Lessons from the Other Occupiers: A critical engagement of #Occupy and J14

Israel/Palestine
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Both the July 14th Movement and Occupy Wall Street wield tremendous potential. Naomi Klein says that “Occupy Wall Street is the most important thing in the world now.” Immanuel Wallerstein has raved about the “fantastic success of Occupy Wall Street.” The July 14th Movement was an uprising without precedent amongst Israelis. It is exceeded in duration and scale only by the two Palestinian Intifadas in the history of uprisings under Israeli rule. It is precisely because of the transformative potential of the the efforts that they should be subjected to rigorous scrutiny. In short, we expect more out of great movements. I primarily use Occupy Detroit to examine Occupy Wall Street efforts due to a more intimate knowledge of it over the the others. 

The July 14th Movement – the umbrella term for the various recent tent cities, and labor, housing, commodity price and quality of life protests throughout Israel – was sparked on June 9th with Facebook pages opened to support a consumer boycott against a rise in cottage cheese prices. Then-Finance Minister and current prison inmate Avraham Hirschson deregulatedcottage cheese prices in 2006 and prices rose more than 30% between 2006 and 2011. The boycott dramatically affected sales, and the dairy cartel – the three firms which dominate the Israeli dairy market, Tnuva, Strauss Group, and Tara – was forced to reduce the price of cottage cheese by 35% just three weeks later. The Netanyahu government followed in August by declaring new polices for the dairy market. Organisers declared victory and momentum was built that led to the July 14th Movement. But was any kind of real success made with the cottage cheese protest? And what lessons and warnings are there for the Occupy Wall Street and similar efforts underway around the globe? 

Lesson One: Are the banks you are protesting targeting specific populations for abuse? 

The cottage cheese boycott – like the overwhelming part of the July 14th Movement – ignored apartheid and military occupation. Both Tnuva and Tara profit directly from Israeli settlements in the West Bank while Strauss Group sells to a captive Palestinian market. Because the dairy cartel’s misbehaviour includes both price fixing and exploiting apartheid and military occupation, there was potential to extend the cottage cheese boycott into a broader effort for social justice. Instead, organisers never uttered the word ‘Palestinian’; apartheid and military occupation were unaddressed; and the solutions offered did nothing to undermine the other gross misconduct undertaken by the same firms being protested for their price fixing. 

Prominent July 14th organiser Stav Shaffir said, “Many of us have made a lot of compromises on our own ideologies to gain consensus. We have put egos aside, and agreed not to talk about more political issues, like the Israeli-Palestinian conflict or settlements. We have said: ‘Let’s focus on something that will bring everyone together,’ – and it’s worked.” A conscious choice was made to cooperate with settler colonialism for the sake of political expediency. 

By consciously avoiding a topic—settler colonialism and its apartheid and military occupation structures — that is usually the most important question for the 20% of Israeli citizens that are Palestinians and the millions of other Palestinians under military occupation and in refugee camps, the July 14th organisers excluded them from the movement. It is not any particular proposed resolution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict that is controversial. All proposed solutions are considered controversial by segments of the July 14th movement because the concept of ‘Palestinian’ itself is controversial to most Israeli Jews. Palestinians were invited to participate in the various protests and some did. But participating as a Palestinian in the actions was much more difficult because of the almost (but not quite) total exclusion of topics related to Palestinian rights. The July 14th Movement thus effectively excluded 20% of Israeli citizens and 50% of the population under direct Israeli control. 

The language used to avoid Palestinian rights inside the Israeli protests parallels that of Occupy Wall Street and similar efforts throughout the United States. In the preliminary discussions held for Occupy Detroit, various demands were put forward mostly by White activists as being for the betterment of all. Any discussion as to how, for example, banking misdeeds disproportionately affect people of colour was described as “divisive”. One White organiser said, “These are incredibly sensitive and important issues, but I fear that if we hyperfocus on our differences it can diffuse our message fairly quickly.” Another White activist responded that “we should try to look at things in terms of class instead of race and other subcategories.” He saw the “race and other subcategories” as causing “fragmentation” of the movement. Published meeting notes for Occupy Chicago reflect a similar point of view, “race was invented to divide us” and thus it should be ignored, etc. 

