How Could the Largest Social Justice Movement in Israel's History Manage to Ignore the Country's Biggest Moral Disaster?

In early July 2011, radical left-wing activists in Israel organized a Facebook event titled, "The Week of Rage" as a spontaneous demonstration against the skyrocketing price of rent and basic consumer goods. Also prominent in the activists' list of grievances were anti-democratic proposals of Israel’s parliament, the Knesset, that were designed to stifle dissent against the occupation and Israel's repression of its own Palestinian citizens. The protests were characteristically theatrical, with demonstrators attacking the Likud Party headquarters with cottage cheese, a staple commodity that had become unaffordable for most. Enthusiastic as they were, the demonstrations were sparsely attended. 

On July 14, in the midst of the Week of Rage, another spontaneous protest developed in Tel Aviv. About a dozen young residents with scant experience in direct action protest pitched tents on Tel Aviv's Rothschild Boulevard. Months before, protesters in Greece had pitched their own tents in Syntagma Square directly in front of the Greek parliament to challenge their government with a display of people power. The location selected by the Israeli demonstrators was no less significant. Instead of setting up camp in front of the Finance Ministry or the Knesset, they chose a wide, grass-lined strip that mimicked Viennese strolling grounds. On one end of Rothschild Boulevard was the Dizengoff House where David Ben Gurion publicly declared the establishment of the "Jewish and democratic" state. On the other end was the recently refurbished Ha'Bima Theater, the symbol of the Zionist resuscitation of the Hebrew language. 
As the protesters erected the first tents, we interviewed Stav Shaffir, a media professional in her late-20s. "We are a young group of Israelis and we feel we're unable to live in Tel Aviv because the prices of housing are going up," Shaffir told us. "We're fed up with having to always move between places and look for the cheapest housing solutions. It's now time to say enough so we've come out to the streets with our tents and we've also started in Jerusalem."
We asked Shaffir if the protest movement was connected in any way to the law passed five days before in the Knesset that criminalized speaking in favor of a boycott of settlement-produced goods, or to the constant stream of anti-democratic laws. "There are many things that are connected but here we protest against the housing costs," she insisted. "We are not a group. Everyone has their discretion to choose what is the most important issue."
What began as a small gathering of Tel Avivians built unexpected, immediate momentum. Shaffir and her friends struck a chord among the country's frustrated middle class. Three weeks after the first tents appeared, 300,000 demonstrators filled the streets of Tel Aviv in one of the largest protests in Israel's history. Chanting in unison, "The nation demands social justice!" Israelis of nearly all political backgrounds joined together as the voice of a disgruntled but suddenly hopeful people.
The protesters presented a smorgasbord of Israeli grievances, including more rights for the physically disabled, better care for the elderly, and the release of Gilad Shalit, a soldier held captive by Hamas since 2006. But everything seemed to center around the kitchen table demands originally outlined by Shaffir and her cadre. Polls taken a week after the protests exploded showed nearly 90 percent of Israelis approved of the demonstrations’ demands.
The crisis no one was willing to mention, however, was the 44-year-long Israeli occupation of the West Bank and Gaza Strip. Demonstrators we interviewed from across the political spectrum deflected questions about the occupation -- at times in an aggressive, resentful manner -- by calling it a divisive "political" issue.
"I think the general public sees occupation as a security issue, a left-right issue that is not related to our cause for social justice," Hadas Kouchalevich, a leader of the Israel Students' Union, told us. Kouchalevich's organization has shepherded thousands of university students to the demonstrations, including students from Ariel University who study in a West Bank mega-settlement. When asked if she personally believed the July 14 movement could connect social justice to the issue of occupation, she replied, "No. Occupation is a security issue, not a social justice issue." 
The decision to exclude the occupation from the grievances of the July 14 movement was entirely organic. No hired gun consultant advised movement activists to avoid the hot button issue in order to broaden the appeal of the demonstrations. The mainstream of the Jewish public decided on its own, and without much internal reflection, that social justice could exist alongside a system of ethnic exclusivism. Thus, while the July 14 movement proceeded through cities across Israel bellowing out cries for dignity and rights, Palestinians remained safely tucked away behind an elaborate matrix of control -- the Iron Wall. Ten years of separation had not only rendered the Palestinians invisible in a physical sense. It had erased them from the Israeli conscience.
