In G.K. Chesterton’s satirical detective novel “The Man Who Was Thursday,” the protagonist, Gabriel Syme, is recruited for a mission intended to uncover an anarchist conspiracy that aims to overthrow the British government. Ironically, however, as the plot unfolds, everyone who is suspected of being an anarchist turns out to be an undercover police officer himself. There aren’t really any anarchists in the novel, only policemen searching for anarchists, those unruly, covert types who are waiting for the right moment in order to sow destruction and terror. As the book’s conclusion looms, when it’s time for cathartic soul-searching, Syme himself is astonished at how one can “so easily make war on the anarchists, and yet so easily pass for one of them.”
Now, with the momentum of the demonstrations near the prime minister’s residence in Jerusalem, the anarchists have returned from years of dormancy to shake the foundations of the Israeli regime. Chesterton’s satire assumes new relevance when police spokespersons and cabinet ministers insist on drawing a distinction between orderly demonstrators and a “group of anarchists”; or between decent citizens who carry posters and dart about to the rhythm of a darbouka before heading home in time to watch the latest celebrity-chef reality show, and the walking personification of the Freudian id loose in the streets of Jerusalem and seeking to vent its rage on the city throughout the night. With an infantile defense mechanism, the chieftains of order insist on distinguishing the “good” from the “bad,” as though refusing to acknowledge a subversive sting that’s inherent in the protest itself – which like every protest, demands a change of some sort in the existing order.
If anarchism has (most regrettably) been stripped of its historical context as a field of political thought that prioritizes values of spontaneous communalism, we need to ask seriously what it does signify in the language of Likud cabinet ministers and spokespersons. The answer would seem to reside in the demonstrators, whose wishes cannot be understood and therefore cannot be acceded to – or rejected, perhaps – with the standard tools available to us. That does not simply mean that these demonstrators have no demands, but, rather, that their demands are still inchoate; or that the existing order cannot understand them in its language. In this sense, the “anarchist” element does not constitute the unruly margins of the protest. It would be more accurate to argue that it is the distilled embodiment of the protest itself, for it signifies the change the protest movement seeks to foment in the world.
This anarchist core now stands as a codex on which the future of this protest – which at this stage is unknown to anyone – is engraved: whether it be a surge of votes for a new party as occurred after the 2011 protest movement; the prime minister’s resignation; or, in the most banal case, nihilist foot-dragging petering out in the feeble voices of people in sharing circles in Habima Square, as in the aftermath of the social-justice protests. The question mark – the demand that cannot yet be put forward clearly – is the most important change that the protest movement is urging from the country’s leaders, precisely because the government will not be able to supply it by way of existing means (free public transportation in 2011, cash grants to every citizen in 2020). Thus, the government must make the effort to transcend its current limitations in order to understand and satisfy the protest adequately.
In our time, after all, the death of a protest is usually hastened not by condemnation but by agreement; that is, by the system’s speedy response followed by a suffocating bear-hug. Consider the protests of Blacks in the United States, which are now dormant without having achieved anything concrete. This is not to say that the Blacks’ protest simply disappeared. On the contrary, it is everywhere, chasing the world with its signs and portents. In the social networks, celebrities who have not declared their unreserved support for the protesters have been denounced. Until recently, when the English soccer season ended, players upheld the kneeling ritual before each game and had “Black Lives Matter” inscribed on their jerseys.
A search for a public figure, corporation or enterprise that does not back the Blacks’ protest will lead to a dead end; it’s a protest shared by all. It’s like the strike by the LGBT community in Israel in July 2018 in response to a Knesset vote to exclude gay men from a law expanding surrogacy rights of Israelis. At that time, large companies rallied to the cause, called on their employees to strike and in so doing effectively blunted the protest entailed in the act of striking. In that case, too, the achievements were not consistent with the broad public support. Prime Minister Netanyahu, who was also one of the supporters, of course, expressed solidarity with the distress of LGBT couples and promised to submit an amendment to the Knesset that would regularize surrogacy for LGBT couples. Even though Amir Ohana, an openly gay Likud MK and afterward justice minister, was the guarantor of the promise, it was predictably forgotten. The only conclusion to be drawn is that in our time, the best way to undermine a protest movement is simply to join it as early as possible.
In these cases, as follows from the nature of culture in the late capitalist era, the system hastens to assimilate the voices of resistance using tools that are at its disposal, instead of being required to change and to extend or reduce its own dimensions significantly, as demanded by the demonstrators. The greatness of heavyweight protests, including MeToo, lies in the demand that the system change by itself and adapt itself to demands that the system still can’t fathom properly (such as shaming in the social networks, which exposes the inability of the existing judicial system to deal with the problems raised by MeToo). Accordingly, the stage of coalescence, of decentralized popular awakening that sometimes does not know its own final goal, is the most important stage in the protest’s evolution, because no one can as yet interpret its signs and process them to his own benefit. It is this stage of latency, which leaves its mark in an invisible code, that will lead the summer 2020 protests to change the impact of which will be known only in retrospect.
- The Iranian Jews who joined the Islamic Revolution
- Lessons from an erotic Zionist cult
- 'A toxic leader truly believes that people are meant to serve him'
Gai Farchi is a literary scholar and writer based in Tel Aviv.