Can a New Left Movement Shift Israeli Politics?
There’s a broken record I’m tired of hearing play on the streets of Tel Aviv. Israelis of conscience cry out, “No one listens to us, not in our own country and not abroad. Since our opponents on the right seem invincible and since no one cares what we do anyway, let’s do nothing.” In turn, international journalists and progressives reply, “We have seen no action on the Israeli left, so let’s all agree not to look for it.” Who got us into this loop? Listless Israeli leftists or the dismissive international crowd?
Given the rapid clip at which Trump and Netanyahu have ramped up their collusion, there is no time to waste pondering chicken-versus-egg questions like this. There are new Israeli activists who know this. At their center is a growing grassroots political movement called Standing Together, which is a partnership between Jewish and Palestinian citizens of Israel (and of which I am a member). Without waiting for an invitation from some higher progressive authority, Alon-Lee Green, who is now 31, founded the movement two years ago with the help of friends. So far, it has managed to shape government policies on multiple occasions and also earn the respect of progressive leaders like Bernie Sanders and Keith Ellison. At a meeting with Standing Together in June, Jon Lansman, of Britain’s Momentum movement, called the group “a fantastic inspiration.”
Aside from the critical decision to make this a partnership among Israeli citizens of all ethnic backgrounds, there are other strengths to the movement’s model. For one, Standing Together insists on connecting struggles for economic equality with those for racial equality. This means that its members have shown up to support fair working contracts and disability benefits as well as an end to the occupation and discrimination against Palestinians within Israeli society. In the past, when people have tried to isolate one side of this equation, their story has come out incoherent and people have been excluded.
Second, Standing Together is a movement, rather than a non-governmental organization, or NGO. Anyone who saw the footage of Elor Azaria, the Israeli soldier who shot an already immobile Palestinian knife-attacker in the head, knows that it was the Israeli NGO B’tselem (or In God’s Image, in English) who filmed and publicized this crime. The Israelis who took this footage have faced accusations of treason, violent threats on social media, and public shaming. Such brave acts of conscience must not be underestimated. But, as Green explained in an interview, “NGOs are for professional activists. You cannot just walk out onto the street and join B’tselem.”
Indeed, whistle-blowers like B’tselem or Breaking the Silence, an organization of Israeli combat veterans determined to raise awareness about the military’s actions in the occupied territories, have made people like me outraged and embarrassed by the violence done in our name. Still, we need somewhere to go in order to turn this outrage into hope, into deed. Standing Together has become the address for thousands in my shoes. This past year, between 20,000–30,000 people participated in events organized by the movement, which currently has 2,000 registered activists, organized into four regional chapters and five college campus chapters. I spoke to members of the organization’s leadership committees about their strategies and visions. Here is what they had to say.
WE REFUSE TO BE ENEMIES
Maisam Jaljuli, a Palestinian citizen of Israel, feminist activist and labor organizer from the Arab-majority city of Tira, explained why she feels that partnership between Jewish- and Palestinian-Israelis is crucial: “Netanyahu realized that he could stay in power forever, and I mean forever, if he kept Jewish and Arab communities apart. [She used both the terms Palestinian and Arab.] It’s true that his coalition has the support of the majority of Jewish Israelis right now. But, he does not have the majority of all citizens of Israel since we’re here too. If Jews and Arabs who share the same principles work together, we can defeat him.”
Indeed, in the 2015 elections, the Joint List—a diverse coalition of Arab-majority parties, which includes Jaljuli’s mixed Jewish-Arab Hadash party—won 13 seats, making it the third-largest party in the Knesset. The furthest-left Jewish-majority party, Meretz, received five seats and has since shown signs of growth. The Labor Party and Tsipi Livni’s HaTnua Party currently share 24 seats under the umbrella of the Zionist Union, but polls have shown their support has dropped drastically since the newly appointed leader, Avi Gabai, took a sharp rightward turn this year. Looking for a new direction, some Labor dropouts could also join a partnership between Jewish and Palestinian-Israeli leftists. Together, such a coalition would constitute a powerful political force.
