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Will the New Israeli Social Movement Address the Occupation?

Protesters from the J14 Movement in Israel, September 3, 2011. (Photo: Eli Brody)

Over the past several months, there has been a huge wave of ongoing protest that has struck Israel. They are the largest in the country's history and have focused on social reforms, namely the cost of living and the lack of affordable housing. The movement has been dubbed J14 after the date of the first protest, July 14, when eight Israelis began camping out in the center of Tel Aviv. The tent encampments grew larger and larger, encompassing huge sections of the city and spreading across the country. Demonstrations of hundreds of thousands took to the streets to demand widespread social reform. In the past month, the protests have drawn down, but nonetheless continue, as do the movement's demands and even more so, what many are calling a newly awakened Israeli civil society. But what has been generally absent from the issues raised by protesters has been the relationship among the Israeli state, the military and the ongoing occupation of Palestinian land.

Haggai Matar is an Israeli journalist and political activist focused primarily on the struggle against the occupation. He is currently working at Zman Tel Aviv, the local supplement of Maariv newspaper and at the independent Hebrew web site MySay. In this interview, David Zlutnick speaks with Matar to hear his thoughts on J14, from the perspective of an anti-occupation activist. As a participant in the demonstrations, he is asked to comment on their relationship to the ongoing Israeli-Palestinian conflict, how Israeli anti-occupation and leftist activists are interacting to J14 and how this dynamic is playing out internally.

David Zlutnick: To begin, I'd like to talk about socio-economic context in which the J14 movement arose. What is interesting about the Israeli case is that, on paper, the economy is booming. But wealth distribution is extremely unequal and increasingly consolidated, with over 20 percent of the population below the poverty line. Unemployment is extremely low – less than 6 percent. But wages are extremely low, too. There's been a huge shift from the social democratic Labor Zionism on which the state was founded. Would you share your thoughts on how young Israelis now find themselves in this precarious economic position during a time of prosperity on a macro level?

Haggai Matar: I think you've defined the situation we're in very well. As you say, unemployment is extremely low. However, about 25 percent of workers earn the minimum wage (about 1,200 USD per month) and yet another 25 percent earn something very close to that. Meanwhile the cost of living is going through the roof, as prices are going up and more and more services are being privatized, leading a huge part of the population to a position where they have to choose between paying their bills and buying medicine, between good education for their children and sufficient clothing. At the same time, indirect taxes are relatively high. As someone recently put it – while Americans pay little taxes and get little services from the state and while Europeans pay high taxes and get many services, Israelis pay high taxes and get very little.

This has had a terrible effect on the lower classes for quite a long time now. In this current wave of protests what we see is how this has also reached the middle class, especially the young generation. Whereas our parents, at the age of 30 for example, could easily be economically independent of their parents and sustain a family from their earnings, young people today rely heavily on their parents to help them just pay the rent and university fees – even when they have a degree and a good job. Becoming parents seems to many in my age like something they cannot afford.

This is actually a very classic capitalist crisis: in the constant attempt to become more profitable, businesses make sure the rich pay less taxes, the state gives fewer services, salaries stay at their lowest possible level with minimal additional worker rights and unions – but prices go up. The collision is unavoidable.

DZ: The protests developed a damning critique of neoliberal economic policy, blaming it for the creation of this crisis. What is your view on this subject and what is the history of this ideology's foundation in Israeli society?

HM: In short: neoliberal economy is more or less the basis to what I just described. It was ushered in by the Likud at the beginning of the 80's (same time as Thatcher and Reagan) and the Labor party continued with it – making privatization and other neoliberal policies the main theme of almost all big mainstream parties.

DZ: As an anti-occupation activist, do you see militarism and the occupation linked to the present situation?

HM: Well, I don't really. Not directly anyway. I think any economy, not only an economy that's built around a military industry such as ours, could suffer from these exact conditions. The indirect link here is that militarism and the occupation cause the political discourse in Israel to only focus on “the conflict.” Other issues, like basic civil rights, are thus sidelined and this summer was the first time that they forced themselves into mainstream politics as a central topic – no less important than the occupation. This also led people to asking questions about the enhanced security budget, which was also some sort of a taboo before, though I think that the answers to our problems will be found in simply cutting military spending – blessed though that may be.

DZ: In continuation on your point, many Israeli activists I've talked with in the past – including yourself – have said that the culture of militarism and in turn subordination in Israel had created a generally complacent society in terms of demanding social change. Do you still think this is applicable? Has the J14 movement challenged some of your previous perceptions of Israeli society? What do you think led to people taking a stand and on such a scale?

HM: Yes, the Israeli society WAS very complacent up until J14. In that sense, the way I see it, J14 has not challenged my previous thoughts on society the way it used to be – it has challenged and changed society itself.

I think the combination between a long period of relative lack of violence in “the conflict,” with a material deterioration in the status of the middle classes – including media people, who were quick to support the protest due to their own distress, amongst other things – plus an uneasiness felt around recent extreme right-wing legislation were partly responsible for this development.

