Israeli Jews against the Wall: (Anti-)Colonial Narratives of Defeat

Abstracts

This paper deals with Jewish-Israeli activists who join Palestinian demonstrations in the occupied West Bank against the Separation Wall, the 800-kilometre-long, eight-metre-high wall that separates Palestinians and Israeli settlers. Jewish-Israeli activists who join the Palestinian-led struggle are placed in a challenging and unique position: they are members of the settler–colonial oppressor collective and benefit from this colonisation. Israelis who join the Palestinian protests against the wall are portrayed by the state and the majority as traitors who have crossed national boundaries to turn against Israel. While these activists fully accept the framing of the demonstrations as Palestinian-led, their unique position results in multidirectional implications for their narratives and feelings in relation to the struggle’s outcomes. As part of their solidarity, they construct a narrative based on the success or failure of the Palestinian struggle. As the Palestinian struggle is perceived as failed, Israeli activists also join this narrative of defeat. By combining theories of social movement outcomes, particularly on failure and defeat, along with a scholarly analysis of the joint struggle of Palestinians and Jewish-Israelis, I seek to shed light on how the sense of double defeat is constructed through activism. In particular, I investigate the ways in which they add their own contributions to the Palestinian narrative, both in relation to the Palestinian struggle and to their positionality within the protest. Specifically, I scrutinise the two aspects of the Israeli activists’ sense of defeat, losing to the power of the occupation and the disintegration of solidarity, and investigate how these created rifts in Israeli mobilisation for demonstrations against the wall. However, I also demonstrate that the sense of defeat does not override all mobilisation and show the ways in which many of the activists continue to take part in the struggle against the occupation and oscillate between a sense of defeat and the moral obligation to persist, creating both micro and macro dilemmas about practices of activism, identity, participation and solidarity. I show that many other possibilities for resistance exist, and they all illustrate the extent of the agency Israeli activists possess even in the face of political losses. The variety of political actions that are available to Israeli activists are the result of their social position. While the Palestinians lack options for action, Jewish-Israeli activists, despite the failure of the demonstrations against the wall, have the privilege of choosing new courses of action. The material stems from the fieldwork I conducted at the above-mentioned Palestinian demonstrations between 2015 and 2017. My aspiration to provide a comprehensive account of Jewish-Israeli anti-apartheid activists’ experiences during the weekly Palestinian protests called for an in-depth qualitative study. I chose qualitative methods of data collection, primarily participant observation and in-depth semi-structured interviews, due to their appropriateness for understanding the dynamic and unstable nature of the phenomena being studied.

« Les Juifs israéliens contre le mur : récits (anti)coloniaux de la défaite »

Cet article traite des militants juifs israéliens qui se joignent aux manifestations palestiniennes contre le mur de séparation en Cisjordanie occupée, un mur de 800 kilomètres de long et de 8 mètres de haut, dressé entre les Palestiniens et les colons israéliens. Les militants juifs israéliens qui se joignent à la lutte menée par les Palestiniens sont placés dans une position difficile et singulière : ils sont membres du collectif oppresseur que constituent les colons et bénéficient de cette colonisation. Les Israéliens qui participent aux manifestations palestiniennes contre le mur sont dépeints comme des traîtres par l’État et la majorité de la population, comme des citoyens qui ont franchi les frontières nationales pour se retourner contre Israël. Bien que ces activistes acceptent pleinement que l’encadrement des manifestations soit dirigé par des Palestiniens, leur position singulière oriente de diverses manières leurs récits et leurs sentiments concernant les résultats de la lutte. Parce qu’ils sont solidaires de la lutte palestinienne, ils construisent un récit fondé sur son succès ou son échec. Dans la mesure où la lutte palestinienne est perçue comme un échec, les activistes israéliens se font aussi l’écho de ce récit de la défaite. En combinant les théories sur les résultats des mouvements sociaux, en particulier sur l’échec et la défaite, avec une analyse savante de la lutte commune des Palestiniens et des Juifs israéliens, je cherche à faire la lumière sur la façon dont l’activisme construit ce sentiment de double défaite. En particulier, j’étudie de quelles façons ces militants israéliens ajoutent au récit palestinien leurs contributions, qui concernent à la fois la lutte palestinienne et leur propre position au sein de la protestation. Plus précisément, j’examine les deux aspects du sentiment de défaite des activistes israéliens, c’est-à-dire la défaite face au pouvoir de l’occupation et la désintégration de la solidarité, et j’étudie comment ils ont créé des failles dans la mobilisation israélienne pour prendre part aux manifestations contre le mur. Cependant, je démontre aussi que le sentiment de défaite ne l’emporte pas totalement sur la mobilisation et je montre comment de nombreux militants continuent à prendre part à la lutte contre l’occupation et oscillent entre un sentiment de défaite et l’obligation morale de persister, créant ainsi des dilemmes à petite et grande échelle au sujet des pratiques d’activisme, de l’identité, de la participation et de la solidarité. Je montre que de nombreuses autres possibilités de résistance existent, illustrant toute l’étendue de l’agentivité que possèdent les activistes israéliens, même lorsqu’ils sont confrontés à des échecs politiques. La variété d’actions politiques dont disposent les militants israéliens résulte de leur position sociale. Alors que les Palestiniens manquent d’options pour agir, les activistes juifs israéliens, malgré l’échec des manifestations contre le mur, ont le privilège de pouvoir choisir de nouvelles lignes d’action. Ces matériaux de recherche sont issus du travail de terrain que j’ai mené lors des manifestations palestiniennes déjà mentionnées, qui ont eu lieu entre 2015 et 2017. Mon ambition de dresser un panorama complet des expériences des militants juifs israéliens anti-apartheid lors des manifestations palestiniennes hebdomadaires a nécessité une étude qualitative approfondie. J’ai choisi des méthodes qualitatives de collecte de données, principalement l’observation participante et les entretiens semi-structurés approfondis en raison de leur pertinence pour comprendre la nature dynamique et instable des phénomènes analysés.

