The new Jewish-Arab movement that plans to save the Israeli left

Standing Together, a new joint Arab-Jewish movement, is aiming to transform Israeli politics. It won’t be easy, but the Israeli left’s first step back to power might be believing that it can win again.

Standing Together activists and members of other left-wing groups protest outside of Likud's Tel Aviv headquarters following Israel's deadly response to protests in Gaza. April 1, 2018.
Standing Together activists and members of other left-wing groups protest outside of Likud’s Tel Aviv headquarters following Israel’s deadly response to protests in Gaza. April 1, 2018. (Courtesy of Standing Together)

The Israeli left is in the midst of an historic crisis. Out of power for over 20 years (with the exception of Ehud Barak’s brief and fractious stint as prime minster), Labor is now headed by a millionaire telecommunications executive who once served as a minister under Netanyahu. Meretz, the dovish, social-democratic party, barely made it into the Knesset in 2015. The peace camp is fractured and leaderless. Peace Now’s promising, young new director, Avi Buskila, resigned after barely a year and a half to seek the leadership of Meretz — he lost. A new crop of centrist parties — the strongest electoral challengers to Netanyahu — have mostly turned out to be Netanyahu-lite.

Into this howling political void, a new, left-wing movement called Omdim Beyachad (Standing Together) has emerged. The movement has begun to succeed where others faltered, drawing on the strategies and lessons of successful left-wing populist movements around the world. The movement is young — it first appeared in late 2015 — but it has been steadily growing in size and influence. Standing Together activists hope to make the movement into the guiding force of the Israeli left.

Standing Together has played a major supporting role in the public campaign to stop Israel’s deportation of African asylum seekers. Through the creative use of WhatsApp groups and phone-banking, its activists distributed thousands of anti-deportation banners that hang from balconies on major streets across Tel Aviv and Jerusalem. Along with the Mizrahi-feminist group, “Power to the Community,” the movement helped bring 20,000 people to a massive rally in South Tel Aviv in late February. Two weeks before, it marched several thousand Israelis down Jerusalem’s Ben Yehuda Street, displacing the far-right hooligans who have become a defining feature of the city in recent years.

African asylum seekers and human rights activists, including Standing Together members, protest against deportation of asylum seekers at Rabin Square in Tel Aviv on March 24, 2018. (Miriam Alster/Flash90)
African asylum seekers and human rights activists, including Standing Together members, protest against deportation of asylum seekers at Rabin Square in Tel Aviv on March 24, 2018. (Miriam Alster/Flash90)

Following the first week of Gaza border protests, during which the Israeli army killed 17 unarmed protesters and wounded hundreds more, Standing Together brought hundreds of protesters to the Likud party’s Tel Aviv headquarters. With their trademark purple shirts, signs, and, in this case, a gigantic banner, they declared: “a nation that occupies other nation will never be free.”

Standing Together activists are now preparing to protest Israel’s impending demolition of the Bedouin village of Umm al-Hiran in the Negev. A Jews-only town is slated to be built on the village’s ruins.

A forward-thinking left

“For ten years, my friends and I stood shoulder-to-shoulder in a lot of campaigns and struggles, a ton of protests, but each time, we had to start from square-one,” Alon-Lee Green, one of the movement’s founders, tells me a few days ahead of the movement’s first national assembly last December, explaining how and why Standing Together got started. “We would get together to protest the war in Gaza, then disperse again. Then there’s the social protest and we’d try to get all our forces together, and then we’d disperse again.”

At 30, Green is an experienced political operative. A labor activist who became a prominent face of the 2011 social protests, he is a member of the Israeli Communist Party and Hadash, the Arab-Jewish socialist alliance that is now a part of the Joint List in the Knesset.

Alon-Lee Green, one of Standing Together's leading activists.
Alon-Lee Green, one of Standing Together’s leading activists. (Rami Ben Ari)

“We hadn’t succeeded in building power,” Green continues. “We realized that we needed an organization that could build power and create continuity in our ability to mobilize people, organize people, and think more about how the left can be forward-thinking, and not just do what it’s accustomed to doing.”

Standing Together’s founding was, in part, a response to the failure of the left-wing parties. “Until now, the system has been: come sign a membership card in a party and we’ll let you vote every couple of months in some kind of primaries, and once a year in some kind of [bigger] vote,” Nadav Bigelman, a member of the movement’s national steering committee, tells me. “But this didn’t work in any effective way.”

Founded in late 2015 by alumni of the 2011 social protests (Israel’s version of Occupy), young Communist party members, and other veteran left-wing activists, Standing Together — identifiable by its signature purple paraphernalia — has, over the past year or two, become ubiquitous at protests around the country: against evictions in East Jerusalem, home demolitions in the Negev, anti-Arab racism in the north, and against Israel’s plan to deport tens of thousands of Eritrean and Sudanese refugees.