DZ: There have been many distressing legal developments in Israel recently, both in terms of its relation to its internal Palestinian population, which we'll get to in a bit, as well as purely from a liberal democratic standpoint. Many critics have said the country has taken a sharp turn away from democracy. Is there any mention of democracy in the current social struggles? And if so, how are the issues of democracy and social justice being linked?

HM: Not directly. There is a strong attempt to detach J14 from the “old” political divisions and talking about democracy and [speaking] against these laws – which were and are targeting Arabs and leftists – would have been “branded” a “leftist” thing. However, the notion of democracy IS being mentioned in different ways: in the criticism of the leadership which is not listening to the people's demands and in arguments saying that you can't have democracy without social justice, with people being kicked out of their homes, etc. It is the challenge of the left to take this discourse – and other parts of the J14 discourse – and promote it towards a wider and deeper understanding of democracy.

DZ: What is the relationship of the protests to electoral politics and political parties? They seem to be existing autonomously and even in opposition to the established political arena.

HM: True. The protest has been labeled “a-political” from day one, with some meaning that it truly has nothing to do with politics, some referring to a detachment from the regular political questions of the occupation, etc. and all agreeing that it is detached from political parties. The parties too are trying to keep a safe distance, though some, mainly the Communist Party and Meretz, have many activists in the front lines and their MKs [Members of Knesset, the Israeli Parliament] make a point of supporting the struggle all the time.

DZ: As you mentioned, the demonstrators have a strong aversion to being labeled as “leftists,” purportedly to avoid being pigeonholed and written off as not part of the mainstream. But the vast majority of J14's demands are “left”-leaning in a traditional sense and opinion polls suggest that upward of 85 percent of the population have supported the protests. What do you make of this?

HM: Well, the answer is in the words “traditional sense.” After so many years of political discourse dealing almost solely with the occupation, “left” and “right” are considered to be only different attitudes towards Palestinians, peace vs. land, etc. With this struggle suddenly coming forward and these old definitions put aside, we are suddenly seeing the political map in Israel rewritten, which I think is likely to give birth to a new party.

DZ: The proverbial “elephant” in the tent encampments has been the issue of the occupation and the Jewish Israeli population's relationship to Palestinians in general – both those with Israeli citizenship and those living under occupation. Why has the J14 movement largely tried to dodge this issue and what is your opinion on the desire of many protesters to leave the occupation out of this?

HM: I'll refer to the question of Israeli citizens later, as this is more complicated and you asked about that specifically.

As to the occupation, this is easy. The occupation is considered to be the biggest divider of the Israeli Jewish society, matched only with questions on the role of religion in the state. As the movement is trying to get as much support as possible, it can hardly pull the card of being anti-occupation, as then most of its (Jewish) supporters would probably leave.

However, the movement is challenged by this issue all the time and people are talking about the “elephant” in different ways all the time. Films that are being screened in “cinema revolution” [an ongoing presentation of various films during the protests] in the encampments are dealing with the occupation. The attack in the south last month [by militants against Israeli targets near the southern city of Eilat, which killed eight] forced people to talk about it and so does the current Palestinian bid in the UN. A joint Palestinian-Israeli leftist statement in support of the struggle AND the end of the occupation has made people here rethink their relations to Palestinians. And the constant involvement of anti-occupation activists and groups within the J14 struggle is showing people that we are not “traitors,” but people who care about society and are willing to fight to make this country a better place for all the people in it. This too makes people think.

DZ: But from the perspective of an anti-occupation activist, do you think there's a possibility that by continuing to not address the occupation these protests could further entrench an attitude among Israelis that it is something with which they need not concern themselves? That it is separate from them?

HM: I think it is important that anti-occupation activists keep shoving the issue in, not allowing it to be forgotten. This can be done by pitching an anti-occupation tent, which we did, not as a protest against the protest, but as a part of it. It can also be done in the fine and long and complex negotiations about what this movement's demands are. For example, when the government announced building thousands of new houses in East Jerusalem, activists released a statement saying that this will NOT be acceptable as an answer to the demands [for affordable housing]. When Channel Two tried to bring some of the leaders to a special TV show hosted in the settlement of Ariel, they refused. These might be small gestures, but they mean something and it is something which we need to go on building.

DZ: Some Palestinian citizens of Israel pitched their own tents. Some are even present in the movement's national leadership assembly. While many of the issues being raised surely resonate, clearly there are additional issues that are unique to that community. Would you talk about what you know of the integration of their demands into the greater movement? How is their presence being received?

HM: While Palestinians in the Diaspora and the occupied territories are mostly excluded from the movement, Palestinians within Israel are not. And this is in my eyes a great success of this struggle. To have Israelis talking about “the people” and referring not to the Jewish people but to all citizens, this is something that has never happened here. And so Palestinians are accepted in all circles, on all demonstration stages and their demands are becoming the movement's demands – though there are some competing leaderships, not all of which are that ready to accept this new partnership – but most are. For example, the new plan to ruin the homes of tens of thousands of Bedouins in the Negev seems to be receiving more opposition from Jews than it would have before.

