'Intelligent discontent is the mainspring of civilization.' -- Eugene V. Debs

Thursday, August 18, 2011

A Sober Minded Evaluation of the Israeli Tent Protests 

From an article written by Max Ajl, posted by MRZine:

Without a call for ending the occupation, the demonstrations cannot encompass the most structurally disadvantaged stratum within Israeli society -- the '48 Palestinians. Nor can they attract the passive support of Palestinians in the Occupied Territories or in the Diaspora. Without such a call, there is something odd and unreal about the social justice protests, like a photograph in which all the red tone has leached out, leaving it cold and lifeless.

Meanwhile, from the Palestinians, under a decades-long occupation, the intricacies of internal Israeli social discontent and the nuances of Israeli social mobilization have understandably elicited sneers and jeers. The cost of bread to a Jewish family in Ashkelon is a real problem, but, in the hierarchy of suffering, it cannot rank next to the experience of oppression of a family in a Gaza City refugee camp that lived in Ashkelon when it was called Majdal, was cleansed from there in 1948, and whose bakery was destroyed during the 2008-2009 attack which most of the Israelis now complaining about high bread prices openly supported.

Looked at from the outside, the lacuna when it comes to the Palestinians is a sociologically jarring absence, like poor American antebellum field hands clamoring for the minimum wage without blinking an eye at the dark men in chains working in the fields next to the ones in which they are toiling. But that a racist society produces a racist protest movement is almost unavoidable. Resistance movements must start with the human material which they possess, not with the human material they wished they possessed. As historian Staughton Lynd asks, Who were the workers who made the Russian Revolution? Sexists, nationalists, half of them illiterate. Who were the workers in Polish Solidarity? Anti-Semitic, whatever. That kind of struggle begins to transform people, a transformation one sees in embryonic form in the Mizrahi-Ashkenazi solidarity within the protests themselves. Furthermore, people articulate their resistance to oppression -- at first -- in the terms in which that oppression appears to them. To the average Israeli, the ones at these protests, the occupation is not tied into their experience of oppression. Indeed, that occupation is part of stoking the Zionist sentiment and soldering the intra-Jewish communal bonds such that Israel's Jewish citizens either do not notice intra-communal oppression or do not act upon it.

But there is no force growing a radical consciousness, and there is no reason to believe that the conditions are ripe for such a consciousness's development in the first place. Thus far the leadership has been inchoate, but the Tel Aviv Students' Union has taken on a central role, active in quashing talk of the occupation, and chary about raising the core triad of injustices at the heart and inception of Israeli society: the occupation, the denial of equal rights to Israel's Palestinian minority, and the refugee issue. For that reason Palestinians have broadly responded to the protests with reinvigorated calls for Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions.

As this excerpt indicates, Ajl's article, entitled Social Origins of the Tent Protests in Israel, is highly informative and provocative, and I recommend that people read it in its entirety. Ajl is particularly sharp in his presentation of the historic social fissures within Israel, and how such fissures, intensified by neoliberal policies in recent decades, have contributed to the emergence of this protest movement. He also speaks of a moment of choice for the movement in relation to the occupation, which it has, to date, evaded. Unfortunately, it looks as if those who purport to speak for the movement's participants have just made it today, joining the families of the soldiers killed in the Eliat attacks in mourning, while remaining silent about the predictable Israeli retaliatory airstrikes upon Gaza refugees.

Perhaps, we have to concede that A'sad Abukhalil, the Angry Arab, was correct when he ascerbically dismissed the movement about a a week ago:

I have no interest in Israeli protests and I only harbor disgust to expressions of public opposition in Israel. This is a deeply racist society that all Arabs see. Not one Arab I know, or see on the internet, is expressing any solidarity with a population that never flinched in its embrace of Israeli war crimes. Don't sell me that one-time big crowd that took to the streets in the wake of Sabra and Shatila massacre: that was no humanitarian manifestation: it was about an internal political dispute among occupying Israelis. You want me to be impressed with your protests over rent? I am never impressed with anything you do, but maybe you can impress somebody else if you protest the fact that you--YOU THE PROTESTERS--are occupying buildings that you stole by force from Palestinians and that you--YOU THE PROTESTERS--are protesting over a land that you stole by force. You never are bothered by the consecutive massacres that you--YOU THE PROTESTERS--perpetrate in your national army. There is only conflict between you and us: only conflict. I even cringe when I see you protests because I know how deeply racist you are and how much you suffer from self-admiration and delusions. But your delusions are good for us: you won't know what will hit you in the future in response to all the war crimes that you have committed against our people.

Harsh, no doubt, but apparently accurate. But the social tensions that gave rise to the protests persist, and the occupation, as noted by Ajl, is a central feature by which wealthy elites have consolidated their control over Israeli life, and so, it is premature to dismiss them as part of process that could result in the collapse of Zionism. Regrettably, though, Israelis, much like Americans impoverished by imperial adventures all around the world, remain willing to embrace scapegoats instead of confronting the sources of their distress. Abukhalil perceives no possibility of a transformation, while Ajl holds out the possibility, however slight, that it could happen. For now, though, we are left with the sad insight of Fassbinder, the powerless tend to emulate those who abuse them, and express their anger by seeking others even less powerful to oppress. It is this cycle of violence that must be broken before people can choose a revolutionary alternative.

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