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Moaning from the Sidelines

This is a cross-post from falsedichotomies.com

Like children without an invite to their classmate’s birthday party, the Israeli far-left has had to jealously watch on as the J14 demonstrations have grown bigger and bigger, culminating in this weekend’s protests, which were the largest in Israel’s history. Outside Israel, pro-Palestinian groups have been unmoved. Ali Abunimah tweeted with a shrug that J14 was “like whites protesting for better incomes in 1985 South Africa, leaving out apartheid because it’s “too divisive””. Inside Israel, though, there has been a split between those who agree with him and those who have decided to try and influence J14 from the inside.

Joseph Dana and Max Blumenthal are two anti-Zionists who have chosen to remain in the jealous children camp. In an article entitled “The Exclusive Revolution”, they predictably take the J14 organisers to task for not demanding an end to the occupation as part of their platform. They argue that this is because J14 is resolutely Zionist, and hence excludes the Palestinians and their litany of legitimate grievances against the Jewish State.

Like Abunimah, their argument that a protest against socio-economic conditions is not a protest against the occupation is rather banal, but it is also typical of the myopia and dogma that has increasingly consumed those campaigning on the fringes of the Israeli left. This is unfortunate. It’s true that the occupation is both immoral and increasingly harmful to Israel’s prospects, both in the security and socio-economic sphere. But instead of asking why J14 isn’t dealing with the problem, the far-left should be asking why its activists remain unable to mobilise hundreds of thousands of Israelis out onto the streets.

First, the far-left consistently demonises Zionism, the ideology that made Israel’s creation possible and ensures its continued survival. In doing so it renders a majority of Israel’s population beyond the pale. Only by abandoning Zionist exclusivism, we are told, will Israel become like all the other supposed ‘normal’ countries. This may be consoling to those on the far-left, who in renouncing Zionism have apparently demonstrated their moral superiority and their commitment to universalism, but it’s unlikely to reassure most Israelis. Denouncing your fellow countrymen as racists and war criminals simply because they do not want to see their country destroyed is hardly a sensible way to win friends and influence people. To attract more support, the far-left needs to construct a more positive message, or to offer some sort of compromise by which Israelis disturbed by the government’s failure to withdraw from the occupied territories would be able to participate in demonstrations without feeling they are betraying their people.

Second, the far-left needs to stop supporting, indirectly or otherwise, those who have no space in their hearts for Jewish suffering. By defending Gaza flotillas without criticising Hamas for the destructive role it plays in the region, the far-left has given succour to those who have no qualms about murdering Israelis. And its support for the BDS movement ‘from within’ has pushed Israelis further to the right. There may be some place for a targeted boycott in anti-occupation activism, but BDS is an open call for Israel’s destruction – if you support its advocates is it any surprise that you alienate your brothers?

Finally, the far-left has to acknowledge that the ongoing impasse is not solely Israel’s fault. By all means criticise the government’s intransigence over settlements, or human rights violations, but when you ignore the ongoing Palestinian refusal to recognise the legitimacy of Jewish national claims, a refusal that goes to the heart of the conflict, you are showing yourselves up to be embarrassingly one-sided. Edward Said and Franz Fanon will only get you so far. Israel may be more powerful than Palestine, but this does not mean the Palestinians have no agency. They have to make choices too, and many of them – like ours – have been detrimental to the cause of a peaceful settlement.

The weekly Sheikh Jarrah protests offer one model for constructive action. There, ideological disagreements have been mostly laid to one side so that the protesters can focus on the egregiousness of Israel’s settlement policy in East Jerusalem. But to stand on the sidelines while lambasting the J14 protesters for ignoring the occupation smacks of churlishness, bitterness, and self-righteousness. This is typified by Joseph Dana’s tweet from Saturday night’s demonstration: “The ‘new Israelis’ of J14 willingly maintain Israel’s system of inequality by ignoring the occupation and declaring it ‘political’”. As long as this continues, the far-left will remain irrelevant, and will continue to draw tens and hundreds rather than tens and hundreds of thousands to its demonstrations.