Israel's social protest: Advice from the Occupy movement
A New York activist offers lessons from experience to Israel's social protest movement.
There is a battle being fought over Israel; actually, it’s been going on for decades already, it’s just that until last summer only one side – the side that puts profit over people – has really been fighting.
We can see it in the rising cost of living and the shrinking of wages, in the gutting of the social safety net and the systematic erosion of a vast network of public institutions, in deep inequalities between rich and poor, and how these impact disproportionately on those already most marginalized and oppressed. We see it in the violence experienced in our societies on a daily basis, and the state violence waged in our name – whether in the South Bronx and Baghdad, or South Tel Aviv and Hebron.
Sometimes that urgency of the battle is hard to notice when you’re in the middle of it – the way it’s hard to notice you are growing until your Savta reminds you when you see her for Pesach. Maybe it’s useful to hear it sometimes from an outsider, one sitting here in New York, busy in and around Occupy Wall Street.
I have been involved in Occupy since before it really began, and I remember well the inspiration we drew from people struggling all over the world, including in Israel. Born to Israeli parents, I spent many of my formative years in Hashomer Hatzair youth movement, and having worked for social justice with both Jews and Arabs in Israel, I can’t begin to explain how important it was to see Israelis take to the streets. I felt a similar awe again here in New York when tens of thousands of us flooded Times Square on October 15th, in solidarity with a global day of action . It felt like winning, like the opening of endless possibility, like important proof that we can fight back – yes, even Americans, even Israelis. It’s what we were always hoping was true, but perhaps didn’t fully believe.
The Israeli police aggression of last week draws more parallels, of course, and makes it even clearer that the battle being fought has high stakes. It feels very familiar. In the US, there have been over 7,000 documented arrests in the Occupy movement, and we’ve seen our share of police brutality against protesters (as an addition to the brutality already faced by marginalized groups every day). Our occupations were evicted because they worked – we grew and showed signs that we would continue to do so. Eventually, the politicians and the economic elite that control them made a cost-benefit calculation that they would be better off getting rid of us. This is what happens when a movement becomes a legitimate social force, when it threatens to grow, when it begins to challenge power in fundamental ways, when it has proven its ability to capture our imaginations.
It’s the same calculation they are making about you now. They are betting that the numbers of your next couple of demonstrations will grow perhaps out of outrage, but that you will not be able to sustain those numbers without returning to the issues in compelling ways. They are betting that you will become bogged down in months of abstract conversations about violence and nonviolence, that you will fight each other over broken windows. They are betting that the threat of violence against people with relative privilege will send them back home, to watch the movement on early evening TV instead of living it on the streets.
Having seen some of these dynamics play out here in New York, it might be worth making some humble suggestions:
You should take seriously the immense violence elites have at their disposal, and the lengths they are willing to go to maintain order and profit. But you should also be flattered, energized, and inspired. You should remember that this is an indicator of how weak the status quo is, how threatened it feels, how obvious it is that this is the beginning of a popular movement which has the support of the majority of Israeli society.
You should have important conversations about violence and nonviolence, about the incredible power of civil disobedience, about potentially negative effects breaking windows can have on a movement. But remember that it’s not about bank windows – windows have no feelings, and the real violence is a society where there are hungry people but plenty of food, homeless people but plenty of houses, peaceful people but plenty of violence. The question is not abstract or philosophical, it is always about how to grow the movement.
You should be indignant about the police brutality and the violence of the state, and we should be wary of attacks on the right to protest, because that right is fundamental to winning a better world. But you should avoid becoming self-referential, and remember that you can’t talk about violence against protesters without talking about violence faced by oppressed communities every day – that the liberation of one requires the liberation of all. Even when defending our right to protest, we must remember to be out there because we want another world, not because we are beaten when we demand it.
You should be patient. There are no quick fixes, social transformation takes a lifetime, and revolution is not an event but a process. None of the strategies we can pursue – from winning reforms to rising up in revolution, from getting elected in the Knesset to building institutions of a free society – can work on their own, and none of them make much of a difference unless they emerge from deep inside a mass movement. Patience, friends. Flowers take a while to bloom.
And at the same time, you should hurry, because windows of opportunity have been pried open and those with power are trying to slam them shut again. Don’t wait for a perfect list of demands, or a movement that agrees with you on everything, because that will never happen; movements aren’t meant to be chosen – they are meant to be created, lived, participated in. Remember what started this, your needs, your dreams. In some senses, it’s about complicated things like equity, solidarity, self-determination, and freedom. But in another sense it’s simple as hell – it’s about good education, homes, jobs, and peace. It is a battle for our futures, the futures of our families and communities, the future of our planet. It’s about survival. So hurry.
Remember, there is a battle raging outside your window. To paraphrase Bob Dylan: you’re either busy being born, or you’re busy dying.
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