I have been working on progressive social change and political change in Israel for my entire adult life – and for that entire time, our movement has represented a beleaguered progressive minority. These past couple of weeks, many of my Israeli and Palestinian colleagues have expressed their sense of shared exasperation and solidarity with American progressives after suffering such a devastating electoral defeat. Palestinians have been organizing under occupation for nearly half a century; Israeli activists working to end the occupation and in other areas of the social justice ecosystem have organized in the Israel of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s hard-right wing ruling coalitions for the past seven years.
We’ve witnessed repeated and well-coordinated attacks on democratic institutions and weathered brutal attacks. But our movement has grown, has innovated, has achieved significant results. Most important, after many years of adverse circumstances, we are still here.
There are lessons that may be helpful to Americans in this moment. Here are eleven that I’d like to share:
Lesson 1: Social change is a marathon – not a sprint.
Progress is non-linear. There’s fatigue at points, sometimes there’s an unexpected uphill, sometimes you find momentum. But progress takes time, and lasting change takes even longer, even when we have no time. In the summer of 2011, half a million Israelis took to the streets in a giant encampment to demand social justice. We may not have won our policy demands immediately, but in the last five years since those massive protests, the issue of housing has never left the public agenda and an entire generation of formerly-apathetic Israeli millennials got their first taste of activism. The fruits of that effort are only beginning to roll in. And they are big and beautiful. They will take time.
Lesson 2: Civil society is a power base even when you’ve lost the executive and legislative branches.
When the corridors of power are blocked to us as insiders, progressive civil society becomes a powerful base to organize alternatives through. These alternatives are about meeting the needs that the closed-off government refuses to meet. For example, back in the late 2000s, when Israel saw a massive wave of immigration from South Sudan and Darfur, the right-wing government wanted to control borders, to deport, to “make it so bad for them that they leave on their own.” But we had thousands of refugees sleeping in public parks, many of whom had been through serious trauma on their journey. So organizations like Physicians for Human Rights Israel organized volunteer medical professionals and set up an open clinic to provide the health services the government refused to provide to these people. Thousands of people received much-needed treatment at that clinic and then, in 2009, the clinic decided to take a radical advocacy step and closed its doors for three days demanding that the government provide these services and not rely only on volunteers to do so. It made headlines for weeks and pushed those in power to pay attention.
Lesson 3: When they come after us – and they will – it doesn’t have to end us. It can even make us stronger.
Eight years ago, the far-right Israeli government worked in concert with its ultra-right grassroots arms to go after the New Israel Fund and the social justice and human rights organizations we support. They launched a massive smear campaign, painting horns on our president’s forehead and promoting legislation to limit our activity. But every time they tried to silence dissent in the public sphere, it only made us stronger. We’ve grown every year – more than 30 percent during these last six years when the attacks were at their worst. Our base and our compatriots are not willing to live in a world with no New Israel Fund; we American progressives are not willing to live in a world without a Planned Parenthood, ACLU or Sierra Club.
Lesson 4: Every step they take away from progress opens up more space for real progress.
Extremist governments will pull society toward their extreme. But as they move farther away from us, they also move farther away from the center, and there are people there who wake up and protest or even join us when that happens. We are in the hard years in Israel – the ones we are about to be in here in the U.S. – and at this moment, each and every step toward xenophobia, racism, homophobia, misogyny, has opened up new opportunities for organizing. Leading Israeli rabbis made homophobic statements this summer, and just a few weeks later five times more people turned out for Jerusalem’s march for pride and tolerance than ever had before. And many of the first-time marchers were religious Jews who came to say, “These extremists don’t represent us. Religious Jews can be open and tolerant.”
Lesson 5: There is a critical role for us, and it’s called opposition.
Raluca Ganea, who I worked with to co-found Israel’s MoveOn-style movement, Zazim, likes to say that public discourse is like a see-saw. The right has gotten very good at jumping up and down with heft on their side of the see-saw. They’ve built institutions to create their policies and messages, invested in media that will promote them and developed a powerful echo chamber. A strong grassroots opposition needs to do the same – so that our politicians do not creep toward the center axis where our weight moves neither side. In Israel, our parliamentary opposition rarely stands up for human rights defenders that are targeted and incited against by the government, they will not utter the word “occupation” or “Palestinian” for fear of losing their voters, and they hedge on issues that impact constituents’ lives. We must develop the heft and the bravery to jump hard and heavy on the progressive side of the see-saw.
