J14 and the rift between Israeli and international activists

Former allies in fight against occupation are battling over the meaning of the tent protest. Can the relationship be rescued, and should it be?

The tent protest, also known as J14, already had an effect on many groups in Israeli society, forcing them to re-examine their political positions and alliances. And while we have yet to see what comes out of this process, it is safe to say that in the last few weeks a new conversation has emerged.

One of these developments, perhaps an unwelcome one, was a growing rift between Israeli left-wing activists and some progressive bloggers and writers outside Israel. These two groups have deepened their cooperation in recent years, usually around issues concerning the joint struggle against the occupation. In other cases, they were able to exchange information and help fight against anti-Palestinian rhetoric in the West (which is more and more often generated or sponsored in Jerusalem) and against political persecution in Israel proper.

J14 revealed the limits of this cooperation. While most Israeli activists on the left welcomed the protest and were among the first to join it—often using it as a platform for a more general call for political change and justice that would include non-Jewish groups—the demonstrations were met with suspicion from pro-Palestinian activists and writers abroad. Some of them argued that J14 neglects the ethnic dimension of the political system in Israel and concentrates on benefits for the dominant Jewish group rather than on the rights of Palestinians, who are discriminated against west of the Green Line and oppressed to its east; and are subject to a mechanism of separation everywhere.

Strange as it may seem, I tend to agree with both sides in this debate. I see great hope in J14, a tremendous opportunity, and yet I think it’s important to challenge it all the time on the Palestinian question. This will help the movement become an instrument for promoting true political justice in Israel, and protect it from shrinking to an internal debate within the Israeli elites over tax benefits and rent control.

Even the writing on +972, while being done mostly by Israelis (only one of our regular bloggers is Palestinian) reflects this debate. See this recent piece by Joseph Dana and Max Blumenthal for one view of the protest, and Dimi Reider, Haggai Matar, Ami Kaufman and myself for others. And there was also this piece by Yossi Gurvitz, directed at “the international left”, which made many people angry, but at the same time, was shared (in its Hebrew version) by quite a few Israeli activists.

Joseph and Max’s piece, and later Yossi’s, led to some fierce internet debates between Israelis and non-Israelis who used to see themselves as partners for the same cause; these arguments made the pro-occupation right quite happy. Check out, for examples, the Twitter feeds of Joseph Dana, Max Blumenthal, Itamar_BOr Bareket, Yossi Gurvitz, Elizabeth Tsurkov and Ali Abunimah. Given the highly aggressive tones in these debates, I find myself wondering what would become of the ability to internationalize the conversation.

Personally, I didn’t agree with Max and Joseph’s piece. I thought it cherry-picked examples in order to prove that J14 was some sort of a right-wing movement (it’s not), while missing on the bigger picture. This is an Israeli mass movement, so it is bound to include many of the problematic aspects of Israeli politics, such as the tendency to see the Golan or even the settlement of Ariel as part of Israel proper. The important issue is not where the movement starts but where it leads, and in my view, this is still an open question. Change doesn’t just happen one day (or in a single month). It happens through political activism, and right now we have mass activism for the first time in years. So there could, potentially, be mass change. This is the reason for the relative hope I see in this protest.

Yet there was something more to what I sensed than pure disagreement. I felt a bit offended on an emotional level by Max and Joseph’s piece, which is not something very common for me when political writing is concerned, even when I am personally attacked. Reading some of the comments my friends made on Twitter, I thought they had the same feeling, possibly even worse.

What made us feel offended? A possible explanation is that in recent years Israeli leftists found outside their country the understanding and support they couldn’t get from their own peers in Israel, so we take it very much to heart when this understanding is denied us. Without being too melodramatic, it hasn’t been easy to be a leftist here in the last couple of years. We registered +972 as a non-profit recently, and yesterday, while sitting with our accountant, he told me off-handedly: “Better keep your papers in order – someone might give you trouble, considering your politics.”  And I can give other such examples every day of the week.

To a Palestinian all this might sound very strange, if not simply selfish and myopic: Our petty problems are nothing compared to those faced by a resident of Nablus yet to gain his freedom, or to the Gazans who were in mortal danger just last week.

So both sides ended up feeling betrayed: The Israelis who lost their partners just when they felt that progress was finally being made, and the Palestinians that couldn’t help but hear the message that “the occupation can wait while we are working on reaching out to the Jewish public.” Palestinians know that they have waited enough. Personally, I would have felt the same if I were a Palestinian, so I don’t need to ask for their support or understanding in dealing with my own society.

But there might be something deeper, and I am referring here more to the commentary by non-Palestinian writers (as I said, I have no demands from Palestinians on that). What I get from the writing by non-Palestinian activists is not just a rejection of internal Israeli politics, which is understandable, but of Israeli identity as a whole, seeing it as one which is inherently criminal, and therefore cannot change, while J14 is all about an attempt for internal change.

I am not talking racism here. Usually, people who give me the feeling I described above are quite ready to acknowledge our Jewish identity. But for me and for many of my friends on the left—most of them third and fourth generation Israelis  —we are always more “Israeli” than “Jewish,” whether we like it or not. While we accept the need for a radical transformation of the political system – one which must change what “Israeli” means and possibly replace this term altogether, we are Israelis now. Not “Jews.” I do expect those who analyze Israeli society at least to be aware of that.

But should this identity crisis really interest those critics when making their points? I don’t know. I believe that their primary motivation is solidarity with the Palestinians, and it’s a noble one. Yet I think such understanding can explain some of the current strife.

Politically speaking, it’s a reminder of the fact that the real trade-off in this conflict is not about independence (for Palestinians) and security (for Israelis) but rather freedom and justice (for Palestinians) and legitimacy (for Israelis). And when Israelis seem to abandon the Palestinian cause (even if they think it’s in the interest of freedom and justice), they lose on the legitimacy side. These are all very abstract terms, and perhaps not the right ones to use in a political debate, but I have no other way of explaining my unfinished thoughts on this issue.

On a more immediate level, it has been proven that the cooperation between progressive forces in Israel and abroad can only take place within an active joint struggle against the occupation. Perhaps this is for the best. Unlike some, I am optimistic, and I think that once our attention comes back to this issue, ties could be renewed.