Birth Pangs East Jerusalem

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January 31, 2010

Is there finally a new Israeli left on the horizon? If one rises in the near future, we will point to the protests at Sheikh Jarrah as its birthplace. Whether or not these protests will truly spawn a revitalized and relevant Israeli left remains to be seen and probably won’t be clear for some time. But the Sheikh Jarrah protests have the requisite ingredients to make it possible.

There are, of course, always protests in Israel and the Occupied Territories, and many of these feature Arabs and Israeli Jews coming together. But the Sheikh Jarrah protests have brought in some features that have been missing from others.

Perhaps the most important aspect is that the issues around Sheikh Jarrah have transcended the occupation while remaining rooted in it. What began as a series of protests against the eviction of Palestinian families by legal means (legal according to Israeli law, which is problematic, as a friend detailed very well here) has branched out into protests against the denial of free speech in East Jerusalem, against the police there overstepping their bounds and against the unequal treatment afforded Jerusalem’s Jewish and Arab residents.

For years, anti-occupation activists have been making the claim that the occupation is eroding Israel’s moral fiber and that its continuation is a cancer that will eventually kill Israeli democracy. Until now, that contention could be dismissed as a theory. Sheikh Jarrah is demonstrating it as reality in practice. And that could rally more Israelis behind an anti-occupation movement.

For a real Israeli left to coalesce as a viable political force rather than only as a protest movement, it has to be based first and foremost on a clear national interest, not an implied one. For most Israelis these days, ending the occupation is not a pressing matter, and the injustices they are aware of that befall Arabs in the OPT, including East Jerusalem are reasons to wag a sad head, but not a motivation for strong political action.

For that reason, it is important for the bulk of the Israeli public to see what is happening in Sheikh Jarrah. It is important that they see that their fellow citizens, holding a protest in an area that Israel considers it sovereign territory, are being treated roughly and thrown into jail without cause. It is important for Israelis to see the Jerusalem police vowing to defy a court ruling that the protests were legal and threaten to suppress them anyway (in the end, the police decided to back off from that threat).

And it is crucially important that these issues are raised in the context of the occupation. Even more, that this is happening in East Jerusalem, where the Arab residents live in a state which is something less than occupation but also much less than citizenship.

The Sheikh Jarrah protests have produced a new face of popular protest in Hagai El-Ad, the executive director of the Association for Civil Rights in Israel (ACRI), and have brought that new face together with more familiar left-wing figures such as Yossi Sarid (former leader of the Meretz Party, one-time Minister of Education and Minister of the Environment), Avram Burg (former speaker of the Knesset form Labor) and well-known author David Grossman (veteran of the Peace Now movement who lost his son in the waning days of the Lebanon War of 2006).

These well-known names are mixing with Jewish and Arab, Israeli and Palestinian activists in the protests, a crowd which spans the spectrum of the Left in Israel. It is precisely that combination, a broad group led by key figures from the mainstream Left, that is needed to spark a new Left that is capable of changing the suicidal course Israel is on today.

The safer bet is always that such a momentous political shift is not in the offing, even if it has all the makings. But in Israel, it is time to grasp at some straws.

As the United States has increased its clarity about the desire for a two-state solution, the current Israeli government has thrown what was, for a time, a consensus position in the Israeli mainstream back into open debate. Meanwhile, the fractured Palestinian polity has combined with sixteen years in decline in Palestinian standards of living, unprecedented settlement expansion and much tighter security restrictions since the second intifada to produce a despair that has quashed many Palestinians’ belief that a two-state solution is even possible.

Perhaps the Obama Administration will come up with a more effective strategy than it followed in its first year. Indeed, I expect it will. But that won’t be enough without something to drive it in the region. The Fatah-Hamas split is only the latest factor in why there is no hope such a drive will take root among the Palestinian leadership.

No, what is desperately needed is an Israeli left that is committed to an end to the occupation first and foremost for Israel’s sake, but is also genuinely respectful of and concerned with Palestinians’ civil, human, and political rights. That is what has coalesced in Sheikh Jarrah.

For such a left to make a difference, though, it must be willing to move into real Israeli politics. That is, it must form a new party: a party that can speak and work with Kadima on one side and Hadash on the other without needing to get in bed with either because it has its own support base.

It must be a left that is not Kadima or Labor, but one based on solid values of peace through withdrawal from the Territories and real civil equality for all non-Jewish citizens of Israel. It must be a Left that does not seek dialog with or appeasement of the settlers, but their removal from the Occupied Territories as soon as possible.

It must also be a Left dedicated to preserving Israel, one which is firmly committed to two states. Thus, it must also be a Left that is not Hadash, not post-Zionist, but rather a new Zionist, one that is firmly rooted in the more humanistic of early Zionist thinkers and recognizes that Israel is now able to stand on its own, can face its adversaries without having to live in a constant state of terror and needs to end the occupation to finally exist like every other country, the fulfillment of the Zionist dream.

That is a Left that can talk with Kadima, Hadash and Ta’al (Arab Movement for Renewal). It can draw disaffected former peaceniks back into a movement and away from Kadima and what Ehud Barak has left of Labor. It can draw the more pragmatic idealists from Hadash. And it can mobilize a real movement to end the occupation in both the Israeli street and the Knesset.

Whether they meant to be or not, some of the more recognizable names from the Sheikh Jarrah protests (Hagai El-Ad, Yonatan Shapira, Didi Remez among others) have become the people with the opportunity to galvanize that new left with Burg, Sarid and Grossman. The protests at Sheikh Jarrah have been amorphous and organic, coming together because of the high-profile injustice and a bit of organizing. To make this count, it will take more intention than that.

I hope these folks have it (and I hope more women, who from what I’ve seen make up the clear majority of the demonstrators, become visible as leaders to those of us watching from afar). Because the coalescing of that new Left which might have started in Sheikh Jarrah could well be the last hope for Israeli democracy.

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