July 22, 2012 · 0 Comments
Above: Tel Aviv Housing Protests 6 August 2011 (Photo taken by the author)
By Patrick O. Strickland:
TEL AVIV—Last summer, as Israelis became outraged by the soaring cost of living, tent cities sprouted in every major city. For eight consecutive weekends, Israelis from all across the country came together and expressed their grievances.
“The people demand social justice!” declared Daphni Leef, the university student who provided the immediate spark for the movement. On July 14, 2011, after being evicted from her apartment, she pitched a tent on Tel Aviv’s chic Rothschild Boulevard and refused to leave. Her unilateral act was symbolic of the mounting frustrations of hundreds of thousands of Israelis.
In September, the movement met its climactic peak when nearly half a million Israelis marched in Tel Aviv, Jerusalem, Haifa, Beersheba, Akko, and elsewhere.
Last Saturday, over ten thousand people marched through the streets of Tel Aviv to commemorate the one-year anniversary of the Israeli social justice movement, now known as the J14 Movement.
As the march came to a conclusion, Moshe Silman, a 57-year-old man who was emotionally shattered after a long dispute with the National Insurance Institute, distributed copies of his suicide note throughout the crowd. He then set ablaze his gasoline soaked body. By the time fellow bystanders were able to put out the flames, over 90 percent of his body had sustained severe burns.
This morning, after one week in critical care, Silman died.
In an astoundingly simplistic analysis, the New York Times published a report about J14 under the title “Israeli’s Act of Despair Disheartens a Movement.” In the article, Isabel Kershner employs a number of outdated clichés to paint a picture of the J14 Movement as a loose coalition of privileged middle-class gadflies. She concludes that the movement is “disheartened” by Silman’s self-immolation, and suggests that demonstrators are perhaps becoming a bit bored of their own cause.
Only so much ideology can be dished out with a bottle of beer, a bar owner and J14 supporter told Kershner, which prompted her to conclude that “it [seems] unlikely that the social justice [will] continue to be a source of cheer.”
But social movements are not born from a childish desire to be cheerful. They arise for a number of reasons, including deep-seeded discontent, the inherent contradictions of political and socioeconomic systems, and the basic human need to reclaim the public space.
For a year and a half, uprisings have alighted in almost every country in the Middle East. Outlets such as the Times seized the opportunity and launched a thorough campaign to rebrand Arab revolutions under the banner of Western themes: the news was flooded with images of the toiling masses occupying the squares of Middle Eastern cities and demanding liberal democracy.
But while the Times and its corporate media counterparts were choosing which revolutions to co-opt abroad, particularly in the Middle East, a virtual blackout was imposed on dissent in the United States.
Meanwhile, the Occupy Movement spread to over 300 cities nationwide. Sparse coverage was allotted to the thousands of Americans who demanded an end to the destructive neoliberal institutions that breed racism and inequality at home, and sustain imperialism, wars, and dictatorships abroad.
Times coverage of Israel’s J14 Movement follows suit. According to Kershner, Israeli social justice is withering as a rallying cry because people are “disheartened” and are no longer finding much “cheer” in their cause.
But what are we supposed to make of J14’s ideological, structural, and strategic shortcomings? And what of the hostile environment cultivated by the media and the Israeli government from the very beginning of the movement?
From the advent of J14, its leaders were pressured to draw a distinct boundary between the anti-occupation movements of the past and their newfound demand for social justice. Daphni Leef, for instance, was aggressively interviewed by a reporter who derided her for not having completed her mandatory military service.
Among the chief reasons for J14’s decline is the Netanyahu coalition’s warm embrace of the most chauvinist elements of right-wing Israeli society, including the rabidly violent and increasingly powerful settler establishment.
The Israeli government has effectively sidestepped J14 demands by cultivating a populist environment in which state-sanctioned settlers have stolen swaths of private Palestinian land, vandalized and burned down mosques, and poisoned Palestinian water wells.
Over the last year, many Palestinians have launched a largely nonviolent campaign to protest the recent uptick in state and settler violence, and to demand a final end to the Israeli occupation. These demonstrators have made extensive use of peaceful tactics such as marches, massive demonstrations, sit-ins, freedom rides, graffiti, and hunger strikes.
Yet J14 leaders ostensibly see no correlation between their own decline and their inability to link their struggle to that of Palestinians living under the coerced tutelage of the Israeli Defense Forces.
This week, several protest leaders called for solidarity with Israelis who refuse to do their military service.
They have not, however, demanded that their government end the occupation, which includes regular military raids into West Bank villages, the draconian practice of administrative detention, the restriction of Palestinian movement, and the regular carpet bombing of heavy civilian concentrations in the Gaza Strip, among other violations of human rights.
By targeting the cost of living, J14 revolts against a symptom. In actuality, social justice necessitates an explicit recognition that relatively comfortable quality of life enjoyed by most Israelis is directly sustained by the state’s willingness to outsource poverty and destruction to millions of Palestinians.
J14 has demonstrated its ability to draw thousands into the streets to chant “Bibi, go home tonight!” But demonstrators have yet to realize that their Palestinian counterparts, in slightly altered wording, are chanting the same thing.
By mentioning none of this, the Times does the Israeli government’s job for it.