“No democracy with occupation.” These are the t-shirts that a minority of protesters wear to the weekly protests that have dominated the Israeli news cycle since Benjamin Netanyahu’s government attempted to introduce a series of laws which, if passed, would lead to an unprecedented judicial overhaul. This minority of anti-occupation protesters is attempting to broaden the agenda of the protests to include the most blatantly anti-democratic system of all: the grinding occupation of the Palestinian territories. It’s a predictable challenge to Israelis, since, when they do occasionally take to the streets en masse and for an extended period of time, they tend to prefer a big-tent messaging approach.
We saw the same dynamic back in 2011 with the “tent protests.” Triggered by the rising cost of living, embodied in the skyrocketing price of housing and more humorously in the cost of cottage cheese (Israelis deservedly love their dairy products), these protesters lined the streets of Tel Aviv’s Rothschild Boulevard that summer and called for “social justice.” But as I argued in the pages of Haaretz back then, you can’t have true social justice while the occupation continues unabated. While those protesters meant social justice in the socio-economic sense, I felt it was worth pointing out.
As a tactic, the big-tent impulse is understandable. The narrower the message, the more likely one can engender broad-based support. But as a moral position, it’s untenable. Israel cannot call itself a democracy (at least not a liberal one) as long as roughly half of the population between the river and the sea lives under occupation (the West Bank), under siege (the Gaza Strip), or is left with tenuous residency rights (the Palestinians of East Jerusalem). And none of this toucheson the systemic discrimination faced by Palestinian citizens of Israel or the disposessed Palestinian refugees who await justice.
A thought experiment: Would in fact the protests implode were the anti-occupation bloc to become more vocal? Let’s say they would indeed splinter and then dissolve by virtue of these divisions. And then what? Netanyahu pursues his anti-democratic reforms. And Israel’s illiberal democracy becomes even more illiberal. Capital exits the country. Those (Jewish Israelis) who can afford to emigrate, do. And the occupation grinds on.
It’s a Faustian bargain, indeed. But there are ways to overcome this nightmare scenario.
Scholars of social movements have shown that social movements succeed when the following tactics are pursued:
1. Connecting the message to people’s values and identities;
2. Linking people with each other to, in turn, engender trust;
3. Pursuing smaller victories along the way to cultivate hope and optimism;
4. Reminding people of the costs of inaction;
5. Creating hybrid forms of leadership;
6. Engaging in dialogue to resolve differences within the group;
7. Storytelling to highlight the plight of individuals affected by the issue being challenged.
All this suggests that while it is tempting for anti-occupation protesters to stop reading this article at the line about it being a Faustian bargain – and in fact I nearly ended this essay right there – they must dig in and engage in community building. It can be hard to see common cause across differences, especially where it may seem that many (Jewish Israeli) protesters are concerned only with their own narrow(er) legal and civil needs rather than with the human rights needs of Palestinians who are under the boot of military occupation.
But that’s not the end of the story. Or at least, it may not be the end. The ending remains – and demands – to be written by those committed to justice.