Arab-Israelis should find an ally in the Israeli tent protests

By Asma Agbariyeh-Zahalka

The writer, a native of Jaffa, believes the current political unrest will bury the fanatical nationalism and extremism of Arabs in Israel, just as it will bury Jewish fanatical nationalism

Israelis by the hundreds of thousands have marched in protest since July 14, shouting slogans like those heard in the Arab uprisings, in the same tone and the same rhythms – above all, “The people demands social justice!” This is the first time that I, born and bred in Jaffa, felt that the human wave washing over Tel Aviv was also carrying me, was also attentive to my aspirations, that the shouts were mine too, regardless of race, religion or gender – even if only for a day.

It is not self-evident that Tel Aviv, the New York of the Middle East, would adopt the slogans of the Arab world, would be influenced by its uprisings, and would make similar demands of its leaders – the leaders who were taken by surprise and still don’t know how to respond.

After the first demonstration, which went on late into the night, I talked with one of the protest leaders, Regev Contes, who told me in slightly halting Egyptian-accented Arabic that they drew inspiration from Cairo’s Tahrir Square. He said the Middle East is his home, not Europe or the US. The new protest movement undoubtedly reflects a deep change in the consciousness of Israeli Jews who have lost faith in this fake democracy and in their corrupt politicians.

The Israeli public dared to take to the streets, putting aside its fear that the state would be harmed by its Arab enemies. It thus gave up the ultimate excuse which serves to ensure Zionist “unity”, or whatever you wish to call it, as it confronts the “sea of Arabs” threatening to swallow it up.

The truth is, the first to break down the barrier of fear were the Arab peoples themselves, when they too put aside their fears and determined that the Arab regimes were the major enemy, regardless of their stance towards Israel. They realized that the nationalistic words of their leaders merely covered up the regimes’ real objectives: the perpetuation of their leadership, the enslavement of the people and the plundering of the country’s resources. The Arab nations no longer accept the slogans which present Israel as the only enemy. I am not saying they have become enthusiastic supporters of Israel or fans of its loathsome occupation and racism, but I am saying that the social-economic agenda is what brought millions of Arabs onto the streets, and this is what now prompts them to sacrifice themselves for a better future.

It had seemed before that nothing would undermine the stability of Netanyahu’s extreme rightwing government – not the Palestinians, not Hezbollah, not Iran’s threats, not Obama’s anger, not international isolation, not the boycotts, not Bil’in and not Ni’lin. The government’s trump card, which enabled it to survive political stagnation, was economic growth. Unlike Spain or Greece which face bankruptcy, Israel continues to enjoy high growth rates and unemployment of just 5.7%, while the average wage is NIS 8,600 (about $2,400). But the bitter truth discovered by Israel’s middle classes is that this growth doesn’t trickle down. Instead, wealth remains in the hands of just 18 families who have bought out the state.

Thousands woke up as the “Israeli dream” evaporated, the dream that a good life would be the just reward of all those who worked hard. The spokespersons of Israel’s youth are saying something different now: We left the periphery, we came to Tel Aviv, we completed academic studies, we grind ourselves down with long hours of work under individual contracts so we can climb the social ladder, and here we are, Ashkenazim and Mizrahim alike, the mainstay of the state, those who serve in the army and create the culture – and we realize we’ve been taken for a ride. We’re running in place. We barely make it through the month on our salaries. Someone stole our state, which is no longer the state of the Jews but the state of the wealthy. The tycoons control the economy, buy off the politicians, squeeze the poor and trample the middle classes. The dream of making it big has diminished to buying a small apartment with two rooms and a window. But alas, this dream too has become unattainable. The big players have left no space for the rest of us.

