How to gauge the effectiveness of protest: A response to Roee Ruttenberg

Until we find a way of measuring the efficacy of one form of protest or another, surely we must encourage all forms and enable all those who desire change to express their desire in the way they think will be most effective.

By Yonatan Preminger

Roee Ruttenberg’s recent post criticized the way a group of “pro-Palestinian” activists in Berlin disrupted a concert by the Israeli choral group Gevatron. The gist of his article is that the protesters were childish attention-seekers, and that this form of protest is ineffective. This piece raises a thorny question: how are we to gauge the efficacy of an act of protest?

Immediately after the Six-Day War in 1967, there were calls for withdrawing from the newly occupied territories. Since then, there have been endless acts of protest, ranging from quiet demonstrations to civil disobedience and the most extreme violence. Meanwhile Israel’s hold on the territories becomes stronger. Human rights violations occur daily, basic amenities are withheld, land is “expropriated” for further settlement, Palestinians are arrested on the flimsiest excuse, detainees are held for months without even a show trial, and people are killed. And killed.

Israel, it seems, is continuing in the same old direction, like a stubborn pachyderm plodding onward to a distant objective. The kind of “talking to those who think differently” that Ruttenberg advocates, and the “pro-Palestinian” groups’ disruption of the concert are mere gadflies which Israel flicks away in annoyance. There have been small victories in the struggle against the occupation – certain rights temporarily restored, certain prisoners released, certain patients granted treatment in an Israeli hospital, sections of the infamous “separation wall” moved – but these have not budged the pachyderm from its general path by even a millimeter.

It is also interesting that Ruttenberg saw fit to mention the Jewish National Fund tin cans, which have iconic status in official Zionist history. Around the world, previous generations of Jews dropped their pennies into these collection cans to support Zionist efforts in building a national homeland; the work of the JNF was considered essential to these efforts. Today, the JNF’s work is more controversial. It owns over 10% of Israel’s total land area and has a policy of leasing to Jews only. It has been implicated in various deals to transfer property of “absentee Palestinians” to Jewish ownership, and is active beyond the Green Line. It also plants trees on land “cleared” off its unwanted residents – Bedouin in the Negev area. As a quasi-governmental organization working on state-backed projects which perpetuates Jewish privileges over Arabs, the JNF is a legitimate target for protest.

Yet the JNF’s work today is a direct continuation of its work before 1967, and indeed, before 1948. It has always acted as a “trustee” of land for the “Jewish people” and as channel for the transfer of land ownership into Jewish hands. Some Palestinian villages destroyed after Israel was establishment were forested over by the JNF.

This reflects the problem at the heart of opposition to the occupation, the inability to effect real change: Many left-leaning Israelis (and non-Israelis) who fight the post-1967 settlement project believe that it is fundamentally different from the settlement of Palestine before 1948, and from the Israel of 1948-67. This belief enables them to separate the “terrible things happening in the West Bank” from the ideology underlying Jewish settlement there. But the ideology behind West Bank settlement is shared by the whole of Israel: it is the ideology which holds that this land is the birthright of a certain group of people whose claim is stronger than any other groups of people.

We must recognize that settlement in the occupied territories is a continuation and not an aberration of earlier Zionist settlement, and thus tie the suffering of the West Bank Palestinians to the injustices meted out to non-Jews within “Israel proper.” If we accept that the violence against Palestinians “there” is an expression of the same working premises which grant us Jews privileges “here,” we might find our quiet lives within the Green Line become strangely uncomfortable. This recognition might lead to more strident calls for an end to the occupation – and, I hope, an end to the state in which one group of people lords it over all others.

This is the awareness we should be raising, I believe. I do have a lot of sympathy for Ruttenberg’s opinion. I too question the efficacy and even the motives of such protests – but who am I to say that these “elderly Germans” are unable to think that perhaps, just perhaps, these young melodramatic protesters have a point worth pondering? Is an opinion piece in a national newspaper more likely to cause deep thinking than these “over the top” antics?

Furthermore, how are we to judge what is the most effective way of struggling against the occupation? Can we say with any certainty that one or another method has been more successful? Indeed, as the pachyderm marches on, can we say that one or another has been successful at all? Until we find a way of measuring the efficacy of one form of protest or another, surely we must encourage all forms and enable all those who desire change to express their desire in the way they think will be most effective.

Yonatan Preminger is a doctoral student researching the political economy of Israel, specifically labor representation, and a member of the Workers Advice Center (WAC-MAAN), an independent organization uniting workers regardless of nationality, religion, gender or the color of their skin.