Brian Kwoba: Israel, Occupy Wall Street, and anti-Zionism

By Brian Kwoba, Israeli Occupation Archive – 2 Dec 2011

The Occupy Wall Street movement in the US is reverberating around the world. In Tel Aviv, Israel, for example, a tens-of-thousands-strong protest on October 29 “showed influences from the Occupy Wall Street movement, including signs saying ‘we are the 99%,’ and one sign that read ‘Occupy Oakland!’” (Jerusalem Post). Though much smaller in scale, this protest revives the recent memory of the summer’s July 14 (J14) movement in Israel, which received much criticism from the Palestine solidarity community for its failure to condemn the occupation of the West Bank and Gaza, let alone the issue of Zionism itself.

As one such activist argued, “the hypocrisy of J14 is that while it may have supposedly been about social justice, it simply refused to address the occupation of Palestine.”

On this basis, many progressives and Palestine solidarity activists withheld support from the movement, instead criticizing it for its weaknesses and limitations. I think this was and is a big mistake, even though the “mainstream” of the Israeli protest movement was and still is largely silent on the oppression of Palestinians. Let me explain.

Occupy Wall Street, NOT Palestine

First of all, let’s be clear: Israel is a colonial-settler and apartheid state. Internationally, it must be boycotted, sanctioned, and divested from with all the vigor we can muster until (at minimum) it ends of the occupation, grants full equality to all of its citizens, and cedes the right of return to the Palestinians of the diaspora.

Whereas with South African apartheid, the international boycott and divestment movement played a powerful role in aiding the internal struggle, in the case of Israel many of us have traditionally considered the Jewish state and its population to be so monolithic as to require even more pressure from without than South Africa did if there is to be any serious challenge to the Israeli regime.

But the protest movement in Israel raises two game-changing questions: does everyone in Israel benefit from Zionism, i.e. Israel’s existence as a Jewish-supremacist state? If not, does the Palestinian struggle have any allies inside Israel?

Like Occupy Wall St. has done for the United States, Israel’s summer protests showed that there is mass discontent inside Israel in many sectors. If a majority of Israelis no longer benefit from Zionism, then Palestinian struggle may have some new and very powerful potential allies.

Who in Israel really benefits from Zionism?

One obvious group of Israeli citizens who do NOT benefit from the Zionist project are the Palestinian citizens of Israel who comprise roughly 20% of its population. Many of these Palestinians have been displaced from their original villages and homes and are systematically oppressed in housing, education, law, and so on, despite their Israeli citizenship. And contrary to the idea that the Israeli protests were comprised of only middle class Europeans on Rothschild boulevard, the protests in the south of Tel-Aviv, as well as in Jaffa, Haifa and Nazareth included strong participation of from the Palestinian Arab citizens. For example, Palestinians from Jaffa united themselves with Mizrahi Jews from South Tel Aviv, putting aside their differences to demonstrate together for public housing.[1]

These efforts came to further fruition in September, when some 20 political parties and social movements from both sides of the Green Line issued an historic declaration in support of the social protests in Israel and their necessary linkage to the struggle against Israel’s occupation and colonial policies.[2] This is a major development, because it demonstrates the possibility of a radical change in Israeli consciousness towards Jewish-Arab UNITY with the Palestinian struggle. As a result of having to fight for their own rights to housing, education, and dignity, at least some Israelis have opened up to the idea that Palestinians and Arabs can and should be their allies in struggle.

Another group that may not benefit from Zionism is the Mizrahim (Jews of Arab and Middle Eastern origin), who have systematically restricted access to housing, income, education, and political power compared to the the Ashkenazim (Jews of European origin). Mizrahi participation in the protest movement brings a powerful new dynamic into the picture and raised anew the question of a how much they, even as Jews, have really benefited from living under a Jewish state.

