A week ago, I was breathlessly following news of the attack by hundreds of Egyptian people on the Israeli embassy in Cairo. This event – one of great popular rage – stemmed from both the long-term conflictual history of Egypt-Israel relations and short-term outrage over the killing of five Egyptian soldiers by the Israeli Defence Force (IDF) a few weeks ago.
What the Israeli embassy represents for the people of Tahrir Square lies beyond the recent killings of the soldiers, and even beyond the long, brutal occupation of the occupied Palestinian territory (oPt). Many now see Israel as a state that behaves according to a colonial and ethnically-driven model of the nation-state, relentlessly upholding a homogenous Jewishness as its defining element, in a rapidly changing world that requires new forms of diplomacy and adherence to international laws. The Israeli state treats any challenge to its model as an existential threat.
This blog is written by a concerned Israeli and on this basis it asks ‘what does the state of Israel signify for the people of Tahrir?’ and on the other hand, ‘what does Tahrir signify for the Israeli people?’ The latter question is significant because as formal relations between Israel and Egypt fall apart, the biggest protest in the history of Israel is also taking place. Moreover, it is Tahrir that inspired and ignited this protest.
Governments Disappear, but People Remain
On the night of 9 September 2011, walls that once seemed literally unbreakable were easily torn down. In this time of rapid change in the region it was yet another demonstration of the fragility of the existing order. It reminded me of the words spoken to the Zionist bureau in Jaffa almost a century ago by Nassif Bey al-Khalidi, a Palestinian Jerusalemite advocate of the Arab-Zionist agreement: "Be very careful, Messieurs Zionists, governments disappear, but people remain". I shall return to this quote later on.
The Government against People
Whether the Israeli leadership is serving its peoples has increasingly come under question. Take, for example, the recent actions of Lieberman and Netanyahu. Hardly anyone today thinks that Israel’s foreign policies hold any logic that serves its peoples. Lieberman’s idea of supporting the Kurdish party, PKK in response to Turkey cutting diplomatic ties with Israel is an illustration. The Israeli leadership is jumping over the cliff edge, pulling in its wake its own citizens, and causing destruction far and wide.
Israel’s domestic policies are being neglected for the sake of the sacred ‘threat on security’. In this manner, the Palestinians in the oPt (occupied Palestinian territory) are being outlawed. The law discriminates against Israeli Palestinians and both Arab and Jewish citizens of the state are being put under pressure to comply with the state’s polices. Phenomena like the ‘boycott law’ make very clear where the freedom of the latter group ends and where they have to stand in accordance with state policies. Simultaneously, neoliberal policies weaken the welfare state; gaps are growing between a small wealthy elite and the impoverished middle and lower classes. In spite of great national wealth on paper, very little of it reaches Israel’s citizens, not to mention Palestinian non-citizens. Moreover, in a country were the domestic and the foreign have never been clearly defined, the neoliberal and colonial/racial aspirations of the state expose manifold inequalities.
J14 and the Israeli (Arab) spring: What do the Israelis protest for?
While the Egyptians who gathered around the embassy recognised, correctly, that the Israeli state is one of the great obstacles in the way of regional transformation, paradoxically, many Israelis look at the Egyptians and feel inspired by their Tahrir achievements and popular mobilisation.
Israelis say they want social justice. The July 14 2011 (J14) movement started as a protest about high housing prices and the cost of living in Israel and quickly expanded to include a very wide set of demands coming from numerous strata of society. The protestors have been chanting repeatedly for nearly two months now: "The people demand social justice". For those with less political consciousness, this is a path to a very radical and politicised position. It is radical because it questions two of the most untouchable taboos in Israel: Who are ‘the People’? What is (social) ‘Justice’? These questions cannot be answered in an Israeli-Jewish vacuum, isolated from Israel’s twin-sister Palestine and its extended family—the Middle East. For this reason, while the wave of protests has shaken the country, the international community has paid very little attention to these events, holding on to the assumption that this is only a localised and transient protest. In my opinion, by neglecting its significance, the huge potential of this movement goes unnoticed and is hence missed.
In a way, the J14 protest is the most radical event that has happened to Israeli society. People on the streets of Israeli cities chant: "Mubarak, Assad, Bibi Netanyahu". You do not have to be a Middle East expert to understand that a new political stance is emerging here. Israelis fill the streets calling for militarised discourse and policies to be replaced with civil ones. This call does not come without contradictions. The young generation of Jewish-Israelis, like myself, who grew up in the Jewish state were brought up in a constant ‘state of emergency’. As I explained above, ‘security concerns’ always took priority over domestic policy; questioning this was seen as disloyalty to the Jewish state. A profound transformation transformation of this mindset is undoubtedly required. All the same, over the last two months, the younger generation has shown that it was aware that something was wrong and it is now forcefully demanding a change.
One Step Forward, Ten Steps Back
At a time when popular Israeli mobilisation and the call for change are proving to be strong and persistent, the Israeli leadership is more aggressive and irrelevant than ever, even towards Jewish citizens. While the J14 movement takes one step forward, the Israeli government pulls them ten steps back with its dangerous policies. Unfortunately, as Daphni Leef, who became the ‘leader’ of the protest, said during the biggest demonstration in the history of the country this month, this is not going to be one moment of change, but a process. Herein lies the biggest weakness of the Israeli J14 movement; namely, there is no time for a process. Time is not on Israel’s side and even less on the Israelis’ side. This is now the hour for the movement to choose between ‘people’ and ‘government.’ If the J14 movement does not keep up with all that happens around it, it will vanish in the chaos created by the Israeli leadership. In this eventful month of September, the movement has to decide: where does it stand, first and foremost, in regard to Palestine, but also in regard to Turkey and Egypt.
The upcoming UN declaration of a Palestinian state is an open door for the J14 movement. While the Israeli government prepare for this event with its arms as well as its settler-soldiers, the J14 protestors can choose to stop serving as the soldiers of this regime. The one positive thing that this vastly controversial declaration accomplishes is to set a clock ticking for Israel. Israel’s neighbouring countries increase this ticking clock’s urgency. If J14 listen to the ticking clock and hurry, they might lose some of their supporters on the way, but they will have the opportunity to gain more than any other civil movement in Israel could ever have dreamed of; namely, to highlight the link between violent neoliberalism and violent occupation and to introduce a civil reality in which justice is not buried behind ‘security’ and ‘Jewishness’.
The People Remain
When the Israelis decide between ‘people’ and ‘government’ they will inevitably have to redefine who ‘the people’ are, a step that must lead to the changing of the regime to a fully inclusive one that represents the newly defined ‘people.’ This is indeed a challenge, but it is also the only way for the J14 movement to proceed in their struggle for (social) justice. In my view, the movement must understand that a solution requires more than a ‘social state’; it requires a ‘new state.’
Let us now return to the Nassif Bey al-Khalidi quote. A week ago the attack on the Israeli embassy in Cairo took place. The UN declaration on a Palestinian state is to come next week. In addition, every day now the old reality as we knew it in Palestine-Israel is altering. The clock started ticking even before al-Khalidi’s caution. Today, the whole world is listening carefully to this tick. In this crucial moment the task that lies ahead for people(s) in Israel and those who seek a positive change in this region is to challenge the old equation between Israeli ‘people’ and ‘government’ and to understand that they are not one and the same. This, I believe, is the only way to let the ‘government’ serve (all) its ‘peoples’ in a new state between the river and the sea.