A Palestinian political prisoner’s take on Israel’s protest movement

The people demand social justice! But for all?

Oren Ziv ActiveStills

The recent wave of protests in Israel, which pretend to call for social justice, is one of the most powerful and massive mobilization to ever happen in the country. An unprecedented character of this movement, one should add, is its pretension to create an open space for groups, as well as individuals.

The dynamics that guard these protests are that of a social movement. However, the content of the demonstrators’ demands should be subjected to a serious discussion and critique. One of the major contradictory aspects of this movement is the exclusive understanding of the value of social justice. Social justice is a universal value, but for the protesters in Tel Aviv’s Rothschild Boulevard, it is limited only to the internal dynamics of Israeli society.

On Rothschild Blvd., the root cause of the social injustices Israelis face are a taboo — that is, the occupation, colonial racism, militarization of all life’s aspects and the prevailing, aggressive neoliberal thought and system. These issues are deeply related to the Israeli state-building process.

The Israeli social protests should be seen in light of two major border-crossing developments: the Arab peoples’ uprisings, an example of how when the people move, nothing is impossible; and second, the growth of the international and globalized social movement. The latter, day by day, is gaining a popular character that is challenging the world’s neoliberal elites in what we know as the “wealthy” nations and their current crisis, impacting the entire world.

The recent protests are indicative of the growing strength of the Israeli social movement.

Furthermore, it partially challenges the current system of power division, attempting to redefine it on new principles in order to meet the agenda of the Israeli middle class, out of which the movement was initiated and is now led by. But Israel’s poorest classes are excluded by the leadership of this movement and its discourse.

Israel’s middle class losing power

Israel’s strong middle class, on the other hand, mobilized by the sense of losing its power — an outcome of the neoliberal hegemony in Israel that is represented not only by Prime Minister Netanyahu, but also the new elites in the country and their reproduction of the state’s new ideology. Neoliberalism became the joint ideology of those in power of the executive authorities and capital of the state.

During the recent years, Israeli society became more aware of the growing socioeconomic gaps. In the meantime, the Israeli state has witnessed the recreation of the tycoons. Very limited in number and running a small number of economic enterprises and businesses according to explicit and implicit cartel agreements, the new Israeli tycoons become the true rulers of the economy and the allocation of public funds.

On the level of government, on the other hand, the tycoons’ neoliberal thought shapes the decision-making process through the implementation of privatization policies that also include natural resources, such as Dead Sea minerals and the recently discovered gas and oil reserves on the eastern shores of the Mediterranean. These natural resources were granted to the tycoons by Netanyahu’s government, arguing that the former is the true engine of economic growth. The Israeli middle class, however, argues the opposite: the middle class is the base for economic flourish; the resources are to serve, in addition to the state’s income, the community as a whole.

Additionally, the acceptance of Israel to the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) in May 2010 had a contradictory result of contributing to the social protests. Israelis became more aware of the existing gaps of income in the state.

Israel’s “miracle” economy in question

As often happens, the neoliberal policy legalizes corruption in a structural manner within the state. The transfer of natural and public resources to the tycoons is smoothly carried out by new regulations and new laws, and the judicial branch is complicit with the interests of the tycoons. Meanwhile, Netanyahu’s government is proud to tell the world about the “miracle” of the Israeli economy, which overcame the worldwide financial crises.

On the ground, and as a direct consequence of the magic Netanyahu speaks of, the number of people in Israel who live in poverty is growing. While according to Netanyahu’s magical statistics unemployment is being reduced, but the number of people who work with lack of dignity is growing. The current social protests, therefore, came to raise the question of who is paying the price for Israel’s apparent economic flourish. Hence it is the middle class, not Israel’s poorer classes, that is the core of this movement. Furthermore, the middle class’ voice is easily raised high by the media, for it is where most of the Israeli elite come from.

The question is, can such a movement provide equal opportunity for everyone to enter its space and to take part in it? The answer is simply no, because freedom of expression does not simply mean the equal opportunity to impact and exert influence.

