Several hundred people, possibly 1,000, predominantly Jewish Israelis, took part in a demonstration in Jerusalem on Saturday night (April 1), carrying and chanting anti-occupation and pro-peace banners and slogans. Protesters marched from central West Jerusalem to Jaffa Gate in the Old City, where several Israeli public figures, and a Palestinian activist from East Jerusalem, delivered speeches.
The action was organized by Standing Together, representing a coalition of Israeli NGOs, including Breaking The Silence, Combatants for Peace, Peace Now and two parties – Meretz and Hadash (the latter is not a Zionist party, but some of its members find it easier to collaborate with liberal Zionists than with full-fledged opponents of the Israeli regime such as the Balad party).
Standing Together is supported by the New Israel Fund. A press release referred to the organizing coalition as “The Israeli Peace Movement”, and an activist named Itamar Avnery, was quoted as saying: “We are going out this Saturday to protest and say something simple – the occupation is going to end. The right wing is trying to drag us down – they speak of annexation, they pour tens of millions on celebrations of the ‘unification’ of Jerusalem…but we know there is a huge majority in the Israeli public that wishes to end the occupation, and we will end it“.
Considering the breadth of the organizing coalition, and the rather soft, mainstream-friendly agenda, devoid of a broad anti-colonial or anti-Zionist discourse, Saturday’s action was far from impressive. Israelis who are not happy about the occupation, and these surely amount to more than 1,000, seem to be too passive to take a stand, and small habitual protests with routine scripts (licensed by the Israeli Police) seem to be ineffective, considering the very high threshold of political excitation in Israel. “…We don’t count. Our protest goes unreported…” – this was the grim conclusion of one participant, seeing that most of the Israeli media ignored the protest. Netanyahu and his supporters can sleep safely with such actions.
To counter the Israeli government’s policies, power and indoctrination, a continuous campaign of direct action is needed. Most Israelis are not up to the task, since they are too embedded within the ‘tribe’ to become dissidents, or they simply do not believe they can bring about a change.
The Israeli ‘Peace Camp’, i.e. those who do take some sort of action, could face up to reality and draw conclusions from an ongoing failure. If the overwhelming majority of Israelis have consistently failed to take to the streets to protest the occupation, perhaps it would be constructive to acknowledge that, and adopt an appropriate strategy.
To challenge this Israeli passivity or work around it, Israeli activists could focus on direct solidarity actions in the occupied Palestinian territories. In such actions, which dedicated small groups outside the so-called ‘Zionist left’, such as Anarchists Against The Wall or Ta’ayush, have been leading for years, even a small number of Israeli citizens can make a real difference in the lives of Palestinians under threat, and embarrass the Israeli government. Israeli activists can also work on the international level, to legitimize, promote and encourage the international campaign for the Palestinian cause, including BDS (Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions), which, unlike the lethargic Israeli opposition, is vibrant, growing and effective. A recent UN speech by the current director of B’Tselem (an NGO which does not even endorse BDS) has shown how terrified the Israeli government is of appeals for international pressure against the occupation.
Furthermore, the Israeli ‘Peace Camp’ could examine its underlying assumptions. Slogans about “the occupation” and “the peace process” have a narrow focus, pinning the blame mostly on 1967, Israeli settlers and Likud. This is wrong. The underlying problem in Israel is not the occupation, but a settler-colonial apartheid regime in its entirety, dating back to the ethnic cleansing of Palestine in 1948 (and, in fact, to pre-State Zionism). Insistence on a ‘Jewish and Democratic State’ has created a state whose ethno-religious nature overrides basic democratic, egalitarian principles. Ironically, the Israeli right wing has exploited Zionist history astutely, to counter and ridicule the selective critique put forward by the Israeli ‘Peace Camp’. For example, the former love to remind the latter that socialist Kibbutzim were built on the lands of depopulated Palestinian villages after 1948, and conclude that “We are all in this together, so don’t lecture us”.
In defense of Saturday night’s demo in Jerusalem, the very presence of bilingual Hebrew-Arabic banners, with the slogan “Jews and Arabs stand together”, counters the extreme right wing’s hegemony in the city, where one often encounters mobs chanting “Death to the Arabs” and assaulting Palestinians. Furthermore, Israeli activists should never give up on trying to mobilize their public. But progress will require more critical thinking on their part, especially towards the leadership of an ‘Anti-Occupation Camp’, which organizes an anti-occupation march in Jerusalem while actively thwarting selective sanctions against the occupation, and withdrawing funds from the few Israeli NGOs which support BDS.