For example, one Mizrahi friend of mine wrote online of the Israeli protests this summer:

Outside of rothschild avenue, many of the tent cities are led by mizrahim and have mizrahi struggles at the center. This is also problematic because there is a necessity for mizrahim to recognize our complicity in the colonization and stand explicitly with palestinians. i think this is happening in the jaffa-hatikva joint protest. out of south tel aviv, i am also seeing what looks like from far away, a lot of working together between working class mizrahim and african refugees and foreign workers, which flies in the face of the racial tensions that place is known for.

i’m from south tel aviv (hatikva actually) and i will say that i’m completely amazed by what i’m seeing from there. in a neighborhood where people [traditionally] march against the presence of africans, and vote solidly likud, people are carrying black panthers banners. people are pitching tents and making a set of demands in alliance with the tent city in jaffa. people are housing homeless african refugees in their tents in defiance of orders from the police and holding demonstrations when they are arrested. it’s beyond anything i could have ever dreamed of.

knowing all of this, it’s very frustrating to run into people’s analysis which just dismisses the tent protests as being a bunch of hippies in rothschild, or a bunch of spoiled people demanding more than they already have, or a bunch of zionists. it’s true that in many places the foundation of these demonstrations is zionist, but i think this is changeable, and i think there is a great potential for mizrahi communities particularly to challenge that foundation.

Historically, the largely-Ashkenazi elite have mostly been able to divert any discontent about Mizrahi oppression toward the Palestinians. This is similar to how immigrants, Blacks, and other “outsiders” have been scapegoated historically in other industrialized countries. This racism has been deliberately stoked by the government, for example, by the fact that Israeli border guards, who dispense oppression onto Palestinians on a daily basis, are disproportionately Mizrahim. For these and other reasons, mainstream Mizrahi politics have for decades had a predominantly right-wing virulence, often times more racist toward Palestinians than the average Jewish Israeli. This divide-and-rule tactic has worked well for manufacturing Mizrahi consent for Zionism, but appears to be cracking under the pressure of the recent mass protests and joint struggle in Israel.

Furthermore, it has must be said that there is a progressive wing of Mizrahi politics both historically (e.g. in the Israeli Black Panthers of the 1970s), but also today. The Tarabut conference in May this year (before the J14 protests) passed a declaration of solidarity in struggle with Palestinians for liberation, including support for the right of return according to UN Resolution 194. Not bad for an organization of Arab and Jewish Israelis! [3]

If we look for other sources of potentially anti-Zionist opposition inside Israel, we quickly find that Ethiopian and Russian Israeli Jews are also systematically oppressed in housing, education, income, and so on. In fact, they entered the J14 process with a joint African and European demonstration against segregated (apartheid) schools, and could conceivably do the same for housing, income, and other issues.[4] As usual, the younger generation is even more inclined towards universal social justice, as evidenced by the anti-Zionist organization Young Ethiopian Students, for example.[5]

Suffice it to say that Israel is not a monolithic society, and most of its citizens have not benefited materially from Zionism. Just look at the numbers: Palestinian citizens are 20% of the population inside Israel, the Mizrahim are around 37% (roughly half of the Jewish population) of Israel. The immigrants from Africa and Asia are 10%. Together that is 67% of the Israeli population that is potentially anti-Zionist.

What about the Ashkenazi Jews?

One of the politically-sharpest Israeli anti-Zionists, Moshé Machover, had this to say about the question of whether the Jews of European origin in Israel benefit from Zionism:

Since the 1980s, there has been a great structural change in Israel. Formerly, the Israeli economy was only 50% private. The other half was owned by the state and the Histadrut. The economy was welfare-based, with external subsidy channeled also to the working class. This is no longer the case. The economy is privatized and much of the welfare structure has been axed. The huge external subsidy [i.e. from the US] is not distributed to the whole of society, but more or less bypasses the civilian economy and covers the military budget. The Israeli working class hardly benefits from Zionism, certainly much less than in the past (before the 1980s). In many ways, the expenditure on colonization of the Occupied Territories is seen as a burden on the [Ashkenazi] working class.

