“Fail Again and Fail Better”: Matan Kaminer on J14 Protests in Israel

I met Matan Kaminer in Tel Aviv in January 2012, and we agreed to do an extended interview about the state of the left in Israeli society after the controversial J14 social justice protests.

Can you tell us a little about yourself and your background?  How did you get involved in political activity?

I was born to an activist family.  My grandparents were among the founders of the New Left in Israel in the seventies.  After they left the Communist Party of Israel (CPI) they were among the founders of SIAH (New Israeli Left) and then of SHASI (Israeli Socialist Left), which, together with the CPI and the Black Panthers, founded the Democratic Front for Peace and Equality — as al-Jabha/Hadash.  My parents also took the path from SIAH to SHASI, and my father was involved in Yesh Gvul, a movement of conscientious objectors to the occupation.  He was imprisoned twice when he refused to fight in the First Lebanon War.

I became active in the Hadash youth group in Tel Aviv when I was fifteen.  This was mostly a reading and discussion group — we didn’t actually do very much but it was formative for me intellectually and politically.  Then I was involved in the “Shministim” movement of conscientious objectors and spent 21 months in prison for refusing to serve in the IDF.  After that I travelled in South America and subsequently became active in solidarity work with migrants and refugees, particularly from Latin America but also in general.  Last year I finished four years at Tel Aviv University, where I was also active in the Hadash branch, and I’m also a member of Ir LeKulanu, a municipal political front that also includes Hadash.

Talk a little bit about the origins of the current social inequality in Israel.  Who put in place these programs?  And how are they linked to the occupation?

These are difficult questions, and I’m not sure I know the answers to all of them.  The regime in Israel-Palestine is capitalist and colonial.  It is impossible to understand conditions in Israel proper — that is, territorially speaking, within the “Green Line,” or in terms of population categories, among citizens of Israel — without taking the Palestinians into account.  Very broadly speaking, the past two or three decades have seen the regime move from a closed, protectionist and developmentalist model of growth to integration into global neo-liberal structures, relying more and more on the export of security and related technologies.  To this you can add the financialization that we have seen in the rest of the world, making for a very prosperous financial-military-high-tech bloc and for well-paid workers in these industries.

On the other hand you have the rest of the population, including the “old” service elites, which have seen a decline in living standards and life chances over recent years.  PM Netanyahu recently said that if you “deduct” the Arab and ultra-Orthodox citizens — the Palestinians in the territories were never part of this equation, of course — the economic situation in Israel is quite good.  This is not true, but it’s telling, because I think the regime is worried about the impoverished middle classes making common cause with the “minority” poor.

Another thing the government is very good at pointing out is that the world financial crisis has left Israel alone so far, which has all sorts of strange effects.  On the one hand we have low unemployment, but a very high (around 50%) level of precarious minimum-wage and/or part-time employment.  In addition many of the poor (especially the ultra-Orthodox and Arabs) are just not counted as part of the workforce.  On the other hand, we have a very high and rising cost of living, first and foremost in housing.  I think this is partly an effect of capital fleeing from other parts of the world building up a bubble in the housing sector in Israel.

What is your take on the escalating racism among the Israeli population?

I may be in denial, but I tend not to take “vernacular” racism as seriously as the organized violence of the establishment.  True, we have frightening incidents like the almost-lynching at the Malha shopping mall a few weeks ago; but Israeli society has always been structurally racist.  It seems that lately a lot of the political correctness which used to envelop this racism has been dropping away.  This is not a good thing.  But it’s dangerous to gauge the level of oppression only on the basis of what people say, because the most dangerous racists are always the clever ones who know how to keep their mouths shut and talk nice.

What is the current political scene in Israel?  It seems that the summer tent protests largely disappeared.  What has been going on beneath surface presented to us by the media?

Well, the tents did disappear over the winter.  Now that the weather is nice again there’s a lot of talk about the protests coming back, but so far it’s mainly just talk.  I mentioned the housing crisis.  That was the main catalyst of the protests last year, and the problem hasn’t gone away, but I think the movement will have to become more focused and more political this year.  There will be a lot of fallout because many people will conclude from last year’s experience that protests can’t achieve anything.  But those who remain will become more sophisticated.

