Israel social camp takes its baby steps

No, the social movement cannot afford to raise Palestinian issues right now. But it is coming

All over the place, pro-Palestinian activists are voicing a sharp criticism of the Israeli social justice movement: There can be no justice, they say, without raising the issue of the occupation and the beastly injustice done on daily basis to the Palestinians.

Right, but oh so wrong.

That the Palestinians suffer injustice and indignity is not in dispute – not even by the Israeli hasbara machine in its calmer moments. But to raise this issue now is to fracture the social justice movement too early.

It’s easy to sneer at the Israeli protesters. It’s also unjustified, unhelpful and downright stupid. A large number of Israelis have no experience of public protest. This wasn’t always the case: Before the second Intifada, which made Israeli civilians its prime target and thereby wiped out the Israeli peace movement, protest were much more common. The terror wave of 2001-2004, which attacked blameless civilians in cafés and on buses, in discothèques and in a few cases in the safety of their own homes, made Israelis cling to their government. Unfortunately, these governments were led by two of the greatest cynics in Israeli history: Ariel Sharon and Ehud Olmert. Sharon expertly massaged the Israeli mind, avoiding the required criticism for running a war of attrition against the Palestinians – for that’s what it was, each side attacking the civilian population of the other side – by causing even more damage to the Palestinians. At the same time, he allowed Binyamin Netanyahu to wreak havoc on Israeli society, dismantling its social safety network, knowing in a time of war there will be no effective protest. There wasn’t.

Olmert, in a sense, was worse: Following the debacle of the Second Lebanon War, one poll found his popularity was: (a) Lower than that of Hassan Nasrallah; and (b) within the margin of error. Nasrallah got 4 percent, Olmert only 2 percent. Some people began calling him Lolmert. Even so, he clung to power, refused to resign, and limped on for 30 months more. And if it wasn’t for those meddling attorneys and their corruption charges, he’d probably run for office once more. This basically reduced Israeli parliamentary democracy to a sham: A hated ruler stays in power because his coalition justly fears an election, and is too feeble to rule but strong enough to survive.

The combined effects of the Sharon and Olmert period was, and to a great extent still is, public apathy. What we’ve seen in the last few weeks is tens of thousands of Israelis who leave their houses, despite the heavy heat of July and August, to protest in the streets.

For many of these protesters, this was their first demonstration. They had no previous experience of public activism, what it can achieve, and the sense of awareness and, yes, camaraderie it can create. They have learned to distrust their government; they have learned to listen to people on the left, and respect if not accept their opinions.

In a recent poll by Yediot Achronot, 91 percent of Israelis said the protests were a legitimate grievance. Seventy-seven percent further said they were not agitated by the New Israel Fund or other groups. This leaves us with an interesting finding: Some 14 percent think the protest are, in some way, agitated by the hated, monstrous NIF – and they don’t care.

People being to understand the ways they are being manipulated, they begin seeing the puppeteers’ strings. A taxi driver told me last Saturday night that he supported the protesters – but that he was afraid Netanyahu would disrupt them with some military move: “Maybe in Gaza, maybe in Lebanon.”

The Israeli public is throwing off years of lethargy, and begins to understand how it was lied to. Anyone watching the media, could see a bunch of people running around as if they were on fire, screaming this is a conspiracy. Almost without exception, they were either settlers or national-Orthodox. They understood what many ultra-leftist didn’t: Once the public starts seriously examining social policy, the settlers will come under the sharpest scrutiny ever. Israelis, goes the national mantra, cannot accept others taking advantage of them; and the settlers, the greatest moochers in the history of the country, understand a shit storm is heading their way. Unfortunately for them, the Palestinians will declare statehood in September and their reputation will be at its lowest.

So, we’re not dead yet – just recovering from a long, debilitating sickness, and taking our baby steps.