To create such a coalition requires a meaningful cultural change. It means stepping aside from deeply held party alliances and building connections based on shared principles, rather than social milieu. For Standing Together, this effort starts with language. All of the movement’s announcements are Hebrew-Arabic bilingual. Moneer Abu Arar, a social worker from Ararat an-Naqab who describes himself as Palestinian-Israeli, explained the importance of this policy. “It is an act of recognition. I hear your language and you hear mine.” Jews and Palestinians have roughly equal representation in the group’s leadership. Standing Together has local chapters in Jewish-majority cities like Tel Aviv, as well as in Bedouin villages in the Negev, the southern desert region where Abu Arar lives.
Suf Patishi, 26, a student activist of Jewish background at Hebrew University in Jerusalem, saw the emphasis on inter-ethnic partnership as a long-term investment. “We need to build an infrastructure of equality between peoples.” Patishi has been involved in a range of initiatives, including protests against the US embassy move to Jerusalem and regular conversations with Palestinians in the West Bank.
While the leadership is truly shared, Standing Together has had far more success recruiting Jewish Israelis than Palestinians. Abu Arar commented, “My friends tell me that they have experienced too many disappointments with partnerships like this in the past. There’s a lot of despair.” To counteract what he sees as a justifiable mistrust of Jewish partners, Abu Arar hopes to make his leadership role more visible, participating in initiatives in other regional chapters as well, an aspiration supported by others in the leadership.
LABOR STRUGGLES ARE A WEAPON AGAINST RACISM
In 2011-2012, amid the “Occupy” movement that initially targeted Wall Street, Israel was home to one of the largest social-protest movements, relative to the size of the country. This public outpouring was led by young people who were suffering the consequences of new neoliberal economic policies, which had weakened the social-welfare state over the course of a decade. At its peak event, 400,000 people gathered to march in the center of Tel Aviv against the increasing disparities between rich and poor, neglect of public infrastructure and the staggering cost of living. Despite the scale of this movement, it petered out around the fall of 2012 with only modest achievements in policy.
Alon-Lee Green, who was among the organizers of these protests, blamed their failure on a blind spot. “The social protests had nothing to say about the occupation, about Palestinian rights. Netanyahu used this weakness to his advantage. He saw hundreds of thousands protesting in the street and so he pulled out the security card with Operation Pillar of Defense,” he said, referring to Israel’s asymmetrical war with Hamas in Gaza from November 14–21, 2012. “Then everything ended.”
Once embroiled in conflict, the social protesters were told that their real adversaries were not the growing cast of tycoons, who had bought up previously government-owned businesses, or fiscally conservative politicians, but actually Palestinians in Gaza. Green feels that if the leadership had fought for the welfare of Gazans as well, their message would have been more coherent and better able to respond to Netanyahu’s tactics.
On the flip side, prominent anti-occupation organizations like Peace Now have typically not been vocal about poverty and inequality within Israel. Similarly, the left-wing Meretz Party, steadfast in its parliamentary opposition to occupation, finds voters mostly among upper-middle-class Jews. Voters from poorer Jewish-majority cities almost consistently vote for Netanyahu’s Likud or religious right-wing parties.
Dani Filc, a professor of politics and government at Ben Gurion University who was also among the founders of Standing Together, sees this as a trap: “In the Israeli context, there is a strong correlation between ‘left’ and ‘liberalism’ [in the economic sense of the word]. Standing Together wants to be a people’s left.” Part of this shift requires reaching out to Palestinian citizens of Israel and part reaching out to the economically excluded—or both at once.
Jaljuli has done critical work in making these connections, both within Standing Together and in her work beyond the group. In 2006, she led a major struggle among low-wage city employees in her hometown of Tira. She organized against internal corruption and a new austerity program, caused by national budget cuts, that would have led to the dismissal of nearly half the city’s municipal workers, mostly Palestinian women working in childcare and sanitation. Her activism drew fire on both national and local levels. She even awoke to shots fired on her house multiple nights, she assumes by locals involved in corruption.
Jaljuli’s group was not able to reverse the government cuts at that moment or to stop all the unfair firings. However, after a successful run for head of the city labor council, she was able to rehire many city workers and usher in the election of a new, pro-labor mayor. In 2007, Jaljuli was also elected to the Histadrut, Israel’s national labor organization, where she has led fights for both Jewish and Palestinian Israeli workers. She believes that solidarity can trickle up. “Shared struggles that aren’t considered “political” can build into political partnership. I believe that you can unite both groups over salaries and rights, or fights for a fair pension. These struggles feed into a larger partnership against the occupation.”