The Arab youths too laid foreign policy aside, though they most certainly have something to say about it. The millions took to the streets because they had no prospects of living in dignity. The Israeli Facebook youth, so disconnected from politics, have come out against both the present government and the previous ones, thus creating the conditions for building a socialist left. They have broken the old dichotomy of “political” left and right (divided on the “Arab question” while both supported capitalism), and have thus done something similar to what Egypt’s youths did, destroying the idea that the sole alternatives were “Mubarak or the Muslim Brotherhood” (both of which likewise supported capitalism). A new socialist left will open a new way to the Arab question, because Jews today suffer from the same lack of prospects which the Arabs have known for years. This is a unique opportunity for Jews to make common cause with the Arab world in general and the Palestinians in particular.

But where are the Arab citizens of Israel in this earthquake? What are they doing in order to influence events and present their demands? This question becomes especially urgent in light of the fact that many Jewish youth are expecting us to act. At the end of the demonstration, some asked me how they could get the Arabs to take part. On the day after the demonstration of July 30, in which the word “Arab” was never heard, one of the protest leaders, Assaf Levi, was interviewed on the popular TV program London and Kirschenbaum. He began by apologizing that during his speech he had not referred to Jewish-Arab partnership, and noted that this issue was very important to the protest’s organizers.

During the first Intifada, Julia Boutros, the Lebanese singer, sang “Where are the millions?”, referring to the millions in the Arab world. The Arab millions have at last arrived, but I ask, where is the one million? The one million Arabs of Israel? It is strange that the first to feel the influence of the Arab uprisings here were the Jewish youth, while the Arabs stayed home. It’s not clear what they’re afraid of; it’s not clear what they have to lose but their chains.

The initial Arab response in Israel was disappointing. It failed to reach a deep understanding of the new historic period being entered. At first, we heard nothing but claims: the Arabs suffer more than the Jews; what about our problems like land expropriation or the deliberate hemming in of Arab towns and the lack of building permits etc.? How do all these problems of discrimination and racism compare with the problems of the spoiled Jewish middle-class kids? And of course we also heard the ultimate claim, that Zionism and discrimination and racism and the occupation are our most prominent problems, and these issues have not been raised by the Jewish Israeli protest.

I think the time for complaints has passed, and there is no point in boasting about our victimhood, about the fact that we are the more oppressed, as if our identity is bound up with our misery. It’s time to come out of the Arab closet. The Israeli protest movement has initiated and represents social and economic change. Arab society must ask, Are we in favor of such change or not? Can this movement which demands social change also open itself up to the Arab population? Does the movement have a rightwing, fascist aura, or is it left-leaning and democratic, able to include social justice for Arabs too? If we look at the way the right wing and the settlers shudder as they observe this protest gathering steam, if we note how they are trying to grab the street and the agenda and the headlines, we can see that we too can find a place in the protest movement. Those who refuse to take part are causing great damage to Arab society in Israel.

This new era will bury the fanatical nationalism and extremism of Arabs in Israel, just as it will bury Jewish fanatical nationalism, which is being driven into a corner. Intolerance and nationalistic withdrawal will not help us; they will merely serve to further isolate the Arab population. The nation really does want change, affordable housing, education, health, employment and livelihood. Was it not the demand for bread and freedom that brought the Arab masses to the streets? It’s time to wake up and find an ally in the Israeli protest movement, which reflects similar movements in the Arab world, in Spain and in Greece. It will be a strong ally for our just cause, worthy of our support and the support of Arabs around the world. The Arab nations are taking part in the wave of change, and there is no reason why we should not be proud of the fact that Arabs are starting to make their voices heard.

We in the Workers Advice Center (WAC-MAAN) and in the political party DA’AM (the Organization for Democratic Action) recognized at once the revolutionary nature of this movement. We called on our members to join the demonstrations and we set up a tent on Rothschild Boulevard, where we are busy explaining what we do. We were among those who set up a joint Arab-Jewish protest tent in Nazareth Ilit. The sphere of activity is wide, and it awaits more Arab initiatives for influence and change.

Asma Agbariyeh is active with the Workers Advice Center (MAAN) and the DA’AM Party

This post was originally published in Challenge Magazine and was translated from Hebrew by Yonatan Preminger