The one problem is that Palestinians are accepted as individuals, as citizens who deserve equal rights, but not as a collective with a different national identity. This means that there are constant problems with the national anthem being sung at demonstrations, etc. But I think with time people will learn how Jewish-Arab partnership works and this will – hopefully – change.

DZ: Even though many Palestinians within Israel have joined the demonstrations and some cross-community connections are being forged, the protests appear to be confined within the Green Line. Has there been any effort that you're aware of to connect with Palestinians in the West Bank specifically around this movement?

HM: No. There hasn't. Just the joint statement of Palestinian and Jewish left I mentioned before.

DZ: Also present in the encampments at various points have been some settlers and settler organizations. Their argument has been that to deal with Israel's affordable housing shortage, the government should simply build more Jewish settlements in the West Bank, a case being made also by dozens of Knesset members, as you referred to previously. Some of the most extreme of these protesters, the “hilltop youth,” were kicked out of the main Tel Aviv camp for being so divisive, but in August the J14 web site officially supported a protest in the West Bank settlement of Ariel. Even if it's the goal of the movement to stay away from the issue of the occupation, this seems problematic to say the least …

HM: Settler involvement in the movement has been very minimal, to the verge of non-existent. In the beginning there were some settlers trying to connect to the movement, but it was more of a symbolical statement of “remember, we too are a part of 'the people.'” In the long while, they just disappeared. There have been occasional activities organized by settlers in Ariel and Ma'ale Adomim, very non-ideological settlements, which focused on the same themes as the general movement. And yes, I do think it's problematic they were “accepted” …

DZ: Would you say it's also arguable that these demonstrations are a rejection of the settler ideology as at least the majority of the protesters are refusing the available option of cheaper living on a settlement?

HM: True.

DZ: There was a fear that the unity of the movement might not be able to withstand any outbreak of violence with Gaza or in the West Bank. Yet, after the August 18 attack on Israelis in Eilat and the subsequent Israeli air strikes and rockets firing from Gaza, the protests continued. And although the weekly protest in Tel Aviv was much smaller than normal that week, 5,000 still marched adding a ceasefire between the Israel military and Gaza militants to their demands. Many were pleasantly surprised. Were you?

HM: Yes and no. Yes, because it's unlikely in Israeli politics, and no, because it IS likely in the new developing discourse of the movement.

DZ: Last week, President Mahmoud Abbas applied for Palestinian statehood at the UN. Do you anticipate this affecting what momentum is left for the protests?

HM: It's hard to say, but I think the movement will have a harder time holding up due to the coming rains, the beginning of the school year, etc., than because of the UN bid. Unless, of course, terrible violence breaks out. In which case it is very hard to say.

DZ: In relation to that, there's also worries about a reservist call-up not only militarizing and distracting the protesters, but also physically calling those remaining away from the encampments. Has there been any organizing from the anti-militarist movement to address this potentiality?

HM: There has been some leafleting by people, some meetings on the subject, but nothing too concrete. I think it'll be up to the reserve soldiers themselves and the majority of the protesters, to see how they react to such a state of affairs. There is a chance of going back to the old militarist dogmas, but who knows – maybe we'll be surprised …

DZ: In an August article on the protests you wrote: “The question remains: what good is a struggle for social justice which remains silent on the greatest crime of them all – the occupation and stolen Palestinian lands within Israel?” You addressed it by saying that, in your opinion, the question can't be ignored, but is not a good enough reason to, in turn, ignore the largest social movement in Israel's history, one “wherein the whole country is in an incredible process of learning things all the time.” Would you expand on that, please?

HM: Specifically on the point of learning – this really is something very unique. People are literally sitting in streets and occupied houses and whatnot and are talking to each other, organizing and attending workshops, downloading documentaries, starting to read the economic section of the daily papers, etc. – all leading to a massive expansion in their knowledge and the collective knowledge. People are open to new information and new commentary and are being thus radicalized very seriously.

On the point of staying within the struggle, I'll refer to something [acclaimed Israeli journalist] Amira Hass recently wrote. She said that no struggle is “pure.” Anti-occupation struggles can sometimes contain a lot of sexual harassment and sexist behavior towards women – but that only means you have to try and change that, not ditch the struggle. People in the US might fight for the reform of your healthcare system, but not say a word about Iraq. It's a shame, but it doesn't make this specific struggle less just. See my point?

DZ: Do you see there being a possibility of these protests actually taking on the occupation? Or is there a vision among some on the left to create truly systemic change in Israel beyond just a military withdrawal?

HM: Hmmm … I really don't know. Both the struggles are, right now, in very sensitive positions and it's very hard to say what will happen next and how they might affect one another. I really really can't say, but I can say that it's our role as activists to be involved and show them the right way …

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