Can Israel’s mass social protest embrace the end of occupation as a key demand?

If you will, harden your heart against the sight of hundreds of thousands of Israelis protesting against rampant inequality and demanding a decent society. There’s reason enough to do so: what about all the non-citizens between the Mediterranean and the Jordan river over which Israel exerts control? Don’t they also deserve a decent society, the same social justice that protesters yearn for in Tel Aviv, Jerusalem, Haifa? There is no justice unless it’s justice for all.

And yet it would be particularly perverse to focus only on what is missing and not to be heartened and even inspired by this mass outpouring of pent-up frustration with the degradation of Israeli society. If this represents a genuine demand for a fully functioning liberal democracy, one that prioritises equality, fairness, protection for the weak, an end to corruption and the arbitrary use of power, would it be so far fetched to dream that the application of these principles to the Palestinians must follow as day follows night? And that the occupation – a system of institutionalised injustice and the denial of basic human rights – must soon come to an end?

This certainly seemed like a night in which it would not be cynical to say that hope triumphed over experience. And while there is still hope, dreams might be realised.

But neither hope nor dreams will prevent people waking up in the morning and wondering just how the J14 demands can be achieved or how bringing an end to the iniquities of the occupation can be integrated into the aims of this unprecedented social movement. It may style itself as a social protest rather than a political one, yet it seems inconceivable that any serious change will occur while Netanyahu remains in power and the Knesset consists of the same line-up of politicians. Removing them will require a political revolution. Whether they like it or not, the J14 leaders will have to sully themselves by entering the political fray in some form if they are to bring about meaningful change.

There are clear divisions between those who seem to want to completely overturn Israel’s neo-liberal economic system and return to what sounds like much greater central state control of services and those who prefer to preserve the free market economy, but introduce significant reforms to ensure that it serves the interests of the entire population and not just the wealthy elites. The government cannot afford to ignore this mass mobilization of opinion and the Trajtenberg Committee, set up by Netanyahu, is supposed to be coming up with a set of plans to meet the demands of the protesters. But if the protesters can’t agree on a united platform, their movement will be much weakened and the divisions will play into the hands of the government, which would surely rather see the entire process come to an end. Dynamic change just isn’t Bibi’s style.

Understandably, after such a damaging period of political stagnation and the erosion of democratic norms and values, sympathetic commentators have freely used words like ‘radicalisation’ and ‘revolution’ to emphasise that something unprecedented is taking place, that things will never be the same again. This remains to be seen.

What does seem to be the case, however, as Carlo Strenger observed, is that

No amount of propaganda can cover up that the social protests have created more unity through the demand that Israel become a decent society for all its citizens than nationalist rhetoric and legislation.

And although unity based on joint social concerns will not automatically lead to an open awareness that there can never be real social justice and economic reform while the occupation and illegal settlements remain in place, that awareness will certainly never come in a society driven by an aggressive and exclusivist nationalism. The current unity is undoubtedly imperfect – the protests seem largely to be dominated by middle-class Israeli Jews; some Palestinian citizens of Israel have participated, but not very many. But the fact that it has come about through focusing on social justice concerns that affect practically everyone at all levels of Israeli society offers a glimmer of hope that a way may still open up for the end of the occupation to take centre stage as a popular aim. For anyone who understands that social justice must apply to everyone in society must surely come to see that the way Israel treats Palestinians within the 1967 borders and in the occupied Palestinian territories is the central social justice issue facing the country.

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