News | Inequality / Social Struggles - Social Movements / Organizing - Palestine / Jordan - West Asia - Middle East When Will It Be Spring in Tel Aviv?

The Israeli Left in the context of the emancipatory uprisings in West Asia and North Africa



Maria Hartmann,

«CrimeMinister» Benjamin Netanjahu
Aktivist*innen halten ein Banner mit einem Foto des israelischen Premierministers Benjamin Netanjahu, auf dem steht: «CrimeMinister», während einer Mahnwache vor seinem offiziellen Wohnsitz in Westjerusalem, Juli 2018. Foto: Activestills

Next year, the world will celebrate the tenth anniversary of the so-called “Arab Spring”. It is still open for debate whether celebration is appropriate given all the tragedies and the exodus that people had to endure for their insurgence. Nevertheless: in 2019 a wave of revolutionary protests, first in Sudan, then in Algeria, their resurgence in Egypt, and finally in Lebanon and Iraq proves the vigour of the uprising. This new wave of protests in West Asia and North Africa (WANA) shows that despite all repression and violence, people’s need for radical change can no longer be suppressed. Despite the take-over of the revolutions by counter-revolutionary conservative forces, the last few years have raised the awareness of many people that they have for too long been played off against each other and instrumentalized in the interests of authoritarian rulers. For example, the course of the Syrian Revolution can be understood as a utopian attempt to create free spaces beyond the control of authoritarian leaders—spaces in which civil society discerns and negotiates complexities, instead of serving as cards in the game played in the interests of political elites.

Maria Hartmann deals with the possibilities of diaspora activism and German-Syrian solidarities as part of her work for Adopt a Revolution. Together with various civil society groups, she advocates for greater differentiation in German debates on the Middle East conflict. In her research she works on theories of resistance, new emancipatory movements, and transnational solidarity. Translation by Ursula Wokoeck Wollin.

The last decade has also been a time of learning from each other: since the beginning of the uprisings, activists have referred to each other and encouraged each other in their slogans and banners throughout WANA, from Khartoum in Sudan to Idlib in Syria. Out of the crisis of the old Arab Left a young, inspiring movement is emerging that emancipates itself from its predecessor and discards many of the old approaches in order to develop long-overdue new visions and utopias.

Only one spot on the map has remained relatively unaffected by all that: so far, there is hardly any spring in Tel Aviv. The Israeli Left is increasingly afflicted by stagnation—not only in terms of its scope of action, but also with regard to new visions and theoretically inspiring perspectives. The feeling of “We have tried, but were unable to achieve any progress” is spreading, which is debilitating and frustrating. This is due in part to the difference in the political systems between Israel and, for example, the Baath regimes. Effective resistance becomes a more complicated matter when political repression operates in a subtler manner than in a classical dictatorial system without legal opposition.

No Longer Being Misused for the Right-Wing Populist Agenda

Changing the perspective for a moment, it becomes perceivable that there are nevertheless similarities in the situation of the people aspiring emancipation, despite the incomparable peculiarities stemming from Jewish identity and Israel’s history. Thus, various Israeli human rights organizations describe the increasing pressure they face due to the instrumentalization of the civilian population by overemphasizing national identities and duties. [1] In Syria, alleged duties towards the “common cause for Palestine” are used as a means to exert pressure on the population, legitimizing segregation, militarism, and a restrictive security policy at the expense of civil rights. In Israel, every Jewish citizen has a duty to the “Zionist cause”, which is employed in a clever political game and used to justify quite a number of dubious things. Many members of the opposition belonging to the new Arab movements have recognized in recent years that in light of the ensuing destructive dynamics, such an obligation to support the defined national agenda must be radically questioned if one does not want to be misused by right-wing populists any longer. The same holds true for unconditional loyalty towards the leaders of one’s own ethnic group. It has become clear that instead, it is necessary to draw new lines of identification and to develop one’s own approaches to dealing with inequality. For many this process is quite painful, as it, like a hurricane, shakes up their world that they thought to be true, with all its identities and ideologies. And yet it is clear that the necessary restructuring will not work without a radical rejection of the old order—not least because of the broad alliances of authoritarian rulers that have emerged in recent years, as for example in the conflict in Syria, where they were not even embarrassed about the shadiest of deals at the expense of the civilian population.