Index

Mots-clés

conflit israélo-palestinien, résistance, défaite, Anarchistes contre le Mur, émotions

Keywords

Israeli–Palestinian conflict, resistance, defeat, Anarchists Against the Wall, emotions

Outline

Text

Introduction

This paper deals with Jewish-Israeli activists who join Palestinian demonstrations in the occupied West Bank against the West Bank Separation Wall, the 800-kilometre-long, eight-metre-high wall that separates Palestinians and Israeli settlers. While these activists fully accept the framing of the demonstrations as Palestinian-led, their unique position results in multidirectional implications for their narratives and feelings in relation to the struggle’s outcomes. As part of their solidarity, they construct a narrative based on the success or failure of the Palestinian struggle. As the Palestinian struggle is perceived as failed, Israeli activists also join this narrative of defeat. At the same time, they add their own contributions to this narrative, both in relation to the Palestinian struggle and to their positionality within the protest. Nevertheless, many of them continue to take part in the struggle against the occupation and oscillate between a sense of defeat and the moral obligation to persist, creating both micro and macro dilemmas about practices of activism, identity, participation and solidarity.

Since Israel began constructing the Separation Wall in 2002, weekly Palestinian demonstrations have taken place in various villages along its length. The demonstrations are organised by Palestinians, who are joined by a small group of Israeli activists, often referred to as “Anarchists Against the Wall”. The political struggles of oppressors are often linked to boundaries and the concept of “us–them”. However, this binary distinction between “victims” and “perpetrators” has been challenged by scholars and activists who seek to establish more complex subjects and spaces, using terms such as “implicated subjects” (Rothberg, 2020). In the Palestinian struggle against Israeli occupation, Jewish-Israeli participants inhabit this thirdspace (Pappe, 2014), where solidarity and direct activism redraw boundaries (Stamatopoulou-Robbins, 2008). There has been little research exploring the complexity of thirdspace in general, and of Israeli-Palestinian activism in particular, in relation to the struggle’s failure.

By combining theories of social movement outcomes, particularly on failure and defeat, along with a scholarly analysis of the joint struggle of Palestinians and Jewish-Israelis, we seek to shed light on how the sense of double defeat is constructed through activism.

Theoretical Framework

Social movement scholars have paid considerable attention to outcomes, in particular their measurement, and to the strategic choices social movement organisations (SMOs) make to increase their likelihood of success (e.g. Suh, 2001; Kolb, 2007). Recently, however, an increasing number of scholars have sought to address the complexities of SMOs’ outcomes and their convoluted nature (Zamponi, 2012). This is because the different outcomes and consequences of SMO activities can rarely be reduced to “success” and “failure” since they are usually experienced as a combination of minor successes and defeats (Beckwith, 2016; Bosi and Uba, 2009). The evaluation of outcomes is usually done by identifying the SMO’s goals. However, SMOs often have multiple goals, both internal and external, short-term and long-term. Moreover, outcomes may change over time, and a failure in one area can be followed by success in other arenas, such as increasing public awareness and gaining access to political institutions (Gupta, 2007). Therefore, SMO outcomes manifest in different circumstances and are not unidimensional or unidirectional (Bernstein, 2003; Cress and Snow, 2000).

As a result of this outcome approach, wins and losses are no longer perceived as the end of the story. Gupta (2009) claims that SMO wins and losses are the result of small battles in a larger war. Thus, instead of examining the relationship between strategic choices and the likelihood of success, Gupta explores how successes and failures affect SMOs. Defeat can have positive consequences, and vice versa (Beckwith, 2016; Gupta, 2009). Beckwith (2015) uses a different lens, examining narratives and perceptions of victory and defeat instead of “real” outcomes (see also Johnson and Tierney, 2006). A sense of defeat may be perceived, according to Beckwith (2015, p. 2), not as a conclusive defeat, but rather as an opportunity for “political learning”, followed by “tactical innovation”. The narrative of a defeat provides both an explanation of itself and the beginning of a second attempt. In Beckwith’s words, a narrative of defeat is “a form of repeated discourse that identifies defeat or loss, crafts a story about defeat that links selected events in causal sequence, within an identifiable timeframe, and draws conclusions about the reasons for defeat”.

