Where we were has brought us here

On the Erev of the Erev of Rosh Hashanah Haggai Matar, Executive Director of +972 magazine was in London and spoke to a small group of the Jewish left to give us an overview of the tumultuous upheavals in Israeli society and its possible outcomes.

Where we were has brought us here

A conscientious objector in 2002, Haggai Matar spent two years in prison at the height of the 2nd Intifada. Then he went into journalism but chose to remain outside the mainstream, to hold not just power to account but the media.

Israelis have had five elections in the last 3-4 years. Into this uncertainty came the proposed Judicial Overhaul Bill. In scenes never witnessed before, Israelis have come out in their hundreds of thousands, protesting about the proposed changes. They have been aghast to find themselves on the receiving end of police batons and skunk gas, whereas Palestinians watch these scenes dispassionately as a Liverpool supporter may watch the Manchester Derby. They want both to lose.

Haggai recalls 25th March this year. Mass demonstrations – estimated as one Israeli in five – blocking highways in violent confrontations with the police. The following day, Minister of Defense, Yoav Gallant (proposer of the Bill) said he could no longer support the Bill. Netanyahu fired him. The demonstrations the following day were even larger. Haggai recalls leaving his apartment with many others and watching entire commercial and residential blocks decant to join the demonstrations. A general strike was called and the country came to a halt.

The far right’s agenda is primarily a de facto annexation of all Palestinian territories, and ensuring the Green Line and the Occupation are no longer discussed. Haggai says this agenda has been very successful and has contributed to its other priority: the silencing of the Israeli left.

The mass demonstrations are full of blue and white flags. Any Palestinian flag that appeared was angrily torn away. On stage was an array of “true” Israelis, whose loyalty to the Zionist state could never be questioned: high-ranking officers, pilots; and even members of the Shin Bet. Reservists are now refusing to attend their regular military call ups. In Israel, a soldier’s duty is sacrosanct. Whatever political differences you many have with a current administration, these will always be put aside when your call-up papers arrive. Pilots – we are told in particular – do need regular practice, as they maybe required to drop bombs on residential buildings in Gaza at a moment's notice and – well – you wouldn’t want to miss.

So how does this end?

Haggai believes there are three options.

The first is that this far right government continues to push its agenda through. There are to be Supreme Court decisions made this month, and any challenges to government decrees,  says Netanyahu, won’t be recognised. For the first time the words "civil war" are being used.  We asked questions about the class and ethnic divides on each side of the debate. Haggai says that the positions do not necessarily divide along class or Ashkenazi/Sephardi/Misrahi lines as might be expected. The liberal and secular Israelis are at the forefront of the demonstrations but, in an ironic twist, I thought, have also been seen getting their passports in order and applying for international work visas.

And there is the ultra-orthodox community. The Satmar are traditionally anti-Zionist but by-pass the state by obtaining its funding directly from the US. The other ultra-orthodox communities have been co-opted. They have ever-increasing families and most are poverty stricken, and are happy to accept whatever the Zionist state offers in benefits or housing in the Occupied Palestinian Territories. They are also poorly educated, ill-fitted for any job market, and have no interest in contributing to a modern, technically advanced state. By contrast the Palestinians are very much engaged with the 21st century. Israeli capital is not slow to realise this. However, whether many Palestinians will survive into adulthood is not certain. It is not just far-right settler and military assaults they have to contend with. For many years the Palestinians have watched their communities descend into killing fields for organised crime.  The Israeli police have not intervened. It is another reinforcement of their far-right agenda.

The second option was the one we all collectively agreed would be the worst option of all. The protest movement wins. “Democracy has won!” the headlines of  liberal newspapers will shriek. The status quo resumes, as do the dispossession and brutal assaults on Palestinian communities. Liberal and secular Israel breathes a sigh of relief and puts away its passport and work visa applications and plans for next year’s Pride. Those whose wealth and investments are tied into the colonialist state, whether through the surveillance and defence industries or building cheap housing for more illegal settlements, can rest easy. Business as usual.

Option three offers us a small glimmer of hope. The protests have thrown up the stark contradictions of this "movement for democracy". Israelis now have to ask themselves: "How did we get here?" and "What does democracy look like elsewhere?" They may conclude that it has a Bill of Rights or a Constitution. And common to all is a declaration of equality. How does this square with current Israeli law that enshrines Jewish supremacy? In March this year, any expression of solidarity with the Palestinians was not tolerated. And now the radical block, in Haggai’s words, "has been normalised". Also heard is the chant “From the river to the sea – equality shall be for everyone!” 

The discussions that we in the Israeli and international Jewish left have been having for years are now mainstream, including ones about a bi-national state.

Ruth Lukom

+972 magazine has seen a spike in its readership as people seek answers in this febrile environment and question what were once certainties. The Israeli Left is still under siege and this unique publication needs our support.

“We are in an unprecedented and dangerous era in Israel-Palestine. The Israeli extreme right government has made its plans crystal clear. It wants carte blanche to shoot-to-kill Palestinians on both sides of the Green Line, legalize every settlement outpost, dismantle the independence of the judicial system, deport African asylum seekers, delegitimize human rights activists, and silence the free press.”

+972 Magazine is the leading media voice of this movement, a place where Palestinian and Israeli journalists and activists can tell their stories without censorship. https://www.972mag.com/about/

Posted: 15 September 2023