Why the world should care about Israel's social justice movement

Demands for internal reform could also accelerate the peace process.

A year ago today the Israeli social justice movement started, seeing hundreds of thousands of Israelis repeatedly marching throughout last summer in demand of socioeconomic reform and constituting the biggest wave of public demonstrations in Israel’s short history.

It began with campaigns over poor doctor and social worker wages and inflated prices of staple household products from diapers to cottage cheese. Then "J14" (14 July) erupted when ordinary Tel Avivian Daphni Leef - struggling to find affordable housing despite working a six-day week, and flipping out from friends calling to say they’re leaving Israel because they "can’t make it there" - wound up pitching her tent on the affluent Rothschild Boulevard. Hundreds more followed to protest against skyrocketing rent and house prices, with ‘tent cities’ springing up across the country.

J14 was far more than a leftist gathering of disgruntled anarchists, spoilt college students and minorities against a hawkish government. Throughout last summer Tel Aviv’s tent city was a powerful hub for ordinary, hardworking, intellectual people realising they’re all struggling with the cost of living in Israel regardless of political leanings, ethnic background, religion, class or profession. Doctors, bankers, Ethiopians, Arabs, politicians, singers, Ultra-Orthodox, writers, parents as well as students all gathered and talked late into the night about change.

J14 was so potent exactly because it united the middle and lower classes - the working majority who constitute Israel’s economic backbone as well as its national security through the army service. It quickly spread to all Israel’s cities, demonstrating socioeconomic grievance is far from limited to the "Tel Aviv bubble". And it remained a big deal for months, culminating in a final rally of 450,000 - ten percent of Israel’s adult population - marching throughout the country, until it fizzled out in the shadow of attacks from the Sinai border and Gaza, and the Palestinian UN statehood bid.

J14 very much caught the government off guard, with Netanyahu quickly forming a panel of economic experts to address welfare spending over the security budget. While some changes were made, the effects of reform can take years to kick in, leaving activists to point out the lack of improvement and Israelis in general wondering what will happen this summer, with whispers of a less polite J14 revival.

Sure enough, it’s back. As summer arrives so do the students who make up a major chunk of the discontent. Over the last fortnight thousands of Israelis have already marched in Tel Aviv, Jerusalem and Haifa. Protesters attempted to reclaim Rothschild Boulevard with tents, but were met with police force, shocking more into returning, blocking a major Tel Aviv highway junction, smashing in bank windows, and resulting in 89 arrests. Israel’s former J14-loving media turned sour while social media exploded with images of police brutality. Detainees were reportedly interrogated and left in cells or the baking sun without medical treatment for hours before being released. And that’s only the beginning. Tonight tens of thousands are predicted to take part in nationwide demonstrations marking J14 one year on.

Surely Netanyahu knew J14 wouldn’t just disappear. Young Israelis in particular are struggling to find work, university places and housing after completing their compulsory military service. Israel is just as affected by the globalisation process as any other, having joined the free market in the late 1980s, rapidly privatizing, outsourcing and financially gaining overall but leaving the wealth unevenly distributed within. Hence J14ers make a point of uniting against the "eighteen families" said to control 60 per cent of the country’s equity, as well as the usual flirtation between media tycoons and politicians.

Stuck in a rut

What about ending the occupation of Palestinian territory? J14 was criticised last year for not appearing to make this a formal demand. But Israelis hardly need reminding of it when they experience backlash literally everywhere they go. The conflict already fuels Israelis' perception of their country being stuck in a rut. And plenty of Israelis are long out of patience from seeing the image of hatred between Arabs and Jews used for political gain - not only by their government but by others uninterested in a two-state solution. Even Professor Manuel Trajtenberg, the renowned economist hired by Netanyahu to address cuts to security, said he believes J14 would likely not have arisen had there been a real peace process. Meanwhile it remains easy for Bibi to distract Israelis and the world with an Iranian or Palestinian threat. And the more international media covers his rhetoric and the Palestinian conflict without also amplifying J14’s wealth of discontent civil voices alongside, the more we buy into his and others’ agendas in the region.

