The paths of Israeli attorneys Lea Tsemel and Gonen Ben Yitzhak have crossed in the past, even if not directly. Tsemel has defended generations of Palestinians in Israeli military courts, which very often based their decisions on classified information provided by the Shin Bet. Ben Yitzhak represented agents of the Shin Bet, who provided that information under an anti-democratic regime in the occupied territories.
Last Wednesday, Tsemel and Ben Yitzhak met once again. This time, Ben Yitzhak, who is one of the leading figures of the so-called “Crime Minister” protests against Benjamin Netanyahu’s corruption, was brought handcuffed to the police station in Jerusalem’s Russian Compound to have his remand extended, a day after being arrested in the “Bastille Day” protests outside the Prime Minister’s Residence.
Tsemel also arrived at the Russian Compound that day, just as she had done countless times when representing Palestinian detainees, to represent Ben Yitzhak and seven others who were arrested. But the police decided to keep Tsemel outside the compound, claiming that she was supposed to be in quarantine over supposed contact with someone who had contracted COVID-19. In a small press conference the following day, Ben Yitzhak claimed the police had “no proof” that Tsemel needed to be isolated. The detainees, said Ben Yitzhak, were denied legal representation. This, he concluded, “could not take place in a democracy.” The irony was beyond him.
This small incident shows the extent to which the leaders of the anti-corruption protests are privileged members of the establishment’s own flesh and blood. But it also shows the complex situation the anti-Netanyahu protests — which have grown dramatically over the government’s mishandling of the pandemic and the economy — have created: those same establishment figures now see themselves as “dissidents.” The protests, which have been led by the “privileged,” have led to the most direct challenge to the right-wing’s rule of the last decade.
One of the most prominent arguments one hears on both the right and the left — including the radical left — is that the anti-corruption protesters across the country are driven by a sense that they have had their country “stolen from them.” This sentiment cannot be diminished. After all, the leaders and supporters of Zionist left parties have for years repeated the mantra that they “built the state,” and thus any situation in which others — Mizrahim, the national-religious, the ultra-Orthodox, and right wingers — have “taken over” the country is unnatural and must come to an end. The Blue and White party wouldn’t have been able to reach 35 Knesset seats without this sentiment.
It is safe to assume that without the confidence that stems from said privileges, it is likely that the protest leaders would never have dared to establish their protest tents outside the Prime Minister’s Residence. It is also safe to assume that had it been Ethiopians, Palestinians, or working-class Israelis kicked out of public housing who tried to build an encampment in the heart of Jerusalem, they would have been removed immediately.
But this is not the central issue at the moment. The question is whether the protesters, even if they come from the establishment or higher classes, have opened up a wider democratic space, whether on purpose or inadvertently. The answer, right now, seems to be in the affirmative.
Israel has never seen a truly radical civil uprising. It has never had its own version of 1968 in France, the U.S. movement against the Vietnam War, or the current uprising following the police murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis. The closest Israel has ever gotten to a mass uprising was the social justice protests in 2011, whose messaging did not touch on the Israeli regime, and which eventually collapsed. When Yair Lapid rode the protests’ momentum to form Yesh Atid and serve as finance minister under Netanyahu, his voters did not rise up. Today, supporters of Blue and White, who are part of the same sociological group as Yesh Atid voters in 2013, are taking to the streets.
Sociologists will say that the difference between today’s protests and those in 2011 stems first and foremost from the fact that in Israel the (Jewish) ethnos is stronger than the (civic) demos. In general terms, one can say that the Jewish-Israeli is a settler, soldier, or Jew before he is a citizen. This is certainly true in the opposite direction. When Palestinians in Israel thought they were equal citizens and therefore allowed to go out and demonstrate in October 2000, the police shot dead 13 of them, reminding everyone that the Jewish ethnos is still far more important than the Israeli civic demos.
Is this new protest any different? It’s far too early to tell, but there are signs that something has changed. Haim Shadmi, one of the leaders of the movement, told me that the Israeli citizen (I would add the Jewish-Israeli citizen) was born in the 2011 protests, but is still a child. Now the citizen is starting to stand on their own. Shadmi chalks up the sudden wave of young people joining the demonstrations to both their desire to be treated as citizens and the economic situation.
The desire to be citizens perhaps explains the willingness of these young people to confront the police, as well as their lack of fear in doing so — a new phenomenon in Jewish center-left demonstrations. The “state,” the very same state that raised those who made this protest possible in the first place, is suddenly viewed as a source of hostility. “The state” is no longer “ours,” precisely because it works against its citizens, against the very ability to be a citizen. To bring about change, these young protesters believe, the regime must be forced to change.
Many on the left, including myself, viewed the “anyone but Bibi” slogans of the last three election cycles as simply not enough, even hollow. The slogans left out the occupation and apartheid in Israel-Palestine, Israel’s hyper-capitalism, the weakening of organized labor, the dismantling of the welfare state, equality for the LGBTQ community, and a long list of other worthy struggles. I still believe this is the case. But one must admit that the “anyone but Bibi” slogans carry the potential to awaken a new kind of civil struggle. Not because of the slogan itself, but because of him. Because of Netanyahu.
Netanyahu is the enemy of everything to do with the concept of citizenship. His corruption scandals, and his delegitimization of the legal system and the media, are not only a direct affront to citizenship; they are characteristics of an authoritarian regime.
Netanyahu’s scorn for the concept of citizenship is most clear when it comes to Palestinian citizens of Israel. From his 2015 election day declaration that “the Arabs are being bused to the polls in droves” to calling Palestinian MKs terror supporters over the last three election cycles, the prime minister routinely treats Palestinian citizens as non-citizens. This also goes for everyone who disagrees with him, from workers’ unions to supporters of Blue and White to denizens of Tel Aviv. In Netanyahu’s eyes, there is no citizenship, only loyalty.
In this sense, “anyone but Bibi” is a slogan that belongs to the demos, now that Netanyahu and the Israeli regime have become one and the same. His outlandish centralized control over the coronavirus crisis that has turned into his own cult of personality, his complete disregard for the hundreds of thousands who face the consequences of his actions, the sense that he has lost all control over the situation — all these have broadened the use of the slogan. It is clear that without Netanyahu stepping down, there will be no chance to repair of our society, whether vis-à-vis the occupation, workers’ rights, or democracy.
It is a bit early for the optimism of the protesters who believe Netanyahu’s days are numbered. It is also too early to know whether the fact that young Israeli Jews are marching, dancing, protesting, and confronting the police means the birth of a new Israeli demos.
In order for a real demos to take shape, it will need to shake off the Jewish ethnos and incorporate the Palestinians. There are signs that this might be happening. Several Palestinians have delivered speeches at the demonstrations, there has been chanting against the occupation, and a group of protest leaders even met with Joint List head Ayman Odeh. Odeh himself took part in the demonstration on Tuesday night in Jerusalem.
But we are still far from this goal. A protest organized by Arab restaurant owners in Haifa included hardly any Jewish-Israeli attendees, despite the organizers’ efforts. As Palestinian activist Ghadir Hani wrote in Haaretz earlier this week: “Palestinians will not take part in a protest that does not rise up against the occupation and does not oppose the oppression of the Palestinian people.”
It is true that beyond removing Netanyahu, this protest movement has neither clear demands nor an organizational structure. But it has spirit and it has rage, and sometimes that is enough to bring about a shift that is followed by even greater change. Maybe. We can only hope.
This article was originally published in Hebrew on Local Call. Read it here.