Instead of exploring SMOs’ successes and defeats as such, I embrace Beckwith’s suggestion to examine the construction process of defeat narratives among activists. Narratives of defeat are jointly constructed by different actors involved in SMOs in a relational process that includes formal and informal activities, discussions and interactions (Beckwith, 2015). In this respect, demonstrations against the Wall are important sites of the narrative construction process. In this case, Israeli activists come from the side of the oppressors (and perceived winners) and join the defeat of the oppressed. I maintain that this unique position makes their narratives of defeat particularly deserving of scholarly attention.

The Joint Struggle of the Palestinians and Israelis

The Six-Day War in 1967 is usually cited as the beginning of the Israeli Left-radical groups’ opposition to Israeli colonialism, particularly for the radical movement “Matzpen” (Busbridge, 2018; Wright, 2018). This opposition remained in the margins of Israeli society despite growing public sympathy for the Palestinians following the first intifada in the late 1980s, and even more so from the outbreak of the second intifada in October 2000 (Stamatopoulou-Robbins, 2008). Since then, a small, radical and marginal Left, primarily characterised as anti-Zionist, has engaged in joint activism with the Palestinians (Wright, 2018).

These groups see Zionism in terms of a “settler colonial” approach, describing it in Wolfe’s (2006) terms as a colonialism that constitutes the “primary structural characteristic of settler society”. This approach distinguishes colonialism from settler colonialism using several criteria. The latter, for example, favours land over native labour, a prominent feature in the context of Zionism. For settler colonialism, territory is an “irreducible element”, followed by a logic of elimination (Wolfe, 2006, p. 388). According to Busbridge (2018, p. 96), the settler–colonial paradigm “brings to the forefront the systematic pattern of Zionist colonisation vis-à-vis the Palestinians”.

Busbridge describes the settler colonialism approach as the most potentially productive paradigm for analysing and interpreting the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. One of the implications of this approach is seeing the conflict as a zero-sum game, hence rejecting any discourse about the peace process and the two-state solution (Faris, 2013; Todorova, 2020). Therefore, the only solution is decolonisation: “either total victory or total failure” (Veracini, 2007, p. xx). However, many scholars agree that because of the geopolitical circumstances, this goal is unattainable (Busbridge, 2018); thus, the essence of this approach is constant defeat. Demonstrations and resistance remain the only option, and thus become a goal rather than an end.

Israeli activists who join the Palestinian-led struggle are placed in a challenging and unique position: they are members of the settler–colonial oppressor collective and benefit from this colonisation (Todorova, 2020, p. 325). For them to establish solidarity with Palestinians, a decolonial approach must be adopted. Scholars have sought to identify the decolonisation principles that need to be embraced by Israeli activists. According to Todorova (2020, p. 326), for example, these principles include: “(i) a symbolic process of unsettling and giving up settler privilege, and (ii) a material process involving the dismantling of the apparatuses of colonial occupation”. Participation in indigenous-led struggles is also central in Wright’s two central principles of activism (2018, p. 133):

“(1) that Jewish Israeli activists should support and join Palestinian-led protests, rather than focus on their own actions directed at the Jewish public, and (2) that they should ‘be there’, that is, hold demonstrations or engage in direct action not in places far removed from the conflict but rather where political struggles are seen to play out”.

Wright claims that these acts of solidarity are not framed as acts of care and empathy, a common frame of international activists and non-governmental organisations (NGOs), but rather as acts of love. However, such activism is sometimes entangled in hegemonic power structures (Wright, 2018, p. 131), which means this love is enmeshed in Zionist meta-narratives, reifying rather than resisting them. Similarly, much of this joint activism pulls together private and public grief and creates a political mourning echo that is used by Israeli-Zionist nationalism. Thus, according to Wright, radical Leftist Jewish-Israeli activism reflects both Zionism’s nationalist-loving kinship and its practice of “traumatic nationalism” which they are supposed to be resisting. Even though these activists cross the lines and identify themselves as anti-Zionists, their activist practices are grounded in Israeli cultural behaviour. A similar argument has been made by other scholars studying SMOs in the Israeli context, such as Pallister-Wilkins (2009) and Stamatopoulou-Robbins (2008), who show how social movements reinforce and reify power structures (see also Goldstone, 2003).

Similar to the emotions of love and loss, we suggest that these activists also adopt a sense of defeat often coupled with a sense of moral obligation to continue. However, this sense is not taken from the dominant Zionist narrative, which highlights Israel’s victories over its enemies. Rather, it is constructed in light of the unique juncture between this winning meta-narrative and the ongoing impasse the Palestinian struggle faces.

The Case of the “Anarchists Against the Wall”

According to Israel, the West Bank Separation Wall is a temporary military installation. However, the wall symbolises both the settler colonialism mentality of Zionism and the Palestinian resistance. The wall’s construction gave rise to the Palestinian “Stop the Wall Campaign” (Todorova, 2020, p. 324), seeking to bring about decolonisation by protesting against the wall as a physical and symbolic illustration of the Israeli occupation.

