Joseph Dana and I have a cover story for The Nation this week on the Israeli activists who takes part in the unarmed protest in the West Bank and East Jerusalem. We discuss the history of the joint struggle, its political significance and the challenges lying ahead.
Though we say it in the text several times, it’s important to remember that this is a Palestinian struggle, and the Israelis who take part in it are neither its leaders nor its leading strategists. Jonathan Pollak, whom we interviewed just before he started serving his prison sentence, made sure we understand that:
“The participation of Israelis in demonstrations, unfortunately, does make a difference,” says Jonathan Pollak, one of the first activists to take part in the demonstrations and now media coordinator of the Popular Struggle Coordination Committee, a Palestinian umbrella organization of local. “It makes a difference because of the racist nature of our situation. Open-fire regulations, for instance, are a lot more stringent, officially, when Israelis are present. It is, however, important to remember that we are not much more than a side note in the movement, and that it is the Palestinians who are at its center.
“People are often fascinated by the fact that a handful of Israelis cross the lines this way. But currently this is what we really are, a handful, and the real question, in my opinion, is, How come only so few do so? The sad answer is that most Israelis simply don’t care; to most Israelis, Palestinians simply don’t really exist.”
Still, I think that even those handful of activists, as Jonathan rightly refers to them, are important. The Israeli left is going through an ideological and generational revolution. The older generation – you can call it the Peace Now generation – is in decline, and new forces, ideas and tactics are emerging. In a very generalizing way, one could say that the new left is less committed to the Two-States Solution, more critical of Zionism and believes in direct action and cooperation with Palestinians and international activists. The new left is not represented in the Knesset; it mobilizes support through social networks and has reasonably good connections to human rights groups and none-governmental organizations.
The formative years of the older generation were the seventies. Back then, only few would dare discuss the idea of a Palestinian state or a full withdrawal from the territories occupied in 1967. The big peace rallies came a decade later, with the Lebanon war and the Intifada, and leading activists from those days entered the Knesset in the nineties. The greatest political achievement of this generation was Oslo; that was also the beginning of its decline. In the next decade or two, the same process could happen with the new left.
It is interesting to hear what Avrum Burg, an old Peace Now activist and former Knesset speaker, has to say on those issues (that’s from the article at The Nation as well):
“In fact, the Israeli left never recovered from Rabin’s assassination (…) Later, Ehud Barak came and presented his personal failure in Camp David [in 2000] as the failure of the entire way. When the head of the peace camp declared that there was no partner on the other side, it opened the door for unilateralism (…) There was something unilateral in Zionism from the start, but it became the only way after Camp David… We built the fence unilaterally, and we left Gaza unilaterally. Barak brought us back to the days of Golda Meir, who denied there is such a thing as a Palestinian people.”
“The meaning of Zionism in Israel today is to be Jewish and not Arab,” says former Speaker Burg, who attends the protest in Sheikh Jarrah regularly… In that context, the left cannot go on calling itself Zionist. We should ask ourselves whether Zionist humanism isn’t a contradiction in terms these days. We should go beyond ethnic democracy and toward a real joint society, in which Jews and Arabs are really equal.”
I believe that the activists of Bi’lin and Sheikh Jarrah, isolated and marginal as they look today, would set the political tone for the Jewish left in the years and decades to come. In 15-20 years, we might even find some of them in Parliament.