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.