Like I said above, because the financial crisis hasn’t hit Israel yet, the economic situation here is quite different from other places that are undergoing political upheavals.  This makes it possible for the establishment to pretend that there is no problem, but it also has another effect that is positive from their point of view: so long as unemployment is low, protests can’t become really massive.  If you look at Egypt, Spain, and Greece, as well as other places that have had revolutionary crises, it’s always had to do with mass unemployment.  The reason is very prosaic: so long as people have to go to work in the morning, there’s only so much they can contribute to “occupying” public space, which is essential.

But if and when the Israeli bubble does explode, I think we will have a rapid change and escalation of the social situation.  The problem will no longer be “just” the cost of living but the tenability of the entire structure.  And this will bring people to question the colonial situation as well.  I see the current stage — maybe the next few years — as a period for the formation of a revolutionary cadre which will be much bigger than the radical left has classically been here.  Not the 400,000 people who came to the biggest demo last summer, probably, but a few thousand dedicated and experienced people.

What we should be most wary of is any electoral illusions.  Unfortunately some of the leaders of last year’s wave seem to be going that way, into the establishment political parties and particularly Labor.  This is going to prove to be a dead end very quickly.  Of course fringe parties like Hadash have a role to play, but there are not going to be radical changes at the state level for a long time.  Municipal politics is a different matter; I think positions can be won there and used as a base for further struggles.

Can you talk about the difficulties involved in braiding together anti-occupation work and social justice work in Israel?

The difficulties are immense.  A lot of anti-occupation and Palestinian solidarity activists are very suspicious of the social protest in Israel and decline to support it until it takes on the occupation.  I think this position is wrong both in principle and in practice.  In principle, because you do not condition your support of an oppressed group on its support for other oppressed groups, even ones that it is involved in oppressing.  We do not condition our support of the Palestinian liberation movement, which is led by non-feminist men, on the liberation of Palestinian women.  And the majority of the population in Israel is oppressed and exploited by the capitalist-colonial system; the fact that it is also participating in the oppression of the Palestinians is irrelevant in principle.

Strategically speaking it is no less important for Palestinian liberation.  The lesson I take from what is happening in Syria, for example, is that so long as an oppressive regime can count on part — even a minority — of the population to support it out of fear of the alternative, it can survive.  For Palestinians to win their freedom, they must offer oppressed Israelis their solidarity in the fight against the Israeli establishment.  It is only on the basis of such solidarity — which of course has to be reciprocal — that a revolution here is imaginable.

What is easy to miss from abroad, I think, is the genuine terror that many Israelis feel when faced with the prospect of a Palestinian victory in the conflict.  They know perfectly well how much suffering Israel has caused the Palestinians and they have every reason to expect retribution.  From a radical point of view this is not a defensible reason to support the occupation, but it does have a kind of rationality, especially amongst those parts of the population without the resources to leave.  Their fears are manipulated by elites, but they are quite real.  Now again, look at Syria: you have a part of the population which may or may not “profit” from the regime as it is but is mortally afraid of what will happen when it falls — so it will fight to the end.  The Syrian revolutionaries will have to reach out to this population, to give it guarantees of safety and equality, if they want to win and not just to get bogged down in an endless civil war.  The same is true for the Palestinians, and I think many Palestinian activists on the ground, both in Israel and in the OPT, understand this.  Of course you can be irredentist and say everyone whose grandparents weren’t in Palestine before 1927 or something like that has to go — but then you are giving most Israeli Jews, who have absolutely nowhere to go, no option but to fight you to the end.  And they are armed to the teeth, in case you didn’t notice.

So we have to imagine a joint revolution.  In which case the question of what grievances the Israeli majority has against the establishment and how these can be articulated with those of the Palestinians becomes cardinal.  My beef with most “one-staters” is that they think in very liberal terms.  One — Itamar Mann — even proposes the creation of a binational political party that will have absolutely no program apart from the demand for one democratic state.  But this way you have no constituency in Israel other than a tiny minority of already radicalized leftists.  A truly revolutionary Palestinian movement would agitate within Israel.  This has been done in the past, most importantly by the CPI in the 1950s and through its union with the Black Panthers in the 1970s, and it can be done again.  I have no doubt that it is the one eventuality most feared by the Israeli establishment.