Even the New York Times published an op-ed about how “according to a report published by the activist group Peace Now, the Israeli government is using over 15 percent of its public construction budget to expand West Bank settlements, which house only 4 percent of Israeli citizens. According to the Adva Center, a research institute, Israel spends twice as much on a settlement resident as it spends on other Israelis…Israel today is facing the consequences of a policy that favors sustaining the occupation and expanding settlements over protecting the interests of the broader population.”[6]

If this is true, then the Ashkenazi workers who joined the protests of J14 ought to be placed in the category of potentially anti-Zionist political forces.  As one blogger put it,

Of course, the government will try to overcome the [housing] problem by continuing the colonization of the West Bank and encouraging more Israelis to participate.  So, Israeli workers have a clear choice.  They can continue to invest in Zionism, continue to uphold the chauvinism at the heart of Israeli society that validates the occupation and the repression of Palestinians, and hope to resolve their dilemmas at the expense of the [Palestinians].  Or they can make that link which they have so far refused to make, between their situation and that of the Palestinians, and begin the work of undoing the Zionism which has hitherto held them hostage.[7]

Whether Israeli workers do in fact make common cause with the Palestinian struggle will depend, in part, on whether we in the progressive and Palestine solidarity community reach out  and work to build those links. It will be a difficult task, but one made more easy if Mizrahi, Ethiopian, and Arab masses can also begin to join hands in unity for the struggle.

18 families own 60% the Israeli economy.[8] Could it be that they (and the rest of the top 1% in the government and military) are the only ones who materially benefit from Zionism and the socio-economic system that upholds it? If so, then anti-Zionists have a stronger case to make now than ever.

Moreover, the joining together in struggle of European, African, Jewish, and Palestinian masses in Israel (amidst a wave of uprisings throughout the Middle East and North Africa) reveals the potential for unity among working and poor people across ethnic, religious, and national divisions.

However, to expect that this confluence of social forces would immediately arrive at an instantaneous opposition to the occupation of Palestine (or of colonialism and Zionism more generally) is unreasonable. People who enter into struggle do not go from A to Z in one day or one week or one month. But an awakening and change in consciousness that has already been set in motion is easier to keep in motion. Progressives all over the world should be enthusiastic about this opportunity not only because of the potential it has to transform social inequality and oppression, but also because of the active and subjective role we can play in helping it to realize that potential.

If masses of people who come into the streets to express their discontent are not met with long-time activists who can broaden their horizons even further because we have abstained from the struggle in Israel or elsewhere, then we are missing a historic opportunity to make our case for Palestinian rights and a united struggle for social justice that transcends the boundaries that   the top 1% has manipulated to divide us.

After all, we in the Palestine solidarity movement—like the Arab, Jewish, and Mediterranean masses throughout the region—are the 99%.

 

Brian Kwoba is an activist with Occupy Boston. He can be reached at bwk6 (at) cornell (dot) edu

 

Notes:

[1] For more on the Mizrahi housing struggle, see for example: http://hamaabara.wordpress.com/

[2] www.alternativenews.org/english/index.php/topics/news/3795-historic-declaration-by-palestinians-israelis-in-support-of-israeli-social-protest-anti-colonial-struggle-

[3] www.tarabut.info/en/articles/article/declaration-of-hebron-conference-may-7-2011

[4] www.youtube.com/watch?v=acnEIUKI7_Y&feature=player_embedded

[5] http://youngethiopianstudents.wordpress.com/

[6] See www.nytimes.com/2011/08/04/opinion/in-israel-the-rent-is-too-damn-high.html?_r=2

[7] Richard Seymour, http://leninology.blogspot.com/2011/08/choice-for-israeli-protests.html

[8] Shir Hever: The political economy of Israel’s Occupation

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