The Jewish-Israeli Left can participate in the Palestinian struggle, but not as a partner

Israeli Leftists want the 1.5 million Palestinians who live in this country to become an integral part of this Israeli society. But they see their fellow Palestinians in Gaza and the West Bank belonging to a different country. 

A Palestinian man and a Jewish woman are both participants at a Jaffa protest rally. The Palestinian calls out, “Yafa Arabiyeh Falastaneeyeh!” (“Jaffa is Arab-Palestinian!”). The Jewish woman doesn’t like this. She takes him aside and explains that this is a joint Jewish-Arab demonstration. Thus, according to the woman, there is no place for a chant of “Jaffa is Arab,” just as there is no place for a chant of “Jaffa is Jewish.” The Palestinian responds that he disagrees with her characterization of the demonstration and rejects her opposition to his chant, explaining that he won’t compromise on this point.

This was a pretty typical incident involving a Jewish leftist who espouses the views of Hadash, the Socialist Jewish-Arab party. Ostensibly, the woman was protesting nationalist chants at what she thought was a “joint” demonstration composed of Jews and Palestinians (all citizens of Israel). But the fallout from that incident revealed the illusory nature of Jewish-Arab political partnership in Israel .

Later that same night there was a discussion about the incident described above among the Palestinian activists, who decided they would continue with similar chants during upcoming demonstrations. The Palestinian activists also decided to publish a post on Facebook in which they clarified their intentions, adding that those who objected were obviously under no obligation to participate. The post ignited a big debate, with dozens of responses for and against.

A demonstration commemorating Land Day, Jaffa, March 30, 2014. (Photo: Keren Manor/
A demonstration commemorating Land Day, Jaffa, March 30, 2014. (Photo: Keren Manor/

The Jewish activist tried to defend what she had said to the Palestinian activist under the rubric of freedom of expression, but this was clearly not the issue here. I happen to like and appreciate this activist very much. But the political tent in which she grew up has always been problematic and rather detached from reality. Sometimes its views conflict with the Palestinian narrative and goals, and this is the source of the problem.

The Jewish “Hadash-y” Left (which I deliberately differentiate from Hadash, the Arab-Jewish political party) always liked to “educate” others. There are few Palestinians in Israel who have not endured this unfortunate pedagogic experience. The incident at the recent demonstration illustrates that Hadash-y activists are so stuck in their Marxist-influenced point of view that they’ve completely ignored both history and current reality. Those who attempt to link the Palestinian struggle to other struggles within Israeli society, like that of the Ethiopians, are playing down the issue and even undermining the Palestinians’ goals.

Jaffa, Hebron — the same uprising

The new generation of Palestinian activists are not afraid, and they won’t let anyone minimize or undermine their struggle. Most of the Jewish-Israeli activist Left tend to regard the struggle of the Palestinian people who live within the 1948 borders of Israel as that of a disadvantaged ethnic minority against the entrenched racism of the establishment. They seem to believe that the problems of the Palestinians in Israel would be resolved if only the government would expand its national spending programs for disadvantaged minorities.

There is nothing more patronizing than the word “disadvantaged.” Everyone knows that in the contest of advantaged versus disadvantaged, the advantaged win. By defining the Palestinians of Israel as a disadvantaged minority, the Jewish-Israeli left is willfully ignoring the real issue, rather than facing and dealing with it.

This attitude is also problematic because it speaks to a crude division between Palestinian citizens of Israel and the wider Palestinian world. Palestinians are not a minority in this land. Israeli Leftists want the 1.5 million Palestinians who live in this country to become an integral part of this country’s society. But they see their fellow Palestinians in Gaza and the West Bank belonging to a different country. The lack of understanding and empathy—this willful blindness in the face of history—is outrageous and insulting. This is not to say that we should refuse to work with the state’s institutions as a means of effecting change. But we must not forget about the wider context, within the reality of the military occupation of Gaza and the West Bank.

A Hadash party sign in Arabic and Hebrew: Equality (Oren Ziv / Activestills)
A Hadash party sign in Arabic and Hebrew (“Equality”) (Photo: Oren Ziv/

At the Hadash demonstrations in Tel Aviv, where most of the activists are Jewish, the participants act as though the occupation started in 1967, with the Six Day War. As though my grandfather threw a party to celebrate the expropriation of his land and the forced exile of his family during the Nakba of 1948. But when Hadash organizes demonstrations in the Galilee, where most of the activists are Palestinian-Arab, the participants relate to the occupation as a continuation of the events of 1948—and rightly so.

In other words, the slogan “Jaffa is Palestinian” is no different from “Hebron is Palestinian,” which is a sentiment that the Jewish activist described above would certainly approve of. Those who ignore the fact that the racism and discrimination against Jaffa’s Palestinian residents is the direct result of the events of 1948, who behave as though we were all equal, are distorting the struggle. In effect, they are demanding that the Palestinians reject their history.

When Avigdor Liberman and the racist political Right demand that Palestinian-Arab citizens of Israel refrain from chanting “Yafa Falistineeya,” they are at best being ridiculous. That’s analogous to the Republican party accusing Black civil rights activists in the 1960s of racism. The idea is absurd and grotesque.

The behavior of the Palestinian activists is not always beyond reproach. One can understand, but not justify, the strident calls coming from some, who want to exclude Jewish activists from their demonstrations. The Jewish activist I mention above told me that many of the Palestinian activists took it upon themselves to tell her personally that they valued her participation at these political demonstrations. Their encouragement is welcome, even though it was not expressed in a public forum.

The Palestinian activists must clarify that they are the ones leading the struggle, and that for now it includes Jewish participation. Why participation and not partnership? Because, as the recent incident described above shows, even the most dedicated Jewish activists refuse to acknowledge their history as colonial conquerers (even if some of their best friends are Arabs). As long as this remains the case, we are very far indeed from building a true partnership to end the occupation and establish equal rights for all people living between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea.

Read this article in Hebrew on Local Call here.

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