White activists in Occupy Detroit—like Israeli Jews in the July 14th Movement—have the luxury to ignore racism, what Joel Olsen called “left colourblindness”Whites comprise less than ten per cent of the city’s population but are a significant majority of the Occupy Detroit leadership on site at Grand Circus Park in downtown Detroit. And just as July 14th organisers can ignore Palestinian demands to be included as Palestinians, so to can White activists ignore demands from Black organisers to include anti-racism as one of the fundamental frameworks for Occupy Detroit actions. Jewish privilege in Palestine/Israel is ‘normal’ to Israeli Jews and thus invisible. White privilege in the United States is ‘normal’ to Whites, and thus invisible. When White privilege and Jewish privilege are brought up in the United States and Israel, it is seen as ‘divisive’ and ‘controversial’ to White and Jewish organisers. To people of colour and Palestinians, White and Jewish privileges inflect all aspects of the power structures and make obvious starting points for discussion in addition to class and gender. 

The lesson from the July 14th Movement and the cottage cheese boycott is that by excluding frameworks that dominate the grievances of disenfranchised populations, the disenfranchised populations will also be excluded. To date, the young Occupy Detroit, Occupy Chicago and other efforts are mostly pursuing demands analogous to the July 14th Movement. They are minimally inclusive despite using the slogan “We are the 99%”. In the case of Occupy Detroit, this effectively excludes an incredible ninety per cent of the city’s population. The focus here is on racism, but patriarchy and gender could be ably substituted. 

Lesson Two: What do the tents and ‘Occupations’ say? 

The tents erected on Rothschild Boulevard were a galvanizing and powerful image of protest against the absurdly high cost of housing in Tel Aviv. They captured the imagination of the overwhelming part of the Israeli Jewish public and as much as 91% of all Israeli citizens supported the tent cities. But what do they say to the Palestinian public who comprise about half of the population under Israeli rule? 

Palestinians too suffer from pricey housing markets, unemployment, poor labor protections and more. In fact, Palestinians tend to know these problems more intimately than most Israeli Jews. The response to the protests has been positive on the whole but with an important caveat, continued enunciation of the glaring omission of Palestinians rights when ‘the people demand social justice’ (ha’am doresh tzedek chevrati, the slogan of the July 14th Movement). This omission reflects the relationship between Israelis and Palestinians. Dina Omar wrotethat Tel Aviv’s “Tent city is in [a] bubble and that bubble might as well be on the moon. Israelis in the hundreds of thousands gather to march and sleep in tents on the streets of the affluent Tel Aviv neighbourhood on Rothschild Boulevard. If one juxtaposes the image of the tents on Rothschild Boulevard with the tents of the 700,000 Palestinians that were forcibly removed from their homes in 1948 or the tents in Jabalya Refugee Camp after the Israeli attack on Gaza—the inequality of the situation is clear.” 

The very imagery of Palestinian displacement—the tent housing persons interrupted from life—becomes the symbol of Israeli justice. Israelis left their homes to reside in tents in temporary protest while Palestinians are forced—the displacement is ongoing—from their homes and made to live in tents. 

Settler colonialism and Jewish privilege make invisible the Palestinian narrative of being displaced into tents. At least 158 Palestinian homes have been demolished by Israel in 2011, counting only those in East Jerusalem and the West Bank. At least 839 people were displaced due to those demolitions, after which the Red Cross or another organisation often arrived with a tent for the family and their goods. The Al-Kurd, Al-Ghawi and Hanoun families were forced to live in tents—tents themselves destroyed numerous times by the Jerusalem municipality—after being evicted from their homes in Sheikh Jarrah by Israeli settlers. How does the image of tent city protests appear when placed next to the tents into which Palestinians have been displaced for decades? When Bedouins are being sued for £310.000 for the costs of demolishing their homes (their displacement into tents), how should the tent cities that exclude Palestinian demands be seen? Perhaps as a warped reproduction of a settler colonial form. Indeed a Tent 1948 was set up as “a challenge to people taking part in the July 14 movement” by focusing exactly on that Palestinian history. 

Occupy Detroit activists too are reproducing settler colonialism. Grand Circus Park has for years had a resident homeless population and for some addicts, has been a place to use drugs. [note: Between .5 and one per cent of U.S. citizens (2.3-3.5 million people) are homeless in any given year. Homeless Detroiters are almost all people of colour.] No permission was sought from the park’s residents and no thought has been given as to how the Occupiers might compensate the homeless and addicts for disrupting their lives. Just five days after the October 14th founding of the Occupy Detroit tent city, organisers held a camp meeting to discuss “security” and “drug and alcohol use”. Organisers had earlier in the day helped the police arrest a homeless man who had stolen items from tents. The discussion was led by activists and the rules would in theory apply to everyone, but in practice would only affect the homeless people and addicts. 

