By Geoff Mirelowitz and Argiris Malapanis
May 28, 2021—The recent explosion of Palestinian resistance to Israeli occupation and oppression, as well as to legalized discrimination against Arab citizens of Israel, has sparked some solidarity from Israeli Jews. While modest, this response points in the right direction.
One of the most important actions took place May 22 in Tel Aviv. “Thousands Join Tel Aviv Rally for ‘A Joint Future’ After Israel-Gaza Fighting, Jewish-Arab Violence,” read a headline in the Israeli daily Haaretz. “A pro-peace rally in central Tel Aviv,” Haaretz reported, “drew several thousand participants, calling for Jewish-Arab partnership and urging Israel to work toward resolving its decades-long conflict with the Palestinians.”
The groups Breaking the Silence and Standing Together organized the protest.
Standing Together describes itself as “the grassroots people’s movement in Israel. We organize Jews and Arabs, locally and nationally, around campaigns for peace, equality, and social justice, in order to build power and transform Israeli society,” according to its website. “We recognize the interconnectedness between struggles including the growing social and economic disparities in Israeli society, the ongoing occupation of the Palestinian territories, attacks on democratic freedoms, and the hardships faced by minorities such as Arab-Palestinian citizens of Israel, the LGBTQ community, women, and immigrants. Our analysis spans across issues: we know that we cannot address one of these challenges without solving the others.”
Breaking the Silence “is an organization of veteran soldiers who have served in the Israeli military since the start of the Second Intifada and have taken it upon themselves to expose the Israeli public to the reality of everyday life in the Occupied Territories,” says its website. “We endeavor to stimulate public debate about the price paid for a reality in which young soldiers face a civilian population on a daily basis and are engaged in the control of that population’s everyday life. Our work aims to bring an end to the occupation.”
Leaders of both organizations were among the speakers at the rally. Palestinians who spoke, in particular, emphasized the need to fight for equal rights for Arabs and Jews inside Israel.
No to ‘institutionalized discrimination’ in Israel, ‘apartheid in occupied territories’
“As a Palestinian citizen of Israel,” said Sally Abed of Standing Together, “I refuse to go back to the routine of institutionalized discrimination, of police violence and political arrests, of limited citizenship. I refuse to go back to the routine in which on a train I’m afraid to answer a phone call from my mother in Arabic. Arabic is my language, and it is one of the languages in this place, and I’m not willing to go back to a routine in which people are afraid to speak it.”
Ariel Bernstein, of Breaking the Silence, served as a combat soldier in the reconnaissance unit of the Israeli army’s Nahal Brigade. “For the past seven years since we lay in the sand dunes outside of Beit Hanun,” he said, referring to a city on the northeast edge of the Gaza Strip, “and our leaders did nothing to move ahead a diplomatic solution. Seven years in which we’ve been offered nothing but despair, while we’ve been sold the illusion of normalcy. They demand that we bury our head in the sand and think that the current situation is fine and normal. But there is nothing normal about a military dictatorship, a suffocating blockade and apartheid in the territories.”
Other speakers included author David Grossman, who told the crowd, “We, Israelis, still refuse to realize the time is over in which our power can force a reality that’s convenient for us and only for us, for our needs and interests.”
Tamar Zandberg, a member of Meretz, an Israeli political party with six members in the Knesset, the Israeli parliament, also addressed the rally. “It’s no coincidence that the violence broke out just when we began to feel that maybe Jews and Arabs can cooperate in politics too,” Zandberg pointed out. “Some people wanted to sabotage this vision, they wanted to continue sowing hatred and incitement and violence. But this evening and here, we are telling them—enough, no. Now too we can and must establish a different government in Israel that will not encourage hatred, will not incite, will not separate Jews and Arabs.”
“War is only good for the warlords, for Benjamin Netanyahu, but it’s bad for both peoples,” said in his speech another Knesset member, Ayman Odeh, leader of the three-way Arab-majority Joint List. “There are civilians in Gaza and there are civilians in Israel, and we have to keep them out of the circle of terror.”
A statement on Standing Together’s web site echoes this thought. “Today, it is of the utmost importance for us say unequivocally that all harm to innocent people is completely illegitimate,” it reads. “The scenes that we have witnessed throughout the various parts of the country, the harming of civilians, synagogues, and property, and the gangs of people organizing with the aim of ‘taking revenge’, threatening, and harming people—are illegitimate. We must not accept or tolerate violence committed by Jews against Arabs, nor of Arabs against Jews. We have seen this before, we already know. Any situation in which any of us, Arab or Jewish, fear for our lives at home or in the streets, is unbearable, and we must not allow ourselves to be dragged there.
“Benjamin Netanyahu, and the ministers within his government,” the statement adds, “as well as Betzael Smotrich and Itamar Ben-Gvir [two right-wing Israeli political figures], have done and continue to do everything in their power to increase the fire and tension that we now see.”
Other protests precede Tel Aviv rally
France24 reported on other protests in a May 18 article headlined, “Against backdrop of Gaza violence, Israel’s Jews and Arabs join forces for peace.” It reported, “Jewish and Arab citizens have also taken to the streets in rallies intended to strengthen the fragile fabric of intercommunal coexistence that has been holding together peacefully, if tentatively, for decades.”
