The ‘wrong’ protest: Why J14 propagates the political status quo

Despite the importance of the J14 movement’s demand for social justice, by calling for the restoration of the welfare state while ignoring the mechanisms of Israel’s ethno-national colonial regime that fosters occupation, activists are actually propagating the status quo, rather than undermining it.

By Noa Shaindlinger

Some have been arguing that the J14 movement has radicalized and matured since last year’s protests. But an examination of the “social protest” discourse and goals reveals this is not the case, and that it actually works in tandem with the current regime and political order.

I am writing this as the streets of central and north Tel Aviv are packed with protesters carrying banners of all colors and slogans, followed and surrounded by a staggering number of riot police, Border Police officers and regular police forces. I am sitting at home instead of joining some of my friends who are out there. As they did last summer, thousands of people are marching down Ibn Gvirol Street chanting, “The people demand social justice” and “We are the majority,” calling to reinstitute a welfare state. While calls for social justice, public housing and equal access to state resources are just in and of themselves, one should examine the context in which these demands are articulated.

From its inception, the J14 movement created straw men – the “tycoons” in bed with the government and ostensibly responsible for ongoing processes of privatization and accumulation of capital in the hands of the few. However, this focus on the neoliberal economy as the reason democracy went awry obfuscates the colonial nature of the state, which enables this neoliberal order.

Zionist colonialism in Palestine strove to concentrate wealth and resources in Jewish hands. Its most valuable resource remains land. This process peaked first in 1948 and then in 1967, with the completion of the occupation of mandatory Palestine. The colonial state created several different mechanisms and systems to cement Ashkenazi Jewish control of political, economic and cultural resources. For Palestinians, whether citizens of Israel or subjects of the military rule in 1967 territories, the Israeli state has never successfully postured as a democracy.

But we mustn’t overlook other groups that are also colonized and that have been subordinated by the elites to varying extents: the working and underclasses, many of them Mizrahim; queers; non-Jewish asylum seekers; and labor migrants. The colonized status of some groups is sometimes expressed through complicity with the political order – hence, most Jews (Mizrahi or not) serve in the army and (actively or not) support the state. The psychology of this complicity is a topic for another post.

Public housing, welfare and democracy are all worthy causes, but when they are demanded in the name of “all of us,” they mask existing power relations and illusions that they produce – namely, the absence of the Palestinians (whether citizens or subjects of Israeli military rule) from the equation. In the Galilee, for instance, J14’s demands for public housing means more land confiscation from Palestinian villages and towns. In the West Bank, the welfare of Jewish settlers and the sale of spacious villas and modern apartments are the result of an ongoing land grab from nearby Palestinian communities.

No “social justice” movement leader ever implied that reclaiming public space is made possible only because that space was already colonized and ethnically cleansed of its owners, who became refugees living in overpopulated and under-developed camps. When Tel Aviv residents marched through the city center, no one mentioned they were marching through what was once the orchards and fields of what was once the village of Sumail. I have yet to hear Daphni Leef or Stav Shaffir acknowledge the impending demolitions in Susya, or link the plight of al-Arakib to demands for social justice.

I am also writing this text after participating in another Friday demonstration in Nabi Saleh, which brings me to my final point. Protesters in Tel Aviv complained this week about police brutality against unarmed civilians and mass arrests. Not a word was uttered about the fact that Israeli security forces use extreme violence on a daily basis against protesters in the West Bank, not to mention the shelling of terrified residents trapped in the Gaza Strip. Under military rule, no protest is legal, and Palestinians who take to the streets or fields of Ni’lin, Hebron, or Qalandia are met with a barrage of tear gas, rubber (and sometimes live) bullets, skunk water and brutal arrests. Detainees are often denied medical care, legal assistance, food and drink, and are routinely physically and mentally abused and even tortured.

None of the Israeli Jews arrested in the streets of Tel Aviv can expect a fraction of this treatment, as they are entitled to certain rights by law, rights that are denied from the subjects of Israel’s military rule. Many or even most protesters who swarm the streets of Tel Aviv have served in the army, and perhaps even took part in acts of “pacification,” interrogation or abuse of Palestinians at checkpoints.

J14, despite calls for social justice and the participation of a few well-intentioned activists, works in tandem with the current colonial regime rather than undermining it. Flying the Zionist flag in the name of “the people” during protests for social justice and democracy renders these demands meaningless, and points to the tacit intention of organizers: keeping the political status quo while slightly improving the socio-economic position of those who already benefit from it.

Noa Shaindlinger is a PhD student at the University of Toronto, a human rights activist and citizen journalist.