entirely from this picture are the Palestinians. They are relegated to the shadows — marginalized, obscured and forgotten. Thus, an image of protest is cultivated even if the thing that clearly demands the most protest — the ethnocentric Zionist state and its accompanying occupation of the Palestinian people — is not mentioned at all. It is as though everything can be criticized except for precisely that which matters most. In this fashion, protest — even that of an angry rock anthem — functions to perpetuate the very status quo it purports to be against. At the end of the day, Zionism escapes unscathed.

Revolt against neoliberalism

The recent protests that have erupted in Israel should be understood in the exact same fashion. Stationed in a makeshift tent city on Tel Aviv’s swanky Rothschild Boulevard, the protesters’ demands are strikingly similar to those voiced by their Arab neighbors: affordable housing, cheaper food and gasoline, higher wages and an end to the deterioration of the country’s health and education systems.

According to prominent Middle East labor historian Joel Beinin, “The Arab awakening is in part a rebellion against the neoliberal development model, even if it is rarely named. The housing crisis in Israel is similarly a symptom of neoliberal policies” (“The Israeli-Palestinian Conflict and the Arab Awakening,” Middle East Report Online, 1 August 2011). But while these economic problems have been exacerbated by Israel’s costly military occupation of Palestine and the government subsidization of illegal settler communities in the West Bank, the overwhelming tendency is to ignore these inconvenient facts and instead to treat the occupation as an entirely unrelated subject, as a “security issue” with no bearing on the protests whatsoever.

Thus, even though Hanoch’s album was released in 1984, it could have been recorded yesterday. Had its titular Messiah postponed his arrival on earth by 27 years and appeared in the hot Israeli summer of 2011, he would have still taken that rooftop dive and splattered his body on the streets below. Once again, the problem is the economy, and once again, the Palestinians are left completely out of view.

There are those who claim that addressing the Israeli occupation at this time would serve only to divide the protesters. Uri Avnery, for instance, has argued that even “bringing up the occupation would provide [Prime Minister Benjamin] Netanyahu with an easy weapon, split the tent-dwellers and derail the protests.” Avnery, who is a longtime fixture on the Israeli left, concludes that there is “no need to push the protesters” in this direction and that with patience, the protests will eventually turn against the occupation on their own, as if by magic (“How godly are thy tents? Who are these people? Where will they go from here?,” Counterpunch, 5 August 2011).

This view is not uncommon. However, the desire to delink the call for social justice from the occupation and to simply hope for the best is ill-conceived. The view that the unity of the protests must be maintained at all costs overlooks the crucial fact that a protest in Israel that does not also address the occupation is really no protest at all.

On Tel Aviv’s Rothschild Boulevard, the middle class demonstrators are thus attempting to wage an Arab Spring without any Arabs. While the tent city protest has been unusual in its size and in the wide degree of support it has received throughout the country, the urge behind it does not constitute a real challenge to the Israeli state. The protests represent a reaction against the economic injustices exacerbated by the Israeli government’s neoliberal policies, and as such, the broader framework of Zionism is entirely capable of absorbing the protesters’ demands.

Settlers embraced

Indeed, what is the Rothschild Boulevard rebellion but the latest manifestation of an old, Zionist dream? Like the pioneering Zionist settlers before them, the protesters today envision the creation of a welfare state in the land of milk and honey, where life is affordable, food is plentiful and the country’s rightful inhabitants, the Palestinians, are excluded from the discussion. They simply seem not to exist. The protesters do not want to disavow the Zionist dream; to the contrary, they want to implement it.

But a dream for the early Zionists was a living nightmare for the local Palestinians. When freedom for one people is achieved with the occupation of another, there is nothing to be celebrated. The Rothschild Boulevard rebellion departs in no way from this precedent. Without addressing the occupation, the protesters’ demands, at the very best, aim only to make life better for the occupiers, and the welcomed inclusion of members from the Ariel mega-settlement in the revolt, as reported by Max Blumenthal and Joseph Dana, should serve here as a grim warning (“How could the largest social movement in Israel’s history manage to ignore the country’s biggest moral disaster?”, Alternet, 24 August 2011) . It is the occupiers who stand to receive better health care, better education, higher wages, more affordable housing and all around better living conditions, and those living under the occupation receive nothing.

Conservative agenda

Thus, in this case, protest is not at all that radical. Like Hanoch’s earlier rock anthem, the image of radical protest conceals a rather conservative agenda. That is, protest functions within the predetermined parameters of the dominant social order. Rather than posing a threat to the Israeli state, the protests aim only to make life better for its Jewish citizens. They seek to improve the Zionist dream of building a social welfare state in a Palestine without Palestinians. What is really needed is for that dream and its accompanying system of apartheid to be dismantled entirely.

Thus, the various left-leaning supporters of the Rothschild Boulevard rebellion who defend the exclusion of the Palestinian issue in the name of Israeli unity have it all wrong. Unity does not mean coming together with occupation supporters and land-usurping settlers. Rather, real unity would mean crossing that much tabooed Jewish-Arab, Israeli-Palestinian divide. It would mean that the exclusive, ethnocentric dream of Zionism would have to be replaced by a democratic dream without segregation and apartheid. Economic justice predicated on ethnocentric exclusion is hardly a dream worth fighting for. When those Jewish Israeli citizens consigned to the bottom rungs of their government’s ladder of exploitation are ready to recognize that their true enemy is the same as the one terrorizing the occupied Palestinian people, then and only then will there be a unity in protest worth celebrating.

