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Equality as Revolution: Two Israeli Dissidents on Their Fight for Truth and Accountability

Apartheid is alive and well in Israel, say dissidents.

People march through Rotschild Boulevard to protest Israel's Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu over alleged corruption in Tel Aviv, Israel, on January 13, 2018. The concept of dissent in Israel is often allowed only within the framework of Zionism. (Photo: Gil Cohen Magen / Anadolu Agency / Getty Images)

People march through Rotschild Boulevard to protest Israel's Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu over alleged corruption in Tel Aviv, Israel on January 13, 2018. The concept of dissent in Israel is often allowed only within the framework of Zionism. (Photo: Gil Cohen Magen / Anadolu Agency / Getty Images)People march through Rotschild Boulevard to protest Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu over alleged corruption in Tel Aviv, Israel, on January 13, 2018. The concept of dissent in Israel is often allowed only within the framework of Zionism. (Photo: Gil Cohen Magen / Anadolu Agency / Getty Images)

The mainstream perception of the state of Israel is changing. This is due to a convergence of factors that include shifting forces within Israeli politics, the rise of global neo-fascism in the United States and Europe, and international efforts aimed at highlighting and resisting the ongoing disenfranchisement and oppression of Palestinians, such as the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) campaign.

Ronnie Barkan is an Israeli activist, a conscientious objector and co-founder of Boycott From Within — a group of Israelis who support the Palestinian call for BDS.

Likewise, Tali Shapiro is an Israeli solidarity activist who takes part in Palestinian demonstrations in the West Bank. She is a member of the Israeli Boycott From Within group and participates in the “Israel Genocide?” campaign, which raises awareness to the possibility that Israel’s systematic human rights violations against the Indigenous Palestinian people amount to the crime of genocide.

In this interview, Barkan and Shapiro discuss the state of contemporary dissent within Israel.

Yoav Litvin: What are the most significant aspects of the Israeli political map from right to left?

Ronnie Barkan: The Israeli political map does not go from right to left. There is no Israeli left and it has never existed. The political map among the privileged class of Israeli-Jews is divided along a psychological line of self-perception, which essentially includes only right-wing politics…. While a so-called leftist discourse in Israel is usually perceived as revolving around liberal and humanistic values, no discussion exists concerning the deeply-rooted supremacist character of the state, its inherent anti-democratic nature, nor the fate of those who have been disenfranchised, oppressed, subjugated and terrorized for the past seven decades by Israel — the Palestinians.

Israel is definitely not a democratic state, but it is also not a Jewish state. Israel is only Jewish in the same way that South Africa was white. It is not Jewish by religion, but only by supremacy.

In theory, as in any supremacist ideology, there should be two opposing narratives: that of the supremacists and that of the humanists. Since there is such a stark distinction between Zionism and humanistic values, a third narrative emerged that enabled the infiltration of Zionism into leftist discourse, aimed at a merger that resulted in an inconsistent “liberal-Zionism.”

Liberal-Zionism is a far greater threat to Palestinians than what Netanyahu stands for … the so-called differences between the left and right in Israel are not a result of differing values, but are tactical and cosmetic, i.e. the way that the members of each group would like to portray themselves to the world. While the right-wingers unapologetically claim supremacy and dominance over the land — and like most supremacists, care very little about their perception in the world — the so-called left creates and maintains a false narrative in order maintain an illusion that Israel is a humane democracy. This is essential both for outer appearances and self-perception.

What is the current state of Israeli dissent?

Tali Shapiro: Israeli dissent is very compartmentalized. So, while the tent protests of 2011 sparked a broader resistance to economic and social justice issues, as can be seen with the anti-corruption protests happening these days, the Israeli anti-colonialist movement did not grow as a result. In fact, these massive protests embody an apartheidist view in which Palestinians are intentionally not mentioned as a means of garnering wide support within Israeli society.

There is a general consensus in the Israeli left (I use this term very loosely here, to refer to a spectrum of Israelis who are socially conscious and active on a multitude of important issues) that Israel’s systematic violations of Palestinian rights and lives, if acknowledged at all, are a “necessary evil.” This stems from the refusal to confront Israel’s crimes and inherent colonial nature. Such a recognition would spark a rebellion that demands regime change, so as to end the colonial process and begin a process of democratization. Unfortunately, I see the reverse scenario unfolding, in which Israel cracks down on human rights defenders who focus on the Palestinian people, whether they are explicitly anti-colonialist or not.

In current Israel, a local unified left which acts on the most basic principles of solidarity is overshadowed by a fragmented social movement that fights for the leftovers afforded to the privileged parts of society.

Barkan: Within the Israeli political sphere, the most radical notion is that of equality. Zionism is an ideology that promotes one privileged group at the expense of the others. The very demand for equality in this land literally undermines everything that the state is founded on. Although standing up for Palestinians, Muslims, ultra-Orthodox Jews or other oppressed communities against state repression is regarded among most Israelis as treason, the demand for full equality is a far more radical stance. Thus, in Israel-Palestine, there cannot be any form of opposition, which is not a total and absolute rejection of Zionism and Zionist crimes.