Lesson 6: Our leadership must reflect our movements.
Our least successful social change movements have been when elitist leaders try to monopolize the leadership of a movement on behalf of millions of people impacted by bad policies. Our most successful ones turn those tables. The Israeli public housing struggle is gaining momentum because it is led by people who have themselves been evicted from their homes. The struggle for equal rights for Palestinian citizens of Israel is being led by powerful Palestinian citizens of Israel. I am constantly inspired by leaders like Ayman Odeh, head of the Joint List, which responded to a law intended to keep Palestinian citizens out of Israel’s parliament by building a broad coalition of Arab and Arab-Jewish parties that is now the country’s third-largest political bloc.
Lesson 7: We may live in a bubble, but we can’t afford to organize in one.
In 2015, many activists in the Israeli left thought they had a chance of reclaiming the government from the right. The morning after the election, liberal elites who live in the major city of Tel Aviv looked around, and said, “How is this possible? Nobody I know voted for that party.” We have learned that ethnicity, religiosity and income impact voting behavior dramatically. We have learned that if white liberal elites stay in comfy Tel Aviv and keep being surprised the morning after, we will never win. Like many in Donald Trump’s base, disenfranchised Israelis feel disconnected from the elite, which has often condescended to or repressed their aspirations in the past. They believe the fear-mongers will make their lives better. But Israeli progressives have learned that when we start local and build relationships and coalitions for the common good, when we work through grassroots organized labor, people can – and do – move.
Lesson 8: Be the mouse that roars.
Powerful insider champions and elected officials can help put an issue on the public agenda. But when progressives are out of power, we usually don’t have that pipeline. Instead, we have to use outside power in creative ways. This takes courage and tenacity. The Israeli organization Breaking the Silence, a group of veteran soldiers who speak publicly about their own service in the Occupied Territories, are ostracized and attacked constantly. But Breaking the Silence has become a household name, and soldiers continue to come forward to talk about the occupation. Hardly a week goes by without some story in the Israeli media about the ethics of military policy and practice. That’s how we know it’s working.
Lesson 9: Don’t let them divide and conquer.
The right will always try to divide the left to make us weaker. They will attempt to declare strong progressive entities guilty by association with more radical groups or individuals. These wedges are painful – sometimes they highlight real differences in strategy, ideology and approach – and they make us weaker as a movement. In Israel, a whole sector of organizations have cropped up whose sole purpose is to investigate and attempt to blacklist progressive activists and professionals. These groups even sent citizen-spies to embed themselves within left-wing organizations in Israel for years, wearing hidden cameras and microphones. As soon as they had a shred of a gotcha, they ran to the media and pinned it on every organization, funder and individual they could. This places organizations and institutions in a difficult spot. It’s important to be true to our values without throwing activists under the bus. We also must know when to draw a bright line between our non-violent and inclusive movement and those whose ideologies exclude, demonize or tacitly back violence. This is sometimes a thin line to walk.
Lesson 10: Who runs the world?
While women have long led and shaped justice movements, our contributions have not always been recognized or appreciated. Worse, our movements sometimes model the same misogynist dynamics we’re fighting against, by marginalizing women leaders, favoring men’s ideas, and even refusing to acknowledge sexual assault and harassment. Just last week, a large movement of women called Women Marching for Peace created a major disruption in Israel and people paid attention. This, at the same time that a women-led religious freedom movement, Women of the Wall, managed to get equal access to the Western Wall for a moment after a years-long struggle, not without the threat of violence, and it’s still a long road ahead. Some of the most inspiring leaders in the Knesset are women, and this leadership and these women-led movements look dramatically different than traditional left-wing organizing, even when led by emotionally intelligent male leaders. These leaders are inclusive, they work on hearts and heads, they hold complexity.
Lesson 11: Be on the right side of history, even if you’re on the wrong side of popular opinion today.
There are hard and trying and lonely days ahead. Israeli activists have organized in an ultranationalist oppositional environment for the last seven and a half years; Palestinian activists have done it under occupation for nearly half a century. It takes work and commitment and sometimes sacrifice. My favorite reading during the Jewish holiday of Passover is from Michael Waltzer, about the journey to liberation: “There is no way to get from here to there except by joining hands, marching together.” That’s the job: keep going, keep our values and our compatriots close, take care of ourselves and one another, and work together until justice is mainstream and the injustices of today are history.
Libby Lenkinski is vice president of public engagement for the New Israel Fund.
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