But while Netanyahu has since made himself stronger by pushing back on elections and forming one of Israel’s largest coalitions in history, I’m sure he’s not forgotten what was so extraordinary about last summer. J14 momentarily broke the siege mentality that normally unites Israelis behind their government in face of foreign threats, seeing the people significantly claim back their weight in power, and effectively prompting change at the core. As an Ethiopian Israeli said to me last year, “People are waking up and finding many around them feel the same way. We have a beautiful country and people. But we are normally made to feel afraid all the time because of external issues, hence making us fail to politically connect with each other.”


However, the revived J14 is already splitting, with protesters rallying behind the other hot debate this summer in which the secular majority calls for the Ultra-Orthodox and Arabs to be drafted into military service. The original side of J14 might warily see this as hijacking Israelis back to the status quo of uniting through defence rather than socioeconomic security, and try instead to reject the old militaristic social contract which has long favoured an elite Ashkenazi agenda.

Whichever way J14 now goes, they say improvement begins at home. Israel arguably cannot achieve peace with its neighbours until first achieving internal socioeconomic security independent of militarism and foreign exploitation of others. And only Israeli citizens have the real power to haul their government into doing this the right way round. But if J14 continues to split, the first major Israeli grassroots force with real potential to break the old social contract, remake an all-inclusive one, and henceforth more realistically work with their neighbours towards peace is lost, while Bibi and the hawks continue to win.

Camilla Schick is a British journalist corresponding between London and Tel Aviv. She tweets @CSchickova

A protest on Tel Aviv's Rothschild Boulevard in June 2012. Photograph: Getty

Camilla Schick is a  journalist based between London and Tel Aviv, writing on culture, religion and international politics.

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Britain's commemoration of Partition is colonial white-washing in disguise

It’s much easier to focus on the indigenous perpetrators of religious violence than on the imperialist policies that facilitated it.

While in London a couple of weeks ago, I couldn’t help but notice a curious trend in the British media’s coverage of the upcoming 70th anniversary of the end of British colonial rule in the Indian subcontinent. It wasn’t the familiar think-pieces about "the jewel in the crown", thinly disguised nostalgia for empire masquerading as critiques of colonialism (see for example, The Conversation’s piece on how colonialism was traumatic for, wait for it, officials of the British Raj). It wasn’t the patronising judgements on how India and Pakistan have fared 70 years down the road, betraying the paternalistic attitude some of the British commentariat still harbours towards the former "colonies". It wasn’t even the Daily Mail’s tone-deaf and frankly racist story about 92 year old countess June Bedani and her “loyal Indian houseman” Muthukanna Shamugam, who doesn’t even speak a word of “Indian” (that’s just classic Daily Mail). What got my attention was the British media’s raging hard-on for Partition - a flurry of features, documentaries and TV specials about one of the biggest and bloodiest mass migrations of the 20th century.

Just take a look at the major headlines from the past couple of weeks - "They Captured And Forced Him Out Of His Home: This Isn’t Syria In 2017, It Was India In 1947" (Huffington Post UK); "Partition: 70 Years On" (The Guardian, BBC and Independent, each with a different subhead); "The Real Bloody Legacy Of Partition" (The Spectator); "Remembering Partition: 70 Years Since India-Pakistan Divide" (Daily Mail) and many more. It isn’t that - unlike some of my more reactionary compatriots - I believe that the Partition story shouldn’t be documented and spoken about. On the contrary, I think India and Pakistan have failed to grapple successfully with Partition’s scars and still festering wounds, and the way it still haunts both our domestic politics and our relationship with each other. But the overwhelming focus on the grisly details of Partition by the British press is deeply problematic, especially in its unsubtle erasure of British culpability in the violence. Even the Guardian’s Yasmin Khan, in one of the few pieces that actually talks about the British role in Partition, characterises the British government as “naive and even callous” rather than criminally negligent, and at least indirectly responsible thanks to its politics of "divide and rule". Of course, it’s much easier to focus on the indigenous perpetrators of religious violence than on the imperialist policies that facilitated it. That would require the sort of national soul-searching that, even 70 years on, makes many British citizens deeply uncomfortable.