Protests take place every Friday in several Palestinian villages, including Nil’in, Nabi Saleh, Kadum and, best known of all, the village of Bil’in. Almost all demonstrations have involved violent clashes between the protesters and Israeli soldiers (Ben-Eliezer and Feinstein, 2007; Gordon and Grietzer, 2013, p. 10). Soon after the Palestinian resistance against the wall began, international activists, many of them anarchists, arrived to volunteer in the International Solidarity Movement (ISM), a Palestinian-led movement committed to using non-violent methods to resist the Israeli occupation of Palestinian lands (Gordon, 2010). Simultaneously, the wall was framed in Israeli society as a security necessity, making its route and its possible violation of human rights a non-issue (Ben-Eliezer and Feinstein, 2007). As a result, Israelis who joined the Palestinian protests against the wall were portrayed as traitors who crossed national boundaries to turn against Israel.

The Israeli presence in the protests was meant to resist not only the physical barrier, but also the “us–them” division (physically and symbolically) that was created by the wall in particular, and by the Zionist state in general (Feinstein, 2009). This Israeli group, usually called “Anarchists Against the Wall” (AAtW) by the media, highlighted two central principles in their activism: first, that the struggle is Palestinian-led, and second, that the demonstrations take the form of “direct action”, meaning that activists use their own power and resources rather than engaging with external actors (Gordon, 2010; Wright, 2018). They proclaimed themselves to be in full solidarity with Palestinians and emphasised that solidarity is carried out in full recognition of the different privileges of and asymmetry between the different groups of activists (Gordon, 2010; Gordon and Grietzer, 2013). In this sense, withdrawing some of their privileges was necessary, especially those that were used by Israeli peace movements that operate to change Israeli society from within (such as lobbying, electoral efforts and similar activities). To decolonise Israel, activists cannot justifiably appeal to agents within Israel, so they must target their opposition to these agents from outside (Pallister-Wilkins, 2009). By making decolonisation their primary goal, they adopt the zero-sum game approach and therefore join their own success or defeat to that of their fellow Palestinians.

At the same time, according to the activists’ central assumption, the Israeli presence in the demonstrations moderates army violence against the protesters since it applies stricter rules when Israelis are present (Pallister-Wilkins, 2009). Hence, the Israelis use their privilege in favour of the struggle, emphasising their Israeli origin, and thus differentiating themselves from both the ISM and the Palestinian protesters (Todorova, 2020). Their identity as Israelis is also important in a broader sense: “In building on the anarchist ideal of standing in solidarity with oppressed people globally, they simultaneously challenge many of the structures of power that they see as being responsible for systems of domination” (Pallister-Wilkins, 2009, p. 395). Therefore, Israeli activists frame this struggle as an occasion for implementing anarchist principles.

Gordon (2010) suggests assessing the struggle’s outcomes in relation to three levels of goals: short-term goals aiming to disrupt the construction of the wall, or at least particular sections of it; medium-term goals seeking to end the Israeli occupation and to decolonise Palestine-Israel; and long-term goals related to more radically anarchist principles of opposition to capitalism and the state in general. In some respects, the struggle succeeded: the AAtW constructed a joint struggle, challenged common assumptions about both the feasibility and justification of the wall and the separation policy, reduced the level of violent repression against the protesters, and even apparently succeeded in persuading the Israeli High Court to order rerouting of the wall away from some village lands (Todorova, 2020). However, a sense of defeat hangs over all three goals. Almost none of the short-term goals were attained: wall construction continued more or less as planned, and the weekly protests could not claim the credit for forcing the state to reroute it (Feinstein, 2009). Moreover, the protests have exacted their own price: more than 66 Palestinians have been killed in the weekly demonstrations since 20081, and many activists, including Israelis, suffer from post-traumatic stress, anxiety, depression, panic attacks and burnout (Gordon, 2010). Many of them are no longer as active as before, and the weekly protests have become increasingly smaller, especially in terms of Israeli activists’ participation. I claim that the unique position of the Israeli activists who joined the Palestinian struggle against the wall shapes their narratives of defeat.

Methodology

My material stems from the fieldwork I conducted at the above-mentioned Palestinian demonstrations between 2015 and 2017. My aspiration to provide a comprehensive account of Israeli anti-apartheid activists’ experiences during the weekly Palestinian protests called for an in-depth qualitative study. I chose qualitative methods of data collection, primarily participant observation and in-depth semi-structured interviews due to their appropriateness for understanding the dynamic and unstable nature of the phenomena being studied.

Over 50 in-depth semi-structured interviews ranging in length from one to 3.5 hours enabled me to probe the complexities and ambiguities of the participants’ experiences. Having established trust with members of the Israeli activist community through earlier participant observation, I was able to conduct relatively open-ended interviews with participants rather than a prescribed, formal list of set questions. The conversational interviews conducted were intended to put people at their ease and thereby increase the possibility of obtaining information that may more readily indicate underlying feelings, assumptions and beliefs. All interviews were conducted face to face. My knowledge of Hebrew was insufficient for deep conversations, therefore the interviews were recorded in English.

While the interviews and extended conversations constitute the tangible substance of the fieldwork material, they are supplemented by ethnographic data collected on the way to, during and after the protests, which provides context and enabled me to check the narratives’ “weight” and soundness. The observations focused on the ways in which individuals behaved, and involved noting down overheard conversations and moments of reflection.

