Last Saturday I attended an extremist demonstration. 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 [WHICH?] 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 wouldn’t be surprised if most of us hadn’t advertised our intention to attend the demo in advance; I certainly didn’t. Protest is one thing but the painful damage of political arguments turned tragically personal, the angry recriminations of loved ones – that is something I admit is beyond the scope of my bravery. I have had occasion to face potatoes lobbed at demonstrators from upper floors by small children and anguished accusations of indifference to my family’s safety before. I know which hurt more.
This was by no means the first anti-war protest in Israel this month; there had been multiple actions and demonstrations, poorly if at all covered by western media. Organised by activists from Hadash (socialist) and Balad (pro-binational state) parties, this rally, however, represents the very edge of electoral possibility in Israel. The more mainstream left and centre-left organisations such as Peace Now and Meretz, 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 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 physically attacked in the stairwells of their own apartment buildings. Myself and my (female) co-demonstrator slipped through the occasional clutch of wannabe thugs entirely unnoticed.
Possibly to the disappointment of a social media basking in its own facility at unearthing ideological misdemeanours by Israeli teenagers, this hostility is not new. 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 by Israeli public opinion.
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 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 Eighties and Nineties, daily life is harder for many of its residents – Jew and Arab 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 what they have always been: 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 those 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’s 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. Best if we see the slippery slope and avoid it in time, but along with my shuffling, cowed fellow demonstrators last Saturday, I hold little hope of that. 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 – not at the cost of, because there is no relationship between the two – countless more deaths on the both sides.