The Protests – and the Occupation
By Paul Scham
Those who have been closely following the protests in Israel against the judicial overhaul attempted by the current government that have roiled the country since early January, are acutely aware that there is a tension among the protesters, between the majority whose goal is primarily to defeat the overhaul, and a substantial minority who place the overhaul squarely in the context of the Occupation. In order to better understand the dynamics between the two groups I sought out a Zoom meeting with Meron Rapoport on August 17. Meron is a prominent leftwing journalist, writing in Hebrew, whose articles have appeared in Ha’aretz, 972, and many other publications. Wearing another hat, he is co-founder of A Land for All (ALFA), the most prominent organization advocating a confederal solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, a position Partners supports.
Early in the protests, it was clear that the majority of the protesters resisted any visible connection between them and the many groups on the left that have been opposing the Occupation for decades. Like the 2011 “cottage cheese” or “tent city” protesters, they vehemently opposed bringing the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, which has divided Israelis for generations, into a struggle which they felt was solely about democracy within Israel. Even those who were personally against the occupation were concerned about being tarred with slogans suggesting they were pro-Palestinian and therefore anti-Israel. Thus, the symbol of the protests quickly became the Israeli flag, making every demonstration a sea of blue and white stars of David. For the first few weeks there were reports that demonstrators, whether Jewish or Arab, who attempted to wave Palestinian flags were confronted, or even saw them seized and disposed of. By February there seemed to be a modus vivendi regarding Palestinian flags and other anti-occupation symbols. The minority tacitly accepted that the strategy of the majority would prevail while the majority tolerated symbols that they had been concerned would lose them wider support. Obviously, those fears did not materialize according to all available metrics, principally live bodies on the streets all over Israel and numerous polls. An informal poll of my own friends in Israel, many of whom have devoted large chunks of their own lives to battling the Occupation, showed that they accepted the majority strategy. Many carried Israeli flags as they marched.
Meron in no way sees that as a defeat. His goal is not to simply win a symbolic victory. Rather, he sees this as a struggle for values, above all for equality, and senses a gradual acceptance on the part of the “moderate” majority that there cannot be a movement taking democracy as its slogan, without accepting that there can be no democracy without equality. His own preferred slogan is “Democracy for all from the river to the sea,” i.e. for Palestinians as well as for Jews, and clearly implying that the Occupation must go, because democracy and occupation cannot coexist, either in theory or in practice.
Since March, and especially in July, the most prominent element of the protests has been the ‘volunteer’ reservists, especially those serving in sensitive posts in Intelligence units or the Air Force. While there has never been a dichotomy in Israel between serving in the military while opposing the Occupation when off-duty and out of uniform, the ad hoc organizations that formed among the protesting reservists, such as Brothers and Sisters in Arms, felt uncomfortable tying their military service to anti-Occupation rhetoric. Some in the anti-occupation bloc were indeed upset by the presence of Brothher and Sisters in Arms, though they had to realize that the power of the reservists, at this point at least, seems to be the protesters’ single greatest weapon Despite this, the anti-occupation bloc continues to actively and energetically participate in the protests.
However, this did not result in an eclipse of their own priorities. Rather, as time passed and the belligerence of the settlers, aided by the support of government ministers, became obvious to all, the “mainstream” protesters came more and more to see the connection between the overhaul and the Occupation. The rioting settlers who trashed Huwara and other Palestinian villages, supported enfeebling the judiciary precisely because they wanted to continue their campaign of intimidation, culminating, they hope, in annexation.
Like almost everything related to the protests, these attitudes developed organically. While the anti-occupation sector remained marginal displaying its own slogans, the “mainstream” was slowly accepting their values. The protests as a whole successfully resisted being dismissed as “leftists,” except in their opponents’ overheated rhetoric, and the mainstream gradually realized the importance of political and social equality as an essential value, not just a slogan. As the settlers’ behavior went over the top, the mainstream’s own rhetoric started including references to “pogroms” and “Jewish supremacy.” With Smotrich’s own party actually brandishing “Jewish Supremacy” as its official name, and with Huwara and other villages displaying the stark evidence of pogroms having been repeatedly carried out, rhetoric had to catch up to reality, and values, from being implicit, necessarily became explicit.
Now, of course, we are all waiting to see what will come down the pike. Never has the banal Israeli excuse for procrastination – “after the holidays” – been more portentous. All eyes are on the Supreme Court, which is holding a hearing on the Knesset’s purported abolition of the “reasonableness” doctrine on Sept. 12. But the real action can only come after the holidays; when the Knesset is back in session and, without doubt, fortified by unity and increasingly shared anti-occupation values.
Paul Scham is president of Partners for Progressive Israel and a Professor of Israel Studies at the University of Maryland, where he teaches courses this semester on the history of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and on the Israeli Right.