Given the wealth of data generated, it is impossible to detail all the observations or include examples from every interview; thus, what follows is necessarily a selective representation of the key themes and issues. In order to preserve the anonymity of the research participants, pseudonyms are used in the presentation of findings, and I include only limited details about their biographical background. The collected data was coded manually. The strategy for analysing the discussions was devised to enable me to reconstruct patterns of common-sense thinking by searching for the generated underlying themes.

Discussion: The Privilege to Lose—Jewish-Israeli against the Wall

Israeli activists are very aware of the price they will pay for their actions when they choose to cross the lines and join the Palestinian struggle against the wall. By joining the Palestinians, Israeli activists challenge their national identity, which is viewed by mainstream society as an act of treachery. They accept the demonstrations’ Palestinian leadership, emphasising their solidarity with the Palestinian protesters. As a result, they construct a narrative based on the success or failure of the Palestinian struggle against the wall. As the Palestinian struggle is perceived as a failed one, the Israeli activists also join this narrative of defeat. However, they add their own contributions to the Palestinian narrative of defeat. The Israeli narrative highlights the different consequences that defeat has for the Israelis and for the Palestinians, and the different options for action arising from them. I argue that the unique position of Jewish-Israeli activists makes their loss a privileged one, an act of agency and choice. The loss experienced by Jewish-Israeli activists, even if they declare full solidarity with the Palestinians, is not one that allows them to present themselves to their Palestinian fellow protesters as victims. This creates a unique narrative, which I call the “privilege to lose”. Here I discuss two aspects of the experience of loss: losing to the power of the occupation and the disintegration of the activist community.

Losing to the Power of the Occupation

The first sense of defeat for Israeli participants stems from the perception that the occupation is unbeatable and, hence, decolonisation is not achievable at this point. “The Palestinians cannot win against soldiers”, said Eliot, a Tel Avivian academic in his late thirties, who joined the struggle in 2006. He continues:

“There are very few against the powers, and the power couldn’t care less about them. If Palestinians hate the military, it doesn’t do anything. It can even make [the army] stronger because they have more reasons to shoot. …The situation is quite depressing that there is not much hope. And you know that in ten years, it’s going to be the same. So why even bother? I don’t know”.

This sense of defeat is narrated from the Palestinian point of view. The Israelis who join the demonstrations adopt the Palestinian position, including the subsequent feelings of loss and despair that sometimes accompany the struggle against the wall and the occupation. The anger directed against the occupation, whether Palestinian or Israeli anger against the Israeli army, is perceived as useless and sometimes even harmful. Asaf is a PhD student in his late twenties and he joined the demonstrations after completing his military service. His story diverts from that of the “ideal activist” as he belongs to a Right-wing, religious Mizrahi family; in his words, he has the “usual fascist background”. Asaf describes how the occupation overwhelms the demonstrations while referring to the Palestinian, Israeli and international demonstrators together:

“Now the demonstrations are very, very small. I remember demonstrations that had many, many people, many internationals, many Israelis. And of course, a big part of the village came to [the] demonstrations. Now you see few people. I’m very sad to say that this is one of the powers of the occupation. Because the village is small and poor, as are most Palestinians, and the occupation is rich, is tough, and has lots of time. And that’s what happened in Bil’in and that’s what happened in all the demonstrations in the West Bank”.

However, the sense of loss can also be created by the collapse of the protest’s micro aim: the idea that their mere presence would protect Palestinians by reducing military violence. The Israeli presence in the demonstrations against the wall has several goals, but the first and most immediate is to reduce the military violence used against the demonstrators. This is based on the premise that it will be more difficult for the army to act violently if Israeli civilians are present. Roni, a man in his mid-forties, used to think that their presence had tangible positive consequences for the protesters: “Only because we are there, they don’t shoot to kill the Palestinians. …We are insurance against the mass killing of demonstrators”. However, it soon became clear that military violence had not disappeared. Dan, Roni’s friend and of similar age, recounts: “It’s not relevant any more. It was relevant a few years ago. Today [there is] the same violence as in the past. [Once, when] soldiers were looking at Israeli activists, they would use less fire. This has ended”. A male lawyer in his early thirties recognises a similar change: “It used to be more relevant in the beginning because the military behaved differently. Today the attitude [to both Palestinians and Israeli activists] is more or less the same”. However, this external change in the army’s position highlights the different price Israelis pay compared to Palestinians even more clearly. Their privilege of choosing how to behave at, or even attend, demonstrations arises as a result of the collapse of the Israeli human shield assumption. In order to be effective, Israeli demonstrators must stand at the forefront of demonstrations as human shields and expose themselves to possible harm. Another protestor called Or dismantles the premise of the Israeli activists that their full solidarity with the Palestinians has a direct bearing on the struggle’s success. If military violence does not diminish in the presence of Israeli demonstrators, then the price they pay as a result of solidarity activities such as marching in front of the demonstrations becomes heavy and unnecessary.