The concept of dissent in Israel is allowed only within the framework of Zionism. For example, the aforementioned struggle for so-called “social justice” in the summer of 2011, and the ongoing weekly demonstrations in Tel-Aviv — which call for the end of the Netanyahu era and are branded as “anti-corruption” — are all within the framework of Zionism.

In 2011, the 400,000 demonstrators in Tel-Aviv chanted, “The people demand social justice!” Yet in Israel, the Hebrew word for “the people” is perceived as “the Jewish people.” Likewise, the term “Israelis,” unless stated otherwise, exclusively means Israeli Jews. Had those demonstrators really been concerned with social justice in the areas of housing, education or health care, they would primarily focus on Palestinians — both inside the 1948 borders and in the Occupied Palestinian Territories. Had they expressed even the slightest criticism about, say, the inflated military budget or the fact that the Israeli welfare state migrated from within Israel proper to the Israeli settlements in the West Bank where much is subsidized, then perhaps 400 people would have shown up, not 400,000….

What is it like to be a woman-activist in Israel, a society dominated by male chauvinist military culture? How does it affect your effectiveness?

Shapiro: Part of the challenge for women is that activist spaces are often inherently characterized by the heteronormative, macho approaches that are common in society at large. The traits that are expected of activists in the local anti-colonialist movement are that of indifferent endurance in the face of a deadly brutality from the Israeli army. To top that off, women need to work harder to have a respected voice in our own communities.

However, I think the activist community is very aware of these issues, though it is challenging to pave your road while walking it. As women, we find ourselves doing the anti-colonialist work, as well as creating appropriate spaces for us in the movement, while educating men about how their privileges play out in our community. It is very depleting to have to fight for respect and support in the place you call home. That said, I’m extremely proud of the work we do around gender violence and community accountability.

How do you view the Israeli electoral system and the Israeli Parliament — the Knesset?

Barkan: Israel is an apartheid state by design, i.e., every single element of the state was created in order to maintain a privilege for one ethnic group by any means necessary. The state’s apartheid parliament, the Knesset … demonstrates Israel’s deeply supremacist nature.

This is backed by several legal reports, including the excellent UN ESCWA report of March 2017: “Israeli Practices towards the Palestinian People and the Question of Apartheid.” The main point in the report, which did not receive appropriate attention in the media, was that Israel enforces an apartheid regime in the entire territory under its control and beyond. This includes every Palestinian refugee in the Shatat (diaspora) who suffers from the direct consequences of exclusion … the UN report quotes from the Israeli law book regarding the eligibility of participation in parliament:

A candidates list shall not participate in elections to the Knesset, and a person shall not be a candidate for election to the Knesset, if the objects or actions of the list or the actions of the person, expressly or by implication, include one of the following: (1) negation of the existence of the State of Israel as a Jewish and democratic state…” —Basic Law: Knesset, article 7(a)

The UN ESCWA report also states that:

Voting rights lose their significance in terms of equal rights when a racial group is legally banned from challenging laws that perpetuate inequality. An analogy would be a system in which slaves have the right to vote but not against slavery.

And indeed, [Palestinian citizens of Israel] would not have voting rights if their vote carried actual political weight. Under Israeli law, they may, at best, struggle for better civil rights while renouncing the struggle for national rights and against racial domination, which also puts them at risk of being used as a fig leaf for Israeli apartheid.

Describe the BDS tactic against Israel. What does it aim to achieve?

Barkan: The essence of the Palestinian-led BDS campaign is the simple demand for equality, freedom and justice for all the people…. In practice, it means, as a very first step, to apply nonviolent means of boycott, divestment and sanctions until [Palestinians’] rights … are met.

The Palestinian movement for boycotting apartheid Israel takes inspiration from the successful boycott campaign to abolish apartheid in South Africa. I believe that most people today would agree that boycotting South Africa was a legitimate — and even necessary — course of action. While the South African boycott became mainstream and all countries of the world adhered to its rules, it was the United States and Israel that remained the sole allies of the South African criminal regime, with Israel breaking the arms embargo as well. This also included a documented effort by the politician Shimon Peres to sell to them nuclear weapons.

What are some of the societal pressures you face in Israel as a dissident?

Shapiro: As an anti-colonialist, and especially as a BDS supporter, I have learned to protect myself. I basically do not speak about politics in the social sphere unless I am within a protest, in which case it becomes obvious where I stand. I do not walk around with political messages on my clothes or otherwise, and do not comment on the passing racist remarks made by fellow Israelis. That said, the ability to protect myself is a privilege that I am afforded in Israel, whereas those who are non-Jewish, not white and not of Ashkenazi descent, are not.

As a queer feminist, however, the struggle takes a different form, and so does the abuse. So, in terms of societal pressure, there is constant tension between confronting the expressions of the many forms of domination in our lives, and simply making it through the day.