Bigelman, 29, is a public policy Master’s student at Hebrew University who spent six years working at the Israeli anti-occupation NGO Breaking the Silence. He is also a member of Meretz, adding some party diversity to an otherwise Hadash-heavy leadership.

“Politics doesn’t only happen in the parliamentary arena; I would say most politics doesn’t happen there,” Bigelman adds. “People live politics in their everyday lives, and we want to reach them in their everyday lives, at the grassroots. We want to go out and meet people everywhere, in every location: at work, on the bus, wherever.”

Building Israel’s Podemos

Standing Together activists during a demonstration at Israel's Tunnels Checkpoint, between Bethlehem and Jerusalem.
Standing Together activists during a demonstration at Israel’s Tunnels Checkpoint, between Bethlehem and Jerusalem. (Standing Together)

While the movement may have identified a void in Israeli politics, it seems unsure of exactly how to fill it — how to reach people at the grassroots level and what to do with them once they are activated. The party structure, which has historically dominated Israeli politics, can no longer mobilize large numbers of people. Human rights NGOs and civil society organizations have become the de facto backbone of the Israeli left and peace camp in recent years, especially in the absence of an effective parliamentary opposition. But NGOs are not mass movements.

Standing Together activists know this, and cite a wide range models they say they’re learning from: Podemos, the Spanish left-wing populist party; Momentum, the pressure group inside the British Labour Party; Syriza, the left-wing Greek anti-austerity party that rose to power in 2015; the Democratic Socialists of America; the American community organizing tradition; even the right-wing settler movement Gush Emumin (in Hebrew, the Bloc of Believers).

But all of these models are different and even somewhat contradictory. Half are parties or groupings within political parties, which Standing Together’s activists and leaders adamantly insist they have no intention of becoming.

“We are in an ongoing learning process,” Green says. “We are very much trying to examine models of the New Left around the world. And to learn from them — from their mistakes as well.”

“We’re trying to ask questions that aren’t necessarily political questions,” he continues. “How do you start a chapter? How did Momentum arrive at the situation in which it has a branch in every town in England? How did Podemos successfully inject their political language into mainstream politics?”

Standing Together activists’ admiration for Podemos and British Labor Leader Jeremy Corbyn’s brand of politics, however, is clear. Podemos’s color, like that of Standing Together, is purple. And activists sometimes literally translate Corbynite slogans — like “for the many, not the few” — into Hebrew in their speeches.

UK Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn. (Chatham House, London/CC BY 2.0)
UK Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn. (Chatham House, London/CC BY 2.0)

This affinity makes sense. Around the world, support for the old social-democratic parties has collapsed; Israel is no exception. Parties like Podemos have replaced the old, discredited social-democratic by adopting an “agonistic” and majoritarian approach, drawing on a shared theoretical orientation (in particular the work of Belgian political theorist Chantal Mouffe and her late partner, Ernesto Laclau). These parties are agonistic in the sense that they name their political enemies. They are majoritarian in that they situate “the people,” the majority, in opposition to a small, privileged, exploitative class of elites. Bringing this kind of politics, to Israel, at least on the level of messaging, requires only minor translation work.

Learning from the settlers

Learning from the American political organizing tradition will be more difficult. Rules for Radicals, the organizing handbook by the legendary Jewish organizer Saul Alinsky, which opens with a quote from Hillel the Elder, has never been fully translated into Hebrew. The same is true of the work of Gene Sharp, the scholar of nonviolent protest who died in January. The bulk of community organizing literature, as well as literature in the burgeoning field of civil resistance, remains largely unavailable to Israeli readers. To compensate, the movement has invited students of Marshal Ganz, the community organizing guru credited with engineering Barak Obama’s presidential campaign, to speak to its members.

But the most adaptable model for Standing Together — and one which would require less translation — might, paradoxically, be the settler movement Gush Emunim.

Gush Emunim leaders and supporters celebrating the Israeli government's decision to allow the first Jewish settlement in the Samaria region, 1974 (Moshe Milner/GPO)
Gush Emunim leaders and supporters celebrating the Israeli government’s decision to allow the first Jewish settlement in the Samaria region, 1974 (Moshe Milner/GPO)

“I think about Gush Emunim as a massive political movement that wasn’t a party, but which shifted the entire political map further to the right,” Bigelman tells me.

“We don’t have the same practices or methods, and of course not the same ideology,” he adds. “But in terms of thinking about ways to shift the political discourse in ways they want, even if not in the parliament or the Knesset, they did something very substantial.”

What might be called the Gush Emunim approach, acting as a force that can pull the political parties in one direction, was on display at the protest outside of the Likud headquarters last week. Leaders from Meretz and Hadash gave speeches or simply were present; some Labor party activists even showed up. But the tone of the protest, the chants and the majority of the signs — those belonged to Standing Together.