Some criticisms were made of the idea of Occupy Detroit making rules for the people whose space it invaded. One woman remarked that Grand Circus Park “was her backyard” and was a physically safe place for her to use drugs without her children present. The discussion continues but organisers continue to look for “solutions” to the “homeless problem” including: the use of wrist bands to help identify who is with Occupy Detroit, having the homeless trade their labor for food—a condition not imposed on activists no matter how active or inactive, closer cooperation with the police to protect the activists from the people whose space had been invaded, and others. One solution not (yet?) adopted: Work towards the demands and needs of the homeless population as part of the Occupy Detroit effort. 

The name “Occupy Wall Street” has been criticised for ignoring that Wall Street was already occupied. Anishnaabe writer JohnPaul Montano wrote about the Occupy Wall Street list of unofficial demands, “I had hoped that you would address the centuries-long history that we indigenous peoples of this continent have endured being subject to the countless ‘-isms’ of do-gooders claiming to be building a ‘more just society,’ a ‘better world,’ a ‘land of freedom’ on top of our indigenous societies, on our indigenous lands, while destroying and/or ignoring our ways of life.” 

Some of the Occupy groups have addressed this. Albuquerque, New Mexico activists connected “corporate greed to [the] fight for native land”  and changed their name to (Un)occupy Albuquerque. Most have not and actively reject doing so. One White Occupy Detroit activist wrote “politics > semantics” to argue that the term “Occupy” should not be problematic to American Indians. He continued, “I don’t see the similarity at all between Occupy Detroit or Occupy Wall St. and the occupation of the Americas by Europeans [or] foreign imperial occupations.” Tellingly, he wrote this after the decision was made to occupy the already-occupied Grand Circus Park, but before the residents of the park were seen as problems. 

The forms activists choose to make change reflect themselves in the results of that change. The lesson from the July 14th Movement is that reproducing settler-colonialism in word, form and deed alienates potential allies amongst the colonized populations. To date, the various Occupy groups have a mixed record with a strong majority ignoring settler-colonialism or rejecting its importance. 

Lesson Three: Will the offered cure for the poison be more poison? 

The cottage cheese boycott produced nearly instant drops in cottage cheese prices. This was followed by an August 3rd announcement of a policy change by the Netanyahu government to open the dairy markets to foreign competition. Customs duties and taxes are to be progressively lowered for imported hard cheeses as the first step in opening the dairy market. The problem was that large dairy firms acted with impunity in price fixing. The solution? Invite in even larger firms. More poison will get that poison out of your system. Further, the price of cottage cheese was indeed lowered, but the costs of other dairy products were raised by as much as 8%. The initial 35% reduction in cottage cheese prices was also subverted, leading to an average 16% drop overall. 

The Trajtenberg Committee—the group set up by Netanyahu to address the concerns of the July 14th Movement— issued its report in early October. Its recommendations were not as uniformly market-based as the ‘solution’ to the cottage cheese protests, but often followed the same vein. The housing market was to be opened to foreign firms, income taxes on the wealthy were to be increased, some commodity taxes were to be lowered, and earlier childhood education was to be offered. Protest leader Daphni Leef said, “Where is the public housing? Where is the affordable housing? […] What about the collapsing health system?” As could be expected, the socioeconomic status of Palestinians citizens was almost completely ignored

The lesson from the July 14th Movement is that government responses are likely to include very partial adoptions of demands while proposing solutions of more poison to cure the poison. July 14th organisers have sworn to continue fighting until their demands are met, while the Occupy protests in the U.S. have mostly not issued sets of demands to be addressed yet. 

Conclusion 

The July 14th Movement and Occupy Wall Street efforts have deservedly garnered press attention. Much more importantly, they have mobilized huge numbers of people who had not been politically active previously and have radicalised others. These are ‘awakenings’ of a rare kind and should be constructively engaged where possible. The lessons from the July 14th Movement show that some kinds of engagement, anti-colonial and anti-racist specifically, are made difficult by the very structures of the movements themselves. These can be fixed and, in the case of the Occupy efforts in the U.S., might still be avoided altogether. (Un)occupy Albuquerque, Occupy the Hood, and the Occupy Wall Street fight against anti-Semitism are clear examples where anti-colonial and anti-racist efforts have been had some success in making the Occupy efforts more inclusive. The July 14th response to the Trajtenberg Report too has the chance to incorporate Tent 1948 into its efforts at a more inclusive change, one that would empower all people ruled by the Israeli government to take a stand for social justice. 

Further lessons show that a big picture analysis, one that gets to the roots of problems, is needed to avoid solutions such as that offered to the cottage cheese protests. More poison will be offered as a solution but in order to get it out of our system entirely, inclusive movements making big picture demands are needed. 

Jimmy Johnson should do more sit-ups and thinks you’re terrific. He lives in Detroit, Michigan and runs www.NegedNeshek.org. He can be reached at [email protected]

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