Recently tens of thousands of people took to the streets in Israel in response to rising rents and house prices.
As main squares across Israel were turned into tent cities, for a brief moment there seemed to be a glimmer of hope. Had Israel's original democratic, socialist pulse started to beat once again? The slogan chanted at many of the protests echoed the revolutionary rallying cry which has been reverberating throughout the Arab world: "The people demand social justice". In Israel vast numbers of people, from across the political spectrum came together in a display of unity and solidarity in their demand for dignity, for justice and for change.
But the revolution has not arrived. Far from it.
"We don't speak about the occupation," one protester insisted. Anything but. Housing, income, wages, poverty – yes. The occupation – no. It would, according to logic of the demonstrators, be too divisive. So instead of demanding an end to injustice in the occupied territories, they call for justice in Israel. On this there is a consensus – the need for a happier, wealthier, and democratically more robust society.
Sadly any social movement in Israel that fails to put the occupation first, that fails to recognise the occupation as the root cause of nearly all socio-economic problems, has no hope of success. Radical social change needs to be total. Otherwise, it amounts to nothing. In fact, worse than nothing, it amounts to a tacit endorsement of the status quo. Should the protesters succeed in effecting the change they desire, what would be achieved? A more equitable society, a more prosperous middle class, a polity comfortably cocooned in the belief of its own democratic virtue. Such a revitalised nation would still illegally occupy Palestinian territory. So in attempting to build this better Israel, these protests, if successful will only serve to further entrench the political reality that exists today. A stronger Israel is only a stronger occupier.
It is a fact that a nation cannot be an occupier without in some sense, finding itself (pre)occupied. These protests reveal the fraught contradictions inherent in the Israeli nation-state. Israel's mania lies in its profound sense of at once being the victim, the persecuted, the wretched wanderers of the earth and at the same time, the victor, the chosen people, who have finally achieved their rightful destiny in the holy land. The history of Israel oscillates more and more violently between these poles of consciousness.
Until Israel can unburden itself of the role of occupier, until it ceases to recognise itself in images of IDF-manned checkpoints, in projections of a great military force, in the sounds of gunfire and bulldozers, until it looks closely into these images and acknowledges its own deformed reflection, there is no hope for a democratic future.
These protests are not looking in a radical direction. When offered a glimpse of the rapidly spreading cancer (the occupation), eating away through tissue, organs, through arteries and creeping ever closer to the heart, Israel looks away.
The protesters refuse to recognise that at the heart of all social injustice in Israel lies the original injustice – the occupation of Palestinian territories. It is astonishing that they do not make the link. Defence spending and constant development in the West Bank has reduced the quality of life within Israel, not only morally but more importantly for these protesters, economically. In a report published by Peace Now, settlers are the beneficiaries of 50 per cent funding for development cost, significant mortgage supplements and they receive almost 70 per cent discount on the value of land. Meanwhile, housing in Tel Aviv becomes unaffordable and the state fails to provide these citizens with support.
In the 'vision document' written by protestors the objective of this grass roots democratic movement is: to minimise "social inequalities (economic, gender-based and national) and [to create] social cohesion". What happens when these ideas are taken to their logical consequence? To minimise national inequalities would have ramifications which seem to elude the protesters. Amira Hass writes in Haaretz "one may assume that the writers of the document knew that minimising gaps between national groups means ceasing to discriminate in law and practice against Palestinian Israeli citizens".
Hass goes on to say that when the protestors follow their demand for social justice to its logical conclusion, "they will find that true fulfilment of this demand requires immediate allocation of land in the Galilee and central Israel's Triangle area to Palestinian villages… They will also learn that many of these lands were expropriated from Palestinians for use by Jewish citizens. They will find it hard to ignore the new laws and the old laws that must be abrogated to minimise gaps between national groups".
Faced with the disjunction between an idealistic call for social justice and the political reality, Hass believes the movement will split in two. But this tension is yet to destabilise the movement. Nearly all social problems within Israel relate directly or indirectly to the occupation. The failure of the movement to recognise this fact militates against the possibility of revolution.
An essay published in 1997 by Edward Said titled "Bases for Coexistence" argues that Israelis and the Palestinians "cannot coexist as two communities of detached and uncommunicatingly separate suffering". In the case of these two particular identities there is not only a need for understanding one another's history but so too one another's historical suffering. Echoing Said's call for mutual compassion, Mustafa Barghouti (a Palestinian MP) was recently quoted as saying, "we feel sympathetic because [the Israelis] are also demanding social rights. At the same time we hope that they will see that one of the reasons for this crisis is the Israeli occupation policy and military spending. "We hope that this social movement becomes a political movement which demands peace and end to occupation."
The demonstrators in Israel stop short. The demand for social justice begins and ends at the literal and mythic borders of Israel. Until they recognise the universality of this ideal, and accept its logical political consequences there will be neither justice nor revolution.
Mira Adler-Gillies is completing a PhD at the University of Melbourne on the Paris Commune and the French left.