Social Protest

06.28.12

J14 V. The Occupation: Why Talking About The Occupation Will Only Prolong It

When I was a teenager back in the 80’s, there was an ad on Israel’s only TV channel about road safety. It urged drivers to use their heads rather than simply rely on driving legally. The catchy slogan was “On the road, don’t be right—be smart!”

Open Zion Emily L. Hauser recently responded to a post of mine on +972 Magazine in which I argued that calculating the cost of the occupation is irrelevant, as it is morally wrong to begin with. Hauser agreed on most of my points, but ended her post with a commitment to remind #J14 social protesters that there cannot be social justice without an end to occupation, and that she will “highlight the fact that their struggle is inextricably bound to the struggle to end the occupation.”

This may be the right thing to say, but it's not necessarily the smart thing.

Hauser is one of many on the left who believe that this summer, unlike the year before, the #J14 protests must be linked to the occupation. But I believe that when it comes to #J14, left wingers will have to come to grips with a very baffling paradox: the best way to end the occupation is not to talk about it.

Many leftists despair over their failure to bring about any kind of change. They are now a tiny minority, and they simply don’t get how hundreds of thousands of Israelis can pour into the streets to fight corporate capitalism, but not the occupation. Why, just last weekend, as social activist Daphni Leef was roughed up by Tel Aviv police, 15 Gazans were being shot down by IDF planes. And what do you think brought people out to the streets in anger?

This despair has led leftists to try and “force” their agenda onto a protest movement that has already mobilized the masses, in the vain hope that the change will come from inside.

They couldn’t be more wrong.

First, combining agendas is a bad idea. Occupy Wall Street didn’t bring up the war in Afghanistan, gay rights or abortion issues. It was about the 99%. “Well,” you might say, “what about the social rights of Palestinians? Aren’t they part of the 99%?” Unfortunately, Israelis and their politicians see the occupation as a security issue. For them, it is not a question of civil rights over the Green Line. It’s about their existence. This is wrong—but that’s the way it is.

Second, it is paramount to understand the importance of #J14 and the huge potential it and its activists have for bringing change to Israel. What #J14 is trying to change is the most solid, largest obstacle to ending the occupation: the Israeli political left-right paradigm. Until now, this paradigm has been dominated by “the conflict”. Although there are many shades of grey to this, one could say that the left was pro-peace, while the right was pro-land.

Every election in Israel has been based on this paradigm. There are very few examples of socio-economic issues standing at the forefront of election campaigns—and even then, they were still not the dominant issue. That has always been security. This has continued to be the case in recent years even as more and more Israelis develop a keen “economic awareness.” This is largely due to the economic boom Israel has experienced over the past decade, which is also increasingly dominated by the local media. After years of having only one dedicated, financial daily (Globes) we now have three (with The Marker and Calcalist). Not only are the top CEOs and tycoons household names, their profits and salaries are hot topics for discussions. This increased economic awareness, combined with hardships caused by the global financial crisis, brought about #J14.  Who knows—maybe Israel’s next election slogans could read: “It’s the economy, stupid!”

The occupation will end only when Israel is pressured from the outside and Israelis shift their attitude. But long as the U.S. continues to be an “enabler,” Israelis remain addicted to the status quo (as my colleague Noam Sheizaf points out), and the Israeli government continues to feed off fear and an electorate that votes accordingly­—nothing will change.

Linking #J14 and security issues will be the downfall of the social justice movement. #J14 will quickly evaporate into just another fringe movement, a small left-wing minority, just like the Israeli left is today. Talking about the occupation in #J14 circles will cause more harm than good.

The battle against the occupation must continue in the usual venues—it mustn't stop. But if you really want to keep the old left-right paradigm alive—then go ahead, force the occupation on the #J14 movement.

You may be right—but you’re not being smart.