The movement’s greatest asset is perhaps also its greatest challenge. Standing Together is a joint Arab-Jewish movement. All of its materials — on Facebook, on protest signs — appear in Hebrew and Arabic. The movement’s leadership and rank-and-file includes Israeli Jews and Palestinian citizens of Israel. It boasts of a level of Arab-Jewish joint political engagement that hardly any of the political parties, except maybe for Hadash, approach.

“The movement isn’t sitting in Tel Aviv and talking about Taibeh,” Nisreen Shehada, a member of the national steering committee, assures me. Shehada, who has a PhD in chemical engineering and nanotechnology, works at a large high-tech company and lives in Haifa. In contrast to both Green and Bigelman, she says she has never been engaged in party politics — like many of the movement’s new activists.

“We have activists not just in Taibeh but in Tira and Haifa and Jaffa and everywhere people want to get involved,” Shehada says in a January phone interview, referring to Arab and mixed Jewish-Arab cities in Israel. “That’s our way of reaching people from different populations — by being in the places where they are.”

Convincing the Jewish public

Standing Together has nine circles — what the movement calls chapters — located across the country: in the Sharon and the Triangle (an area of Jewish and Arab communities in the north); in the Negev, where much of the movement’s energies are focused on the unrecognized Bedouin communities; in Haifa; in Tel Aviv; in Jerusalem; and at the Tel Aviv, Ben Gurion, Haifa, and Hebrew universities.

Not all of the circles, though, are models of joint politics. In Jerusalem, for example, the membership reflects the reality of life in the segregated city, where Palestinians are not citizens and generally boycott municipal politics; the majority of the circle’s activists are Jews.

Jewish and Palestinian activists demonstrate together during a Standing Together protest.
Jewish and Palestinian activists demonstrate together during a Standing Together protest. (Courtesy of Standing Together)

To win mass support in a majority Jewish country, the movement knows it will have to somehow transcend the segregated nature of Israeli politics, especially as racism and right-wing violence are on the rise. It remains to be seen whether the European kind of left-populism can be made to fit Israel, where there is no real national-civic identity to speak of that could be embraced by both Arabs and Jews.

“In this reality, doing Arab-Jewish politics is a serious daily challenge,” Green admits. “It’s the question of where we hold our meetings, where we put our resources to start up a new circle, what language we use to do an event or hold a conversation, the question of which struggles to decide to participate in — because there is no shortage of struggles that are important to Arabs in Israel.”

Israeli Jews, including those who define themselves as left-wing, have long refused to see Palestinians citizens of Israel as potential partners. Avi Gabbay, the Labor Party’s new leader, exemplified this mindset last October when he declared that Labor would not join a hypothetical government with the Joint List, the heterogeneous coalition of Arab-led parties. “We have nothing in common with them,” he said. Standing Together will have to convince the Jewish public otherwise.

Green, however, also criticizes the Joint List for failing to fill that other void — the absence of a meaningful space for Arab-Jewish politics. “The Joint List is a serious withdrawal from shared Arab-Jewish politics. On the political side, de facto, it’s voters are basically only Arabs, and its politics are not Jewish-Arab.”

“It’s possible that in the party they’ll get mad at me for saying this,” Green says hesitantly, before continuing. “The Joint List isn’t dealing with the question of how to change the larger reality or with the question of speaking to the entire Israeli public.”

Joint List MK Dov Khenin attends a protest by Ethiopian-Israelis near the Knesset, Jerusalem, June 26, 2017. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)
Joint List MK Dov Khenin attends a protest by Ethiopian-Israelis near the Knesset, Jerusalem, June 26, 2017. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Standing Together’s activists have their eyes on transformative change. Their goal: a mass movement of Arabs and Jews that opposes neoliberalism as well as the occupation, that fights for LGBT and women’s rights as well as full equality for Palestinian citizens of Israel. In the depths of the third Netanyahu government, to call this ambitious feels like an understatement.

And yet, in addition to European political theory and American organizing models, the movement has insisted on bringing to the Israeli left something it has lacked for a very long time: hope. If the movement has a motto, it is “Where there is struggle there is hope,” which it has emblazoned on signs, banners, and tote-bags (the bags also bear Martin Luther King Jr’s face). The Israeli left has been out of power for so long that it has grown accustomed to losing — believing that it can win may be the first step back to power.

At Standing Together’s first national assembly, held in an acting studio in Jaffa, Dov Khenin, the veteran Jewish Hadash politician, angling to be a kind of Israeli Bernie Sanders as of late, walked up to another older man I’d been talking to.

“What do you think, Dov?” the older man asked.

Khenin, smiling, answered, “The revolution begins.”

We’ll have to wait and see.