As a BDS supporter, I am cognizant that the anti-Palestinian sentiment … stems from meticulous Israeli government efforts. The current government has created a ministry specifically designed for the purpose of suppression of human rights work. It is infused with millions of dollars annually, both from the government itself and from donors abroad, and includes numerous legislation efforts, buying media space to publish propaganda pieces that smear and blacklist activists, and some covert operations we are not aware of.

Do Israeli human rights organizations all support BDS? If not, why?

Barkan: Organizations that claim to stand for human rights but reject the notion of equality, freedom and justice for all, are frauds. This is how I view liberal-Zionists.

A perfect example for this phenomenon among Israeli human rights organizations is the case of the Association for Civil Rights in Israel (ACRI), which stands at the forefront of protecting Israeli apartheid.

This supposedly humanistic organization uses Orwellian practices when speaking about “the strong basis of Israeli democracy” and deems racist and absurd legislation as “undemocratic” and “anti-constitutional,” even though Israel is not a democracy and has no constitution. Israel vehemently opposes having a constitution, since that would mean that there would be a legal basis for equality among its citizens, which would undermine the fundamentals of Israel as a Zionist state.

While the ACRI and other human rights organizations selectively acknowledge the existence of apartheid in the West Bank and have petitioned the Israeli courts quoting from the legal definition of the crime of Apartheid, they do not protest this practice within the 1948 borders. Likewise, they are deeply concerned about the rights of refugees fleeing from Africa, mainly Sudan and Eritrea, but they ignore the rights of Palestinian refugees who are close to 70 percent of the Palestinian population….

What are some of the challenges and threats you face? What is the importance of the Israeli presence within the BDS movement?

Shapiro: Currently, there are two legislative initiatives by the Ministry of Public Security. The first is to add a clause to the existing Anti-Boycott Law, which basically uses business-owners as human shields against human rights defenders. The idea is that instead of ending its human rights violations, Israel implicates Israeli businesses in these violations of international law, which leads to calls to boycotts of those businesses. Israel in turn has created this law to shelter its partners in crime, and have us pay the price for whistleblowing. The new clause will make it easier to exact punishment, as it stipulates no damages must be proven as a result of our advocacy.

An additional law in the works is aimed at criminalizing BDS completely. It is based on an existing law that has to do with crimes of treason, and as such, carries penalties ranging between 10 years of imprisonment to life.

Israelis in the BDS movement challenge all kinds of sectarian views within society and have the potential of creating interest and curiosity in what the Palestinian movement of liberation is proposing. But beyond our “token” role, I think our importance is only as relevant as the work we put in. Our challenge is in subverting our privileges to strengthen Palestinian initiatives and concerns, identifying where those concerns intersect with our own, and relating them to other Israelis and interested people abroad.

Barkan: Conscientious Israelis who support Palestinian rights are a negligible minority within Israeli society. Therefore, it is clearly not about the numbers, but rather about expressing dissent, i.e. our refusal to partake in this system of oppression.

Due to the almost nonexistent [number] of dissenters within Israeli society, it is highly irresponsible to expect Israelis to rebel against the system that privileges them.

Our role is similar to that played by the white folks who stood in solidarity with Black partners in the struggle against apartheid in South Africa.

Thus, the role of the Israeli dissident is one of solidarity with the oppressed in any way possible.

As a privileged Israeli Jew, I am perhaps in a good position to counter Zionist propaganda and unequivocally state that BDS is not anti-Semitic. In fact, it is opposed to all forms of racism, including Zionism and anti-Semitism. The BDS guidelines also make a clear distinction between individuals and organizations — it does not act against Israeli individuals and does not enforce a form of thought police, regardless of that individual’s political views. Rather, we solely focus on targeting complicit institutions and the state’s representatives.

Other than overcoming Zionist crimes, I also see BDS as the only effective and positive educational tool for Israelis, and a shining ray of hope in this time of political and moral darkness. The transformative and disruptive nature of the campaign is based on it being strictly about a human rights discourse and insisting on the whole package of human rights. By doing so, we also offer Israelis a radically different vision for the future, which places aside deeply racist “demographic concerns” and seeks a shared future for all, regardless of their past role as oppressor or oppressed.

A current act of Palestinian dissent — Ahed Tamimi’s slap of an Israeli soldier — has captured the global media’s attention. What is its significance?

Shapiro: I think the significance is not in Ahed’s slap, but rather in Israel’s use of this slap to exact extreme retaliation against Palestinian women and girls, whom it abuses daily in the context of a belligerent military occupation.

It is ridiculous to even focus on this incident, and not on Israel’s ongoing military occupation and oppression of Palestinians. Israel’s focus on this case — or any other arrests of Palestinians, for that matter — has to do with housekeeping of its massive Indigenous-population-control system. The myopia of colonialist bureaucracy entails arrest and trial of the offender, but is couched in a reality in which it is an offense to exist. Israel’s response to Ahed is no different than any other high-profile Palestinian prisoner. It is Ahed’s identity — one of a teenage girl — that highlights the dehumanizing view Israel has of Palestinians.

Note: This interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity.

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