"It's very strange to see a social justice protest without mentioning occupation," Gidi Grinstein, a confidant of Defense Minister Ehud Barak, who heads the Reut Institute, a government-linked Israeli think tank remarked. "But most people in Israel don't even believe there is an occupation anymore. They see the Palestinian Authority in the West Bank, and think there is a functioning government. They hear about the Palestinian statehood resolution at the UN in September, and they think Palestine is a real state. So there is this cognitive dissonance among Israelis."
For years Israel's tiny but intensely motivated left-wing tried to mobilize mass protests against the occupation, hoping they could shake Israeli society out of its slumber. But the settlements grew, and the occupation became more and more entrenched. Suddenly, with hundreds of thousands of their compatriots in the streets demonstrating against the most right-wing government in their country's history, some leftists began conjuring visions of a revolution.
"We have failed to end the occupation by confronting it head on but the boundary-breaking, de-segregating movement could, conceivably, undermine it," wrote Dimi Reider, a writer for the heavily trafficked left-wing Israeli online magazine 972. Reider claimed the demonstrations could achieve dramatic change because they "may challenge something even deeper than the occupation." Hagai Mattar, a veteran anti-occupation activist and widely read journalist, echoed Reider's unbridled enthusiasm. "For the first time in decades, perhaps, we are witnessing the impossible becoming possible," Mattar wrote on the popular Hebrew website MySay. "What appeared to be a mere fantasy half a year ago… has become a vivid reality."
Many members of the Israeli left have suffered for their activism. Some have been injured by Israeli soldiers during protests in the West Bank, where they routinely dodge rubber bullets and high-velocity teargas projectiles. Others have served months in prison for refusing to serve in the Israeli Army. With a suite of anti-democratic laws passed by the Knesset, they fear a coming crackdown. But perhaps the greatest source of suffering for Israeli leftists is having been cast out of one of the most tribalistic societies in the world. Many are turned down for housing and employment on the grounds that they refused military  service. The very word "leftist," or smolini, has become an insult in the Hebrew language. Hoping to replace the communal bond their society had denied them, the radical leftists who have not escaped to the squats of Berlin or Barcelona formed a tribe within the tribe.
As the July 14 protests gathered momentum and manpower, members of the radical left bolstered the movement with their tactical experience and fearlessness in the face of police intimidation. On July 23, when hundreds of thousands of protesters took to the streets of Tel Aviv, Israeli police forces arrested 43 demonstrators. Most of them were leftists who attempted to block a major intersection. The most prominent among them was Matar. Normally, the arrests of left-wingers at anti-occupation protests go unreported. In this instance, however, the arrests were broadcast to a national audience during the prime time news. After being released from their jail cells, the demonstrators were greeted by their fellow Israelis not as traitors but as heroic leaders.
"The radical left is no longer an outsider, but forms an important part of the mainstream," Matar wrote recently in an article celebrating the protests. If this new movement welcomed leftists, and upheld them as its vanguard, how could it not be revolutionary? 
Born out of indignation and mired for years in malaise, radical leftists like Matar believe they have found the influence they always sought among mainstream Israelis. However, there was little evidence that the July 14 movement's rank and file had any interest in overthrowing the "system," or that they would ever be willing to acknowledge, let alone engage, the occupation. If anything, the demonstrations reflected the young urban class's yearning for early Zionist communalism, where everyone was guaranteed respect so long as they were part of the yishuv (community).
As Yehuda Nuriel, a columnist for the leading Israeli newspaper Yedioth Aharanot, wrote recently, "Here is the Zionism we almost lost. We found it in the tent." Indeed, July 14 seems to represent a remarkable reincarnation of the Zionist spirit that gave birth to the state of Israel, not the revolution that will "challenge something deeper than the occupation," as Reider wrote.
As during the glory days of early socialist Zionism, Palestinians are isolated and ignored. "It's a classic secular, Jewish and urban protest," Tamar Herman, a political scientist at the Israel Democracy Institute, told the Associated Press. "Arab participation would open the door to the divisive questions here."
