Why American Jewish Activists Must Help, Not Headline, Anti-occupation Efforts

Diaspora Jews, parachuting in to ‘end the occupation’, don’t suffer the consequences of their own actions. Israelis and Palestinians will

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A group of mainly Diaspora Jews protest on Jerusalem Day by the Old City’s Damascus Gate. 24 May 2017.
'Diaspora Jews won’t suffer the consequences of their own actions. Israelis and Palestinians will': A group of mainly Diaspora Jews protest at Jerusalem's Damascus Gate. 24 May 2017.Credit: Olivier Fitoussi
Mikhael Manekin
Mikhael Manekin

Recently, leftwing American Jewish activists were involved in two events in Israel and the West Bank: The rebuilding of a Palestinian village in the South Hebron hills and the disruption of a religious right protest in East Jerusalem. 

Both these events, and the media prominence of American Jewish groups within them, have made me and some of my progressive colleagues in Israel uncomfortable. Here’s the source of our discomfort: the methodologies, the discourse, and perhaps even the intent of these groups seems to be insensitive to local political concerns, both Israeli and Palestinian. Their own concerns seem to take a priority.

Please don’t misunderstand me: when led by local political forces on the ground, and within a political framework, such activism is warranted, and at least for me as a progressive activist, welcomed. The cause is just. External involvement in ending Israel’s occupation of the West Bank is certainly legitimate. This is not solely an internal Israeli/Palestinian issue, and even if it were, human rights are universal and should concern everybody. The question is not if to involve ouselves in universal struggles, but how.

Unfortunately, there is a strand of Diaspora Jewish progressive politics (and progressive politics in general) demonstrates clear disinterest with local Israeli or Palestinian politics when dealing with Israel-Palestine.

Some don’t believe that political reform is possible in Israel, and therefore the world needs to lead the way (a self-defeating, patronizing position espoused even by some of the left in Israel today).

Others are simply unaware about local politics and political activism. They don't know that activist groups exist, protest, unionize, and are working very hard to change things here, and are used to hearing only doom and gloom analyses when it comes to Israeli society.

Yet if we really want to change things in Israel and Palestine, the change will need to be political and institutional.  We will need to wield political power in order to effect change in Israel, not only by ending the occupation, but also by reforming church/state relations, reducing the vast economic inequality, fighting racism within the country and so on.

This is not unique to Israel. In the U.S., only a strong center-left Democratic party can beat Trump, and a strong center-left Labour can fight Brexit. Since the problem is political in nature, the solution can only be obtained by strengthening local political progressive power. So why not think about Israeli politics when we approach Israel?

Since only local Palestinian and Israeli political forces will end the conflict, those local force and institutions need to be strengthened, yet far too long they have been overlooked (and weakened as a result). World Jewry (and anyone else, frankly) can and should play a crucial role in strengthening Israeli progressive politics. It’s a delicate shift, but a crucial one. External actors should focus on promoting and growing the local political forces who will ultimately change the political climate in Israel.

'Diaspora Jewish progressives too often have an uninformed and patronizing view of local activists.' 15,000 Israelis rallied in support of a Palestinian state alongside Israel. May 27, 2017.Credit: Oded Balilty/AP

And here is the thing: we are actually in a good place to start doing so. Just like young Jewish American progressive activism, Israeli activism is growing among a new generation of trade unionists, anti-corruption activists, political players, and grassroots activism. It requires some Hebrew to learn about them, but they are definitely here.

So how do we get strengthen these local activists? Primarily, Jewish activists from abroad will need to understand that their role is an auxiliary one. Whether they serve Israeli or Palestinian forces or both, they will have to realize that the endgame is the achievement of local political power.

Of course there is another dimension at play here: that of an internal Diaspora Jewish struggle on what it means to be a Jew and a supporter of Israel. But the question of who defines what it means to be Jewish and pro-Israel is not primarily an Israeli or Palestinian concern. Therefor the political fights within Israel and the Occupied Territories should be understood independently of their impact on Diaspora Jewish identity.

Concerned progressive Diaspora Jews should change the modality of their involvement when in Israel and Palestine. They should remember that Israel/Palestine is not their home, that they do not pay taxes, vote and elect representatives, and they will not suffer the consequences of their actions. In short, the struggle here is primarily about the people living here. Equally as important, they should get to know the political forces in all areas of Israeli and Palestinian life. They should learn about the past and present of local activism. They should forge partnerships with those political groups that are trying to effect change.

And what about fights within the American Jewish establishment? The Diaspora struggle for the soul of American Jewry? There, Diaspora Jews should lead the way, and potentially see us Israeli progressives as a helpful resource and auxiliary force. We don’t fully understand the ins and outs of U.S. Jewish politics, but we recognize the importance of young Jewish progressives taking a stand to change things. We are obligated to help them win.

These shifts take a lot of energy, and more importantly, time. To rebuild Israel, Palestine and Jewish political institutions worldwide will require a lifetime of work, perhaps more. But the payback for Palestinians, Israelis and Diaspora Jewry will be far greater. Progressives will get more things done by learning from each rather than talking past each other.

Mikhael Manekin is the CEO of Israel Tomorrow. He is the former Director of Molad, the Center for the Renewal of Israeli Democracy and the former Director of Breaking the Silence. He lives in Jerusalem with his wife and three children. Follow him on Twitter: @MikhaelManekin

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