Or continues his story:

“I’m not courageous enough to be in the front. Maybe at the beginning of the demonstration, but not later. And when the soldiers come, I don’t stay there and say, ‘take me, not the Palestinians’. I run with everybody. …I understand that my contribution by going to the front is not much more meaningful than staying where I am. So if I run to the front, so if I get arrested every week, so if I get injured, what did I achieve? Maybe not much, maybe, you know, maybe the best contribution I can give to the Palestinians is to get killed. Because if I get killed, it’s an Israeli getting killed, so maybe it will get a big improvement, but this is not something I’m happy to take upon myself. So I don’t see a point in going too much to the front”.

Further, the struggle between the demonstrators and the Israeli army is not only a long-term loss, it is also a performance of weekly defeat in terms of the demonstrations themselves. In this way, for many Israeli activists, the demonstrations turned from a performance of joint resistance to a ritual of constant loss. Idan, for example, says, “I don’t think that now we have any influence on the world, on the occupation. It’s like a theatre. The army knows that we’re coming, they drop some gas, you know”. This “theatre”, as Idan calls it, has no impact on the occupation. The only outcome it currently has is harm to the protesters. Guy was a post-doctoral fellow at the time of my fieldwork in Palestine. He comes from the typical “ideal activist” background: an upper middle class, Ashkenazi Tel-Avivian family. He expresses similar feelings: “You lose the point of why you’re doing it and you get grumpy, bitter. There’s something that happens with you. It becomes like washing the dishes, you know, it’s something that you have to do. You just become indifferent to it because it is a part of the reality”.

Eden is a female activist in her forties. She has been active from the beginning, but of late she has diverted her energies to other ways of resisting. She told me:

“It’s all depressing. There are so few against a lot, and it’s like a routine. It’s like a game. It doesn’t really have an end to it. It doesn’t really gain anything. It’s not like the police or the military is going to go away. They’re going to come back next week. So this is why it is sad…I know it’s been going on for a decade and a half and it’s going to be another decade or two”.

Dan, introduced earlier, feels the same: “You meet Friday morning, you ride there, you march, they shoot, you run, then you eat, do some small talk, and come back. The same story every week, no in no out, nothing new happens, no result, no effect, nothing”.

However, while Idan and Dan claim that, despite this, they still have no choice but to attend the demonstrations, for Eden, the ongoing rituals of defeat are too much to suffer, and they prevent her from returning to demonstrate:

“I guess I just felt tired from doing the same ritual and running away. I don’t know how effective it is when you do this ritual and they know when you’re coming, what you’re doing. So it’s partly because I don’t think it’s very effective, maybe. And partly because it’s depressing, it’s just the same thing. And I want to keep thinking about innovative stuff that I can do instead of just ritually going mindlessly to the same place every week”.

Eden illustrates how Israeli activists’ resignation in the face of loss actually emphasises their ability to choose. Eden does not succumb to the utter loss, but rather redesigns the map of possibilities to find new courses of action. Thus, it illustrates the privilege of Israeli activists to choose their actions, and just as they joined in “full solidarity” with the Palestinian demonstrators, they can also retreat and reformulate their social and political position. Thus, the Palestinian loss is not an Israeli loss. For the Palestinians, the loss occurs on their home turf, so they have nowhere to run from the loss that harms them directly. Israelis do not lose their work permits, and their ability to support their children is only slightly impaired, if at all. Tal moves from the plural (“the occupation is stronger than us”) to the singular (“I have many things to do, I have work, family, I want to go to here and there and I want to live too”), and casts doubt on the Israelis’ ability to express full solidarity with the Palestinians.

Disintegration of Solidarity

The second aspect of the Jewish-Israeli activists’ sense of defeat is related to the disintegration of solidarity. The fact that the army’s violence did not disappear revealed the price the Israelis pay to be in full solidarity with the Palestinians. In this way, a dilemma arose about their willingness, followed by internal negotiations. The feeling that solidarity has disintegrated is widespread, however it is not felt in relation to solidarity with the Palestinians but mostly in relation to solidarity within the Israeli group. This is how Uri, one of the most dominant and militant activists in the demonstrations, describes it:

“I don’t think there is this group any longer. There’s just a bunch of activists who go to demonstrate, but the group, the core group, was basically broken apart. …At the time when I was more active in Anarchists Against the Wall, people were not all very social, but we had some things that would bind the group. …There is no longer Anarchists Against the Wall. You have some people who organise transportation to demonstrations and go together, but there’s no glue any more”.

Naomi, a woman in her late thirties, is an unusual actor in the field. In her account, her Russian background and low economic status prevented her from being fully accepted among the core members. She expresses a similar opinion and links the near dissolution of the Israeli activists’ group with the loss of solidarity:

“Anarchists don’t exist any more. There’s a group called Anarchists Against the Wall, none of them are anarchists any more. There used to be actual anarchists in the actions against the wall. …There are very few actual anarchists in the Anarchists Against the Wall nowadays. And it’s a problem. …The concept of classical anarchism is solidarity. But they lost the notion of solidarity”.

