Ushering Politics into the Tents

Published on Haaretz

One of the unsung elements of the third and largest protest rally so far, last Saturday night in Tel Aviv, was the attentiveness that hundreds of thousands of protesters gave to the words of the speakers − a contrast to so many other demonstrations, in which speeches become mere background noise.

So it is worth noting the care organizers took to ensure that both the overt and covert messages of the “rainbow coalition” anointed to address the crowd would focus on calls for unity, solidarity and inclusiveness.

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The short list of speakers cut across divisions of gender, age, religiosity, and national and ethnic identities. Two of them represented groups otherwise largely absent from Kaplan Street − Orthodox Jews and Arab citizens, each of which represents a major challenge to the desire for a completely united front. Rabbi Benjamin Lau, a social activist known from his television teaching and commentaries, brought the message of his Beit Midrash for Social Justice and Bema’aglei Tzedek, an organization he helped found, which tries to return the ancient prophets’ cry for social justice to the discourse of the religious Zionist camp.

It was fitting at a protest that began with housing − and for Lau perhaps unavoidable − to focus on Tisha B’Av, which was to fall two days later and which commemorates the destruction of the First and Second “Houses,” as tradition refers to the Temples. Citing the portion of the Book of Isaiah read at Shabbat services the same morning as the rally, Lau argued that the prophets have been making a non-negotiable demand for social and economic justice for 2,500 years.

But it’s significant that, as the only speaker wearing a kippa, Lau did not use his pulpit to share the messages that settler leaders have been testing out: that “The settlers are with you,” or “Come to Judea and Samaria if you want subsidized housing.” Although Lau chose to speak in religious terms somewhat removed from most of his listeners, and despite the boos at the mention of the settlement of Beit El, the largely secular crowd embraced him. While they may have been happy to have their message validated by Jewish sources, the crowd was also eager to go along with the unwritten rule of this protest: not to argue about the occupation.

But the avoidance of Israel’s central political dilemma will eventually come back to bite the protest movement, and settlers will present an enormous challenge to the strategy of inclusiveness. Government policies favor certain groups at the expense of others. Most of the national-religious camp does not want to champion new priorities because settlement building is at the top of the state’s current priority list. How many Orthodox Zionists are willing to make space for the social justice agenda in place of the settlement obsession, or even alongside it?

Arab novelist and commentator Oudeh Basharat, also an activist in Jewish-Arab relations, diverged from Lau’s playbook, speaking at length in language identical to that of protest leaders, and telling his listeners they had given hope to Israel’s Arab minority. Basharat’s message, that Jews and Arabs will not allow themselves to be played off against one another in this protest, was immediately transformed by the crowd into a chant, that Jews and Arabs will not be divided. The cheer seemed to be gaining momentum, but then Basharat, neither a professional politician nor experienced rabble-rouser, cut off the cheering to continue his speech.

Basharat, whose family comes from a village uprooted in ’48, took his time in coming around to the situation of Palestinian citizens of Israel, then chose to highlight Al Araqib, an unrecognized Bedouin village in the Negev, which was destroyed last week by Israeli government forces for the 28th time this year. The village is an extreme case, but housing demolitions, which have become so routine that the media rarely covers them, are only one component of a stepped-up government campaign against Negev Bedouin. A huge staff has been hired for the government’s new Bedouin Settlement Authority, for example, with the goal of legally terminating Bedouin land claims and displacing Bedouin, not only from Al Araqib, but from dozens of unrecognized villages.

So if Jews and Arabs both struggle to find affordable housing, it’s only the Bedouin who have their villages razed and face government plans to herd them onto reservations. Protesters were sympathetic to Basharat’s references to the poverty and inequity affecting Palestinian citizens of Israel, but are they willing to fight institutionalized discrimination against those citizens? Would they, for example, rally behind Bedouin land claims?

If the protest’s solidarity message is to be coupled with the desire to be apolitical, in the sense of not wanting to topple the government, then the biggest obstacle to sustaining all-inclusiveness will be the government itself. The obvious issue is that Benjamin Netanyahu is the champion of a brand of neo-liberal, cutthroat capitalism that fosters social inequity, but he also heads the most divisive government in Israel’s history. His coalition is openly hateful of the Arab minority, persecutes the left as a matter of course, and rules through bullying and intimidation. How can a government that makes no pretense of speaking for all the people all the time, and which works for the good of only designated segments of the population, promote policies based on solidarity?

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