And then of course you have the complementary problem: how to raise the Palestinian issue within the protest movement.  I think we have to be very patient about it.  It is only after you struggle alongside people that you can really share ideas with them.  Most of the “leaders” of the movement of last summer have tried to avoid “politics,” i.e. the Palestinian issue, but this makes them inconsistent and it makes the movement vulnerable to subordination to the “security agenda” — whenever the establishment feels like it they can start a little war (or a big one) to shut it down.  So again I’m being optimistic but I think we’re going to see a new leadership rise organically out of this movement which will necessarily be in solidarity with the Palestinians.

Although I agree that it is only through opening spaces for consciousness-raising and the re-orientation of political horizons that the occupation can be raised, there are two serious criticisms that external observers have made, and which make it hard for those on the outside to offer unalloyed solidarity.  One is that in the countries of the global North, unless issues of foreign policy are raised alongside internal redistribution, you create the social base for right-wing populism.  I don’t think that’s outside of the realm of possibility for Israel.

So one: I’m not sure I understand what you mean by “right-wing populism,” but I’m guessing you mean dispossessing poor people outside the polity and paying poor people inside the polity off that way.  The funny thing is that the Israeli state has been doing precisely this for the past 30 years at least.  There is a functioning and even rather luxurious welfare state available for anyone willing to go live in the Occupied Territories.  The problem is that most people aren’t.  Perhaps their reasons aren’t ideological, but that’s the way things stand.  Right-wing populism is the reality in Israel; to attempt to pre-empt it by denying the legitimacy of the protests is definitely a case of closing the barn doors too late.

But I want to answer this question on a more philosophical level as well: there is always danger inherent in any social change.  If nothing else, it is the danger of the movement being crushed, people’s lives destroyed, hopes dashed, etc.  Of course Palestinian solidarity activists won’t be losing any sleep over this, but it definitely worries people here, as it worries anybody who has ever been involved in social struggle.  But of course this is a recipe for quiescence, for letting the worst come.  There is nothing to do but oppose it with the principle of hope: that things can change for the better through the collective action of committed human beings.  As you recently wrote, “the historical condition of the left is of failure.”  We have always failed.  The only thing to do, and here I quote Beckett, is to fail again and fail better.  Or of course, to succeed.

Two, there’s a concern that solidarity or support for social mobilization in Israel could revive people’s fantasies about Israeli “socialism” and undercut support for Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions.  What are your thoughts?

I don’t see how the protest wave suggests the existence of socialism in Israel; rather the opposite.  As for BDS, I’m rather ambivalent about it; I don’t know if we want to get into that particular discussion here, but I’m rather impatient with the idea that presenting Israel as anything but a Death Star of the Empire “undercuts” support for the Palestinian struggle.  Perhaps Israelis who speak out against the occupation are also “undercutting”?  Maybe we should shut up and go to the army?

Do you think the J14 protests changed any consciousness within the Israeli population?

Definitely, I think a change has begun that will take a long time to realize itself.  Hegel said (more or less) that, for something historic to really happen, it has to happen twice, because the first time people are not really aware of what they are doing.  This was what we saw last summer, this incoherent but massive rising, people walking around at these protests in shock of what they had become a part of.  It was a very trippy experience, and when it ended there was a lot of disillusionment.  But again what this necessitates is a realization: if we make it happen again, it won’t be as formless as it was.  It will be a much tougher, more relentless organism, and of course it will be treated much more ruthlessly.

Why was the occupation so difficult to raise at the protests?

I think precisely because what you had there was people rising up for themselves.  This is very easy to sneeze at, particularly because the “activist” point of view always equates between the oppressed and the (racialized) “other.”  But last summer people who had always seen themselves as the “salt of the earth,” that is, the ones who own the system and whom it was built for, began seeing themselves as oppressed.  This is a very important moment.  For me too: for many years I have theoretically understood the importance of seeing my problems as social and not individual.  But I never actually did it until last summer: I never conceptualized myself as oppressed.  Even telling you this I feel a resistance — what, upper-middle-class, educated me, on my way to a doctorate and (God willing) a living in academia — oppressed?  Exploited?  But indeed I am, as all 99% of us are, and last summer was the moment when we realized this.

Of course this is not the whole story.  People are racist, and most people definitely do not identify with the Palestinians or understand the necessity of making common cause with them.  So raising the occupation at protests was something that would marginalize you, and most people don’t enjoy that.  Nevertheless there were some attempts, the most important of which was “Tent #1948” at the Rothschild encampment, where Palestinian activists raised consciousness about the issue.  There was a telling incident there: they had a Palestinian flag flying, and someone came and took it down.  One of the activists talked to him, and when he realized she was Palestinian he apologized and put it back.  It wasn’t legitimate for a “leftist” to put it up, but it was for her, because it was her own oppression she was protesting, not somebody else’s.  I think you see where I’m going with this.

