On the struggles and duties of the Israeli Left: A response to ‘Palestine Today’

Despite clear room for improvement, the Israeli Left still offers valuable examples of progressive activism.

By Dahlia Scheindlin and Matt Duss

Jewish and Arab protesters march during a demonstration against the occupation, calling the Israeli government to resign, in central Tel Aviv, May 28, 2016. (Oren Ziv/Activestills.org)
Jewish and Arab protesters march during a demonstration against the occupation, calling the Israeli government to resign, in central Tel Aviv, May 28, 2016. (Oren Ziv/Activestills.org)

Palestine Today, a California-based blog, has written a sincere response to our article drawing on lessons and parallels between Israel and the U.S. for dejected progressives.

We appreciate the thoughtful critique regarding what is clearly a shared goal of advancing progressive values and ending occupation. Some of the points reflect very real ambiguities in the situation, and we welcome the opportunity to engage in an important conversation.

An early and recurring argument in Palestine Today’s critique is that we did not place more emphasis on the Palestinian BDS movement. We described examples in a general sense but didn’t go into details; therefore it isn’t especially conspicuous that we didn’t emphasize the Palestinian BDS call — we didn’t mention any one effort by name, including those we are directly involved in.

Next, we have made it fairly clear that the two areas being explored are Israel and the U.S. Notwithstanding what we surely all agree is a vigorous attempt by Israel’s government to obliterate the Green Line, there is still a distinction between Israeli and Palestinian society. And in Israeli society, the Palestinian BDS call is far from the “single most popular idea,” as Palestine Today claims, in any form or forum at all. Until about 2014, the vast majority of Israelis hadn’t heard of it.

Since then, BDS has become mainly the target of Israeli rage, but it is not currently an example of Israeli activism, which is what the article is about (alongside U.S. activism). It should be abundantly clear from both of our work that, while each of us may have certain disagreements with the BDS movement or its activists, we strongly believe that support for Palestinian rights, both within the Green Line and beyond, is an important part of the broader progressive agenda.

Scheindlin stands by her critique of Israel’s 2011 social protests, but it is legitimate (and important) to look at such a significant event with five years’ hindsight and consider lasting impact that couldn’t have been assessed in real time. In that light, perhaps the most powerful aspect to note is just the large-scale participation itself, which at the very least demonstrated civic power. Arguably that power was quite successful in changing Israel’s electoral map by giving first 19, then 21 parliamentary seats to brand-new parties who purported to represent social-protest themes. None of those parties have changed one whit of policy regarding the occupation but then as we all know, tragically, the social protestors didn’t ask for that.

File photo of Israeli anti-occupation activists protesting in front of the Prime Minister’s Residence in Jerusalem. (Maya Levin/Flash90)
File photo of Israeli anti-occupation activists protesting in front of the Prime Minister’s Residence in Jerusalem. (Maya Levin/Flash90)

One critique is perplexing: that our call for progressives to hold a more genuine dialogue within our societies necessarily excludes Palestinian suffering, and activist responses. But we chose to focus on the U.S. and Israeli activism we both know best, from our personal involvement — as participants, not as observers or reporters, and certainly not to exclude Palestinian activism. We also didn’t try to speak on behalf of our Palestinian colleagues about how they view their struggle, which would rightly be unlikely to win Palestine Today‘s or any Palestinians’ sympathy. And even if we had included that aspect, this doesn’t negate the need to win over larger (and more politically powerful) portions within each society of our arguments.

Worse still is Palestine Today’s presumption that the Israeli Left necessarily excludes Palestinians at all. That in itself perpetuates a mindset that if something is “Israeli” it must be exclusively Jewish, which we reject. In fact, Palestinian citizens of Israel are both active participants in and targets of the efforts for social change. They are valiant comrades in such struggles, particularly due to their complex position as a minority in Israel. Moreover, the term “Israeli Left” is anything but limited to Green Line Israel — both of us are deeply involved with Israeli human rights groups and activists working on behalf of Palestinians in both the West Bank and Gaza, and much of this happens with Palestinian partners. Some of these activities are referenced in the article as well.

So of course we wouldn’t “prioritize” a protest model of unity among the “non-Palestinian Left.” To elaborate here, we would rather combine the large-scale civic clout of the social protest and merge it with the focused, unrelenting struggle to end the occupation and defend human rights of the committed left-wing activists and human rights defenders in Israel, and of course in Palestine.

One partly implicit critique is fair and painful indeed: that the Israeli Left has not thus far succeeded in ending the occupation, nor in preventing any of three Gaza wars. But we point this out ourselves. We argue that despite endless setbacks the alternative of no civic opposition could be worse, but with it the future could be better. 

We also agree that, despite the important capacity building that has occurred over the past years in both countries, both the Israeli and American left have failed to effectively deploy that capacity to build broad and sufficiently inclusive coalitions. The election of Donald Trump laid this devastating reality bare; it’s one of the main reasons we wrote the piece. The other was to assert a greater unity of effort between progressives in both of our countries and beyond, including — perhaps especially — Palestine.

We recognize that as members of the privileged majority in our respective countries, the onus is on us to listen and hear from those who bear the greatest brunt of the policies we are trying to change, when they tell us how we can better support their work with our own. Which is why we appreciate thoughtful critiques like Palestine Today’s.

Matt Duss is president of the Foundation for Middle East Peace in Washington, DC.

Newsletter banner