Rose-tinted views of empire aside, the coverage of Indian and Pakistani independence by the British press is also notable in its sheer volume. Perhaps, as some commentators have suggested, this is because at a time of geopolitical decline and economic uncertainty, even the tainted legacy of colonialism is a welcome reminder of the time when Britain was the world’s reigning superpower. There is certainly some truth to that statement. But I suspect the Brexit government’s fantasies of Empire 2.0 may also have something to do with the relentless focus on India. There is a growing sentiment that in view of historic and cultural ties, a post-Brexit Britain will find natural allies and trade partners in Commonwealth countries such as India.

If that’s the case, British policy-makers and commentators are in for a reality check. The truth is that, despite some simmering resentment about colonialism, most Indians today do not care about the UK. Just take a look at the contrast between the British and Indian coverage of Independence Day. While there are a handful of the customary pieces about the independence struggle, the Indian press is largely focused on the here-and-now: India’s economic potential, its relationships with the US and China, the growing threat of illiberalism and Hindu nationalism. There is nary a mention of contemporary Britain.

This is not to say that modern India is free of the influence - both good and bad - of colonialism. Many of the institutions of Indian democracy were established under the British colonial system, or heavily influenced by Britain’s parliamentary democracy. This is reflected both in independent India’s commitment (in theory, if not always in practice) to the ideals of Western liberalism and secularism, as well as its colonial attitude towards significant sections of its own population.

The shadow of Lord Macaulay, the Scottish legislator who spent four eventful years in India from 1834 to 1838 and is considered one of the key architects of the British Raj, still looms large over the modern Indian state. You can see it in the Penal Code that he drafted, inherited by both independent India and Pakistan. You can see it in Indian bureaucracy, which still functions as a paternalistic, colonial administrative service. And you can see it in the Indian Anglophile elite, the product of an English education system that Macaulay designed to produce a class of Indians “Indian in blood and colour, but English in taste, in opinions, in morals, and in intellect.” It was this class of Anglophile Indians who inherited the reins of the Indian state after independence. It is us - because I too am a Macaulayputra (Macaulay’s child), as the Hindu right likes to call us. We congratulate ourselves on our liberalism and modernity even as we benefit from a system that enriched the few by impoverishing the many. This class of brown sahibs is now the favourite punching bag of a Hindu nationalism that we have allowed to fester in our complacency.

Still, ghosts of the past aside, the UK no longer holds sway over young India, even those in the Anglophile upper classes. Today’s young Indians look to the United States for their pop culture references, their global aspirations and even their politics, both liberal and conservative (see the Hindutva fringe’s obsession with Donald Trump and the alt-right). We still want to study in British universities (though increasingly strict visa rules make it a less attractive destination), but we’d rather work in and emigrate to the US, Canada or Australia. We drink coffee rather than tea (well, except for the thoroughly Indianised chai), watch Veep rather than Yes Minister, and listen to rap, not grime.

Macaulayputra insults aside, the British aren’t even the bogeymen of resurgent Hindu nationalism - that dubious status goes to the Mughal Empire. Whether this cultural turn towards America is a result of the United States’ cultural hegemony and economic imperialism is a topic for another day, but the special "cultural links" between India and the UK aren’t as robust as many Brits would like to think. Which is perhaps why the UK government is so intent on celebrating 2017 as the UK-India year of Culture.

Many in the UK believe that Brexit will lead to closer trade links between the two countries, but much of that optimism is one-sided. Just 1.7 per cent of British exports go to India, and Britain's immigration policy continues to rankle. This April, India allowed a bilateral investment deal to lapse, despite the best efforts of UK negotiators. With the Indian economy continuing to grow, set to push the UK out of the world’s five largest economies by 2022, the balance of power has shifted. 

The British press - and certain politicians - may continue to harbour sepia-tinted ideas of the British Raj and the "special relationship" between the two countries, but India has moved on. After 70 years, perhaps the UK will finally realise that India is no longer "the jewel in its crown". 

 

Bhanuj Kappal is a freelance journalist based in Mumbai.