How is the left planning on articulating itself with these protests?

This may be a bit of a tangent, but first thing I have to criticize the question, which is also a self-criticism because I also tend to think and write this way.  There is no planning, articulating subject called “the left,” at least not in Israel.  What there is, is a very active leftist Hebrew blogosphere — especially around Haokets.  There is a lot of discussion in this sphere, much of it fascinating, but not much planning is going on.  And there are two political groups which are relevant to the question: the Communist Party of Israel and Hithabrut-Tarabut, which are both members of the Hadash front — which, absurdly enough, I am also a member of, although I am not currently part of either of these groups.

Within the CPI there is a small but extremely effective core group of activists around MK Dov Khenin, who ran for mayor of Tel Aviv-Jaffa and got 35% of the vote, which was completely unprecedented.  The CPI is mostly Arab, but the group around Dov is mostly Jewish.  The CPI’s doctrine is that Israel is colonialist only in the occupied territories, where the Palestinians are a self-determining nation.  Within Israel the Palestinians are a national minority which deserves individual and collective rights but not self-determination.  In addition, because in class terms it is mostly proletarian, it has an interest in fighting alongside the Jewish proletariat for socialism, etc.  This group in the CPI has a very “99%”-ish conception of class, i.e. almost everyone is working-class, our common enemy is the big bourgeoisie (what is today called “the tycoons” here), and there is no particular need to work on class contradictions within the movement.

This theory is obviously quite limited qua theory, but it enabled this group, and particularly a very gifted activist, Alon-Lee Green, to take a very important role in the leadership of last summer’s wave of protest.  The main achievement of this group was to bring a strong Palestinian Israeli contingent into the movement, putting up tents in Palestinian Israeli and mixed cities, bringing Palestinian Israeli speakers to the main rallies.  It also offered a counterweight to the tendency of the movement to define itself as “middle-class,” although the Communists by themselves were not instrumental in bringing lower-class Israelis into the movement.

Tarabut takes a different tack, and they are openly critical of the CPI despite being in the same front with them.  They aimed from the beginning to work with underprivileged groups — Jewish and Arab.  They threw all of their energies into supporting the tent camps in what is known as “the social periphery” — in Tel Aviv-Jaffa, the three encampments in Jaffa, Levinsky Park, and the HaTikva neighborhood.  The central demand that they are fighting for is public housing, as opposed to the vague idea of “affordable housing” which is perceived as relevant only for the middle class.

So to be honest I think both of these tacks are invaluable, and the connection between them is even more so.  The quarrels are quite counter-productive.  There will be no revolutionary bloc in Israel without Arabs and Jews, impoverished middle-class people, and poor people who work together on common demands.

Were you at those encampments?  Can you talk about what kinds of conversations you had there?

I was active at the encampment at Levinsky Park.  This park, in South Tel Aviv, is the epicenter of the refugee crisis in Israel, mostly because the state and city authorities do everything to concentrate the tens of thousands of refugees from Eritrea and Sudan pouring into Israel in the neighborhood around it.  It is also close to the centers of the drug and prostitution trades in Tel Aviv, as well as a social hub for migrant workers from around the world.

The encampment was created by a well-known Mizrahi feminist activist, Shula Keshet of the NGO Ahoti.  It was perhaps the second one in Tel Aviv, and I had the honor of being one of the first people to sleep there, though I dropped out after things became very intense.  In this area the salient conflict is mainly between the veteran residents of these neighborhoods, who are working-class Mizrahi, and “foreigners.”  The encampment was most vibrant and most political when it drew people from both of these groups together.  Rage was vented mostly by the Mizrahis, but it turned very quickly away from the refugees and migrants who were sitting there listening and towards the establishment, which is quite obviously the main villain in this story if you care to think about it.

Another very important phenomenon was the encampment in Jaffa, which was created by Palestinian and Jewish activists, but also by Palestinians with genuine and acute housing problems — homeless families, basically.  So it was one of what were known as the “no choice” encampments and they quickly built up ties of solidarity with their sisters (and some brothers) in the HaTikva encampment, Mizrahi Jews in the same predicament.  The ties continue through the “Periphery Forum,” which works to coordinate activity, mainly on public housing.

