Those killed in Operation Protective Edge are remembered at the rally in Tel Aviv. Photo: Getty
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“Jews and Arabs refuse to be enemies”: what it’s like to be an anti-war Israeli

Pacifism has attracted a social penalty in Israeli society for decades – many Israelis are immersed in a siege mentality, cynically whipped up at critical moments by their self-serving leadership. But a small anti-war movement clings on.

On Saturday, I attended an extremist demonstration in Tel Aviv. Some 5,000 other dangerous fanatics and I gave up a small slice of our weekend to express our intolerably radical views to a hostile or, at best, indifferent public, surrounded by a thick protective wall of visibly disgruntled border police and a 20-foot wide cordon of metal barriers.

Some waved the Palestinian national flag; many carried signs saying things like “Stop the War” and “End the Occupation”. We chanted “Jews and Arabs refuse to be enemies” and distributed bumper stickers with the subversive slogan “It won’t end until we talk”. One guy carried a clutch of olive branches. Tea candles spelled out the Hebrew word slicha – forgiveness. The message was meant for the embattled Gazan civilians but it might as well have been for our colleagues, friends and relatives, many of whom would consider us deluded at best, traitors at worst. I'm sure most of us hadn’t advertised our intention to attend the demo in advance; I certainly didn’t. Protest is one thing, but the angry recriminations of loved ones – that is something I admit is beyond the scope of my bravery. In my life, I have faced potatoes lobbed at me from upper floors by small children on demonstrations and anguished accusations of indifference to my family’s safety. I know which hurt more.

This was not the first anti-war protest in Israel this month; there had been many actions and demonstrations, poorly covered by western media, if covered at all. The rally, which was organised by activists from Hadash (socialist) and Balad (pro-binational state) parties, represents the very edge of electoral possibility in Israel. The more mainstream left and centre-left organisations such as Peace Now and Meretz, which are staunchly committed to a two-state future and support for the military, openly distanced themselves. A small counter-demonstration was being held behind a wall of police cars; at previous events anti-war activists had been physically set upon. The overwhelmingly male, right-wing cadre protesting against us waved Israeli flags and, from what I heard, shouted disjointed obscenities - “smelly leftists”, “you take it up the ass”, that sort of thing. When the rally was dispersing – called off early due to resumed shelling of the Tel Aviv area by Hamas – we were urged to leave quickly, while the police presence was still strong, for our own protection. I’ve seen an unconfirmed report of stragglers being followed home and attacked in the stairwells of their own apartment buildings. Me and my (female) co-demonstrator slipped through the occasional clutch of wannabe thugs entirely unnoticed.

Pacifism has attracted a social penalty in Israeli society for decades. In 1983, barely on the edges of my political memory, peace activist Emil Grunzweig was killed during a Peace Now rally by a hand grenade thrown into the crowd by right-wing activist Yona Avrushmi. A dozen years later, another right-wing activist, Yigal Amir, shot and killed Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin after the latter spoke at a rally on the square that now bears his name – a rally that was held, in part, to celebrate the success of the Oslo Peace Accords between Israel and the Palestinian leadership. Increasingly worrying escalations in rhetorical and street violence preceded both events, and both were met with dismay and surprise within Israel.

For me, the enduring image of what it is to be firmly, unequivocally on the anti-violence left in Israel comes from Uri Barbash’s Oscar-nominated 1984 movie Beyond the Walls. In this uniquely Israeli and completely universal prison drama, a minor character, the dissident Assaf (imprisoned for aiding the PLO), is variously called “a knife in the people’s back” and “a cancer in the heart of the nation” by his fellow inmates. I have often jokingly turned these slurs against myself, but I know that really, it’s serious: this is how dissent from Israel’s military stance towards the Palestinians is and always has been seen by many Israelis immersed in a siege mentality, one that is cynically whipped up at critical moments by their self-serving leadership. There is no need for Israeli politicians to be craftier than foreign ones; it’s just that Gaza is so much closer than the Falklands.

So has it got worse? What, if anything, has changed? In some ways, little that hasn’t changed elsewhere, too. Israel is more economically unequal than it was in the 1980s and 1990s, daily life is harder for many of its residents – Jews and Arabs alike. Popular demands for social justice flared up but withered on the same neoliberal vine as the Occupy movement and the Arab Spring. The class divisions setting Israelis against each other remain: between an economic and intellectual elite largely comprised of Jews of European descent and an economic and political underclass heavily weighted towards those from Middle Eastern, Arab countries. The Israeli left retreated into academic infighting about ideological purity indistinguishable from that of its European counterparts (veterans of UK demos will have been amused to see the Anarchist flag and Socialist booth firmly entrenched in opposite corners of the square). Just as Barack Obama can, in all seeming seriousness, be called a dangerous communist by a Tea Party drunk on its own rhetoric, so can a small, peaceful demonstration of well-meaning but frankly ineffectual Israelis be read as a fanatical hate rally that seeks to undermine the state. People who weren’t there have accused me, with Farage-like confidence, of “marching under Stalinist symbols”.

Contrary to Twitter liberals’ apparent belief, Israelis, en masse, are not without a moral imagination. Scenes of the devastation in Gaza are broadcast on the national news here much more ruthlessly than in Europe. But impulses like the genuinely and widely felt abhorrence at the revenge murder of Palestinian teenager Mohammed Abu Khdeir are quickly subsumed in the imperative to unite “behind our boys” by the needlessly escalated conflict.

Perhaps if – when – another political assassination of a Jewish dissident happens, the shock and outrage will dissipate quickly again. Or perhaps there will be years of recrimination, of “where did we go wrong” of “how could brother kill brother?”. It’s impossible to tell, and frankly I don’t know which would be better. We in this region “never miss an opportunity to miss an opportunity”, as Abba Eban once said. Just like talking to the PLO was completely impossible until it happened, so I believe it will be with Hamas, and eventually with what I consider the inevitability of a binational, perhaps federalised state. But these insights will come after countless more deaths on both sides.