If an authoritarian right-wing alliance embarks on a new ball game, emancipatory movements also need to rethink in order to come up with a counter-strategy. They need a novel composition and new networks—and they must re-define who stands up for whom. We are astonished to see what has happened in the streets of Lebanon in the last few weeks: against all religious sectarianism, a broad protest movement of people from all strata, groups, and genders was formed against the corrupt political elites. The latter had relied on the unconditional post-war subservience of their respective group. It also seems clear that the demand for an end to corruption that is a central theme of almost all new revolutionary movements in the WANA region will not be met by voting an individual person out of office. The criticism voiced involves a fundamental questioning of the legitimacy of long-established masculine authorities. The ever-louder voices of feminists in the opposition make it clear that the aim is comprehensive social liberation rather than just a bit more political freedom. Meanwhile, voices in Syria are calling for a rethinking of the traditional concepts of peace: sustainable peace requires more than re-stabilization of the old order at the expense of all critical voices.

The Arab Spring as Source of Inspiration?

The situation in Israel, by contrast, has been characterized by uncertainty, helplessness, and depoliticization during the last decade, and various struggles could often be seen to be played against each other. Thus queers or environment activists are not necessarily committed to anti-racist, anti-segregationist approaches, but frequently attach themselves to the old, already doomed order. Others aspire to a more holistically thinking movement, but are isolated in their approaches. Meanwhile, anti-democratic tendencies have tightened their grip. The allegations of corruption against Netanyahu threw the country into a coalition crisis, not least because Israelis have come to rely on Bibi’s rhetoric that he is the only one capable of standing solid as a rock in turbulent times.

In general, there seems to be little awareness or interest in the new discourses of the movements in the surrounding countries. Partial exceptions are only found in spaces where, for example, bilateral cooperation with Palestinians allows for an awareness of developments in other parts of the region. This “island mentality” is based on a discourse that, in the wake of the ongoing isolation trauma of the Holocaust, defines Jewish-Israeli collective identity exclusively in relation to itself—a reaction that is not only proclaimed by the Israeli mainstream, but also reproduced worldwide by diverse currents for various reasons. Yet the question is whether this defence mechanism, which was once adopted for a good reason, must ultimately lead to stagnation among Israeli emancipatory forces.

If the aspirations of the Arab spring are also an expression of the need to venture into utopian uncertainties, what new perspectives can they open for the Jewish Israeli context? Is this a suitable moment for the stagnant Israeli Left to free itself from its perplexity and join the refreshing tradition of the other movements, in order to take a radical step and see itself as part of the uprising in the region? An uprising at the centre of which stands a rebellion against the prevailing injustice and power relations. In this context, the following has to be pointed out: while the other movements must also face the challenges specific to their own societies and clean up their own backyards, Israel cannot avoid dealing with the Palestinian issue.

How to Become Part of the Region?

Does the moment of identification with the revolutions provide Jewish women and men in the region with an opportunity to ask the following questions that go beyond issues of national and ethnic-cultural identity? “How can we become part of the region?” “How should the region look like in future?” “What is the new generation’s vision of the region, if we must accept that the old elites’ agenda has definitely failed?” This would run against the ambivalent current of the Israeli mainstream that seeks to defend Israel’s legitimate position in the region at all costs, while completely evading its socio-political responsibilities for the region.

At the same time, if Israelis have the courage to come out of their shell, it will also hold up a mirror to the so-called Arab revolutions: what place do hegemonic continuities of pan-Arab thought offer to the numerous minorities who have always played a key role in advancing emancipatory ideas? To take the call for emancipatory change and pluralism seriously also means to acknowledge that the world has never been one of homogenous identities, it has always been one of marginalized narratives of Kurds, Jews, Berbers, and many others. Thus the issue of shared and honestly practiced pluralism, beyond segregation justified by security concerns, would become the central aspect of the revolutions’ utopia. And self-reflection on one’s own responsibility in the (supra-regional as well as local) majority positions would become a central task—in Damascus as in Rojava as well as in Tel Aviv.

[1] For example, organizations such as B’Tselem and Breaking the Silence have come under considerable political pressure for exposing the consequences of militarization and human rights violations by the Israeli army.