Many other activists added to these descriptions about the loss of solidarity among the Israeli activists. Many described internal conflicts that focused, among other things, on the use of privilege and its public expressions. As the losses affected their personal lives, the confrontations became more personal. Michal, a woman in her mid-thirties, left the scene a few years ago and moved to Europe to continue her anti-apartheid activism. She analyses:

“About organisations, it’s semi-true because there is a feeling really, in my opinion, just a feeling of really, of a real depression that is holding a lot of activity from happening and people from organising together. And there was a lot of battling between activists. And if he doesn’t get along with that person, he doesn’t get along with that person. Those kind of hurt the activity from being, on the Israeli side”.

Yoel, a PhD student of law at the time of my fieldwork, similarly feels that the group broke down over petty issues:

“There were so many petty problems and conflicts over irrelevant things, like gender issues, so the group broke down. It’s not a group any more. I miss the empowering force of a community, that is for sure. But it doesn’t work. Yes, but you know it might be also the stress, it is not like going to a field trip, or snowboarding in Austria. It creates gaps, some want to get support and others don’t want to give it”.

When I talked to Alon in 2015 in a Tel Aviv café, he had stopped going to the protests for several years. He lamented for a long time about the hardships he had had to endure with the group:

“At the beginning, when we were many, it was much easier. Otherness was more tolerated within the group. We were of many kinds: more mainstream, less mainstream, all kinds. However, when our number started to diminish, those that were not like the core organisers were, in one way or the other, excommunicated. I was not the typical Tel-Avivian—a badly dressed, semi-depressed, and awkward intellectual. I was a village boy, simple, macho and very friendly. I stood out, and soon they made me feel so uncomfortable that I stopped going”.

Otherness was also an issue for Daniel, who joined the demonstrations in the early years. His otherness was not dominantly visible as long as the number of Israeli demonstrators was high. However, as soon as the group became smaller, Daniel stood out as way too mainstream despite his fierce anti-colonial ideology:

“Figures like me, I feel maybe it’s not true, but I felt that we were harming the representation of the Israeli goal in their eyes towards the Palestinians, because they saw somebody that is really getting in touch with the Palestinians, becoming a part of the Israeli figures that are in touch with the village, but not according to the, not following the rules, not representing a thing. You know, for anarchists, democrats are the devil, you know, like. …I don’t know if it’s dangerous, but if it was a threat, you know, like somebody that is questioning their ideology, first. …I think they kind of wanted me to stop in a way. They felt like a group that is very threatened, very unique, very sensitive”.

The concept of trauma plays a significant role in the Israeli narrative of defeat. While it is clear that the Palestinians are going through repeated traumas in demonstrations in particular and in daily life under occupation in general, there are also Israeli activists who feel that their presence in demonstrations has brought them into a state of trauma. Many Israeli activists, especially female ones, express their apprehension about the trauma discourse, which may be reminiscent of Israeli privilege over the Palestinians. Keren, a girlfriend of one of the activists, was a student at the time of my fieldwork. In 2017, after a few years of activism, she decided that she needed to take care of herself and stopped attending the protests. This is how she feels: “And I also thought about the thing with solidarity, when women got sexually assaulted during the demonstrations and stuff, and how it’s, because it’s such a manly and macho small society. The activist society. I will not have much solidarity there as a woman”.

Tanya expressed similar views:

“There’s no support among the activists. A lot of activists look at me strange[ly] because I stopped going to demonstrations, but I stopped going to demonstrations because I literally can’t take it. The last time I was in a demonstration, I had flashbacks of the tear gas and I couldn’t sleep for a week. …I understood that I’m gonna lose my mind if I keep going to protests, I will lose my mind. And there’s a lack of understanding between the activists that some people actually are affected very severely”.

As long as solidarity with the Palestinians remains a dominant value among Israeli activists, many of them feel that the concept of trauma can only be the domain of the Palestinian discourse. Trauma does not fit in the Israeli privilege of choice, which is exemplified by Keren, Tanya and others who choose not to attend demonstrations any more. In contrast to the lack of choice resulting from the moral obligation to join the demonstrations alongside the Palestinians, here, lack of choice prevents them from joining the demonstrations and stems from motives of self-defence against trauma. In both cases, the lack of this choice paradoxically reflects Israeli privilege, which allows them to make a choice about their activism.

Conclusion: The Agency of the Defeated Israelis

The two aspects of the Jewish-Israeli activists’ sense of defeat (losing to the power of the occupation and the disintegration of solidarity) created rifts in Israeli mobilisation for demonstrations against the wall. However, the sense of defeat does not override all mobilisation. While even the most prominent and/or veteran activists share this sentiment, it is often coupled with other feelings that motivate actors to continue taking part in the weekly protests. First of all, I would stress the emphasis on privilege and moral obligation. Nelly, a middle-aged woman based in Tel Aviv, persists in joining the protests even though she acknowledges that they are ineffective. She claims:

“I wouldn’t feel okay, just not going at all. As long as I live here, it’s not okay not to go”. Yoni, a younger activist, reiterates the moral imperative of the privileged: “So when I see activists saying: ‘I’m pessimistic, there’s no way out’, my answer to that is you can’t even allow yourself to say that, as someone who has—I’m talking about Israeli Jewish activists, or people who are non-Palestinian—resources that you can’t allow yourself to say: ‘I’m fed up, there’s no way out’”.