Patishi observed a similar dynamic while supporting the fight to raise disability benefits to the level of minimum wage. He and other Standing Together members joined protesters in wheelchairs and with canes, crutches and other supports in blocking major highways in the summer of 2017 and then helped raise money to pay the fines that these protesters incurred. “Not all of these people considered themselves leftists. They were out there to defend their personal livelihood. But, when they see that we are the ones who care about their fight, they become open to our positions on other matters too.” Green wants to use the space of labor struggles to counteract biases: “A Jew who has marched next to a Palestinian for a decent pension cannot remain a racist after that.”
CAN THIS ACTUALLY HAVE AN IMPACT?
In my own modest involvement with this movement, I have witnessed some moments of disappointment and frustration—low turnouts at meetings, an overload of events, and hostile responses from passersby on the street. But Standing Together has also scored significant wins that demonstrate the essential strength of its model. Most notable, as all those I spoke with agreed, was this year’s fight to block Netanyahu’s plan to deport African asylum seekers. This past January, Netanyahu’s government declared that it would deport more than 30,000 men, women, and children who had arrived in Israel over the past decade, having escaped civil war in Sudan and a brutal dictatorship in Eritrea. Under Netanyahu’s plan, these asylum seekers were to be uprooted and sent to “other African countries,” where they would face an uncertain and potentially life-threatening reception.
Upon arrival, most asylum seekers were shunted into the poor neighborhoods of South Tel Aviv, where longer-term residents are mostly low-earning Mizrahi Jews (that is Jews of North African and Mediterranean descent). The buildings there are crumbling. Drug use, prostitution, and human trafficking are commonplace. The government found a way to blame the asylum seekers for these difficult living conditions in South Tel Aviv. The right posed the question like this: Are you a snobbish, elitist “leftist” from the richer parts of Tel Aviv who favors the African “infiltrators” over the neglected Jewish poor? Or do you side with the South Tel Aviv poor and support the deportation of African refugees? This framework remained unchallenged for many years. Some activists fell into the trap, approaching South Tel Avivians in ways that appeared patronizing. No one pointed out the obvious fact that while Netanyahu has been in power for almost a decade, his government has never lifted a finger to aid these poor neighborhoods.
Instead of dismissing South Tel Aviv residents as racists, an Israeli “basket of deplorables,” Standing Together sought partners from within the neighborhood. And sure enough, they were there. In response to Netanyahu’s announcement that he intended to deport thousands of African immigrants, local South Tel Aviv community activists–led by a Mizrahi feminist named Shula Keshet—formed a local coalition around a simple, but powerful message: We are all being deported, the refugees through xenophobic policies and the Mizrahi Jewish residents through gentrification. Real-estate sharks who buy up and refit dilapidated apartment buildings would eventually kick out long-term locals too.
Standing Together helped to amplify these local voices, petitioning on street corners all over the country, building coalitions with student groups, but also bringing people into the neighborhood in order to listen and learn about the poverty and neglect they have long faced. These activities culminated with a protest in South Tel Aviv on February 24, with over 20,000 people in attendance. Those who spoke on stage were lifelong neighborhood residents as well as refugees. The right-wing narrative of “us” versus “them” crumbled before the public eye.
As a last act of desperation, right-wing politicians went so far as to suggest that the African refugees were taking jobs away from Palestinians. This claim was shot down immediately, most vocally by Ayman Odeh, head of the Joint List, who insisted on solidarity between the two excluded groups. At this point, Netanyahu had no choice but to cancel the deportation. The battle is not over: A plan to support both the neighborhood and the refugees has yet to be put in place. But, this mass violation of human rights—among others that are ongoing here—has been averted. And labor organizers like Jaljuli have now won these asylum seekers rights within the national union.
Green hopes to build on this success. “It might be easier to convince the [Jewish] public to support African refugees than Palestinians, whom they have been taught to fear for much longer. But, if we can change the public narrative about one group, we can do it again for another.”
Given the Israeli military’s recent large-scale shootings of Palestinians protesting at the Gaza border, among other events, it would be obscene to claim recent progress in the Israeli treatment of Palestinians. Still, Standing Together has made its presence felt in this arena. On May 15, the group helped gather several hundred people to block traffic for two hours on the streets of Tel Aviv in response to the bloodiest day of shootings, when Israeli forces killed some 60 Gazan demonstrators. Green said, “We reminded everyone that this is not okay and that they cannot feel like it’s a normal day. The next step is to tell people that things can be made okay and how.”