In mixed cities and in Palestinian communities inside the Green Line, a few Palestinian citizens of Israel are pitching their own tents. But on Tel Aviv's Rothschild Boulevard, the epicenter of the protest movement, there is only one tent representing Palestinian demands. It is "Tent 1948," a small encampment dedicated to promoting Arab-Jewish solidarity and reminding the mass of demonstrators of the dispossession of Palestinians in 1948. Left-wing Israeli writers Noam Sheizaf and Mairav Zonszein claimed that Tent 1948 was "challenging the protest movement from the left, by reminding people of land issues that followed 1948." Citing the presence of the Arab-Jewish tent and the inclusion of a single Arab speaker at the raucous July 23 rally in Tel Aviv (the speaker did not risk rankling his massive audience with any mentions of occupation), Reider opined that "the participation of Palestinian citizens of Israel in the protests has more bearing on the conflict than any concentrated attempt to rally the crowds against the occupation." 
Palestinian-Israelis join the July 14 protests at great personal risk. They fear that by joining the movement their own national identity will be co-opted to advance a struggle that will betray them in the end. Boudour Youssef Hassan, a 22-year-old law student at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem, is among many young Palestinian citizens of Israel who looked upon the demonstrations with suspicion. "At first I thought it was a good thing that they were confronting the right-wing government," she said of the Jewish demonstrators. "But the longer it goes on the more I think they are simply using us Palestinians while their real goal appears to be the revival of the Zionist left."
Abir Kopty, a Palestinian rights activist from the northern Israeli city of Nazareth, is one the few Palestinians to have insinuated themselves into the main protest area on Rothschild. Kopty played a central role in the establishment of Tent 1948 and she is a major presence at Palestinian tent protests around the country. "I've been a part of Tent 1948 not because I wanted to be part of J14," Kopty told us. "My role there is to challenge J14 and to tell them they can't have social justice without addressing issues like occupation. So I refuse to be a part of J14. I'm only there to challenge and to assert my Palestinian identity."
Despite her prominent role, Kopty agreed with Youssef Hassan that the movement was exploiting her presence to burnish its social justice image. "I'm aware that they're using me but it doesn't matter because in the world [the July 14 movement] won't receive any real support unless they address the Palestinian issue and the occupation," Kopty said. "Palestinians aren't really a part of J14 anyway because they generally didn't go to Rothschild to set up tents. Instead they are setting up tents in their own neighborhoods just to say, 'Hello, we are here.'"
But could the July 14 protests initiate a process that will eventually lead to the unraveling of the occupation and discrimination against Palestinians, as many on the Israeli left have suggested? "The injustice will continue," Kopty declared flatly. "And I don't believe J14 will create changes that are socio-political. But our struggle is completely political. So when J14 finally explodes because the different internal groups have contradicting interests -- and they can't remain apolitical forever -- our struggle will go on."
As the July 14 movement grows, it is becoming more inclusive, but not of Palestinians. Instead, Jewish settlers of both the ideological and practical variety are now welcomed into the protest's big tent. 
Ariel is the linchpin of the major settlement blocs Israel refuses to relinquish in final status negotiations. Built on hundreds of hectares of land confiscated from private Palestinian landowners and surrounded by the Israeli separation wall, which creates a wedge between seven nearby Palestinian villages, Ariel sits directly on top of one of the largest aquifers in the region. According to the Israeli human rights group B'tselem, Ariel residents receive 7.9 times more government subsidies than those who live inside Israel proper. This August, the Israeli government approved the construction of 277 new housing units in Ariel, including 100 for settlers evacuated from the Gaza Strip in 2005.
Ariel has become a symbol of the cognitive dissonance of Israel's occupation. While its borders stretch deep into the West Bank, consolidating Israel's domination over Palestinian life, its interior resembles a grassy bedroom community in Southern California, lined with neat rows of mission-style subdivision homes. From Ariel's new university to its state-of-the-art theater to the gleaming sports center built thanks to the generosity of American junk bond kingpin Michael Milken and Texas mega-church pastor John Hagee, the settlement contains all the trappings of a "normal" community. The majority of Israelis have bought into the image of Ariel as Israel's own Temecula -- a suburb, not a settlement. 
On August 13, when protest leaders declared an "expansion into the periphery" of Israel, Ariel held its first ever social justice demonstration, with hundreds of disgruntled residents demanding lower housing prices. Two days before, the July 14 movement endorsed the protest in Ariel, advertising directions to the demonstration on its official Hebrew website. 
"This is the test," the July 14 website proclaimed. "Are we together or are we not?" 

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