Even though this movement is forming a new social force by challenging the sacred cows of the Israeli ruling establishment, such as “Israeli security,” it is also questioning the traditional opposition and the aged trade union, the Histadrut. Such a questioning of the entire ruling elites can only happen when the people are sharing a feeling that they can make change.

An apolitical protest?

However, the contradictory nature of “social justice,” as this universal value is understood on Tel Aviv’s Rothschild Blvd., silences all issues of injustice related to the Palestinian people. I am not just speaking of Palestinians in the West Bank, the Gaza Strip and in exile, but also those who are Israeli citizens, who suffer daily from land confiscation, racist legislation, the non-recognition of their villages by the state and the Judaization of the Naqab (Negev) and the Galilee.

According to this movement’s discourse, these issues are “political,” not “social,” and are therefore not included in the movement’s understanding of social justice. By considering themselves apolitical, the protesters ignore the occupation, the blockade on Gaza and state’s racist system against Palestinian citizens. (Or the protesters consider racism only in cases of Jewish Ethiopians and East Asian foreign workers, but even then solely on an individual basis.)

According to Israeli terminology, being apolitical allows the inclusiveness of groups from colonial settlements in the West Bank, Jerusalem and the Golan, which are being invited to take part of in the protests. This creates an ethical contradiction, and of course a political one. The values of the Israeli social movement, in other words, are only limited to Israelis.

Palestinians, on the other hand, are excluded from any justice. According to the Israeli social movement, the 7,000 Palestinian political prisoners do not deserve social justice. Furthermore, neither do Palestinian refugees and the internally displaced. Israel’s wall in the West Bank and the Gaza blockade are also not worthy issues to be dealt with by a movement that pretends to provide an open space.

Colonizing settlers are welcome, not the Palestinian families that are victims of the wall erected by the Israeli law; not the solidarity movements for a just peace; not the peoples around the words who are victims of the bloody regimes with close military and intelligence cooperation with the State of Israel.

Envisioning a more kind system of injustice

The Israeli social movements, abiding to the Israeli national consensus, ignore the rights of the “other” for social justice. By not dealing with the root causes of the unjust system in Israel, the Israeli social movement wishes to make things less unjust rather than to change the system and the regime.

By not dealing with the colonial, racist Zionist ideology and the nature of the Israeli state, some are choosing to consider the Israeli social movement as “post-Zionist.” However, as we know very well, post-Zionism means neither anti-Zionism nor the de-Zionization of Israel. But I still believe that this movement can lead to changes in the direction of re-establishing the welfare capitalist state that existed in Israel. Such a state can meet the interests of a wider majority of Israeli citizens, including those of Palestinian citizens of Israel. However, the Israeli social movement cannot bring historical justice to the Palestinians in Israel. While some Palestinian organizations are participating in the social mobilization, they are fully aware that its demands do not wholly cover the Palestinians’ social and political agenda.

Of the Palestinians groups that are participating in the social protests are the Palestinian Bedouins of al-Araqib, a village in the Naqab that is unrecognized by the Israeli state and has been demolished 28 times by government bulldozers. However, despite their participation, the injustices caused by the state to the Bedouins were not included in the social protests’ leadership’s list of demands.

While the social movement’s discourse is not racist, it does not raise issues of racism. Justice does not only concern those who speak for it, but also others. A social movement is not a structural body; on the contrary, it is made of values, norms and the belief in equality for all. On this question, the Israeli social movement does not pass the exam.

By way of conclusion, I ask you to be aware that I am still behind the bars of Israeli prison. I can only learn about the recent developments through television, radio or the newspapers allowed in. However, I speak from the position as an activist, though it is difficult to get a feel of what goes on on the ground. I am one of 7,000 political prisoners who believe that injustice will fail, while liberation, freedom and human dignity will be fulfilled.

Ameer Makhoul is a Palestinian civil society leader and political prisoner at Gilboa Prison.

This article was originally published by the Frantz Fanon Foundation.