Saturday night’s demonstration in Tel Aviv against Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s proposed annexation of West Bank territories was a smashing success for the Israeli left. Driven by the apparent imminence of an annexation ostensibly set for July 1 and influenced, no doubt, by global protests in the wake of the killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis, thousands of people showed up for a protest that would have drawn only hundreds before.
Measured as a sign of the Israeli public’s overall opposition to annexation, however, the demo at Rabin Square was an abject failure. Deterred by coronavirus fears and wary of participating in a protest organized by groups ranging from Jewish Zionists to Arab anti-Zionists, thousands of people came to a rally that, under different auspices, might have attracted tens if not hundreds of thousands previously.
Galvanized by last week’s brutal East Jerusalem killing of autistic Palestinian Eyad Hallaq by Israeli Border Police, organizers and protestors alike did their best to align the anti-annexation protest with the rising tide of mass Black Lives Matter demonstrations in American cities and around the world. They waved “Palestinian Lives Matter” placards, demanded “Justice for Eyad” and confronted police with slogans such as “Who are you really guarding?”
After most demonstrators had gone home, a small militant group of about 200 protestors even managed to goad the police into dispersing them by force. The removal spawned a violent and unwarranted police assault on Haaretz photographer Tomer Appelbaum and other journalists, producing damning videos and press photos that dovetailed neatly with current American and global narratives.
One can argue about whether the disparate 100-year history of confrontation and occupation between Israelis and Palestinians totally negates parallels to white America’s 400 years of African American subjugation and discrimination. But one glaring gap is undeniable: The majority of U.S. public opinion now acknowledges the legitimacy of black grievances, while the majority of Israelis ‒ including most of the Jewish center-left ‒ continues to view Palestinians, at least those beyond the former Green Line, as a mortal enemy bent on their country’s destruction.
The U.S. protests are driven by an acute awareness of historical and current injustices. The brutally graphic video of Floyd’s execution by police strangulation appalled America, propelling unprecedented numbers of whites to join a struggle hitherto confined to African Americans and dedicated, often radical political groups. Their demands are simple and clear cut: To put an end to police brutality and to fully and finally achieve the unrealized constitutional principle of equality for all citizens, regardless of color.
And while protestors in Israel did their best to echo the surging tide of American anger, their efforts ‒ for the most part ‒ are bound to fall on deaf ears. Israelis view Palestinians as an ongoing threat. Many, though possibly not most, have only recently come around to recognizing the Israeli establishment’s systemic discrimination against Israeli Arabs, who, like black Americans, are nominally equal under the law. Liberal Israelis may oppose occupation in principle, but their sympathy for the plight of Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza is limited, to say the least.
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Most Israelis, including those on the center-left, see annexation as a death sentence for the two-state solution, which they view as the only course that would prevent Israel from turning into an apartheid or bi-national state. They may oppose the former on moral grounds but they abhor the latter because it would ultimately entail fulfillment of the overarching demand of their American counterparts: Equal rights, including the right to vote, which is seen as a death knell for the “Jewish state” they continue to identify with.
As polls consistently show, most Israelis continue to view Palestinians as perpetrators of violence and terror who refuse to recognize Israel’s right to exist. Opponents of the current government may abhor the Israeli right, view Netanyahu’s annexation gambit as a disaster in the making and even lament the hardships of the occupation – on Israeli occupiers no less than occupied Palestinians. But, they mostly subscribe to Abba Eban’s hackneyed maxim about never missing an opportunity to miss an opportunity.
And although the uproar following Hallaq’s killing was fueled by a spate of recent cases of police brutality – especially towards dark-skinned Ethiopian Jews – Israelis are far from adopting their American counterparts’ swelling antipathy to police in Israel or to the army and Border Police that rule the West Bank. The security services may need to discipline errant weeds and improve overall attitudes, but they are still regarded as protectors of the realm and its citizens, including those that oppose annexation. No one has, no one is, and no one will propose that the police should be “defunded.”
One could argue that, despite the stark divergences of their history and circumstance, Israelis are simply a generation or two behind white America. After all, for most of the 400 years of African American presence in the U.S., even after slavery was abolished, the majority of white Americans were content to live with the blatant discrimination and disenfranchisement of blacks in the south and with the more subtle – but no less offensive – bias, bigotry and police brutality prevalent elsewhere.
Most Americans, including many who supported the Civil Rights Movement, continued to view black protestors as dangerous, violent and largely responsible for their own sad predicament. From Richard Nixon in 1968 through to Donald Trump in 2016, Republicans who won presidential elections benefited not only from the overt racism of many of their hardcore supporters, but also from the lingering fears of those who supported equal rights in principle but continued to view African Americans as a mortal threat to their way of life, just like most Israelis view the Palestinians.
Like Israelis today, liberal Americans refrained for the most part from participating in mass protests organized from the late 1960’s onwards by African Americans and their supporters. Right wing politicians preying on the public’s fears successfully equated such protests – not without corroborating evidence – with violence, radicalism and anti-Americanism. All but the most staunchly radical were wary of identifying with or as encouraging black militancy, which was invariably equated with hostility towards whites.
Similarly, even staunch Israeli supporters of Palestinian self-determination shy away from demonstrations that include not only protestations against annexation and the brutality of occupation, but also – like in Saturday night’s rally – attacks on Israeli police or army as a whole as well as anti-Zionist slogans against the “original sin” of Israel’s very establishment.
Trump’s efforts to delegitimize the Black Lives Matter demonstrations by tarring them with outbursts of looting and violence, along with the concocted nightmare of Antifa-inspired terrorism, fell flat in the face of America’s collective disgust and the overwhelming force of genuine mass protest. Israeli right-wingers, on the other hand, succeeded over the past 24 hours in overshadowing the left’s successful protest by focusing on the few Palestinian flags unfurled at the demo, and the rare placards protesting the Palestinian Nakba or calling for Zionism to be abolished. They also had the active assistance of an increasingly subservient media.
Israel may have its fair share of racists who view Arabs as inherently inferior and unworthy of emancipation, but the ongoing nationalist struggle deters the majority from standing shoulder-to-shoulder with the ostensibly oppressed. A gut-wrenching video of Israeli police personnel or army soldiers killing a defenseless Palestinian might shift the balance a bit. This could be the reason behind the government’s efforts to repress publication of body-cam videos that apparently recorded Hallaq’s killing in East Jerusalem.
The ongoing conflict and the nationalist divide that it creates, however, will continue to drive a wedge between both the Zionist and non-Zionist Israeli left and the bulk of Israeli public opinion, including otherwise staunch opponents of annexation or the occupation.
This is why the so-called center-left bloc will most likely continue to be split, crippled and enfeebled against the unified, nationalist and annexationist right. This is evidenced by Benny Gantz’s recent defection to Netanyahu and the right. In fact, if there is even a remote prospect of a unified and powerful protest like the one engulfing the U.S. in recent days, it will probably only come if and when annexation is proclaimed, the two-state solution is officially pronounced dead and the only options left on the table are apartheid or the principle of “one person one vote” that underpinned the monumental Supreme Court decisions on civil rights in the 1960’s.
As for their ultimate decision, I wouldn’t hold my breath. It took America hundreds of years after introducing slavery and decades of widespread discrimination and unfair treatment to change its ways ‒ if it truly has ‒ and to view African Americans as worthy of genuine, all-encompassing equality. It could take Israelis years, at the very least, to reach the same conclusion, if they ever do.