The news agency interviewed Dubi Moran, a Jewish Israeli from Ramat Hasharon, just northeast of Tel Aviv, who “has participated in innumerable rallies.” Moran, the article said, “works with the NGO Windows-Channels for Communication, a grassroots organisation whose members include Palestinians from Israel, the West Bank and Gaza, and Jewish Israelis who work on youth programmes promoting justice, liberty, dignity and equality.”
“I’m in touch with many Arab citizens and various solidarity groups,” Moran told France24 on May 17. “I feel their deep frustration and fear, and the hate and hostility that is bubbling up, and it’s very difficult. My only source of optimism comes from the actions being taken, mainly the demonstrations.
“I can’t just sit at home and lose hope,” he continued. “The demonstrations might not yet be quite focused enough or significant enough in terms of their results, but they’re still valuable. Not only must we not stop, we have to increase the number of joint rallies and add other locations, so it won’t be possible to ignore them.”
“The associations calling for the mobilisation of all of Israel’s citizens are many and varied,” added France24. “They include joint Jewish-Arab groups, feminist groups, organisations fighting government corruption, religious and secular groups, and others. Over the weekend [May 15-16], thousands of Jews and Arabs took to the streets in hundreds of rallies around the country, calling for an end to the violence.”
The Jerusalem Post reported on another similar action in its May 22 edition. “Hundreds of Jews and Arabs gathered in the east Jerusalem neighborhood of Sheikh Jarrah on Friday [May 21] in order to protest against the planned eviction of several Arab families,” the paper said.
“A series of joint Jewish and Arab protests over the last two weeks calling for peace and for an end to ongoing violence have taken place across Israel and the West Bank,” the Post continued. “Demonstrations have been held across the North, South, and center of the country, and now in Sheikh Jarrah. Over 200 Jews and Arabs arrived to protest peacefully at the entrance to the neighborhood in a demonstration arranged by the left-wing organization Standing Together.”
In the wake of the recent events, Israel has stepped up its repression of Palestinians. “Israeli Police Round Up More Than 1,550 Suspects in Mob Violence,” read a headline in the May 24 New York Times. Although Arab citizens make up only 20% of Israel’s population, “At least 70 percent of those arrested are Arab citizens of Israel,” the Times noted. “Three Israeli Jews are charged with the attempted murder of an Arab driver.”
Uptick of peace actions vs. past protests
The recent actions represent a notable uptick of peace protests inside Israel.
According to the Guardian and other news sources, peace protests had become sporadic and dwindled to dozens of people in recent years. “‘Leftist’ and ‘peacenik’ are widely used as dismissive slurs against an ever-embattled section of society who are increasingly on the fringe and slammed as traitors,” said an article in the Mar. 14, 2019, issue of the Guardian. “[T]he Israel Democracy Institute, said the peace issue has ‘disappeared almost completely from the Israeli public discourse.’”
“During the past two years, many of the most prominent peace activists, silent and disillusioned, have retired to the seclusion of their homes,” reported the New York Times in its Aug. 30, 2002, issue, as suicide bombings became more frequent during the second Palestinian uprising in the occupied territories, known as the intifada (2000-2005).
Previous large peace actions inside Israel had taken place in the 1980s and 1990s. They included a 1982 demonstration of 400,000 called by Peace Now. That was the largest peace action to ever take place in Israel. It was called to protest the massacre of Palestinians in the Sabra and Shatila refugee camps in Lebanon by local right-wing militias, with the complicity of the Israeli military, which had invaded Lebanon at the time. Peace Now organized another rally of 100,000 in 1988, during the first intifada (1987-1993), calling on Tel Aviv to negotiate with the Palestine Liberation Organization. Smaller peace actions took place in the 1990s.
Demand for equal rights gets wider hearing
A largely new dimension of the recent peace protests inside Israel is Palestinian and Jewish Israeli citizens taking to the streets together and placing the demand for an end to legalized anti-Arab discrimination at front and center.
Such demands for equal rights are finding a louder echo among Jews in other countries, especially in the United States, including from some unexpected quarters.
Peter Beinart, a self-described liberal Zionist, and former editor of The New Republic, a magazine well-known for its pro-Zionist stance, is one such example. “Last summer, he made a clean break,” said an article in the May 23 New Yorker magazine, referring to Beinart.
“‘The painful truth is that the project to which liberal Zionists like myself have devoted ourselves for decades—a state for Palestinians separated from a state for Jews—has failed,’ Beinart wrote in a long essay for Jewish Currents. He called on interested parties to work toward a single state in the Middle East that would protect the rights of Israeli Jews and Palestinians alike. On May 11th, as violence escalated in Israel and Gaza, Beinart published a second essay, arguing that the Jewish right to return home should also apply to Palestinians. ‘If Palestinians have no right to return to their homeland,’ he wrote, ‘neither do we.’”
Beinart penned another opinion column, published in the July 8, 2020, New York Times, which was titled, “I No Longer Believe in a Jewish State.” The subheading read, “For decades I argued for separation between Israelis and Palestinians. Now, I can imagine a Jewish home in an equal state.”