Greg Burris is a former instructor at Istanbul Bilgi University in Turkey and a current graduate student in the Department of Film and Media Studies at the University of California, Santa Barbara.

Comments

The author seems unable to see how and why the Israeli anti-colonial left, Palestinian and Jewish alike, has worked within the J14 movement, because it is (was) a political opening.

For Electronic Intifada readers who are interested in these things, they may read this: http://mrzine.monthlyreview.or... or for an explanation from an anti-Zionist leftist, http://www.jadaliyya.com/pages...

He refers to the literature that he likes, ignoring the critiques to which it has been subjected, here: http://jewssansfrontieres.blog... and http://jewssansfrontieres.blog... for the malpractice of erasing lower-class Arab Jewish protest, lower-class Jewish protest, Jewish and Palestinian Israeli unity, and other facets of the protests. The author goes on about the “Rothschild rebellion,” although it was countrywide, including Levinsky Park, not a bastion of the middle-class, their “middle-class” nature, although only 60 percent of the demonstrators were middle class, and most disgustingly, writes that “the protests aim only to make life better for its Jewish citizens,” a lie. Palestinian Israelis are one of the two poorest groups in Israel, and less money for bombs and more for butter will help them. Hebrew might have helped, but all this information is available in English.

These are not questions of interpretation but questions of facts, and he either lied or was not interested in the truth. I am curious why EI’s editors ran this piece without fact-checking it. The Israeli ruling class would like to paint Israel as a country where the only thing that matters is Zionism, where Arab-Jewish unity is impossible, where the lower-class is treated fine. Most importantly, they want the protesters to get off the streets. We do the victims of Zionism no favors by adopting the outlook of their persecutors.

"Waiting for Messiah" is a play on a man's last name, in the song Mr. Mashiah (Messiah) is an investor in a company, the song was poking at religion, Zionism and everyday Israeli life, something that is very common in Israeli day to day.
As for Palestinians, believe it or not not EVERY song, article and conversation in Israel is centered squarely on that topic, amazing isn't it?

As for a "welfare state in Palestine without Palestinians", I'm guessing your talking about Israel in general, right?
I think you have it mixed up, Israel isnt the state calling for a country "free of Arabs" its actually the other way around.

Last but not least, how many people were killed in Tunisia (over 200), Yemen (over 1000), Syria (nearly 3000), Libya (over30,000!!!), how many did the blood-thirsty Zionists slaughter, how many were killed by the fascist leadership or mobbed to death by the god-less mobs of Israelis (0...)
Think about it...

It is true. None of the J14 tent protestors have died in Israel. Mind they weren't seeking to overthrow the government but to get it to change course, or at least not to overthrow the system of government. But as far as I'm aware Jewish protestors have never been killed inside Israel (though they have been fired upon, severely injured - I know of Emily Jencowich blinded in one eye at the Qualandiya check point and Natan of Anarchists Against the Wall) and maybe others too.

But that is because Israel does not fire upon Jews demonstrating inside Israel (unlike Israeli Arabs who are fired upon and milled e.g. Day of the Land protests). Whereas throwing stones is enough to get you shot at in the Territories no Jewish demonstrator has been shot at for the same offence. Orthodox Jews have regularly thrown stones at traffic going through their neighbourhoods or indeed going anywhere, so Michael is right, but he's also wrong.

Maxail is also ri ght and wrong. It is true that the protests are directed against the same neo-liberalism that affects Arabs. But there is a difference between a poor Jewish Israeli and his/her equivalent in Egypt, to wit the latter is much poorer. Although it would be naive to expect the demonstrators to support the overthrow of Zionism from day one, the fact is that there is a tendency to confine the protests to the most privileged section of israel - that is Jews. There are also countervailing tendencies but given the all-encompassing nature of Zionism and the definition of being a 'national' by reference to Jewish nationality, with its accompanying privileges, it is unlikely that those who wish to eradicate the oppression of Israel's Arabs will win out.

Zionism is an intra class alliance and as such, in times of crisis and upheaval, appeals to Jewish nationalism and the commonality of Jews vs Palestinians.

Greg Burris has it right. The reason that the anti-war movement in this country (the US) has failed in the last decade is that it is devoid of true morality, which can only come about when the inherent racism in Zionist domination of the US political establishment is addressed. The failure of the anti-war movement to address the genocide of Arabs/Muslims (not the same, of course) in the Middle East is directly related to this Zionist control of the US Congress and Executive Branch. For the same reasons, I am afraid, the "movement" (if you can call it that) for social justice in Israel will fail unless it addresses the deeper roots of social INjustice: the war-profitteers in Tel Aviv and Jerusalem make MONEY off the Occupation. The slave labor of Palestinians will continue to compete with the "free market" labor of Israelis, and until that is changed, any adjustments to the economy will only be cosmetic.

The Israeli tent protesters have very specific demands: a more balanced distribution of wealth and a standard of living commensurate with Israel's relatively strong economic growth. The "situation" in the territories has been so intractable and so devoid of progress in the last 20 years that incorporating it into the protests, though a noble gesture, would not only amount to nothing but would detract from their specified demands.

As long as there is no imminent threat, Israelis are usually too fatigued to care about the conflict.

yeh, the messiah will jump from the roof top ,but survive, because a Palestinian broke his fall