Is there work being done to address the fact that the protests mostly did not draw their constituency from the poorest demographics in Israel, the Israeli Palestinians and Mizrahi?

I have partially answered this question, so here I can nitpick at its assumptions.  If you look at support levels for the protests in polls, your assertion is just not true.  Even at its ebb around September, you had massive support from Israeli Palestinians, Mizrahis, and religious people for the protest.  Within all these groups support was positively correlated with perceived economic uncertainty.  Of course at the rallies you mostly had middle-class young Ashkenazis.  Many academics, both “radical” and mainstream, see this as the bottom line: it was a reactionary movement of the younger generation of a privileged stratum that had lost its privileges.  But this totally denies the importance of the protests among underprivileged groups — for example, the Ethiopian Jewish minority who have always been horribly oppressed but are just now getting organized in rising up.  They conceive their demands entirely within the discourse opened up by the summer protests.  The greatest danger in the dismissive view is that it denies the open nature of the movement at this moment in time.  These young middle-class people are instinctively moving towards a cross-class coalition with poorer people, but they need leadership and theory.  People on the left who deny this are evading their own responsibility at this juncture.

I agree with you that there was widespread polling support for the protests from all social groups, and that we should not discount it, but many have commented on the disproportionate representation at the protests themselves of the Ashkenazi middle or upper-middle class.  Of course a protest led by the middle class is unlikely to be transformative.  While too many “radical” observers refused to see the Israeli Palestinian participation, their participation did not seem proportional to either their demographic weight or their percentage of the country’s poor.  Can you talk a little about organizing and mobilizing within those communities so as to foreground their concerns, or to create cross-religious solidarity?  For example, weren’t some of them at the Kiryat Malakhi protest in January?

Well — who goes to protests in general?  Who has it in their “habitus,” to be academic about it, to go to rallies, or to organize rallies, or to even think in terms of political action?  Middle-class people, of course.  This is as true for the left as for the right.  I spent last spring working in an industrial warehouse (for my Master’s thesis).  One of my best friends there was a young worker of Russian origin — he was extremely apolitical, but he was the one who told me about the cottage cheese protest, which began the avalanche of the summer.  I was dismissive; he was enthused about it.  Later on I asked him if he had been to any protests.  He told me that he wished he could, but (obviously) he had to work.

So of course playing the statistics game this way will, as usual, bring you to the conclusion that there is nothing new under the sun.  I don’t agree that “a protest led by the middle class is unlikely to be transformative.”  What is the middle class anyway?  I don’t think there is a good economic definition (unless you want to say something arbitrary like “the 6th to 8th deciles of the population in terms of income”).  I would define the middle class politically, as the keystone of hegemony, the critical mass of people that believe the system is working in their favor.  From this perspective, there can never be transformation without the middle class, or at least a big chunk of it.  Of course the middle class is not enough, but it is idiotic to dismiss it as necessarily reactionary.  And of course, the people who make the mistake of sidelining the middle class are always middle-class themselves.

Unfortunately I can’t talk too much about organizing within oppressed groups, as I am not really involved in it at the moment, except with migrant workers who are a bit of an exception.  I can’t really generalize about it; I used to believe that as soon as people realize their own oppression they will be open to solidarity with other oppressed people, but I’m not that naïve anymore.  Nowadays I think it is mostly a matter of getting involved with a community, getting people’s trust, being open with them about the reasons why you are there and what you expect, and then hoping that circumstances beyond your control will create the objective possibility of a revolutionary bloc emerging.  The people who lead it will come both from the middle class and from the more oppressed groups.  The better the organizing, the more heterogeneous the leadership will be.  But there is no room for anti-middle-class bias of this kind.

What do you foresee will occur this summer?

So to recap: if I had to guess, I would say this summer we will see a smaller but much more focused movement, which will encounter a lot more repression.  There will be a lot of reflection and people will search for new modalities of action.  And then, if and when the financial crisis finally hits, there will be an explosion and a leadership ready for it.  Then we will have a long and protracted struggle.  If there is a parallel awakening among the Palestinians and a reciprocal solidarity, then we can properly speak of being on the road to a revolution.  This is all very far away, but this is where we should aim to be heading.

Max Ajl is a writer and activist.  Visit his Web site www.maxajl.com.

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