Marina Strinkovsky is a feminist writer and campaigner who blogs at It's Not a Zero Sum Game. Her main interests revolve around male violence against women, reproductive justice, sexual exploitation, rape and harassment. Marina has written for the F-Word and Indy Voices among others. She lives in Swindon with her one surviving cactus and, remarkably, no cats

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Why Podemos will defeat the Spanish Socialists

A new alliance on the Spanish Left will be stronger than the sum of its parts.

On Saturday morning, on a palm-tree lined promenade in the small city of Badalona in eastern Catalonia, a 38-year-old woman named Mar García Puig fanned herself with her speaking notes after taking her turn on the stage.

Until six months ago, Puig was a literary editor with no professional experience in politics apart from attending demonstrations and rallies. Then, in December, her life was transformed twice over. In the national election, she won a parliamentary seat for En Comú Podem, the Catalan regional ally of the anti-austerity party Podemos. Four hours after she learned of her victory, Puig gave birth to twins.

Fortunately Puig’s husband, who is a teacher, was able to take paternity leave so that she could take up her seat. In parliament, Puig “felt like an alien”, she told me over coffee. As it turned out, she had to give up her seat prematurely anyway – along with all the other Spanish MPs – when repeated attempts to form a government failed. So now, in the lead-up to Spain’s first repeat election of the modern era, to be held on 26 June, Puig was on the campaign trail once more in a drive to win a parliamentary seat.

The December general election was as historic as it was inconclusive, ushering in a novel political era in Spain and leaving the country with the most fragmented parliament in its history. Fed up with corruption, austerity and a weak recovery from the global financial crisis, voters punished the mainstream parties, ending the 40-year dominance of the conservative Partido Popular (People’s Party) and the centre-left PSOE (Spanish Socialist Workers’ Party), which have held power since the death of General Franco. Neither group was able to win an absolute majority as new parties from both ends of the political spectrum garnered support from disenchanted voters.

On the left, Podemos, which was only founded in March 2014 by the ponytailed political scientist Pablo Iglesias, won 20 per cent of the vote. Ciudadanos (Citizens), formed in Catalonia a decade ago and occupying the centre left or centre right, depending on which analyst you talk to, secured a 14 per cent share.

Despite having four months to form a coalition government, the two biggest political parties could not reach a deal. The People’s Party, which had implemented a harsh austerity package over the past five years, recorded its worst electoral performance since 1989, losing 16 percentage points. It still won the most votes, however, and Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy was the first leader to be asked by King Felipe VI to form a government.

By the end of January, Rajoy conceded defeat after the PSOE refused to join his “grand coalition”. The Socialists then failed in their own attempt to form a government, leading the king to dissolve parliament and call a fresh election.

Despite the inconvenience of having to campaign nationwide once again – and being away from her twins – Mar García Puig’s enthusiasm for her new career is undiminished. “In Spain there is a window of opportunity,” she said. “There is a receptiveness to politics that there wasn’t before.”

When the repeat elections were called, some questioned whether Podemos and its regional allies could mobilise its supporters to the same extent as in December. Yet Puig believes that the party’s appeal has grown further in the six months that the country has been without a government. “We are still new and Podemos has this freshness – it can still make people join,” she told me.

The following day, as the church bells rang at noon in the Basque city of Bilbao, crowds gathered for another rally. For protection against the sun, Podemos supporters had covered their heads with purple triangular paper hats displaying the party name as it will appear on the ballot paper: Unidos Podemos, or “United We Can”.

In May, Podemos entered into an alliance with Izquierda Unida (United Left), the radical left-wing party that includes the Communist Party of Spain, and which won 3 per cent of the vote in December. Izquierda Unida is headed by Alberto Garzón, a 30-year-old Marxist economist who, according to a poll by the state-run CIS research institute, is the most highly rated party leader in Spain. Unlike Podemos’s Iglesias, who can fire up a crowd and is seen by some as divisive, Garzón is a calm and articulate politician who appeals to disaffected voters.

Nagua Alba, who at 26 is Podemos’s youngest MP, said the new alliance would be stronger than the sum of its parts, because Spain’s voting system punishes smaller parties when it comes to allocating seats in parliament. “It [the alliance] will attract all those people that aren’t convinced yet. It shows we can all work together,” Alba said.

As part of the agreement with Podemos, Izquierda Unida has agreed to drop its demands for a programme of renationalisation and withdrawing Spain from Nato. The alliance is campaigning on a platform of reversing Rajoy’s labour reforms, removing the national debt ceiling, opposing the TTIP trade deal, and increasing the minimum wage to €900 a month. A Unidos Podemos government would attempt to move the EU’s economic policy away from austerity and towards a more expansionist stance, joining a broader effort that involves Greece, Italy and Portugal. It is also committed to offering the Catalans a referendum on independence, a move that the mainstream parties strongly oppose.

The latest polls suggest that Unidos Podemos will become Spain’s second-biggest party, with 26 per cent of the vote, behind Rajoy’s Popular Party. The Socialist Party looks poised to fall into third place, with 21 per cent, and Ciudadanos is expected to hold its 14 per cent share. If the polls are accurate, the PSOE will face a difficult choice that highlights how far its stock has fallen. It can choose to enter as a junior partner into a coalition with the insurgent left, which has politically outmanoeuvred it. Or it could decide to prop up a Partido Popular-led right-wing coalition, serving as a constraint on power. 

This article first appeared in the 23 June 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Divided Britain