Standing Together also joined a protest organized by Palestinians in Haifa on May 20 against the violent arrests of 20 Palestinian protesters in that city earlier that week. This follow-up demonstration drew major media coverage and, after concerted political interventions, the people arrested were soon released. “The credit for speaking out in support of Jafar Farach [an NGO leader whose knee was broken while under arrest] goes first and foremost to himself, his family, his community and the locals in Haifa,” Abu Arar said. “But, it was good that Standing Together took part. I think it helped raise the profile of the event. We shouldn’t try to take credit. But we should continue to show up.”
WHAT’S THE END GAME? ONE STATE OR TWO?
In May, the Tel Aviv University student chapter of Standing Together met with representatives of the Palestine Liberation Organization from the West Bank and East Jerusalem. One of the PLO delegates, Elias Zananiri explained why he supports a two-state solution, “Put us all together in one state and we will have another war of ’48. Then, someone will propose a two-state solution. We will say, ‘Why didn’t we try that before?’” A Jewish member of the audience objected, saying that it was no longer realistic to think of territorial divisions that would be fair for Palestinians. The issue was not resolved. But, after some back and forth, the conversation moved on civilly to the urgent topics of shifting public opinion and building trust.
Patishi does not believe that this question should block collaboration. “The overwhelming majority of Standing Together members support a two-state solution,” he said. “Some think otherwise and that is not a problem. When you make equality your goal—full equality in both social and economic terms, discussions of one state versus two become secondary.”
Green had this to say: “I believe that the safest thing is a sovereign Palestinian state next to Israel.” But, that does not mean he is satisfied with the slogan, ‘Two States for Two Peoples.’ “That mantra does not guarantee full equality for all peoples within Israel. We have to stress that goal as well.” Along with Nisreen Shihada, another of the movement’s leaders, Green participated in the annual conference of the American organization J Street, which remains committed to two states. But, the movement also welcomes members who participate in the “A Land For All” project, which promotes a confederation with open borders.
In parallel, Green said that he is not in favor of boycotting Israel but refuses to make this topic a point of focus. “I couldn’t believe how much time people spent discussing [BDS] in the US,” he said, referring to his first visit to the country, this past spring. “I don’t think that they are so relevant here. I think they serve the right wing. But I can’t and won’t tell someone else how to protest the occupation. In return, they also can’t tell me how to make this change within Israel. If we don’t do this work here, no one will do it for us.”
A MOVEMENT OF PROTEST, A MOVEMENT OF CHANGE
There is no such thing as “status quo” for Israel and Palestine. As I write this, bulldozers wait outside the Palestinian Bedouin village of Khan Al Ahmar, its planned demolition stalled in response to local and international outcries. The Israeli parliament is seriously considering passing the racist “Nation-State Bill,” which would legalize discrimination against non-Jewish citizens—and in opposition to which thousands demonstrated last Saturday night. As incendiary balloons fall on civilians in southern Israel, and as Israeli airstrikes kill and injure Palestinians in Gaza, Netanyahu is offering up his usual non-solution—more war.
Since groups like Standing Together must urgently protest these immediate threats, it might be tempting to dodge responsibility for day-to-day struggles, like those for fair working contracts, livable wages, and equal hospital access for all regions of the country. As hard as it may seem to connect these two levels of injustice, occupation, and social inequality, each of which hurts the livelihood and dignity of millions in a different way, it must be done. There is no other way to break down the equation between “leftist” and “elitist” within Israel and reframe Israeli-Palestinian politics as more than a zero-sum game.
Clearly, political groups within Israel cannot and should not act alone. Palestinians in the occupied territories should be heard on their own terms. International pressure, the type that is focused on Israeli government actors and policies, is also necessary. But, to be effective, external pressure also requires partners within Israel, local voices who can help translate messages of condemnation into a positive vision of justice and equality for all.
[Hannah Pollin-Galay is Senior Lecturer of Yiddish and Holocaust Studies in the Department of Literature at Tel Aviv University and author of Ecologies of Witnessing: Language, Place and Holocaust Testimony (Yale University Press, 2018). She previously worked as a youth educator at Leyvik House, the Union for Yiddish Writers and Journalists in Israel.]
Copyright c 2018 The Nation. Reprinted with permission. May not be reprinted without permission. Distributed by PARS International Corp.
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