For over a month now, protesters have been flooding the streets of Tel Aviv and other Israeli cities, demanding economic reform. In Israel, it’s a political tidal wave, but one would hardly know it from the relatively scant coverage the so-called ‘J14’ protests (thus named for the July 14 date of the protests’ inception) have gotten in the United States. At least when compared to most matters Israeli. At a time when Americans are watching our government take trillions of dollars from the working and middle classes and hands them over to the rich, Israelis are leading the way toward a broad-based resistance to a radical form of capitalism that has gutted Western middle classes, greatly expanded the ranks of the poor and stripped social services all for the sake of making the rich richer. The controversial missing element in J14, the one that throws into question the movement’s claim to “social justice” is Israel’s occupation of the West Bank and East Jerusalem, and its ongoing blockade of the Gaza Strip.
Ami Kaufman, of Israel’s 972 Magazine, has it right when he points with pride at the leadership Israel’s citizens are trying to provide in a struggle that affects the whole world. Meanwhile, his 972 colleague Joseph Dana, has repeatedly pointed out that J14 will not be able to reconcile a fight for “social justice” for Israelis with ignoring the Palestinians for much longer. He’s right, too.
While global media gloss over J14 because of its general lack of violence and their discomfort as to what to make of it, American Jews’ silence about it is a little harder to understand. However, if we look closely enough, we can find the reasons, within the arguments that both Kaufman and Dana raise.
Hundreds of thousands of Israelis have taken to the streets in these protests, which is an enormous number in a country with a total population of just under 7.5 million. No other country has seen protests against economic injustice in anything like those proportions. It is not reasonable to expect any country to see such protests on behalf of another people. Only self-interest and concern for one’s family gets that many people out.
But J14 has not been able to entirely avoid connection to the occupation. There is a distinct and vocal element among the protesters that has been raising the issue of the occupation, though the protests’ leadership fights to keep the issue out of the protests. The inclusion in the protest of discrimination against Palestinian citizens of Israel, particularly the rights of Bedouin in so-called “unrecognized villages” (shantytowns whose residents do pay taxes but receive little or no municipal services) creates a direct link to the discriminatory practices against Arabs. That cannot possibly remain separated from East Jerusalem and the West Bank for long.
On the other side, settler youth have tried to infiltrate and disrupt the protests with racist slogans because they fear where these demonstrations may lead. Finally, the settlement of Ariel, where Israel recently announced it would build a large number of new houses, has seen its own branch of J14 protests. So, the occupation is pushing its way in, and eventually, there is likely to be a split in the movement over this issue.
Meanwhile, the broader content of J14 is challenging the accepted American narrative on Israel in numerous ways. Most obviously, the myth of the Israeli “economic miracle,” so beloved by the current Israeli government and its lovers in both the American Jewish community and on Capitol Hill, has been shown to be threadbare and phony. But J14 challenges more than that. It challenges Israeli apathy, an apathy very much mirrored here in the United States.
Ultimately, J14 is scaring American Jews, and it’s shaming the vast majority of them who are liberals. Israel still has a bigger social safety net than we do in the US. The flow of money from the poorest sectors in Israel to the richest has been massive. But it still doesn’t rival what’s happened recently in the United States.
Yet Israelis have taken on these issues while Americans have been complacent. We don’t want to look too closely at that fact. That reluctance is especially acute among liberal American Jews, who have traditionally been at the forefront of both moderate and radical struggles on this front, but are notably absent today.
Finally, the same tension about the occupation that strains J14 in Israel also frightens so-called “mainstream” American Jews. How can one fight for social justice in Israel while tolerating the awful treatment and ongoing dispossession of Palestinian residents of East Jerusalem, the regime which holds millions of Palestinians on the West Bank without rights and which chokes the people of Gaza with a siege that has strengthened Hamas and entrenched an ongoing problem?
Oh, there have been some statements of support for J14. They came from liberal groups like Ameinu, and the New Israel Fund, as well as more tepid ones from the Jewish Federations of North America and the Reform movement. But on the whole, there has been little conversation in the US about J14.
In time, J14 is going to affect the occupation. As Israel rejects the drift to the right, it will also be forced to reject the comfort the right offered. That comfort was a relief from the tension between occupation and Israel’s sense of liberal values. Israel’s right allowed the country’s Jewish community to abandon those values under a siege mentality. Now, Israelis will have to find another way to reconcile the two. This will eventually lead to renewed calls to end the occupation.
American Jews preceded Israelis in tossing away their liberal values when it came to Israel. The increased siege mentality in Israel (ironically, in an era where Israel faces greatly diminished, albeit still genuine, security threats, compared to the past) fit comfortably with that compromise. J14 has the potential to re-write the way Israelis view their entire society, including the occupation.
It can also have that kind of impact on the way American Jews look at Israel. In both cases, it will only happen if those concerned raise the issue of Palestinian rights. How can we do this? By making it clear that Palestinians are entitled to those rights because they are human beings and do not have to earn them any more than we do. This is the opportunity J14 affords us.
Photograph courtesy of GerritD. Published under a Creative Commons license by Souciant, in collaboration with Babylon Times.