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OpEdNews Op Eds    H2'ed 8/19/11

Social Origins of the Tent Protests in Israel

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Author 70295
Message Max Ajl

It is that cost-benefit matrix that the #J14 protests can indirectly affect. They can do so by highlighting the fact that the occupation and, more important, the militarism which produced it and which it reproduces, both relies on and reproduces ethnic cleavages so as to divert popular attention from the deepest fissure of all: that between the haves and the have-nots. And it is along precisely that fissure that the #J14 protests are taking place.

So on the one hand, despite the idiosyncratic Israeli insistence that the protests are "social," not "political," these protests are clearly open political confrontation. Gathering, talking, joking, making street-theater, facing down the police, the protesters are in the midst of an open battle between poor- and middle-class Israelis and the state-elite nexus. This is amazing not merely because it is bridging the historical rift between Mizrahi and Ashkenazi -- one of a series of intra-Israeli social cleavages that the elite uses to maintain power -- but also in that demonstrators are not merely emulating the Egyptian protesters, but articulating that thinking on mainstream media, publicly and unabashedly echoing the Arab example and claiming that the Arab Spring has blossomed into an Israeli summer. 

As one middle-class Israeli suggested, "We have to do what they did in Egypt. Yalla, tahrir, jihad." To exalt the Egyptian example shatters Israeli social taboos, and that is one of the more striking and under-noticed aspects of the protests. In Gaza City a friend once asked me if the Israelis considered themselves tourists in the region or were they here to stay. In a painfully partial manner, these tent protests are, perhaps, beginning to glint with the glimmer of an answer to that question.

But one must squint hard to see that glimmer. Without a call for ending the occupation, the demonstrations cannot encompass the most structurally disadvantaged stratum within Israeli society -- the '48 Palestinians. Nor can they attract the passive support of Palestinians in the Occupied Territories or in the Diaspora. Without such a call, there is something odd and unreal about the social justice protests, like a photograph in which all the red tone has leached out, leaving it cold and lifeless.

Meanwhile, from the Palestinians, under a decades-long occupation, the intricacies of internal Israeli social discontent and the nuances of Israeli social mobilization have understandably elicited sneers and jeers. The cost of bread to a Jewish family in Ashkelon is a real problem. But, in the hierarchy of suffering, it cannot rank next to the experience of oppression of a family in a Gaza City refugee camp that lived in Ashkelon when it was called Majdal, was cleansed from there in 1948, and whose bakery was destroyed during the 2008-2009 attack which most of the Israelis now complaining about high bread prices openly supported.

Looked at it from the outside, the lacuna, when it comes to the Palestinians, is a sociologically jarring absence, like poor American antebellum field hands clamoring for the minimum wage without blinking an eye at the dark men in chains working in the fields next to the ones in which they are toiling. But that a racist society produces a racist protest movement is almost unavoidable. Resistance movements must start with the human material which they possess, not with the human material they wished they possessed. 

As historian Staughton Lynd asks, "Who were the workers who made the Russian Revolution? Sexists, nationalists, half of them illiterate. Who were the workers in Polish Solidarity? Anti-Semitic, whatever. That kind of struggle begins to transform people," a transformation one sees in embryonic form in the Mizrahi-Ashkenazi solidarity within the protests themselves.

Furthermore, people articulate their resistance to oppression -- at first -- in the terms in which that oppression appears to them. To the average Israeli, the ones at these protests, the occupation is not tied into their experience of oppression. Indeed, that occupation is part of stoking the Zionist sentiment and soldering the intra-Jewish communal bonds such that Israel's Jewish citizens either do not notice intra-communal oppression or do not act upon it.

But there is no force growing a radical consciousness, and there is no reason to believe that the conditions are ripe for such a consciousness's development in the first place. Thus far, the leadership has been inchoate, but the Tel Aviv Students' Union has taken on a central role, active in quashing talk of the occupation, and chary about raising the core triad of injustices at the heart and inception of Israeli society: the occupation, the denial of equal rights to Israel's Palestinian minority, and the refugee issue. For that reason, Palestinians have broadly responded to the protests with reinvigorated calls for Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions.

Yet, the past week has seen some meager developments with respect to Palestinian grievances. A tent baptized "1948" was set up on Rothschild Boulevard, in which Palestinian and Israeli-Jewish activists have been housed, discussing Palestinian rights and Palestinian issues. Among the protesters' demands are two injustices central to the 1948 Palestinians -- recognition of the unrecognized villages of the Bedouin in the Sinai, and expansion of the municipal borders of Palestinian villages and towns so as to allow for their natural development.

But such calls are just sparks in the broader "non-political" landscape of Israeli protest.

The feeling seems to be that to introduce the occupation would be to "politicize" the protests, which would lead to their fracturing, because the government would be able to dismiss them as so much leftist seditious rabble-rousing. And the whole country would line up behind the government because the whole country despises the left.

Even if the tent protest organizers are willing to hazard a gambit on total change -- something they are unlikely to do, indeed, despite their current mobilization, something they have been raised to oppose -- that call will have unpredictable effects on the Israeli lower class, which benefits from the occupation, both materially and in the realm of symbolic capital, measured in the degree of racism and hatred towards the Palestinians, which is their main arena of competition for social prestige within Israel. Indeed, it is the tragedy of the Israeli left that it is precisely among those lower classes that one finds the strongest support for occupation and anti-Arab racism -- it is those social sectors which compose the social base of the rightist Likud and Shas parties.

Some are suggesting that if the protests mount, the defense budget -- the core of Israeli militarism and a crucial part of the more bellicose fragment of the elite's power -- will be reduced. A transfer of state resources from militarism to social infrastructure may not be intended to help Palestinians, but it will help them nonetheless, by weakening the machinery of oppression and occupation that grinds relentlessly into Palestinian society. 

According to OECD figures, 16 percent of Israeli GDP is devoted to military spending; much of which gets funneled to those who own the increasingly privately-owned Israeli military-industrial complex. The occupation is not, strictly speaking, needed to sustain that military spending. Yet peace and peace dividends would hardly suit a society that was built on and is sustained by warfare and a constant flow of weapons and military-oriented investment from the United States.

The protests could go in any number of directions: they could peter out as the disaffected lower- and middle-class organizers and participants return home, chastened, bored, and tired. They could extract some victories from the government in the form of a redirection of spending from warfare to welfare. The left could also come in from its long winter of isolation and quiescence, rejoining the social consensus in its historical role as an insistent nag, complaining about the occupation yet doing nothing about it. Or they could draw the connections between Israel's stratospheric subsidies for high-tech investment, the privatization of the state-owned industrial plant, the gutting of the social compact, the non-stop militarization, the constant wars, the rockets falling on southern and northern Israel from the Palestinians the Israeli military complex profits from persecuting, oppressing, murdering, and immiserating. Doing so would mean confronting the Israeli lower classes with a clear political choice, and faced with such a choice, they are as likely to opt for xenophobic reaction; to descend into a right-wing riotous rabble, as to move to revolution.

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Max Ajl is a Cornell PHD candidate in development sociology and has worked with the International Solidarity Movement (ISM) in
Gaza. He blogs at
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Social Origins of the Tent Protests in Israel

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