Israel tries out ‘Occupy’: Fleeting notions of (social) justice
Israel’s social justice movement, which was retaking city squares in the name of the average citizen months before Occupy Wall Street came along, attempted a comeback last week with its first mass protest after a two-month hiatus. Keeping to its “apolitical” social platform, the protest movement continues to carefully quarantine its definition of social justice, keeping it safe in the comfortable confines of the 1967 Green Line that shields the majority of Israelis from Palestinians. One mainstream Israeli politician, however, shattered that concept last week in a barely noticed and subsequently buried outburst in the Knesset.
The now-famous public faces of the Israeli social protest movement, first amongst them folk hero Dafni Leef, were present for the opening session of the Knesset’s winter session last week. As cameras panned to the social activists during the plenum’s widely-televised opening debate, politicians fulfilled expectations by vowing to take up – but of course not satisfy – many of the demands made by the summer’s social movement.
Opposition leader and former foreign minister Tzipi Livni, addressing the plenum immediately after Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu, offered her obligatory and expected rebuttals to the prime minister’s words. Livni largely played to the social movement’s talking points, denouncing “piggish capitalism” gone wild, advocating free education and the need for increased public housing.
Then, out of nowhere, Livni said something that the social justice movement either doesn’t believe itself or has been too scared to say since its inception on the streets of Tel Aviv. The opposition leader argued the inseparability of Israeli social justice and the injustice inherent in the occupation of the Palestinians.
Decrying Knesset Speaker Reuven Rivlin’s swipe at the Left’s newfound attention to social issues, in which he quipped earlier in the day that “the Green Line has become passé,” Livni pounced.
“No Mr. Speaker,” she nearly shouted, “don’t use the protest movement to say that this discussion is one of the past, that the Green Line is passé.”
While taking political pot shots in advocating the urgent implementation of a two-state solution has become somewhat of a pastime for Livni, what came next was totally unexpected.
“You can’t speak of social justice when it stops and disappears at a line that’s existed for many decades, on the other side of which, there’s no justice,” Livni declared.
The Green Line, which “isn’t accepted by the people of Israel,” and the social justice movement, she added, are “part of the same discussion that we all need to be having.” (Link to video of speech in Hebrew – at the 15:45 minute marker)
In the intense and inspiring months of summer protests, during which Israeli public discourse shifted toward social issues, only a small number of activists – usually tolerated only in the name of “apolitical” inclusiveness – dared utter the words “Palestinian” and “social justice” in the same sentence. It has never been very popular in Israel to suggest that Palestinians deserve justice equal to that which is demanded by Jewish Israelis.
Livni herself may have regretted her departure from the acceptable narrative of mainstream Israeli politics because in the official text of her speech sent out by her spokesperson just minutes after she descended from the podium, the entire rant was conspicuously missing.
It will be interesting and telling to see whether the opposition leader ever again dares to declare Israeli and Palestinian justice to be inexorably intertwined, a sentiment reminiscent of Martin Luther King Jr.’s famous quote: “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.”
But more telling than the fleeting words of a politician whose job description is to be outspoken and controversial, the more important question is whether protesters themselves adopt the more inclusive idea of (social) justice. In recent weeks, the movement has attempted to align itself with the global “Occupy” movement, replacing its Twitter hashtag #J14 with the new, #OccupyTLV. At least one protester at last week’s social justice rally in Tel Aviv saw the irony in the new banner. “Occupy Tel Aviv, not Palestine,” his sign read.