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Splits and Opportunities within the Israeli 2023 Protests

An opinion article by Moshe Gross

Israel, as a state, always had a fascist and colonial element to it. Beginning from Theodore Herzl’s colonial endeavor in the 1880’s and growing with David Ben-Gurion’s rise to power in the 1940’s, the Zionist movement tended to cling to the tail of moribund Western colonialism in its waning years. The MAPAI (“Labor” Party) regime, in power from 1948 to 1977 – now treated with nostalgia by the Zionist “left” – was thoroughly fascist.

It is responsible for the Nakba – the expulsion of 750,000 Palestinians from what is now Israel proper – and for numerous other fascistic acts, both against Palestinians and against Jews in Israel and abroad. From the kidnapping of Mizrachi children in the 1950’s to aid to fascist (and Antisemitic) regimes in Latin America in the early 1970’s, this regime displayed its fascist and racist face openly. This fascist system did not disappear when MAPAI lost power in 1977, with its right-wing replacement, Herut (“Freedom” Party), now the Likud Party, continuing many of its policies.

However, both Mapai and the old incarnation of Herut were partially, maybe mostly, secular. They followed Western colonial and fascist tendencies but did not wish to establish a theocracy or bring about the Messiah. By doling out limited privileges to large parts of Israel’s Jewish population, the Israeli ruling class created the impression among many Israelis that they are living in a democracy, rather than under a fascist regime. This illusion, carefully maintained by the Israeli state apparatus, is crucial for understanding the current protests.

The current Netanyahu regime allied itself with the most extreme theocratic elements within Israel’s far right wing. Unlike the previous incarnations of the Israeli state, the current administration is ready to shed off any semblance of democracy and does not see the illusion of democracy to be necessary to maintain its rule. Now, they are moving to apply all fascist instruments used against Palestinians – to all those who reside between the River and the Sea, including Jews. This is coupled with a strong theocratic tendency, breaking the old “status que” social contract which maintained a limited degree of freedom from religion in Israel.

Many Israeli Jews, especially from the more educated and wealthier demographic, see this transformation as a frontal assault on their freedom, wellbeing, and (limited) privileges. Ironically, many of the current protesters did not bat an eye when such fascistic methods were used against Palestinians in the past 75 years or even before that. However, this led to mass protests – among the largest Israel has ever seen – against the Netanyahu regime and his far-right theocratic allies.

One must be careful to avoid illusions about the protests’ leadership. For example, Shikma Schwartzman-Bressler, a famous icon of the protest leadership, openly expressed enthusiastic support for the destructive and bloody IDF operation in Jenin in early July 2023. Other leaders include IDF pilots, some of whom are responsible for massive destruction and a high civilian death toll in Gaza in the past two decades. Others are IDF generals, again responsible for maintaining the occupation of the West Bank and the siege of Gaza, who now oppose the same policies they enacted against Palestinians once such policies are enacted against them (the pilots) as well.

Many of the protest “rank and file” are also strongly nationalist (Zionist) and militarist. The “Brothers in Arms” protest movement, for example, wears its militarism on its sleeve, so to speak, and its members often brag about their military careers and demand even wider conscription of Jews to the IDF. They oppose Strict Orthodox (Haredim) exemption from service and wish to forcibly conscript them into the ranks of the IDF, to help maintain the occupation regime.

However, on the other hand, one must also be careful not to treat the protests as a single unit, especially not as uniformly nationalist and militarist. Many others of the protesters are not organized militarist activists, but rather previous non-political Israeli citizens scared of the possibility of a theocratic regime. Currently, they are marching under the banners of the militarist and nationalistic leadership, but the protests, by necessity, politicize them. The question of what they will be politicized to is an open one. This is a massive opportunity for those who wish to create a truly democratic order between the River and the Sea.

Also, a growing leftist current within the protests, the Anti-Occupation Bloc, openly challenges the protest leadership. This Bloc points at the “Elephant in the Room” – the occupation of the West Bank, the siege on Gaza, and the general colonialist elements of Israeli society – and reminds the protestors of what many do not want to be reminded of. This Bloc, started by a few leftist activists and the Israeli Communist Party, experiences steady growth.

The leadership hates the Bloc with passion. Recently, in early July 2023, when the Anti-Occupation Bloc raised banners condemning West Bank settler pogroms against Palestinians, members of the Brothers in Arms physically assaulted them. Such is the fear of the protest leadership from the truth being exposed, of the “Elephant in the Room” being brought into the foreground. Such attacks are not new; protesters waving Palestinian flags, or even red flags, in the protests were often attacked – usually verbally – by the mainstream protest leadership.

It is the duty of the Anti-Occupation Bloc, and of any honest proponent of true democracy, to continue and expose the occupation regime in every protest. Many of the rank-and-file protestors have been won to the ruling class’s nationalist and militarist positions – but many were not, at least not fully so. Openly opposing the leadership and openly reminding everyone of the occupation and of the colonial elements in Israeli society, is a crucial step towards building a mass pro-democratic movement in Israel.

Such movement must demand equality and freedom for everyone living between the River and the Sea; an end to the siege of Gaza; an end to state terror and settler terror; and, eventually, a single, democratic state from the River to the Sea, with equal rights and full personal and political freedom for all ethnicities living here, Jews and Palestinians included.

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