Second, though less prominent, is the occasional feeling of effort optimism, where activists attempt to bring up the positive outcomes of the demonstrations. These narratives emphasise the achievements in Bil’in, Budrus and Baka al-Sharkia and the stress costs of the resistance to the Israeli regime. Tamir often tried to go against the overwhelming depression and hopelessness among the activists:

“The fact that there is a resistance, uh, in a place like Bil’in and Nialin and Nabi Salah, it is a constant drain on Israeli propaganda. Every week, there are pictures of the Israeli army assaulting people, every week there are reports of the Israeli army injuring people and the, the issue of Israeli settlement and settlement expansion, uh, is raised every time that, that, um, these demonstrations are, are reported on. And that’s a, uh, an expensive price for Israel, and we have managed to do it despite the best efforts that they have been trying for ten years and they keep trying to stop. You know, the smallest, even small demonstrations, the demonstrations are small now. Um, and it’s, it’s, it’s, there’s no denying it, but it still bothers them very much. You know, you, you might think why should they even care? It’s such a small demonstration, but they seem to care very much. They make a big effort. Uh, they bring out a lot of soldiers, a lot of money, a lot of efforts to arrest people, to prosecute them, to prevent people from entering the country, to spy on them, all of this effort, all this machine, uh, to stop what are now small demonstrations”.

Still, despite these efforts, the number of Jewish-Israeli actors has diminished through the years of protests. However, the choices faced by the Israelis are greater and more diverse than the decision to join or not join the demonstrations. The defeats in the demonstrations against the wall were used by many Israeli activists for “political learning” followed by “tactical innovation” (Beckwith, 2015). This innovation is reflected in a series of decisions made by various activists, such as shifting the focus of political activism to Israel’s borders, moving to live in the Palestinian territories and continue fighting from there, and moving to Europe and shifting the focus of the struggle to the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement. Many other possibilities exist, and they all illustrate the extent of the agency Jewish-Israeli activists possess even in the face of political loss. The variety of political actions that are available to Israeli activists are the result of their social position. While the Palestinians lack options for action, Israeli activists, despite the failure of the demonstrations against the wall, have the privilege of choosing new courses of action. Other than these many possibilities, few Jewish-Israeli activists continue to attend demonstrations in the West Bank alongside the Palestinians, and when the demonstrations end, those who do attend return to their homes in Israel. Their socio-geographical position confers on them the privilege of losing.

1 United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, “Data on Casualties” [Online], URL: https://www.ochaopt.org/data/casualties.

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Notes

1 United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, “Data on Casualties” [Online], URL: https://www.ochaopt.org/data/casualties.

References

Electronic reference

Petra Andits, « Israeli Jews against the Wall: (Anti-)Colonial Narratives of Defeat  », Condition humaine / Conditions politiques [Online], 4 | 2022, Online since 25 juillet 2022, connection on 27 novembre 2022. URL : http://revues.mshparisnord.fr/chcp/index.php?id=860

Author

Petra Andits

Petra Andits is a Seal of Excellence Fellow at the Free University of Bolzano. Her main research interests include migration, protests movements, sexuality, post-socialism and the Middle-East. Her latest publications include: “One of My Eyes Was Crying, the Other Was Laughing: Understanding the Ambivalence in the Post-1990 Australian–Hungarian Homeland Discourses” (Journal of Ethnic and Migration Studies, 2021); “Nostalgia as Double-Edged Sword: Australian-Hungarians Reclaim Lost Belonging in Post-Socialist Hungary” (Identities, 2021); “Decay, Dirt and Backwardness: Interpretations of the Socialist Heritage in Hungary by First and Later Generation Australian-Hungarians” (International Journal of Culture, Tourism, and Hospitality Research, 2020); “Waiting during the Time of COVID‐19” (Social Anthropology, 2020); and “‘Not Anymore, Not Yet’: Australian-Hungarians Rediscover the ‘Old-New’ Hungary” (The Australian Journal of Anthropology, 2020).

Petra Andits est boursière « Seal of Excellence » à l’Université libre de Bolzano. Ses principaux domaines de recherche sont les migrations, les mouvements de protestation, la sexualité, le post-socialisme et le Moyen-Orient. Elle a publié récemment : « “One of My Eyes Was Crying, the Other Was Laughing: Understanding the Ambivalence in the Post-1990 Australian-Hungarian Homeland Discourses” » (Journal of Ethnic and Migration Studies, 2021) ; « Nostalgia as Double-Edged Sword: Australian-Hungarians Reclaim Lost Belonging in Post-Socialist Hungary » (Identities, 2021) ; « Decay, Dirt and Backwardness: Interpretations of the Socialist Heritage in Hungary by First and Later Generation Australian-Hungarians » (International Journal of Culture, Tourism, and Hospitality Research, 2020) ; « Waiting during the Time of COVID-19 » (Social Anthropology, 2020) et « “Not Anymore, Not Yet”: Australian-Hungarians Rediscover the “Old-New” Hungary » (The Australian Journal of Anthropology, 2020).